Defining 'Garbage Time'
We’re aware of it. We know it’s there. It’s cost us wins. It’s brought us devastating losses.
But, at least on a quantitative level, can we really define it?
I took to Twitter to find out.
@jeff1317 defines ‘garbage time’ as “the time in which a game is out of hand and an offense is forced to change their strategy to comply with the current conditions”.
@AnalogErik appears to be on the same page. “Garbage Time is when one team is blowing out the other with nominal time left in the game and little chance for a comeback.”
Two followers took on the challenge of quantifying the garbage time phenomenon.
@PinchyBoy10 defines it as “down three touchdowns in the fourth quarter.” @mcsingh85 is in a similar boat. “Under five minutes [to go], more than a two score game (17-plus point lead).”
Notice that, through four responses, each follower pointed to the later stages of the game. Could there be factors other than the fear of an impending loss that enter into the equation? @AlfredJohn says no.
“I’d think there is no real garbage time in the [first half]. It’s the NFL. No one’s throwing in the towel even down 21 in the first half.”
Of course they aren’t, but isn’t the play-calling influenced by the scoreboard? That’s what garbage time is all about.
My favorite comment comes towards the end of a reply from @omnicomin.
“Any time in the game where it’s unlikely that a team comes back to win. Obviously, both teams are in garbage time.”
If you ask me, ‘garbage time’ is the portion of an NFL game where play-calling on both sides of the ball is disrupted by game situation. @omnicomin points out something many fail to realize: both teams can be in garbage time simultaneously.
If the Raiders are down 21 in the fourth quarter, they’re very likely to go forward with a pass-heavy attack. This will allow quite a few garbage time fantasy points through the air. Meanwhile, their opponent (we’ll say Houston), is also going to be impacted by this game situation. We’d expect to see more carries for Arian Foster and fewer throws for Matt Schaub.
And what about first-half blowouts? How about play-calling after the two minute warning?
Garbage time is “tough to define,” says @jromeo288. Today, I’ll be examining a variety of game situations to see which force teams to shy away from their usual play-calling. This will give us a much better definition of what garbage time really is.
In order to split up play-calling between “garbage time” and “regular time”, we must first determine which game situations fit each category.
To do this, I examined every single offensive snap from the 2012 season through 12 weeks. I followed by pulling play-calling splits based on two categories: (1) time remaining in the game and (2) the scoreboard. Here are the results:
|Trailing by…||Ahead by…|
It may take a minute to register all the data shown here, but let me explain. The percentages you’re seeing are the NFL-wide pass rates (percentage of play calls that are ‘pass’) in several different scenarios. For example, teams down by between four and six points in the fourth quarter call pass 72 percent of the time. That’s nearly double the league-wide 38 percent rate for teams ahead by four-to-six points in the fourth quarter.
There is a ton to be learned from this chart and there’s certainly enough here for us to come up with a decent ‘garbage time’ definition. Listed below are the six game situations that, according to our chart, fit the bill.
1. Final two minutes of the first half – Notice that the pass-heaviest quarter is the second. That may seem odd, but it makes sense when you take into account the mad rush for points after the two minute warning. Keeping in mind that the overall NFL average for pass rate is 60 percent, consider that teams call pass a whopping 78 percent of the time during the final two minutes of the first half. The Colts are the biggest culprit here. Despite having a rookie quarterback under center, they’ve called 65 passes and only six runs this season. That 92 percent mark is an NFL-high. At 28 percent (18 drop backs, seven runs), the Dolphins are in the basement.
2. Trailing in the fourth quarter – Take a look at our first chart. Notice how high the fourth quarter pass rates are when teams are trailing. And it’s not just in blowouts either. Teams down by one-to-three points throw 69 percent of the time. Down 14-to-20 points, teams throw a whopping 85 percent of the time.
3. Ahead in the fourth quarter – Picking up where we just left off, teams ahead on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter have pass rates significantly below league average. Teams up by one-to-three percent pass only half the time. That’s actually a high pass rate when you consider play-calling with larger leads. Up four-to-six points, the pass rate falls to 38 percent. Teams ahead by 14 points pass only one-quarter of the time in the fourth quarter. It’s clear that fourth quarter play-calling is not a good indicator of a team’s offensive philosophy. We do leave play-calling in tie games in the mix since, as shown, the rate is fairly consistent with what we’d normally expect. Otherwise, though, fourth-quarter play-calling is pretty useless when trying to determine a team’s offensive philosophy.
4. Down by 21 or more points at any time – Check out the second column in our chart. Teams rarely trail by 21 points in the first quarter, but we do have some data to work with the rest of the way. Notice that, even in the second quarter, teams throw 72 percent of the time when getting blown out. They essentially scrap the gameplan and move to a pass-first attack. That means we move these snaps to the garbage time pile.
5. Down by 14 or more points after the first quarter – Teams who fall behind by 14 points in the first quarter likely don’t manage that feat until late in the quarter. That being the case, play-calling remains aligned fairly well with league average. We can leave that data be. However, notice that pass rates rise rapidly from the second quarter on when the team trails by 14-plus. The 64-percent mark in the third quarter isn’t overly massive, but is still five percentage points over league average in the quarter.
6. Up by 21 or more points in the second half – You may notice that, in some scenarios, play-calling when ahead does not mirror play-calling when behind. We see that here, as we do not need to remove plays where a team is up 14-plus in the second or third quarter, or plays where a team is up 21-plus in the first half. Instead, we only need to dump plays where a team leads by 21 or more in the second half. Notice that teams up by four-to-20 points still throw exactly 56 percent of the time. That’s barely below the 59 percent league average in the third quarter. The dip to 53 percent in 21-plus point games is enough to qualify those plays as garbage time.
In conclusion, plays that take place during the following game situations have been deemed ‘garbage time’: (1) Final two minutes of the second half, (2) while trailing in the fourth quarter, (3) while ahead in the second quarter, (4) down by 21 or more points at any time, (5) down by 14 or more points after the first quarter, and (6) up by 21 or more points in the second half.
Without further ado, here is the play-calling data from the first 12 weeks of the season:
Our first chart shows pass rates on all plays this season. The second shows them under ‘normal’ game circumstances. The third is pass rates during our definition of garbage time. To make it easy to read, teams are sorted by their pass rates under normal game circumstances. This is our best indicator of a team’s offensive philosophy.
What should quickly jump off the page is the Falcons’ pass-heavy gameplan under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Atlanta calls a pass an NFL-high 66 percent of the time in normal game circumstances. They’re a good two percentage points ahead of the Packers and Lions (64 percent). At 46 percent, the Chiefs rank as the run-heaviest team. They’re just ahead of the Redskins (49 percent) and Jets/Seahawks (51 percent).
As shown earlier (not that’s a big revelation or anything), teams tend to throw the ball more when playing from behind and vice versa. With that as the biggest factor (not to mention our other ‘garbage time’ qualifications), winning teams high on the pass rate list (like Atlanta and Green Bay), won’t be quite as high on the unadjusted play-calling list. This is because they’re ahead often and run in garbage time. Meanwhile, a struggling squad like Detroit is forced to throw the ball during garbage time, which explains why they rank as the unadjusted pass-heaviest team in the league. The same concept can be applied to teams that are run heavy under normal circumstances. The Chiefs are the league’s 11th pass-heaviest team in garbage time, which is why, despite the run-heaviest philosophy in the league, they’re only the league’s eighth pass-heaviest team.
Pick a team in the above chart and scan across its rankings in each of the three categories. You’re sure to learn a ton about the team’s offensive philosophy. Need a desperation No. 3 receiver? Target one from a team that is guaranteed to throw the ball early and often (eg. Atlanta). Avoid those on teams that will do their best to run the ball (eg. Kansas City). Although garbage time is and will continue to be a key factor in fantasy football, adjusted pass/run ratios will help you make the best possible decisions when it comes to making lineup, trade, and waiver decisions.
A few more charts
Now that the real complicated stuff is out of the way, I wanted to share a few more interesting charts. These are fairly self-explanatory so I won’t go into much detail. These are more to be used as reference tools, but you will be able to successfully correlate many of these numbers to our earlier charts.
What you see here is each team’s pass rate splits based on the score. For example, the Browns call a pass 48 percent of the time when ahead on the scoreboard. That is the league’s 25th-highest mark.
To put this bad boy to rest, I’ll leave you with this:
|Rk||Tm||% Ahead||Rk||Tm||% Ahead|
What you see here is the percentage of offensive snaps each team has taken while enjoying a lead this season. In a not-so-shocking development, you’ll notice that the ratings correlate well with the overall NFL standings.
Follow Mike Clay on Twitter: @MikeClayNFL