The team that scores the most points wins the game. That's an easy concept to understand. The team that doesn't turn the ball over usually wins. That's an acceptable concept for most fans. Sacks and yards per pass attempt are critical factors. That's a well understood concept by coaches and players.
A very important concept that doesn't get discussed enough is the importance of field position.
Bill Parcells always talked about winning the field position game and built teams with that as a focus.
Parcells' premise was built on statistical research which shows that offensive drives on a long field (80 or more yards) produce a touchdown only 16 percent of the time. That's why smart coaches spend money on kickoff coverage units, and kickers and punters who can trap returners inside the 20-yard line. They also don't put their offense on a long field with careless returns.
Parcells would think in terms of converting yards to points. For example, if your average starting position is the 30-yard line, and your opponent's average starting position is the 22-yard line, over the course of 10 possessions in a game, that's 80 yards. He considered that a difference of a touchdown, because that's approximately how many yards you would need to drive for a TD on offense.
The results bear out that theory. During Week 6, teams with the better average starting field position went 8-4. Over the first five weeks of the season, the six teams that played on a shorter field than their opponents most often -- the Patriots, Lions, 49ers, Ravens, Bengals and Packers -- have a 25-6 combined record. And the Giants, Falcons and Raiders got things turned around in Week 6 by reversing their field position stats after losing that differential for the first five weeks.
The Giants ranked 31st in the NFL with a difference in starting field position of -6.7 yards. On Sunday against the Bills they were +7. Atlanta came into Week 6 ranked 28th with a differential of -4.6 yards. In the Falcons' win over Carolina, they were +11. The Raiders came in with a -1.9 yards difference but wound up +4 in the win over Cleveland.
So there's little doubt that putting your opponent on a longer field wins games, especially if you can make that field longer than 80 yards either by tackling a kick returner inside the 20-yard line or hanging a punt inside the 20.
In Week 6, 19 kickoffs were returned short of the 20-yard line, and only four (21 percent) of the subsequent drives led to touchdowns. Punts that were dropped inside the 20-yard line had even better success. There were 30 punts inside the 20, and only four (13 percent) of the ensuing drives led to touchdowns.
The best example came in the San Francisco-Detroit game. The 49ers dropped four punts inside the 20 and the Lions came away with 0 points on those four long drives. Tampa Bay put three punts inside the 20 and the powerful Saints offense only came away with three points. Cleveland did a nice job of pinning four punts inside the 20, but the Raiders drove 88 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown, which turned out to be the difference in the game.
The Colts are a great example of struggles in the return game contributing to poor results. Indy is really hurting without Peyton Manning under center, but the Colts contributed to their own demise this week when they returned three kickoffs that never made the 20-yard line and left quarterback Curtis Painter with a long field. The results were two punts and an interception.
Parcells was on to something in understanding the important role that special teams play in the field position game. Take a look at the special teams rankings and stat sheets next week, and without too many exceptions, I think you'll find that the teams that stand atop the categories talked about here are among the most successful teams in the league at this point.