Dave Choate inspired this post in the Monday morning recap and raised the question again today (link) in a discussion post:
"Why can't the Falcons play four quarters of stellar football? Is it conditioning, an unfocused set of minds or just the vagaries of the Football Gods?
This would be the TV Guide description if NFL Films were to make a documentary about the consistent inconsistency of the 2011 Atlanta Falcons. But while it’s a great point for discussion, there’s no way to come to a definitive conclusion. We just have to sit and watch each week, waiting for the wheels to fall off our officially licensed National Football League Bus of Destiny.
However, although none of us can really say WHY this happens, we can look and see WHEN it happens and WHO is causing it. One popular theory is the third quarter of football games becomes the Falcons undoing. But then they went ahead and scored 10 in the third quarter at Carolina in Week 14. So, maybe not? Or was it a fluke, and will next week’s third quarter spell our doom? Because we don’t want our friendly neighborhood statisticians to pull out their neckbeards in frustration, it’s probably best that we confirm our theories with actual data. And because it’s an easy week at work and I’ve had too much egg nog for my own good, I decided to put together the numbers from this season and find out what is exactly going on.
Join me after the jump for some fun, old-fashioned data analysis.
I’m going to attempt to answer a few questions in this article:
- Are the Falcons actually ‘collapsing’ in at least one quarter per game?
- If they are collapsing, how bad is it and which side of the ball is responsible?
- Can we expect this problem to improve in the future?
Several caveats. First, the numbers used here are simple: points scored, and points given up. We could go into points per play or points per minute of possession, but I’m writing this article to address a general fan’s perspective that there exists a quarterly slump in every game, and the general fan uses points as a benchmark. Second, I’ve ignored the overtime quarter during the New Orleans game because it never happened. Third, I’m crediting any points scored by the defense, either through touchdown returns or safeties, to the offense. Conversely, when the offense gives up safeties or interception/fumble returns for touchdowns, that counts against the defense. There haven’t been enough of those to significantly impact the numbers, and it requires a lot more work.
The Falcons have averaged 23.1 points per game this season. They are scoring 28.5 points per game in wins, but only 14.4 points per game in losses. Falcons opponents are averaging 20.5 points per game this season, scoring 19.1 points when the Falcons win, and 22.8 when the Birds lose.
The point jump from win to loss on the defensive side of the ball is only 3.7 points. That’s a surprisingly consistent performance by Brian Van Gorder’s crew, especially considering two of the losses came to offensive juggernauts Green Bay and New Orleans. Unfortunately, in losses the offense the Falcons are scoring 14.1 fewer points. Half as many points? Uh-oh.
Let’s go deeper. On a quarter-by-quarter basis, we can look at the Falcons games this season and try to find out where things are going wrong. Let’s start high-level. Here are the quarterly splits for the entire 2011 season to date:
The average points scored per quarter by the offense hovers around 6.0 in the first two quarters, drops the 4.4 in the third, then jumps up to 6.7 points in the fourth quarter. We’re seeing a definite downswing by Matt Ryan and Company when they come out of the locker room to start the second half, but only 1.5 – 2.0 points lower than what we’d expect based on the other quarters.
The defense is stifling in the first and fourth quarters, holding Falcons opponents to 2.5 and 3.4 points respectively, but allowing a floodgate-like 6.8 and 7.6 points in the second and third quarters. This is a far more dramatic swing, and shows that the defense slips in both the second and third quarters.
Remember, these are season averages, so we’re losing some insight. Let’s look at the quarter splits for wins versus losses and see if we can get a better sense for what’s happening to this team. First, the offense.
In wins, the offense is showing the third quarter swoon, falling to 5.0 points on average in the third quarter. During losses, the offense is a disaster. Outside a 5.2 point average in the fourth, the offense is pretty much good for a meager field goal in each of the first three quarters. There is no 'missing quarter' for the offense when the Falcons lose. There is only apocalypse.
The defense performs roughly the same in wins as well, allowing high point averages in the second and third quarters. In losses, the defense is showing similar tendencies to wins, giving up higher point totals in the second and third quarters and holding pretty strong to form in the first and fourth quarters. They are actually collapsing less during losses, as the points given up in each quarter are closer to the average.
This brings us back to the points per game totals introduced at the beginning of the article. The defense may be having rough second and third quarters, but they are consistent throughout each game. The second and third quarter problem may be related to opponent adjustments against the scheme. The offense is not performing up to standard in third quarters during wins, but completely melting down in losses. There is no third quarter theory when the Falcons lose. The whole game is pretty much terrible. BVG defenders – rejoice! Mularkey haters – rejoice! Everyone else – cower in fear!
The problem with averages is that they cover up directional trends over the course of a season. Are things getting better? That is, is the ‘arrow pointing up’ as Mike Smith likes to say, and can we expect these second and third quarter pratfalls to fade away? The trends actually say yes. If you look at the season as a series of rolling three-game averages (to eliminate some of the fluctuation between individual games), I think you can see that the team actually has been correcting these ‘incomplete game’ tendency.
The above chart shows the average points scored per quarter by the Falcons offense over the course of the year. I’ve highlighted the third quarter, since earlier data indicates the third quarter is when the offense is most likely to take a nap. The positive is that the consistency of the offense is getting better, and we can see all four quarters moving toward the average over the course of the season. The negative is that we know the offense is prone to put up entire games that are terrible, and the consistency problem has nothing to do with it.
The defense, up until last week’s performance at Carolina, has improved its performance in the second and third quarter through out the season. They have also been consistent in the first quarter all season. The one cause for concern I see is a rising trend in fourth quarter points allowed. Hopefully the second half shutout in Carolina is a sign that the fourth quarter won’t become a problem for the defense in the future.
What do you think, fellow Falcoholics? Despite our frequent grumblings about incomplete games, it looks like the Falcons have actually been improving on that front throughout the season. Are you buying that the defense has been the most consistent unit on the team? Why does the offense leave their big boy pants in the locker room from time to time? And do you think the team will continue to get better through the last three games of the season and, football gods willing, the playoffs?