The Dude Abides: The historical importance of field position

In a previous post, I wrote about the important of drafting to improve special teams and field position. So until the Kahlua runs dry, I'm going to continue to beat this drum.

The Dude wasn't so good in school, but it's time for a history lesson, man. And yeah, that's right. Certain things have come to light.

Simply put, I wanted to look at the Denver's win/loss record since 1998 and see if there was a correlation to wins/losses and field position differential. In other words, does field position matter? This is a question that I return to again and again. And admittedly, I have a huge biased towards thinking that it matters...with a vengeance.

The results were enlightening, although not surprising to the Dude. We begin with 1998, Elway's last season, when it really was in fashion to drink Orange and Predominately Blue Kool-Aid.

1998: Record, 14-2. Ranking: 5th in Field Position Differential

Comments: During perhaps the greatest season in the history of the Denver Broncos, the team started with shorter fields. Elway and Co. were starting drives (on average of course) at the 33 yard line. Not surprisingly, they clubbed the hell out of teams. In particular, the drubbing the Broncos put on the Dallas Cowboys in week 2 (scoring 21 first quarter and 14 second quarter points) was some of the finest execution I have ever seen.

1999: Record 6-10. Ranking: 21st in Field Position Differential

Comments: The Kool-Aid went sour. Shanny decided early that Bubby Brister was not the answer at QB, so he threw Brian Griese to the fire. Not only did Griese have to replace a legend at QB, but he lost Terrell Davis in week 4, and his starting field position imploded. This included a 24th ranking in starting field position on offense. Mark it zero.

2000: Record 11-5, Ranking: 8th in Field Position Differential

Comments: Griese finished his second year and there wear comparisons to Joe "freaking" Montana, due to Griese's gaudy 102 QB rating. Isn't it interesting how much better a QB is when he has a shorter field to work with? In this case, Denver was starting its drives (on average) at the 31 yard line. Studs Rod Smith and Eddie Mac both finished with over 100 catches, a feat I expect Marshall and Royal will achieve this year. My favorite game of the year was the week 1 (41-36 Bronco loss) against the Rams where Griese was every bit the equal of Kurt Warner.

2001: Record 8-8, Ranking: 21st in Field Position Differential

Comments: Griese suddenly fell back to earth with a QB rating of 78.5. Was he such a different player suddenly? Sure, with Eddie Mac out and Shannon Sharpe gone, it got a little tougher, but field position didn't help matters certainly. Also, even the biggest Griese bashers should give some respect to Griese for the Dec. 30 Oakland game, in which he played through a shoulder injury and was more than Elway's equal, out dueling Rich Gannon.

2002: Record, 9-7, Ranking: 22nd in Field Position Differential

Comments: Virtually the same ranking in field position differential got the Broncos similar results. Griese had a better year, with a QB rating of 85.6, but at that point, he was no longer getting the Joe Montana comparisons. Woody Paige seemed to gloat, since he believed all along Griese was going to be a bust. Well, you know, that's like, your opinion, man. It didn't help that Denver's opponents started their drives (on average) on just over the 32 yard line.

2003: Record, 10-6, Ranking: 20th in Field Position Differential

Comments: Jake Plummer came in from the desert and Clnton Portis rushed for almost 1,600 yards. Despite this, they ranked in the middle of the pack in field position differential. However, Denver's schedule this year was incredibly weak. Also, Shanny was indeed a mastermind during 2001, ranking 1st in yards per drive differential and generally dominating time of possession. Still, in my opinion this was an 8-8 team masquerading as a 10-6 team, as evidenced by the mauling the Broncos took from the Colts in their playoff game that year.

2004: Record, 10-6, Ranking: 29th in Field Position Differential

Comments: Another good year from The Snake. Reuben Droughns emerged as a quality RB in the zone blocking scheme. I would again argue that this team was masquerading as an 8-8 team despite making the playoffs for the second straight year. My evidence? On the last game of the year, the Colts essentially rested their players, allowing Denver to make the playoffs. Then a week later, Manning and Co. hammered the Broncos 49-24. Perhaps rushing 3 defenders wasn't such a good idea after all.

2005: Record, 13-3, Ranking 4th in Field Position Differential

Comments: Jake Plummer's best season as a pro. I wonder if starting (on average) at the 32 yard line helped a little? Looking through these three seasons with Plummer I can help but think the guy was a pretty damn good QB. In 2003 and 2004, when Denver's field position numbers weren't great, he still managed to get to 10-6. In 2005, when Denver started with much better field position, the guy goes 13-3. Plummer deserves some respect for more than just his handball skills and his references to Jeff George.

2006: Record, 9-7, Ranking: 32nd in Field Position Differential

Comments: Plummer's decline. Cutler's ascension. Despite horrible field position (on average starting at his own 26 yard line), Plummer did lead this team to a 7-4 start, however. Once can't help but wonder what would have happened with Jake if he had not been saddled with bad field position for 3 of his 4 years in Denver.

2007: Record, 7-9, Ranking: 22nd in Field Position Differential

Comments: Shanny seemed so change QBs about every 4th year, so in comes Cutler. Despite a nice rookie season, the results are about the same. Field position continues to matter.

2008: Record 8-8, Ranking: 29th in Field Position Differential

Comments: Another season with horrible field position means another mediocre record for the Broncos. Despite the porous defense, it could have been worse. Imagine how bad it would have been if even half of the opposing DBs held on to the 4-5 Culter gifts he tried to throw them each game. Thank god he threw harder than Elway. Otherwise, with this kind of field position, Denver might have been drafting in the top 10.

So there you have it. 11 seasons of results and 11 seasons of field position rankings. So what can we say about the two? Well, you don't have to be Jamie Dukes or John Clayton or a Nihilist to draw a few general conclusions from this data:

Field position and winning are highly correlated (duh).

During the years that Denver ranked in the top 10 in field position differential, they always topped at least 11 wins.

In the two years they ranked in the top 5, they got to 13 wins.

2004 was a huge anomaly. Denver reached 10 wins and ranked 29th in field position differential. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, however. I am not absolutely saying that a team can't overcome terrible field position. 2004 is a good example. Denver dominated time of possession averaging 32:42 of time to its opponent's paltry 27:17. One can have bad field possession if one gets more turnovers and holds the ball longer.

Give me Elway, Davis, Sharpe, Easy Mac, Rod Smith, and Gary Zimmerman, and I will completely disavow this article. Until then, I will continue to believe field position matters.

2004's results were simply fascinating. So much so that as a result, I am going to post in the future about the relationship between the three headed monster of Time of Possession, Turnovers, and Field Position.

Until then, I will abide.

Go Broncos!!!!!

Originally posted at MHR

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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