Alison Althouse

Army isn't yet good enough to squander lots of red-zone trips

Sports involve small-enough margins for the best teams. The line between champions and runners-up is extremely thin. Just imagine what life is like for Army. Margins matter -- mightily.

In baseball, the greatest legends fail 60 percent of the time. Ted Williams failed to get a base hit roughly 60 percent of the time in 1941, and it's the most magnificent (non-steroid-aided) piece of hitting the sport has witnessed in the past 80 years.

In basketball, anyone who fails 55 percent of the time from three-point range is a modern marvel. Stephen Curry has become a mid-40s three-point bomber who has revolutionized how his sport is played... and coached... and thought about... and studied. Hitting at or above 45 percent of threes puts the fear of God into opposing defenses and coaching staffs.

You can be great in a sport and fail at your task -- even your specialty -- most of the time. Ted Williams as a hitter, Steph Curry as a three-point shooter -- even at their VERY BEST, they did not perform their signature skills successfully on a majority of occasions. Moreover, just to put a finer point on the matter, they weren't expected to.

A .500 hitter? A 51-percent three-point shooter for a whole NBA season? The former example is completely ludicrous, always outside the realm of possibility. (It always has been.) The latter example? Welllll, if the three-point arc isn't moved back, someone 10 years from now might be able to can the three (assuming a high volume of attempts, not an average of two per game) more than 50 percent of the time.

You get the point. Greatness doesn't mean you succeed in certain central aspects of your craft more often than not.

Therefore, a casual sports fan might look at the Army football team's red-zone efficiency numbers last season and conclude the Black Knights did really well.

Army converted 77.4 percent of its red-zone possessions into scores. Army, viewed through a narrow (and very technical) lens, failed only 22.6 percent of the time. Again, the casual fan might say that such a number is great. A slightly more educated fan might conclude that, "Hey, Army converted 3 of 4 red-zone possessions into points. It's not ideal, but a lot of other teams would be worse... though I hope Army scored lots of touchdowns and few field goals." 

The reality, however, is that for all the ways in which some sports allow majority-failure statistics to become legendarily great, red-zone efficiency in football is not one of them. More to the point, it's a stat which punishes anything but supreme productivity IF the number of red-zone trips in a season is relatively low. (That last detail matters a lot.)

A few really good teams last season -- Alabama, Ohio State and TCU -- finished outside the top 80 in red-zone efficiency, but because they made so many trips to the red zone, their failures didn't cost them field position. Their defenses were all capable enough of getting the ball back and returning to the red zone minutes later. 

For Army in 2015, it was a different story. 

The Black Knights' defense wasn't robust enough to immediately reclaim possession on many occasions. The offense wasn't consistent enough to grind down defenses with the triple option. West Point recorded 31 red-zone trips, an average of under three a game, a whisker above 2.5. With 65 or 70 red-zone trips per season (well over five and close to six per game), a 77.4-percent success rate would mean around four red-zone scores per game. If three of them are touchdowns, that's 24 points with the field goal as the fourth score.

At 31 for the season (2.5 per Saturday), 77.4 percent means just under two red-zone scores per game. Army registered 20 touchdowns and 4 field goals -- 24 scores in its 31 trips. Even though most trips ended in touchdowns (20 of 31), the lack of volume limited the positive value of this stat.

Opponents, on the other hand, scored 93 percent of the time AND had more volume (43 trips, 40 scores).

The numbers speak loudly. Army faces so many limitations and small margins as it is. The Black Knights either have to increase their volume of red-zone possessions or improve their efficiency rate into the 90s. The former path is the better one, but the latter path could also enable West Point to find its true North this season.


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