Field position and the Titans offense in 2013

It's time for my annual look at how field position affected how the Titans performed on both offense and defense the season just concluded. I will cover the offense in this post and the defense in a subsequent post later this week (maybe tomorrow, maybe later).

When I covered this subject last year, I noted the offense and the defense were both bad in their own right and put the other side of the ball in a position where they were less likely to be successful. The Titans were better in 2013 than they were in 2012 on both sides of the ball. They gained more yards. They scored more points. Last year, in this post, I kind of exonerated what the Titans did on special teams. In 2013, well, I'm not sure about Nate Kaczor keeping his job, but I wouldn' t be sure about him losing it either.

After the jump, numbers and charts and more analysis. 

My methodology is the same I've used in the past. Touchdowns are worth 7 points. Made field goals are worth 3 points. Missed field goals are worth 2 points. All other drives are worth 0 points. End of half/game drives where scoring is not the point are excluded from my calculations, as are desperation drives that don't have a realistic chance at scoring.

Here are your final numbers for 2013, with a comparison to 2012:

 

2013   2012
# Drives Pct Pts Per Drive Zone # Drives Pct Pts Per Drive
45 25.6% 1.49 1-19 53 29.9% 0.81
47 26.7% 1.68 20 41 23.2% 1.56
64 36.4% 2.02 21-49 72 40.7% 1.79
20 11.4% 3.70 50+ 11 6.2% 3.64

1. Talking about better? The Titans were more proficient when it came to turning possessions into points in every single field zone breakdown. Yeah, that's improvement.

2. Field position was, on the whole, slightly better. They had more drives starting in opposing territory and fewer starting inside their own 20, almost always the least productive area of the field.

One of the things I ended up doing in this series was looking at the effect of special teams. Field position matters, and the two primary ways teams get the ball are after punts and kickoffs. Let's compare how the Titans did this year under Nate Kaczor to how they did in 2012 under the fired Alan Lowry. First up, field position after kickoffs. Chart? Chart.

 

2013   2012
# Drives Pct Zone # Drives Pct
15 19.2% 1-19 21 22.6%
38 48.7% 20 35 37.6%
24 30.8% 21-49 36 38.7%
1 1.3% 50+ 1 1.1%

Remember back in 2011? Marc Mariani took touchback after touchback after touchback, which somewhere between frustrated and exasperated fans. Nearly 60% of kickoffs that season resulted in touchbacks. Sometimes, though, a touchback is not that bad of a play

On the average, the Titans started at the 20.9 after kickoffs in 2011, at the 21.9 in 2012, and at the 22.3 in 2013. There's definitely some value there, but N.B. the Titans average starting at the 21.3 if Leon Washington scores a touchdown against the Broncos instead of getting tackled at the Denver 3. The perils of small sample size.

For the curious, Football Outsiders numbers give the Titans -1.2 points of kickoff return value this year, after 4.1 points in 2011 and 2.3 in  2012. That is a more comprehensive measure of vale, taking into account things like muffed kickoffs and fumbles, which my analysis includes either indirectly or not at all.

The next stop in my analysis, field position after punts. Chart? Chart!

 

2012   2012
# Drives Pct Zone # Drives Pct
29 39.7% 1-19 29 46.7%
8 11.0% 20 5 8.1%
32 43.8% 21-49 27 43.5%
4 5.5% 50+ 1 1.6%

 

In 2012, the Titans had awful field position after an opposing punt. They started at their own 23.3 after starting at the 27.4 in 2011. Field position improved only slightly, to the 24.3 in 2013. That's still not very good.

My 2012 analysis focused on the extraordinary number of drives starting inside the only 20, which I attributed to how good field position the opponents had when they punted. It's a lot easier to pin a team deep if you're punting from midfield instead your own 15. I attributed that largely to the opponents having better field position when they punted. In 2011, they punted on average from the 33.4. In 2012, the 36.7. In 2013, it was the 36.0. Opponents still had, on average, pretty good field position when they punted (by point of comparison, the Titans punted from the 34.8 on average).

Last year, I defended the Titans punt return units, noting they ranked #1 in the league by Football Outsiders numbers. 2013, not so much. They went from leading the league with 17.8 points of punt return value to a fourth-worst -9.1 points of punt return value.

Because the Titans had so many problems catching punts in 2013, the obvious question is how good were they at returning punts if you exclude muffs and fumbles. The answer: better, but still not very good. Excluding all muffs, they ranked 22nd in the league in punt return value. Like kickoff stats, that includes the value of scoring touchdowns, something my field position-based analysis continues to exclude.

The obvious answer is Darius Reynaud's gone and Leon Washington could stick around, so the Titans will be better at returning punts in 2014 even if Nate Kaczor returns. The evidence? Well, if you throw out those incredibly costly muffs and fumbles, there doesn't seem like a huge amount of difference between what Reynaud did and what Washington did. Reynaud was exasperating, but he wasn't that awful. Instead, the lesson is the one Jeff Fisher seemed to believe in: It's really, really costly to have a guy back there who can't catch unless he's an exceptional returner. The challenge for Kaczor, or whomever the special teams coach may end up being if he gets fired late in the process, is to find somebody who can catch the ball reliably.

Oh, I seem to have ignored something important on offense in this special teams fest. Back when I first started looking at field position in 2009, it was an attempt to see how the Titans performed differently under the two different quarterbacks they played. Kerry Collins and Vince Young have both moved on, voluntarily or not, to non-NFL pasture, but the Titans, as they keep doing, played multiple quarterbacks again in 2012. That means it's time for another beloved chart on how the Titans did under each quarterback..

Locker   Fitzpatrick
# Drives Pct Pts Per Drive Zone # Drives Pct Pts Per Drive
22 32.4% 1.23 1-19 23 21.3% 1.79
16 23.6% 0.63 20 31 28.7% 2.23
21 30.9% 2.14 21-49 43 39.8% 1.95
9 13.2% 4.89 50+ 11 10.2% 2.73


If you start at or inside the 20, with Jake Locker as your starting quarterback, it seems that you will not drive the field. He averaged 1.13 points per possession on drives with at least 80 yards to go last year and 0.98 this year. On the whole, 98 drives, 105 adjusted points, 1.07 points per possession. By point of comparison, Kerry Collins in 2009 averaged 0.94. So, um, yay?

I should stress that Locker wasn't quite at Collins 2009 levels overall. Kerry averaged 1.75 points per possession from the 21-49 and 3.17 from the 50 and beyond. So, yeah, he was better than a guy who got benched for a quarterback his coach understandably had absolutely no confidence would be able to like a dedicated professional (and yes, maybe that was Bud's move, but that wasn't even eyebrow-raising by Crazy Bud standards). What actually got me in the frame of mind of 2009 comparisons was the fine job Locker did at converting positive field position into points, something that was a hallmark of the VY-led offense in 2009.

I present the Fitzpatrick numbers not because I wanted to do an analysis of what Fitzpatrick could do, but largely as a basis of comparison for the Locker numbers. Nobody thinks Fitzpatrick is better than a good backup, so here's what a backup-quality quarterback with some strengths and some distinct weaknesses can do with the same offensive coordinator and basically the same opposing cast.

If I wanted to sum up my doubts about Locker in one table, this is it. Starting backed up, having to drive the field, you must be able to consistently execute. One big play, maybe two will not be enough to put points on the board. Jake Locker, unless he performs at a much higher level in 2014, is a quarterback the Titans will have to win with rather than because of.

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