There are lots of ways to measure a team’s offensive production. But if a drive does not end in a punt or a turnover, it’s probably a pretty good drive. Last year, the Packers had just 64 possessions end in a punt (51) or turnover (6 interceptions, 7 fumbles lost). The Raiders led the way with 138 Bad Drives — defined as possessions that ended in a punt or turnover — so this metric passes the sniff test.
Here’s some more positive evidence for this statistic: Since 1970, the team with the fewest Bad Drives was the 2007 Patriots at 60.1 That New England team was followed by the ’14 Packers, the ’11 Saints (66), the ’06 Colts (67), the ’10 Patriots (68), the ’72 Lions (68), the ’11 Packers (69), and the ’09 Chargers (69. The Colts from ’04 to ’08 were extremely consistent and extremely strong in this metric, with 71 Bad Drives in ’04, 71 in ’05, ’67 in ’06, 71 in ’07, and 70 in ’08.
Wait, did I really just include the 1972 DETROIT LIONS in there? How on earth did the ’72 Lions sneak in a list populated entirely by very modern teams with HOF quarterbacks?2 That’s what prompted today’s post.
The 1972 Dolphins — maybe you’ve heard of them — had 72 Bad Drives, second fewest in the NFL that year. And Miami ranked 1st in points, yards, and first downs. I doubt even Football Perspective readers have spent much time thinking about the ’72 Lions, or could name many of their offense players other than quarterback Greg Landry (if you’re wondering, Charlie Sanders, Steve Owens, Mel Farr, and Ron Jessie were all on this team, too). Lions great Joe Schmidt was in his final year as head coach; he would resign after the 8-5-1 season.
Landry had a fascinating season, becoming the first player to pass for 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns, and rush for 500 yards and 8 touchdowns, all in the same season. No other player did that for another 40 years, although now it’s been done five more times. Detroit’s offense was good, but hardly noteworthy, at least on the statistical surface. Detroit ranked 6th in NY/A, 8th in ANY/A, and 10th in passer rating, wile ranking just a hair above average as a rushing team. That’s what makes the team’s lack of Bad Drives so… weird. At least, at first.
So what explains it? Some of the credit for the team’s lack of Bad Drives may be due to pace; and more credit may be due to the Lions having a terrible defense. Detroit’s defense only *forced* 73 Bad Drives. That was the 2nd worst number in the NFL, just 1 behind the Patriots. 3 For there to be just 68 offensive Bad Drives and 73 defensive Bad Drives, the pace of Lions games had to be really slow and/or Detroit’s offense was awesome and its defense was very bad. And considering the fact that the Lions ranked below average in completion percentage and only 14th in rushing attempts, I don’t think they were necessarily milking the clock (although they could have still been operating at a particularly slow pace).4
After doing some more digging, it looks like one of the main reasons why the ’72 Lions didn’t have many Bad Drives is because the team just didn’t have many drives. Calculating drives for old teams is tricky, but there are a couple of ways to do it. One method is to measure the end of drives: sum all the passing touchdowns, rushing touchdowns, interceptions, fumbles lost, field goal attempts, punts, and opponent safeties for each team. In 1972, the Lions had 136 drives by this method; the other 25 teams had an average of 157.
The other method would be to measure the beginning of drives. To do this, we would sum all the passing touchdowns allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed, interceptions forced,5 opponent’s fumbles lost, opponent’s field goal attempts, opponent’s punts, safeties recorded by the team, and add in 1 for each game played (since each team gets the ball at the start of each half). By this method, the ’72 Lions had 153 drives, while the other 25 teams averaged 171 drives.
Split the difference, and the other 25 teams averaged about 164 drives in 1972, while Detroit had 144.5. That’s pretty significant — Detroit had only 88% as many drives as the rest of the league. The Dolphins led the way by averaging 2.43 points per estimated drive,6 but Detroit was not far behind at 2.35. My hunch is that, if we had the data, we would see that the Lions were very effective at converting on 3rd downs. This was a really good offense, and the lack of drives hurt the team’s gross statistics. On the other hand, the lack of drives helped Detroit in the Bad Drives category, which is why the team was able to compete with some elite modern offenses.7
The real problem for Detroit in 1972 was a defense that ranked in the bottom 7 in both ANY/A and Yards per Carry, and while the Lions ranked 17th and 19th in points/yards allowed, those numbers are too generous to the team in light of the low number of drives the defense faced.
Let’s close with a look at what may well have been a perfect game by 1972 standards. Take a look at that boxscore: notice anything crazy? Detroit had just one punt, one field goal attempt, and zero turnovers. Does that sound crazy to you? Well, consider: From 1967 to 1977, this was the only game where a team had fewer than 3 combined punts/turnovers/field goal attempts.
- And excluding 1982. [↩]
- Or HOF-caliber quarterbacks, in the case of the ’09 Chargers. [↩]
- And again, here’s the perspective I’m talking about: excluding Detroit, each of the other teams in the bottom five in Bad Drives forced on defense in 1972 all had at least 100 Bad Drives on offense. [↩]
- Another option could be that Detroit happened to go for it often on 4th downs; that would not be collected in this data, but would fall under a better definition of Bad Drives. [↩]
- If one wants to do the extra legwork, they should back out pick sixes, too. [↩]
- Miami had 152 and 165 drives by these two estimates. [↩]
- Of course, Detroit was also helped vis-a-vis modern teams by only playing in 16 games, although that didn’t seem to help any other team from the ’70s. [↩]