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Week 1, the Washington Football Team and Yards Per Play

Philadelphia Eagles v Washington Football Team Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

It’s a fact. The Washington Football Team ranked dead last in the NFL in Yards Per Play for the opening week of play.

Sounds like a reason to panic.

Well, maybe...maybe not. The Saints, after all, were second-lowest, and they scored 38 points and won. The burgundy & gold scored 27 points and won.

The Vikings, who ranked No. 1 in yards per play this week, not only lost — they got wholloped at home by the Packers, who ranked second. The team that ranked 3rd beat the team that ranked 4th. Hmmm....

Yards per Play apparently isn’t highly correlated with winning football — but it is affected by game script.

The Football Team attempted 31 passes for 178 yards. At just 5.7 yards per attempt, Washington ranked 3rd lowest in this metric behind the Browns and Bengals — both low scoring losers (6 and 13 points respectively). The Cardinals and Titans rounded out the “top” 5 lowest YPA — both winners in their respective games, with the Cards upsetting the reigning NFC Champions and the Titans beating the Broncos in Denver.

New Orleans, Washington and Buffalo joined the Giants and Dolphins as the 5 teams with the lowest yards per carry. That’s three winners and two losers.

When I first read that the Football Team had ranked last in Yards per Play, I thought it might be a harbinger of problems in the future. Now that I’ve spent some time looking at what the stat means, I feel a lot better — because the stat means little or nothing with respect to which team wins the ball game.

Consider for a moment the three most successful plays that the WFT ran against the Eagles on Sunday:

  • Touchdown pass to Logan Thomas - 6 yards
  • Touchdown run #1 by Peyton Barber - 1 yard
  • Touchown run #2 by Peyton Barber - 3 yards

That’s 3 plays at an average of 3.333 yards per play, but it’s 18 points (plus the extra point opportunities).

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Consider, also, Washington’s final drive, when they had only two priorities — run out the clock and don’t turn the ball over.

  • Barber 3 yards
  • Barber 1 yard
  • Barber 2 yards

(the drive was extended due to a dead ball penalty against Philly)

  • Barber 1 yard
  • Barber no gain
  • Haskins -2 (kneel down)
  • Haskins -3 (kneel down)

That’s 7 plays for 2 yards. I’m not even gonna do the math. These plays represented more than 10% of the offensive snaps for Washington in this game. There was, in fact, another kneel down by Haskins to end the first half. Throw that in and you’re talking about 8 plays for a net zero yardage, yet every one of these plays was “successful” because they accomplished the primary team goal at the time and contributed to the victory.

A bad start
The fact is, Washington was stymied on their first three drives of the game, running ten offensive plays with only two that could be deemed ‘successful’ - a 16-yard pass to McLaurin and an 8-yard run by Barber. 80% of the offensive plays in the first three drives were failures, which was largely why the team was behind 17-0 in the second quarter.

However, after putting together a nice little drive that early in the second quarter that ended in a missed field goal, starting at the 1:37 mark of the second quarter, the offense started being effective, even if it wasn’t gaining yardage in big chunks.

The first touchdown drive of 45 yards featured 4 notable pass completions of 21, 11, 7 and 6 yards — with the last being the TD by Thomas.

Following an ugly 3 and out on the first offensive series of the 2nd half, the next TD drive featured a 17-yard pass to set up 1st and goal from the 2 yard line. Ron Rivera called 3 straight runs. It took all three to get the two yards, but the drive was successful with Barber plunging in for the one-yard touchdown. The key reason why this was good enough was because the defense didn’t let the Eagles score when the burgundy and gold had given up the ball after a 3-play drive. Ron Rivera was able to play a conservative ball-control game for most of the second half because he had faith that his defense was able to stop the Eagles. This wasn’t a shootout, it was a slog through the mud.

Another 3 & out marred the offensive performance, but then the team moved 27 yards in three plays, and — after an incomplete pass — added 3 points.

The next drive resulted in a TD and lasted for 13 plays. This drive included Logan Thomas’ heads-up play to convert the 3rd down when no defender touched him when he was on the ground short of the line to gain. There were passes of 14 yards and 10 yards to McLaurin and Inman. Haskins added a 5-yard run, but one of his best plays was a run for 0 yards instead of taking a sack for a loss; that play kept the ball on the 3 yard line, and Barber scored a play later. The only thing Haskins might’ve done better on that play would be to have thrown the ball away instead of taking the hit, but no gain was the best result he could get out of the play. It was a successful play because it kept the team in a strong scoring position, even though it contributed to the low Yards per Play number.

The next drive led to a field goal and featured a 19-yard pass to Steven Sims. It was the final scoring drive for the WFT offense, but it led to a 2-score differential with 3:25 on the clock. The two runs for 1 total yard by Barber in that situation should be viewed as successful (if conservative) plays that maintained possession, burned about 50 seconds off the clock, and set the team up for what turned out to be an insurmountable lead. In other words, play script determined that safe-between-the-tackles handoffs which were unlikely to gain any real yardage were the most beneficial to the team. At that point, the clock was more important than the yardage. Yards per Play just doesn’t measure that.

So, I learned something today. While Yards per Play may not be a meaningless stat — it is a stat that seems to have no real correlation with winning or losing; rather, it is closely related to game script. Washington had the lowest yards per attempt in the league in Week 1, but the team is one of only sixteen to put a chalk mark in the “W” column.

Much more critical than the Yards per Play were the three turnovers forced by the defense and the prevention of turnovers by Dwayne Haskins and the offense. This combination of aggressive defense and conservative offense may be something we see again this year — especially if Tress Way can do his part to keep opponents pinned inside their own 20 yard line on a regular basis.

The Washington offense didn’t look good for the first 17 minutes of the football game, but once they started to have some success, they played the game they needed in order to get the win. This game was led by the defense, but it was a team win that involved smart and unselfish play across the board, and that’s a great indicator of good things to come in the future.