Hidden Yardage and Special Teams

Everyone talks about the value of field position, but you'd be surprised the importance of a few yards. Packer Report examines the obvious but often taken-for-granted correlation between field position and scoring as we continue our look at the special teams.

Monday night's story was Part 1 of what's going to be a several-part look at the Green Bay Packers' special teams and the importance of those units improving to at least competent.

Today, it's a look at the obvious but too-often-forgotten aspect of field position.

This is admittedly an apples-to-oranges comparison but some worthwhile information can be gleaned from the following numbers.

In 2008, the Packers' average starting point on a drive was their 28-yard line while their opponents took over at the 32. That 4-yard distance might not seem like a lot until you add it up over the course of a full game. On average, a team will get 12 possessions per game. That 4-yard difference turns into 48 yards — or almost a five first-down difference — over the course of a game.

In 2009, the Packers' average drive started at their 32-yard line while their opponents started at their 31. Multiply that 4-yard improvement in 2009 by the Packers' 191 possessions, and that equates to 764 yards over the 16 games — or the difference in yardage gained by the top-ranked Saints offense and the 11th-ranked Eagles offense.

What does that mean? According to research by Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats, each yard is the equivalent of 0.06 points. Or in the Packers' example, an extra 45.8 points based on improved field position. How many more points did the Packers really score? Believe it or not, 42.

I'm not suggesting that special teams was responsible for that difference. Turnovers had a lot to do with it, although, it should be noted, that for as bad as the Packers' special teams were last year, their average starting point of the 27.3-yard line after a kickoff ranked a respectable tied for ninth in the NFL. Nor am I suggesting that the difference in field position is the biggest explanation for the Packers surging from 6-10 to 11-5.

But it doesn't take a supercomputer to figure out that the odds of the offense scoring a touchdown with a 70-yard drive are better than with an 80-yard drive. According to Burke's research, a first down from the 20-yard line equates to a 15 percent chance of scoring a touchdown and 9 percent of scoring a field goal. A first down from the 30 means a 19 percent chance of scoring a touchdown and an 11 percent chance of a field goal.

On the other side of the coin, the further the opposition has to go, the lesser their odds of allowing a touchdown and the greater the odds of the Packers' big-play defense producing a turnover.

To be sure, you don't need a juggernaut of a special teams to win the Super Bowl. The Packers ranked 31st in the 22-category Dallas Morning News special teams rankings, while the Saints were No. 29 and the Colts No. 28.

Then again, imagine the high-octane Packers offense benefitting from a 10-yard average punt return rather than last year's 23rd-ranked 6.9-yard average. Imagine that offense not having to overcome 14 holding penalties by the return units. Imagine the Packers' ball-hawking secondary getting a few more cracks at an interception if the special teams weren't ranked 31st in the league in opponents' starting point after a kickoff (28.9-yard line average) or in net punting (34.1 average). The top-ranked Falcons enjoyed a 7.5-yard edge over the Packers after kickoffs and the top-ranked Raiders had a whopping 9.8-yard advantage in net punting. That's almost a first down — a huge difference.

The question is the same question I asked on Monday. Do the Packers have a kick returner? Do they have a punter? Do they have the players to make the blocks and the tackles? Right now, the answers are no, no and maybe.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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