TAMPA — Look at Kansas City and San Francisco, and tell me what you see.
Is it an offense capable of lightning-quick touchdown drives? A disruptive group of pass rushers? Efficient game plans on both sides of the ball?
If you’re looking deep enough, here’s what you should see: A little hope.
Turns out, the Buccaneers have something in common with both Super Bowl teams that should not be written off as a fluke or an oddity. It is a performance measure that analysts at FiveThirtyEight.com have called football’s most important statistic.
The 49ers were the NFL’s best using that measure. The Chiefs were No. 2. Tampa Bay? The Bucs were eighth in the league, right behind playoff teams such as Minnesota, New England, New Orleans and Baltimore.
So, what is the stat?
Well, first, a little history.
Long before Bill James and sabermetrics revolutionized the way front offices and fans looked at baseball, there was a television executive named Bud Goode who brought the same analytical sensibilities to the NFL.
Goode (pronounced good-y) began crunching numbers as a hobby in 1959 and his research and conclusions eventually led to NFL teams hiring him as a consultant. Sports Illustrated wrote about him before Super Bowl 8 in 1974, saying his uncanny ability to pick winners suggested “supernatural assistance."
As it turned out, there was nothing supernatural about it. Goode, who died in 2010, had come up with a statistic that had a strong correlation between winning and losing. The stat is a team’s net passing yards per play.
There are some different variations, but the basic gist is this:
Take passing yards, subtract yards lost to sacks and divide by the total number of quarterback dropbacks. Do this on both offense and defense, and you come up with a team’s net average on passing plays.
The point is to identify efficiency. One team may throw for 350 yards in a game, but the number doesn’t look so impressive if it took 44 passes and included four sacks for a loss of 20 yards. That works out to 6.87 yards per dropback. Meanwhile, a team that passes for 280 yards on 27 attempts with no sacks has an average of 10.37 yards per pass play.
The same principles apply on defense. Teams that get a lot of sacks and don’t give up passing yards in big chunks are typically going to have the greatest success.
In the 2019 regular season, that was the 49ers and Chiefs. The difference between how many yards San Francisco gained on pass plays (7.37) and how much the defense surrendered on pass plays (4.77) was a whopping 2.6 yards. For Kansas City, it was 1.83. Multiply those differences over the course of 60-70 passing plays in a game and it adds up quickly.
Tampa Bay gave up a ton of passing yards (4,647) but that was negated somewhat by the defense registering 47 sacks and forcing opponents to throw a league-high 664 passes. In that sense, the Bucs’ pass defense was closer to average in efficiency at 6.07 yards per play.
On the other hand, Tampa Bay’s passing game was fourth in terms of efficiency with 7.15 per play.
So if the Bucs finished in the top 10 in net pass play efficiency with all of these playoff teams, how did they finish with a losing record?
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but interceptions negated much of Tampa Bay’s impressive yardage numbers. Opponents scored far more points than they should have because they got so many touchdowns on pick-sixes and short fields.
That may cause your blood pressure to go up again, but there is a silver lining.
Tampa Bay played well enough on both sides of the ball to be one of the top 10 teams in the NFL. Or, to put it another way, eliminate the interceptions and the Bucs should be in the playoffs next season.
Now, do you eliminate the interceptions by getting rid of Jameis Winston? That’s one possibility. But the downside is Winston also played a huge role in the offense’s net yardage per pass play.
So the trick is cutting down on interceptions without slowing down the offense.
If so, the Bucs could look a lot more like the 49ers and Chiefs.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.