The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Alex Barron, Flozell Adams, and False Starts: How Costly Are They?

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Peter King of Sports Illustrated recently noted that newly-acquired offensive tackle Alex Barron has racked up 43 false starts over the past five seasons–even more than ex-Cowboy Flozell Adams.  Fans cringed every time Adams moved prematurely, and his false starts became somewhat of a running joke in Big D.

When you play in St. Louis, however, your indiscretions (and unfortunately your successes, too) don’t get quite the attention as in Dallas.  Thus, fans likely were unaware (until now) of Barron’s similar penchant for jumping the gun.

But just how costly are false starts to a team’s win probability?  They certainly aren’t as costly as, say, holding penalties.  Still, they set back the offense not only in terms of yardage, but also momentum.

Perhaps a better way to measure the negative impact of false starts is to determine the impact they have on a team’s “Expected Points.”  Put simply, ‘expected points’ is the average points a team can expect to score on any particular drive based on their down and distance and field position.  Advanced NFL Stats, the creators of Expected Points, puts it like this:

Suppose the offense has a 1st and 10 at midfield.  This situation is worth +2.0 EP.  A 5-yard gain would set up a 2nd and 5 from the 45, which corresponds to a +2.1 EP.  Therefore, that 5-yard gain in that particular situation represents a +0.1 gain in EP.  This gain is called Expected Points Added (EPA).  Likewise, a 5-yard loss on 1st down at midfield would create a 2nd and 15 from the offense’s own 45.  That situation is worth +1.2 EP, representing a net difference of -0.8 EPA.

Thus, not all false starts are created equally.  A false start on 3rd and goal from the 3-yard line is much more debilitating to an offense than one on 3rd and 25 from midfield.

According to ANS, Barron’s false starts were responsible for the loss of 24.4 expected points over the course of five seasons, or about five points per year.  In essence, each false start cost the Rams 1/2 expected point, which is in line with league averages.

Expected points are one thing, but how do the false starts and subsequent loss of expected points affect a team’s win total?  Well, five points over the course of a season translates to just about .12 wins.  Thus, Barron’s (and those of Adams) false starts were annoying, but not as costly to a team’s success as you might believe.

That isn’t the end of the story, however.  Remember that Barron’s false starts cost his team about five points per season–but that total is only applicable as compared to a flawless offensive lineman.  In reality, even the best tackles commit false starts from time to time.  Let’s say our Pro-Bowl level replacement tackle commits just three false starts per season.  This translates to 1.5 expected points, and about .04 wins per season.

Ultimately, the difference between Barron and a lineman who commits just three false starts a season is only about .08 wins per year.  In comparison, we discovered that the difference between a good kicker (90% accuracy) and a poor kicker (70% accuracy) is approximately 1.05 wins per season.

Now, that does not mean kickers are 13 times as valuable as left tackles, but simply that false start penalties are nowhere near as costly as they may initially appear.

For the sake of Alex Barron’s sanity this season, let’s hope Cowboys fans around the country are made available to this information.

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9 Responses to Alex Barron, Flozell Adams, and False Starts: How Costly Are They?

  1. john coleman says:

    If Eatman,Phillips, or Ellis wrote this there would be 500 people wanting to throw the bum(Barron) out. Thanks for a sane site and good info. The minimal impact was surprising.

  2. No problem John. The impact also surprised me. I wonder how much a holding penalty affects a team. It would certainly be more than twice that of a false start, even though it is just twice the yardage. I will try to uncover that info….

  3. Kevin Keithley says:

    Although no one likes penalties, it’s good to put them in perspective. In regards to holding penalties, sometimes the penalty is better than the alternative – your QB taking a vicious hit and being scraped off the turf. We’ve all seen games where a QB’s performance is drastically altered because he is taking a beating and starts to worry about the pressure.

  4. Good point. Sometimes penalties are good things, and that is not factored into the equation. Like you said, a holding penalty would create a better situation than a 10 yard sack (as you do not lose a down), and thus would not actually affect expected points.

    Of course, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to commit a false start, although some are more costly than others.

  5. Chris says:

    I’d like to mirror what John said: thanks for the sanity and statistical data found on this site. DC.com is, pardon my french, garbage. All the articles are cookie cutter and mindless. The only valuable thing on the site are interviews and video. Please keep this site going…It will grow! There’s enough knowledgeable fans out there who want the kind of insight provided here.

  6. Thanks a lot Chris. I (and we) truly, truly appreciate the support and do everything for fans like you guys. Let’s hope you are right about the sample size of knowledgeable fans, because I tend to think those are the sort which fully appreciate our articles.

    Anyway, if you guys have any particular studies in mind you’d like us to do, let me know and I will try to get it completed.

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