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3 Reasons Third Down Stats Are Misleading

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At ABC, I broke down why third down stats are overrated. Here’s one reason:

Third Downs Aren’t Standardized

The most important reason that third down stats need to be taken with a grain of salt is that they aren’t standardized. The Cowboys, for example, have had an average of 7.45 yards to go on their third downs this year. The Colts, on the other hand, are all the way down at 6.32 yards to go. The Giants are all the way up at 8.46 yards to go.

Shortening the distance to go on third down of course aids offenses in converting on third down, but here’s the hidden downside: they face more third downs. Third down offense is important, but first and second down are just as vital since, you know, they’re the downs that come before third down. If you want to improve your offense as a whole, you should try to avoid third down altogether.

And the Cowboys have actually done that pretty well this year. They’ve faced 116 third downs—the fewest in the NFL. They haven’t run that many plays, but third downs represent only 19.6 percent of all of their offensive snaps. That’s a good number, and one that suggests the Cowboys’ offense is way better than their third down numbers show.

Coaches who obsess over third down stats and guide their offense to set up “manageable third downs” are really doing a disservice to their teams. The goal shouldn’t be to do everything possible to convert on third down; it should be to do everything possible to avoid third down.

None of this means that the Cowboys’ third down offense has been satisfactory or that they’re doing everything they need to do correctly on first and second down. Actually, they should stop running the ball so much on first down early in games in order to see even fewer third downs.

If you really want to perform the silly task of grading entire offenses based solely on third downs, then you should consider not only their third down conversion rate, but also the average distance to go for a first down and the frequency with which they face third downs.

Third down conversions are important, but they’re more the result of a quality offense rather than the cause of it. Chasing a high third down conversion rate is synonymous to running the ball a whole lot because rushing attempts are correlated with winning; both confuse the cause with the effect.

That doesn’t mean third downs aren’t important, and converting obviously increases win probability. So what’s the Cowboys’ win probability this week against the Giants? Most sports betting sites like SportsBettingOnline.ag have the Cowboys between one and three-point underdogs, so probably in the neighborhood of 40-45 percent.

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