ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Friday, October 29, 2010
Patriots have time of possession issues

ESPNBoston.com

You can't win without the ball.

That is, unless you are the New England Patriots.

On Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, the Patriots held the ball for only 25 minutes and 35 seconds, their shortest time of possession in a win since 2007. Their 179 net offensive yards were the third fewest in franchise history in a win.

One such game is easily explainable, particularly given the way the Chargers virtually handed the game away in the first half. However, this is a season-long trend.

The Patriots have lost the possession battle in four of six games. Their average time of possession is just 27:59, fifth lowest in the NFL.

This is a dramatic departure from the previous three seasons, when they ranked in the top three in that category. Last season, they held the ball for 32:55 per game, second most in the NFL. In other words, on average, the Patriots have the ball five fewer minutes per game compared to 2009.

You have to go back to 2002 to find a season where the Patriots held the ball less than their opponents. A 9-7 season following their first Super Bowl title, the Patriots averaged 29:11, still over a minute more than their current pace.

Amazingly, the Patriots are on pace for their lowest average time of possession since 1981. That year, they held the ball for an average of 27:52 minutes on their way to a 2-14 season. Yes, even in their 1-15 campaign in 1990, the Patriots possessed the ball more often (28:21).

Yet, New England is tied for the best record in football. Those four games where they lost the time of possession battle? The Patriots won three of them.

Over the previous two seasons, New England was just 3-6 when holding the ball less often than its opponent (and 18-5 otherwise). In fact, over the last 30 years, the Patriots are 173-67 when they have the ball more than their opponent and just 80-142 when they don't.

So how do you explain their 5-1 record? Shouldn't possession be 9/10 of the win?

Perhaps more than any other sport, traditional football statistics require deeper analysis. Consider some other seemingly counterintuitive examples:

• The Lions have outscored their opponents 146-140, but are just 1-5. • The Chargers are 2-5 despite the league's top ranked offense and defense. • The Giants may be the best team in the NFC, but they've committed five more turnovers than their opponents.

Clearly, there's no magic statistic to predict season-long results. But can New England continue to win while holding the ball less often?

In one key respect, the time of possession numbers are actually misleading. In the 41-14 drubbing of the Miami Dolphins in Week 4, the Patriots only held the ball for 27:43. That was thanks to three return touchdowns (kickoff, blocked FG, interception).

Indeed, the Patriots are tied for the NFL lead with five non-offensive touchdowns. Each case is ultimately bad for time of possession, but great where it counts.

While those numbers play a part in the overall time of possession numbers, last Sunday's game against the Chargers indicated a potentially deeper problem. So why aren't the Patriots controlling the clock?

The trade of Randy Moss foreshadowed a move back to the chipping away offensive approach of the early part of the decade. In all three of their Super Bowl seasons, the Patriots won the clock battle. They've missed the playoffs in each of the last four seasons in which they lost the time of possession battle.

Certainly, having the ball makes winning easier, but by no means is it essential. Last season, the Colts finished 14-2 despite possessing the ball for just 27:40 per game, 30th in the NFL.

When you think of controlling the clock, the running game is usually the first place to look. In the case of Indianapolis, it provided an easy explanation. They featured the most anemic rushing attack (80.9 YPG) in the NFL in 2010.

For the Patriots, it's not nearly as simple. Their ground attack falls right in the middle of the pack, averaging 111.2 YPG, 14th in the NFL. However, take out their 200 yards against the Buffalo Bills -- the worst rushing defense in the NFL -- and the Patriots are putting up only 93.4 YPG on the ground. That would place them 25th in the league, but still not in Colts territory.

Thanks to the NFL's second-ranked pass attack, the 2009 Colts didn't need to control the clock. They still outgained their opponents by an average of 23.9 yards per game. For the Patriots, their failure to control the clock has not been made up for in yardage. Their opponents are outgaining them by 54.5 YPG, 27th in the NFL.

Ultimately, the Patriots are still the highest scoring team in the NFL. The real concern isn't prolonging their own drives, but rather making key stops on defense.

New England's defensive numbers on third and fourth down are quite sobering for optimistic fans.

The Patriots have allowed opponents to convert 48.8 percent of third downs, worst in the NFL and a far cry from the 38.3 percent league average. The Patriots also have the league's second-worst fourth-down defense, but it's the third-and-long numbers that are most alarming. That's where drives that should end are allowing the opposing offense to stay on the field.

On third down with six or more yards to go, opponents have a 42.4 conversion percentage according to STATS LLC, which cites a league average of 26.5 percent. Here again, the Patriots rank last in the NFL. On third and 10 or more, opponents have converted for a first down 40 percent of the time, nearly twice the league average.

Just how bad is the situation on third down? That 48.8 conversion percentage puts the Patriots on track to have the worst third-down defense since the 1995 Cleveland Browns (49.6), according to STATS. The coach of that team? Ironically, none other than Bill Belichick.

As the third-and-long numbers indicate, the Patriots' biggest defensive question marks are against the pass. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 70.1 percent of third-down passes (second highest in NFL) and have a 100.3 passer rating (fourth highest). It's not just he secondary's fault. The Patriots' two sacks on third down are tied for the fewest in the NFL.

Losing the time of possession battle is directly related to these failed third-down battles. They explain why opposing scoring drives average 4 minutes, 29 seconds (second longest in the NFL) and 9.63 plays (most in the NFL).

The Patriots have won in spite of this porous third-down defense and the resulting clock disadvantage. But without improvement against the pass, the Patriots will need to continue to find ways to win, rather than controlling their own destiny -- and the clock.

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.