3rd Down Conversion Percentage: Does it matter?

Jason O. Watson

3rd Down Success Rate is a tool the NFL media love to use, but how telling really is it?

I just wanted to state something before we jump in. Let's first start by clearing up the fact that converting on 3rd down is obviously important. Doing so sustains drives, and helps a team put up points, and yes Jeff Fisher fans...control the clock. The Titans did very well in this category last season, but I would challenge you to find a Titans fan around that would describe the 2013 offense as impressive.

Is 3rd Down Conversion Rate Indicative of Success?

Analytics professionals often refer to 3rd down conversion rate as a "noisy" stat, because it is but a small sample of a bigger picture. When all is said and done, when only a few situations, think 10 at most, can swing a statistic so drastically (from 30th to 15th for instance), it's a sign that the stat may not be truly indicative of anything. But let's dig deeper.

The stat itself is metrically tied most closely to three stats:

Offensive Passing Efficiency

Sack Rate

Interception Rate

In fact, these three values can help us predict future 3rd down conversion % better than simply looking at that same stat from earlier in the same season, sort of like a crystal ball effect. There is something to this. It is much more impressive to look at where an NFL team is headed in their on-field performance, than base your opinions baseed on a collection of numbers generated from past games. We all know how much a team can change over the course of a year, or even game to game at times, after all. You see it every season, team's getting "hot" at the right time, and so forth.

Now I'm not a master mathematician, and these analytics get pretty deep into coefficient's and complex formulas to generate the numbers needed. But most importantly, they check out, and they do provide a powerful tool for predicting 3rd down performance in future games, which is the most important thing, right?

In the end, 3rd down conversion can just as easily inform us of the random luck and circumstance a team has experienced, as it can illustrate effective offensive play. However, the stat is also linked metrically to points scored, and less so, to team wins, so there is definitely something to it. My bet is that this relation is more of a correlation/causation effect; The best NFL offenses do well on 3rd down =/= teams that do well on 3rd down are the best NFL offenses.

So 3rd down conversion percentage doesn't really fit in as a primary tool for evaluating offenses despite how it is thrown around by the media along with all the other major stats. It is but part of a greater number of metrics wherein many factors overlap. Consider also that "3rd down" is not a standard value. You have teams (usually ones with more efficient offenses, but that's another story) needing, on average, 6 yards to go, and you have some whose average in closer to 9, so it is hard to draw encompassing conclusions on a variable value.

How does this relate to the Titans?

The Tennessee Titans ended the 2013 season ranked 8th in the NFL in fact, with a 3rd down conversion rate of 41.41%, trailing Denver, who's way at the top at No.1, by 4%. Others in the top range? San Diego, New Orleans, and Detroit. Makes sense, right? Those teams had great offenses this past season.

Hold on though. The top ranking of 3rd down conversion % also include also Atlanta,  Carolina, and yes, Tennessee. Where did those teams rank in overall offense? 14th, 26th, and 22nd, respectively, far from the NFL's elite. Philadelphia, who boasted the 2nd most prolific offense of the 2013 season, was way down at 14th in 3rd down conversion %.

So you can see that while 3rd down completion percentage can be indicative of a larger picture of offensive success, it is definitely not a cornerstone statistic to be used when discussing and determining the best offenses in the NFL.

The Titans have the weapons to be an effective team on offense, and players like Kendall Wright, who was one of the league leaders on 3rd down, to keep drives alive. Delanie Walker isanother player who will continue to be a dangerous weapon in the Titans expanding arsenal, especially on 3rd downs. Tennessee may have plenty of needs to fill in the upcoming draft and free agency, but they at least have some building blocks to work with. Hopefully that is enough to springboard the franchise to success in year one of Whisenhunt's regime.

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