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Buccaneers vs. Broncos: Time of possession won't matter

How do you beat high-powered offenses? Some teams adhere to the theory of time of possession: keep the opponent off the field and you're likely to win. This theory is insane.


How often have you heard the phrase "Keep the ball out of [quarterback]'s hands"? A quick Google search reveals a combined 34,370 mentions of that phrase with either "Manning", "Peyton" or "Peyton Manning". Clearly, there's a school of thought that thinks there's some validity to this theory. Run the ball, keep Manning off the field, give the defense some rest and then, somehow, win the game. And I'm sure we'll see some of that assertion creep back over the next couple of days. And yet, time of possession is completely useless -- just ask Chip Kelly.

This kind of reasoning is similar to the old statistic about giving a running back carries. Every so often you hear an announcer come out with the assertion that a team is 37-3 when running the ball more than 25 times, or something similar. For instance, the Buccaneers are 13-3 since 2009 when running the ball 30 times or more. Compelling stuff, right? Except, this is a classic case of confusing correlation and causation: when the Bucs run the ball 30 times in a game, it's because they're ahead or the game is close throughout and they're afforded the opportunity to run the ball. Running the ball doesn't cause a win, it's being in position to win a game that causes the Bucs to run the ball more often.

Something similar happens in time of possession battles. Time of possession is not a cause of winning, but rather a consequence of playing style that has little to do with success. Case in point: the 2012 Denver Broncos, who are 8-3 and yet have consistently lost the time of possession battle, averaging 29:04 per game. Meanwhile, the 4-7 San Diego Chargers are 4th in the league with an average time of possession of 32:02 per game. The Dallas Cowboys, the Washington Redskins, the Detroit Lions, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Arizona Cardinals all win the time of possession battle, but have losing records. And on the other side the Baltimore Ravens, the Minnesota Vikings, the Denver Broncos, the Green Bay Packers and our very own Tampa Bay Buccaneers are all losing that time of possession battle with a winning record.

Clearly, then, there's no real correlation between winning and time of possession. But some of the arguments in favor of "keeping the ball out of Manning's hands" certainly seem plausible. After all, what could be better than keeping the opponent off the field? Let's go through some of these argument, and see whether they make sense.

Controlling the clock gives your defense some rest

This is absolutely true. If your offense has the ball, your defense can rest. And we can even see some evidence of a correlation between defensive performance and clock control: some of the top NFL defenses rank near the top in time of possession, such as the Houston Texans, Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks.

Then again, some of the rank near the bottom, too: the Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens are all in the bottom 10 in time of possession. More importantly, this is likely a case of reversed causality. In other words: offensive time of possession isn't causing defenses to be good, but good defenses are giving their offenses time of possession. After all, what's the easiest way to give your offense more drives, and hence more time of possession? Force turnovers -- and that's exactly what good defenses do.

Plus, we haven't even mentioned the obvious: if your defense is getting rest, your offense isn't getting rest. And why would a defense need more rest than an offense, when an offense has one more big lineman than a defense, and the offense's big men don't ever come off the field?

Controlling the clock keeps your opponent off the field

This is true, but that doesn't mean it's useful. My favorite counter-example is a 2009 game between the Miami Dolphins and the Indianapolis Colts, not coincidentally featuring Peyton Manning. The Dolphins were in full wildcat mode, and the Colts' defense couldn't stop the run at all. The Dolphins' ground game controlled the clock, and the number of plays, racking up 45:07 of time of of possession and 84 plays, to the Colts' 35 plays. And yet, Miami lost that game 27-23. Why? Because they hadn't managed to keep the ball out of Peyton's hands at all: he got eight possessions that game, as did the Miami Dolphins. And, as can be expected, the Colts were more productive on those eight drives than the Dolphins were on their eight drives.

All of this strikes to the heart of this argument: no matter the length of your drive, the opponent will still get the ball after you end your drive. Controlling the clock doesn't actually limit the number of opponent drives relative to your own drives. The only way to limit the opponent's opportunities is to take away the ball, forcing turnovers either on special teams or on defense. That gives you extra chances, but that has nothing to do with controlling the ball on offense.

In addition, this is rather harder to do than it sounds. You can keep running the ball, but your opponent has a say in this too. They can control the clock if they want to and you can't stop them (rather likely given the Bucs' horrid pass defense).

Does it then at least limit the number of total drives your opponent has?

Actually, it does. The Pittsburgh Steelers, the San Francisco 49ers, the San Diego Chargers, the Seattle Seahawks, the Dallas Cowboys, the Tennessee Titans and the Indianapolis Colts are the only teams to face fewer than 120 offensive drives this season. With the exception of Tennessee (confusingly ranked 30th), all of these teams rank in the top ten in time of possession. They have managed to shorten games, limiting their opponents' drives.

But in doing so they've not only limited the opponents' drives, but also their own. These teams do have more offensive drives than their opponents, but this is a difference of on average two drives over the entire season. A difference of two drives when you've had 120 on the season isn't exactly significant, and won't be causing you to win any extra games.

Is that meaningless? No, because limiting the total number of drives does do one thing: it increases the variance of a game. This can be shown fairly intuitively: if you have fewer overall plays, the importance of every single play increases. And that means that lucky bounces on individual plays have a bigger impact. Increasing the role of luck benefits the worse team. If you're the better team, you want to run as many plays as possible to have your skill advantage play out. Meanwhile, if you're the worse team, you want to increase the role of the lucky bounces throughout a game to increase your chance of winning.

So time of possession and controlling the clock isn't all that useful. So then what do the Bucs do?

To beat the Broncos, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have to do one thing on offense. They don't need to control the clock or keep the ball out of Manning's hands. No, they simply have to score. A lot.

The Bucs have an explosive offense, and that's what they need to play to. They need to find ways to score often on a tough defense, so they can keep up with Peyton Manning who will undoubtedly slice through a very weak Tampa Bay secondary. The best way to counter that is simply to score themselves. If you're worrying about keeping the ball out of Peyton's hands, you're not maximizing your scoring potential because you're necessarily limiting your offense to play to time of possession.

We'll see this weekend which way the Buccaneers go. I hope they realize that they have to score, and have to do so early and often. This doesn't mean they must abandon the run. But it does mean that they mustn't shy away from taking risks on offense simply because they want to control the ball. Controlling the ball won't get them a win. Points will.

If you want to see the Bucs try to score on every possession in Denver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers tickets are still available.