In the first installment of this series, I touched upon mistackling and briefly mentioned field position . In this installment, we will dive into why field position is so important in football.
Unless you were living under a rock last year or are completely new to Cal football, special teams heavily impacted the outcomes of some of Cal's games in 2009. Special teams are the 3rd phase of the game of football that have a tendency to go unnoticed. Although they only take up 10-15% of the total amount of plays during a game, each special teams play is crucial.
Field goal and point after touchdown (PAT or Extra Point) attempts are the responsibility of the placekicking team and can be the difference between a 1 point loss or win (think Cal vs. Oregon 2004 when the Oregon placekicker missed a PAT attempt, which proved to be the difference in the game). Special teams also consist of the kickoff return and coverage as well as the punt return and coverage units. A kickoff return, punt return, or blocked punt score can result in 7 points for either team in less than 10 seconds and completely change the face of a game. The chances of a touchdown being scored on special teams are an even smaller percentage of the total amount of special teams plays in a year. Season and career performances like Desean Jackson’s on punt returns are rare and phenomenal to watch.
More after the jump.
Field position is a critical component in the special teams phase that tends to be heavily overlooked. To give you an idea of how important field position is, here are some statistics I dug up from a playbook I have sitting around the house:
- Between their own goal line and the 20 yard line, an offense has a 1/30 chance of scoring
- Between their own 20 and 40 yard line, an offense has a 1/8 chance of scoring
- Between their own 40 and 50 yard line, an offense has a 1/5 chance of scoring
- Between the opponent’s 50 and 40 yard line, an offense has a 1/3 chance of scoring
- Between the opponent’s 40 and 20 yard line, an offense has a 1/2 chance of scoring
- Between the opponent’s 20 and 10 yard line, an offense has a 2/3 chance of scoring
These statistics were taken from years back. Since the NCAA has moved the kickoff spot back to the 30 yard line and there are more high powered offenses we are seeing nowadays, I would not be surprised if these statistics are a bit different at the present time.
Looking further into the statistics above (just in case you thought I made them up), some of you might recall a study published back in 2005 by David Romer, a professor in the Department of Economics at our very own UC Berkeley. His paper examined "a single, narrow decision—the choice on fourth down in the National Football League between kicking and trying for a first down—as a case study of the standard view that competition in the goods, capital, and labor markets leads firms to make maximizing choices." In his research, Romer mathemagically (Math was NOT my forte at Cal so maybe the Mathematicians can further explain Romer's study in the comments section if they wish) came up with a point value for every yard line on the football field. For those who are interested, you can find Professor Romer’s complete study here. However, for the basic nature of this installment, I have simply taken a graph from his findings that is relevant to field position:
As you can see, the chances of giving up points increases as an offense gets closer to the defense's end zone. A defense that can begin defending at the opponent's 20 yard line has a greater chance of being successful in stopping a score than if they started defending at the opponent's 30 yard line. This is a very simple concept, but it would surprise you how many people look past, and even completely ignore, the connection of starting field position for a defense and their success rate at keeping an offense from scoring.
Cal's special teams left the defense in very bad positions in 2009. Let us now take a look at some of the special team gaffes from last season that, for the most part, influenced the outcome and flow of games. I honestly feel based on feedback that most folks do not care to relive the excruciating pain caused by special teams last year, so I will make this as quick as possible and just note the significant impact of each play.
Kickoff coverage within the first 6 minutes of the 2009 season. I almost forgot about this one but I clipped it to show that Cal’s kickoff coverage was poor from the get go. Although Maryland scored a field goal from this breakdown and put its first points up of the game, this play has no big influence on the outcome of the game.
This clip fast forwards us to the last game of the season. Kickoff return coverage is still atrocious 13 games into the season. I normally keep a cool head watching Cal football games but this miscue sent a piercing scream through Qualcomm Stadium. I had a bad feeling this was the shot in the arm Utah needed. Cal was up 14-0 and only 10 minutes into the game when this play happened. This one play breathed life back in Utah and punched Cal in the stomach. Utah went on to score a touchdown on a questionable call and never looked back.
When momentum is against your team and you have an All-American caliber punter on the roster, you can usually rely on him to swing some momentum back on your side by changing field position with a punt. In this play, Cal’s highly regarded punter shanked the punt for a net of 5 yards. Oregon scored a touchdown and slammed the door on any chance of a Cal comeback in the 2nd half. Punting is essential to winning field position and when your defense is struggling, a good play on special teams could light the fire under them. This was a missed opportunity by the Cal punting unit to swing some momentum back onto their side before going into the locker room at halftime.
A member of the kick return team is fielding this kick at the Oregon State 30 and bringing it out to their 44. Please consult the statistics listed above for why a defense that starts defending at the opponent’s 44 yard line is not good. I will note that this kickoff was after Jahvid Best’s scary injury, but the kicker needs to be more mentally tough. OSU scored a touchdown on this drive.
Block somebody, please. There are 3 Stanfurd players that get through the protection. I know I said I would not get into breaking these plays down but the lack of attention to detail on this play sticks out like a sore thumb and is just frustrating to watch. When you are that close to your own end zone, it should be priority #1 to make sure that the punt gets off. The players need to know their blocking assignments. Note the Cal player on the bottom part of the screen in the second row that takes off downfield. That was by design. But there is confusion on this play with the middle man in the second row. The man in the middle sees the Stanfurd player "attacking the edge" and knows his fellow comrade is taking off downfield. To compensate for this, the middle man shifts over to stop the "attack on the edge," but the Stanfurd player put on the breaks and went downfield. When the middle man shifted over, he left the middle wide open. It should be no surprise then that the blocked punt came from up the middle where the Furd player blew by the Cal long snapper and had an unobstructed path to the punter. I will not even address the mess at the top of the play in the protection. Stanfurd went up 14-0 after this play and Cal easily could have waved the white flag like they did in previous games, but thankfully, they decided to battle to the end for the win.
Bad call by the special teams coordinator for Cal or a blown assignment in the blocking by the player? I am curious to know what you think!
:( A blocked punt gave Utah good field position. They scored a touchdown to finish off their drive and take the lead for good in the bowl game.
Kickoff coverage is bad. Again. The UCLA kick returner was one of the best in the land last year, but that’s no excuse. Up 14-0, Cal was firing on all cylinders until this kickoff miscue. UCLA put their first touchdown up on the board to finish this drive. Cal was fortunate to land the knockout blows in the latter part of the first half. When there is a chance to keep pounding the opponent into the ground, it must never cease until the game is well out of hand. In this case, the southern branch school got a little bit of room to breathe, took advantage of it, and made the game a lot closer than it should have been.
Special teams are just as important to the game of football as the defense and offense phases and can change field position in an instant with great punt and kickoff return teams. Field position is critical in the success of a defense not giving up points. As you witnessed in these videos, Cal’s defense was put into some very tough spots all year long by special teams. If Cal wants to take the next step and become a consistent top 25 or top 10 team, special teams needs to step up their game and own the field position battle.
Stay Tuned for Part 3 of 5.