It’s a pretty simple concept: The more you keep the other team off the field, the less easy it is for them to score points. So for a young Redskins team that is looking to make strides in the win column, they need to look to improve upon things that allow them to control the clock. In large part, that boils down excelling in efficiency with moving the chains and being on the right side of turnover differentials.
Time of possession is more so an indication of how effective a team is with its efficiency. It's obviously not the be-all-end-all in terms of defining what makes a team win but it does have a strong correlation with teams that do. But I'll get to that in a bit.
Last year, the Redskins ranked 17th in the NFL with an average time of possession of 30:05, excluding overtimes. It was the first time they had averaged possession of the ball for a majority of the game’s time since 2008, and was a near three-minute improvement over the disaster that was the 2010 average.
So why is there a dire need to continue improving upon this number? Consider this: In the last five years, no more than three of the top 10 teams in time of possession had losing records. In 2011, the total number of teams that had a losing record in that standing was zero. Lastly, 63 of those 70 teams fared .500 or better. What all of that means is that good things happen when you keep the other team off of the field, but that’s nothing new.
What I want to discuss is what the Redskins can do to improve this number and ultimately propel out of the NFC East cellar. This is mainly just a preliminary look at the Redskins inability to consume the clock, but two things stood out to me.
Turnovers: Obviously. It’s remarkable that the Redskins still mustered a 30-minute time of possession average despite giving over two turnovers each game. Only the Eagles and the Buccaneers tallied more than the Redskins 35 giveaways last year, understandably leaving much to be desired. A rookie signal-caller, even one as touted as Robert Griffin III, will still likely see his share of mistakes in the form of turnovers in the early-goings of his career. That said, it’s hard to be more careless with the football than Rex Grossman has been throughout his career, so I expect this number to decrease dramatically. If it does, it could be the difference between an entire extra minute of average possession time.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, the defense wasn’t exactly keen at getting the ball back for the offense. Their 21 takeaways ranked 23rd in the league, which made for a pretty dreadful turnover differential. The Redskins did, however, force a respectable total of 17 fumbles, but only to become one of just six teams to not recover at least half of them. The ball needs to start bouncing more in their favor.
Running Didn’t Move the Chains: The Redskins were very average in terms of volume and efficiency on third downs in comparison with the rest of the league. They ranked 15th in both total first downs and third-down efficiency, but what stood out to me is how they did or didn’t move the chains.
For just 79 out of the Redskins 312 accomplished first downs, the Redskins ran the ball. That far-too-low number tells me two things. One, they were likely faced with a fair share of third-and-longs that couldn’t be converted on the ground. The second thing is that when they did have the opportunity to convert a third-and-manageable through the run, they either failed to do so or opted to rely on the arms of Grossman and John Beck to get them out of trouble. Regardless of which it is better attributed to, that number has to be bigger for an offense that’s predicated on establishing a respectable ground game.
At the end of the day, even with monumental struggles with keeping the ball out of defenders’ hands, the Redskins were not too far off from a top-10 average. The 10th best team in that regard was a certain team from Baltimore that averaged about 40 more seconds per game more. Even small improvements over a horrendously bad turnover margin and rushes for first down might just be enough to tip the scales in the Redskins favor in terms of controlling the clock, and ultimately in terms of wins and losses.