There are so many statistics available to NFL fans it can be difficult to determine which numbers truly matter. One that is treated as the gospel truth is time of possession (TOP). If a team wins the TOP battle, it dominates the clock, runs more plays and will ultimately win the game.
One glance at the box score for the 41-28 loss by the Houston Texans to the New England Patriots challenges this popular belief. The Texans held a nearly three-minute edge in TOP (31:24 – 28:36), ran 10 more plays (75-65), and barely lost the total yardage battle (425-457).
None of these numbers pass the eye test. The Texans may have gamely fought back from two double-digit deficits, but their ball-control offense is not built to come from behind.
The fact the Texans ranked first in TOP for 2012 provided little benefit in mounting a comeback against a Hall of Fame quarterback. Nor is it an isolated example of how misleading TOP can be.
An analysis of NFL playoff participants over the last seven seasons makes for a more significant sample size. It will illustrate how this statistic does not always correlate to making to the postseason or winning the Super Bowl.
Take a look at how many teams in the top 10 for TOP qualified for the playoffs and where the Super Bowl winner ranked overall:
SB Winner (Rank)
To Be Determined
New York Giants (19)
Green Bay (4)
New Orleans (11)
New York Giants (5)
If the qualifiers are averaged out, being in the top 10 is only slightly better than a 50-50 proposition (52.9 percent). Moreover, not a single winner of “The Big Game” was first in TOP, and their average rank was ninth.
The upcoming Conference Championship Games also diminish the significance of TOP. A comparison over the same time span shows a similar trend. Every year except 2010 has two teams that failed to get into the top 10, but did make it into the NFL’s “Final Four.”
Conference Championship Teams (TOP Rank)
Baltimore (30), New England (12)
New England (27), New York Giants (19)
All four teams ranked in top 10
Indianapolis (26), New Orleans (11)
Arizona (14), Philadelphia (12)
Green Bay (14), San Diego (19)
Chicago (13), Indianapolis (12)
The devotion to this outmoded metric is a vestige of the days when running the ball was the “top” priority of every offense. Unless the rushing attempt takes the ball out of bounds, the clock keeps running. Deny the other team possession and you maintain control of the game.
When the Miami Dolphins had their undefeated season 40 years ago, they attempted 613 rushes to 259 passes. They ran the ball an astounding 70 percent of the time—an ultra-conservative strategy that still allowed them to lead the league in scoring with 27.5 points per game.
But over the course of the 1970s, defenses started to get the upper hand. The average points scored per game by each team hovered around 19-20 points from 1970 to '76. When it dropped to 17.2 in 1977, Commissioner Pete Rozelle and the Rules Committee sprung into action.
Starting in the 1978 season, the five-yard no-chuck rule and the extension of hands and arms in pass blocking were a boon to quarterbacks and receivers. By the 1980 season, the league was pitching the rock 60 percent of the time and average team scoring was back over 20 points per game.
Nowadays, coaches concern themselves with how many yards per play they can gain. And not the how much time they can run off the clock.
NFL-bound coach Chip Kelly responded to a question about TOP prior to the meeting between his Oregon Ducks and Stanford last season. A reporter tries to tell him the Ducks always lose when TOP is not in their favor.
Around the 12:00 minute mark Kelly reminds him about a 2010 game against UCLA where his team had the ball for about 20 minutes and still won 60-13.
The Texans might tell you it is already here. The Patriots showed how speed kills when the used two quick counts to end a six-play drive that built their lead to 31-13. The touchdown pass to Brandon Lloyd that froze Johnathan Joseph in his tracks was shocking in its execution.
One thing is certain: Chip Kelly will win if he continues to scorn the value of TOP. That is because in the end, it does not really matter.