Football Ops

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Upon further review…

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The Extra Point

The Extra Point

Welcome to the Extra Point, where members of the NFL's football data and analytics team will share updates on league-wide trends in football data, interesting visualizations that showcase innovative ways to use the league's data, and provide an inside look at how the NFL uses data-driven insight to improve and monitor player and team performance.

Punters in 2019 Were Performing Better Than Ever

While the improvement of NFL placekickers over the last few decades has been celebrated repeatedly, another group of specialists is performing better than they ever have: punters.

Check out the following stats comparing regular season play from 2000 to 2019:

  • Nearly one-quarter of punts (23.3%) from near midfield — between the 48-yard lines — resulted in a touchback in the 2000 season. In 2019, that rate dropped to just under 10% (9.8%). 
  • There were 110 total regular season touchbacks in 2019, 55% fewer than in 2000 when there were 247. 
  • The net punting average was 5.8 yards higher in 2019 than it was in 2000 — even after accounting for differences in field position between the two seasons of play. 
  • The punter with the lowest per-punt average in 2019 — Dallas’ Chris Jones, at 41.6 yards — would have been ranked No. 17 in 2000 — or league average.

The combination of punt distances and net punting averages going up, along with touchback rates going down, means that offensive teams were more likely to be pinned back deep in their own territory in 2019. 

The following chart shows the likelihood of an offensive team starting inside its own 20-yard line after receiving a punt. The lines show different territories of the field, each corresponding to the area from where the opponent punted. 

For example, when a team punted from between its own 31 - and 40-yard lines, only about one in four punts in the early 2000s would pin the receiving team inside its own 20-yard line. In 2019, it was closer to one in two (45.1%). Similarly, when a team punted from between its own 41-yard-line and midfield in 2019, 70.1% of punts pinned the receiving team inside its own 20 — about 1.4 times the rate from 2000.

It’s not just the 20-yard line that teams are finding themselves behind. On kicks from near midfield, the likelihood of the receiving team starting from inside its own 10-yard line went up by a factor of 1.7, from 17.5% in 2000 to 31.0% in 2019.

More Girls are Playing Tackle Football

Tackle football has traditionally been a boys sport, but that’s starting to change. Spurred in part by girls-only tackle football leagues in Utah and Texas, 47 of 50 states saw an increase in the percentage of girls who play high school tackle football in 2018 compared to a decade ago.

The following heatmaps show the percentage change of high school 11-person tackle football players that were girls using participation data from NFHS.

In California, the percentage of girls playing was 4.7 times higher in 2018, jumping from 0.14% of players to 0.65% of players.  California’s 593 girls playing tackle football was the highest total among all states. Nearby New Mexico had the highest percentage, with girls making up more than 1 percent of all players in 2018. 

On the other side of the country, 204 girls played tackle football in 2018 in New Jersey, a rate that was 6.3 times higher than in 2008. Throughout the Northeast region, the rate of girls on teams grew by a factor of 5.9, with large jumps in participation in Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont. 

Across the country, 2,404 girls played tackle football in 2018.  

Tackle football isn’t the only way girls participation continues to grow. Georgia in 2019 became the fourth state to sanction girls flag football as an official high school sport — an effort that was led by the Atlanta Falcons and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation — and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just allocated $250,000 to create the first ever girls flag scholarship program.

The Biggest NFL Comebacks of the Last Decade

With only 11 postseason games left in the last season of the 2010s, let’s use our win probability model to look at which teams overcame the longest odds to win games over the last decade.

While Super Bowl LI provided the most memorable comeback of the last decade, with the New England Patriots erasing a 28-3 halftime deficit to upend the Atlanta Falcons, our model identified four other games where teams overcame longer odds to win. 

Here are the top 10 least likely comebacks of the decade. Details of each comeback are provided below.

1. Philadelphia Eagles vs. New York Giants, Week 15 2010. Comeback odds: 1 in 252.

With 8:17 remaining in the game, the Eagles trailed 31-10. A 65-yard touchdown pass, successful onside kick, and a Michael Vick touchdown run cut the deficit to seven with just over four minutes remaining. After a Giants drive stalled, the Eagles drove the length of the field to tie the game with 1:16 remaining. After another New York drive stalled, DeSean Jackson returned the ensuing punt 65 yards for the game-winning touchdown as time expired. The game became known as the “Miracle at the New Meadowlands,” and it’s our most surprising comeback of the 2010s.  

Here’s the win probability plot showing each team’s chances throughout the game. 

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Carolina Panthers, Week 11 2012. Comeback odds: 1 in 165

With 1:02 left in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers trailed 21-13 and had the ball at their own 20-yard line with no timeouts. Josh Freeman led an 80-yard touchdown drive — including a two-point conversion — to force overtime. Tampa won the game 27-21 with a touchdown on the opening drive of overtime.

3. New Orleans Saints vs. Washington Redskins, Week 11 2017. Comeback odds: 1 in 159

With 4:14 in the fourth quarter, Washington led New Orleans, 31-16. The Saints converted a big third down and eventually scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 31-23. A Redskins three-and-out was followed by another New Orleans touchdown and two-point conversion that tied the game. The Saints won in overtime, 34-31.

4. Detroit Lions vs. Dallas Cowboys, Week 4 2011. Comeback odds: 1 in 153

With 10:30 left in the third quarter, Dallas had the ball and a 27-3 lead. On the next play, Tony Romo threw a pick-six to make it 27-10. Another Romo pick, followed by a rejuvenated Lions offense scoring a touchdown, touchdown, field goal, and a touchdown on its second-half drives, led to a 34-30 Detroit win. This game is the only one on our list where the lowest odds of winning came in the third quarter.

5. New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons, Super Bowl LI 2016. Comeback odds: 1 in 142

This game is known as the 28-3 comeback, but New England’s lowest odds of winning actually came with 8:31 left in the game. The Falcons had the ball and a 28-12 lead when Dont’a Hightower forced a fumble and a sack, which led to a New England touchdown and two-point conversion. Another sack and holding penalty ended another Falcons drive. The Patriots tied the game with another touchdown and two-point conversion and scored a touchdown on the first overtime possession to win 34-28.

6. Oakland Raiders vs. Cleveland Browns, Week 4 2018. Comeback odds: 1 in 141

With 1:41 remaining, the Raiders trailed the Browns by eight when they turned the ball over on downs. Oakland forced a three-and-out and got the ball back with 1:28 left. The Raiders drove downfield for a touchdown and two-point conversion to force overtime, where they won on a 29-yard field goal.

7. Seattle Seahawks vs. Green Bay Packers, NFC Championship 2014. Comeback odds: 1 in 136

At the 4:57 mark of the fourth quarter, the Packers had the ball and a 19-7 lead. After Seattle forced a three-and-out, a Russell Wilson touchdown cut the lead to 19-14 with 2:09 left. The Seahawks recovered an onside kick and drove down the field for a touchdown and a 22-19 lead with 1:19 remaining. The Packers kicked a field goal to force overtime, but Wilson connected with Jermaine Kearse on a 35-yard game-winning touchdown pass, which sent Seattle to Super Bowl XLIX.

8. Indianapolis Colts vs. Detroit Lions, Week 13 2012. Comeback odds: 1 in 99

With 4:24 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Colts trailed the Lions by 12 points. A Detroit drive stalled at midfield and Indianapolis forced a punt. An Andrew Luck touchdown pass made it 33-28 Lions with 2:39 left. Indy’s defense held and they got the ball back at their own 25 with 1:07 left and no timeouts. Luck led a game-winning drive that culminated with a touchdown pass to Donnie Avery as time expired.

9. Kansas City Chiefs vs. San Diego Chargers, Week 1 2016. Comeback odds: 1 in 89

With 12:53 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Chiefs trailing 27-10, Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith threw an interception. A missed Chargers field goal, and three straight scoring drives from Kansas City mixed with two failed San Diego drives led to the Chiefs tying the game with a minute left. Kansas City won the game in overtime. 

10. Denver Broncos vs. Miami Dolphins, Week 7 2011. Comeback odds: 1 in 80

With 5:50 left in the fourth quarter and the Broncos trailing the Dolphins 15-0, Denver punted the ball to Miami. After forcing a three-and-out, Tim Tebow led the Broncos on an eight-play touchdown drive to cut the deficit to 15-7. Denver recovered the onside kick and Tebow orchestrated a game-winning drive, culminating with a Broncos touchdown with 17 seconds remaining. Denver won in overtime.

When are teams being more aggressive on fourth down?

More than ever, NFL offenses are staying on the field on fourth down. In the 2019 season, the rates with which teams have gone for it on both fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2 plays are higher than in any season during the last two decades. 

To answer the question of when teams are going for it — even after knowing the distance needed for a first down — we need additional information. Where on the field is the team? What is the score? How much time is left?

Using statistical modeling, we estimated the likelihood that a team would go for it on fourth down — given distance, score, yard line, and time remaining — for each of the last 15 regular seasons. Here’s a plot that compares the likelihood that a team will go for it in 2019, relative to the average from the 20052018 seasons, shown across the length of the field (left to right). The plot assumes that the game is tied at the start of the second quarter, when the increase in fourth-down aggressiveness has picked up the most. Each line corresponds to a different distance category. 

The uptick in fourth-and-1 aggressiveness has primarily happened in two scenarios — when an offense is around midfield and once an offense has fewer than 10 yards to go for a touchdown. Increases in all other go-for-it rates are primarily centered around the opponent’s 40-yard line. As an example, teams at the opposing 40-yard line when facing a fourth-and-2 are going for it 25.1% more often in 2019 relative to past seasons. 

As additional anecdotes, in 2019 here are the seven fourth-down attempts where a team would’ve gone for it less than five percent of the time. 

  • Baltimore successfully went for it on fourth-and-3 at the Kansas City 9-yard line during Week 3. The game was tied with five minutes left in the first quarter. Go for it probability: 2.9%
  • Minnesota successfully went for it on fourth-and-4 at its own 31-yard line during Week 4 against Chicago. The Vikings were trailing by 16 with two minutes left in the third quarter. Go for it probability: 3.1%
  • New England unsuccessfully went for it on fourth-and-7 at the Kansas City 27-yard line during Week 14. The Patriots were trailing by 10 with seven minutes left in the second quarter. Go for it probability: 3.1%
  • Los Angeles Chargers unsuccessfully went for it on fourth-and-goal from the Minnesota 15-yard line during Week 15. The Chargers were down 15 points at the start of the fourth quarter. Go for it probability: 3.3%
  • Chicago unsuccessfully went for it on fourth-and-9 at the Los Angeles Rams' 31-yard line during Week 11. The game was tied with nine minutes left in the first quarter. Go for it probability: 3.8%
  • Baltimore successfully went for it on fourth-and-1 at its own 29-yard line during Week 15 against the New York Jets. The Ravens were up 21 points with two minutes left in the third quarter. Go for it probability: 4.1%
  • Buffalo unsuccessfully went for it on fourth-and-10 at the Philadelphia 29-yard line during Week 8. The Bills were down 11 points with one minute left in the third quarter. Go for it probability: 4.9%

The most conservative decision according to our model? During Week 1, the Pittsburgh Steelers chose to kick a field goal on a fourth-and-goal from the New England one-yard line, when trailing by 20 points. Our model estimates that a typical team would have gone for it 95.2% of the time.

Teams Taking More Time Off Play Clock in 10-minute OTs

After receiving the ball to start overtime Week 14 against the New York Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles drove down the field and scored a touchdown. The drive was quick — Philadelphia took only eight plays to go 75 yards — however, the Eagles used almost as much of the 10-minute overtime as they could.

Philadelphia’s eight plays took nearly five minutes off the game clock, with the Eagles snapping the ball with seven, nine, five, two, three, one, and five seconds left on the play clock on their last seven plays, all of which took place with a running clock. Over the past decade, fewer than one in 35 touchdown drives of similar length and number of plays have taken so much time off the clock.

Although just one example, Philadelphia’s lack of urgency to start overtime reflects an interesting league-wide trend that seems to have appeared over the last three seasons — since the NFL switched from a 15-minute to a 10-minute overtime period, when teams get the ball to start overtime, they take more time off the play clock.

Here’s a beeswarm plot that shows the amount of time left on the play clock for every regular-season, first-possession overtime play, comparing the 15-minute overtime (2010 – 2016) to the 10-minute  session (2017 – Week 14 of 2019). Only plays with a running clock are shown.

With the shorter OT, teams are snapping the ball an average of 2.2 seconds later in the play clock. In the plot, the red dots are slightly shifted to the left relative to the blue dots. For example, 32.5% of plays started with a running clock are started with less than five seconds on the play clock, compared to 17.5% of plays played with a 15-minute overtime. 

There are multiple reasons for snapping the ball later in the play clock, but offenses seem to be recognizing that if they take more time off the clock and don’t score a touchdown, they leave  their opponent less time to tie or win the game. Interestingly, a related trend has appeared on the very first play of overtime — teams are passing less often. In games played with 15-minute overtimes, the first play of the first possession was a run 38.2% of the time (34 of 89). In games with 10-minute OTs, the first play has been a run 56.8% of the time (21 of 37). This uptick in run plays comes despite the league as whole passing more often on first down in other game situations. 

Win Probability Models for Every NFL Team in 2019

In Football Operations, one of our primary roles as a data and analytics team is to supply the league with metrics that help us better understand the game. One framework that we often use is win probability. 

Models to estimate win probability have been around football for more than a decade, with several researchers (including Brian Burke, Trey Causey, and a trio of statisticians from Carnegie Mellon) having developed versions of their own. These models help assess each team’s chance of winning at any given point in a game.

Models use familiar inputs including score, down, distance, and field position, and also more subtle variables, including which team kicked off to start the game and the number of timeouts each team has left. During the 2019 offseason, win probability models were used by the National Football League’s Competition Committee to assess which penalty types have the biggest impact on game outcomes. In addition to penalties, we can use win probability formulas to derive metrics of game competitiveness and excitement.

The following chart highlight’s each team’s win probability curve through every game of the 2019 season (shown in gray), as well as an average win probability curve (shown for each team in its primary team color).

To find the teams that have played in the most exciting games, look for the grey curves with the biggest swings. Detroit, Indianapolis, Seattle and Tampa Bay have each averaged more than seven exciting plays per game — defined as those with at least a 10% swing in win probability — and their curves reflect that many games aren’t decided until the fourth quarter, when big swings in win probability tend to happen. Alternatively, most New England, Washington and Baltimore contests have been decided by the start of the fourth quarter and each of those teams averages fewer than four exciting plays per game.

We can also split into different time segments. On a per-quarter basis, no one has been better than Baltimore in the first quarter. The Ravens have typically started the second quarter with a 68% win probability, which implies that they earned an average of +18% in win probability per-game in the first quarter alone. Kansas City has dominated the second quarter (+17% per-game), Chicago has controlled the third quarter (+14%), and Green Bay has closed out games in the fourth quarter (+15%).

Which were the most exciting games of the 2019 season?

The Week 10 (link) Arizona and Tampa Bay game and the Week 5 (link) Rams at Seahawks game are tied as the most back and forth games, with the Week 14 thriller between San Francisco and New Orleans (link) right behind. And although it wasn’t as high scoring as those previous contests across the entirety of the game, Chicago’s win in Week 2 over Denver featured a flurry of changes near the end. In the final two minutes, there were five plays — a Denver fourth down conversion, Denver touchdown, Denver two-point conversion, Chicago completion into field goal territory, and a Chicago game-winning field goal — that swung each team’s chance of  winning the game by at least 25%; no game to date has had more than three such plays.

Where’s the best spot on the field to complete passes… and not get picked off?

In analytics circles, the middle of the field is generally considered to be the best place to throw if you want your receiver to catch the football. But a quarterback’s job goes way beyond completing passes. A QB also has to read the defense, avoid pressure and sacks, prevent interceptions and pick up first downs.

Turns out, not only is the middle of the field the best place for a receiver to catch a pass, it’s also the best place for an opponent to intercept a ball, too.

The following plots look at the likelihood of a completion (left plot) and an interception (right plot) based on the pass distance (in yards) and direction (left, middle, right). Regular season games from 2010 through Week 13 of 2019 are included (bin sizes with smaller samples are dropped).

In both plots, lighter colored areas correspond to more completions or more interceptions. Both middle columns feature lighter colors when compared to the columns on the left and right. That implies that throwing down the middle yields higher rates of completions, but it also yields higher rates of interceptions.

More specifically, a pass thrown 20 yards down the middle of the field has about the same completion percentage as one thrown 10 yards towards either sideline. But those same passes thrown down the middle of the field are also about four times as likely to be picked off. Alternatively, nearly one in five passes are picked off when the ball is thrown 30 yards down the middle of the field, which is about three times the rate of interceptions on the sideline.

As more years of tracking data are observed, we’ll be able to more precisely identify the best parts of the field to complete passes (Ex: Where your favorite team likes to throw the ball), as opposed to relying on play-by-play categorizations. For now, know that when a pass is thrown to the middle of the field, it’s less likely to be incomplete.

Frank Gore Keeps on Running

Over the last two decades, the median age of running backs has dropped two full years, from 26 years, 7 months (in 2000) to 24 years, 7 months (2019).

Meanwhile, Frank Gore, at the age of 36, just keeps on running.

Check out the following chart, which highlights the age distribution of ball carriers in each season with at least 150 carries (or 100, in 2019). Player ages are shown as of September 1 in each season. While the curves have moved slowly left over time, the trend of getting younger holds for all but one player — Gore.

Initially drafted in 2005 by the San Francisco 49ers, Gore was the third youngest running back in his rookie season, when he logged 127 carries for 608 yards. He’s topped 125 carries in each season since. In contrast, of the 20 running backs that were likewise drafted in 2005 with Gore, only one — Darren Sproles — recorded a single rush after the 2014 season.

Over the last four seasons, Gore has finished as the oldest back with at least 125 carries. It’s no surprise that with Gore being so productive for so long, his place on the NFL’s all-time rushing list is secure; this past weekend, Gore passed Barry Sanders for No. 3 on the NFL’s career rushing leaderboard.

Aaron Rodgers Takes Advantage of Free Plays Better Than Anyone

Aaron Rodgers is the NFL’s career leader in passer rating, a two-time MVP and seven-time Pro Bowler. But there’s one thing he’s even better at than passing the ball — taking advantage of the “free play.”

As the quarterback is calling signals, an early jump by a defensive player is a five-yard defensive offside penalty. If the center snaps the ball before that defensive player is a threat, the offense can still run a play. This instance is called a "free play" because even under the worst-case scenario — say, an interception — an offense can still go back and take the initial five-yard penalty.

Since 2006, Rodgers leads all quarterbacks with 84 passes thrown on free plays. And no one has attempted more deep free shots than Rodgers, either. Check out the plot below, which highlights the air yards each quarterback has thrown for after drawing an offside penalty from the defense.

Each of the 170 quarterbacks with at least one free play in his career is shown in the plot with the grey lines, with six standout quarterbacks highlighted. 

Rodgers stands alone. Beginning in 2010, he has thrown for approximately 225 air yards a season on offside calls alone. More precisely, roughly once every other game Rodgers earned a free shot downfield, averaging 25 air yards on these throws. No quarterback is within 900 yards of Rodgers in total on this stat since 2006.

Rodgers owns the top three individual seasons in air yards on free plays, peaking in 2015, when he attempted 16 passes for a total of 407 yards downfield (25.4 air yards per free play). Of those 16, seven were complete, including two touchdown passes to James Jones.

“Free play — Rodgers has made a living on this,” said ESPN’s then-Monday Night Football announcer Mike Tirico when calling one of Jones’ touchdown grabs in 2015 (video below). “Draw the offside, know it’s a free play, take the shot downfield.”

While Rodgers has owned air yards on free plays over the last decade, one young quarterback has started on a blazing path — Kansas City Chiefs signal caller Patrick Mahomes. In 2018, Mahomes tossed 15 passes after getting a free play, completing nine, and throwing the ball a total of 234 yards downfield. 

Which quarterbacks have been the least aggressive off of an offside call? 

Current Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has thrown just 13 career passes off a free play, which traveled a total distance of 87 yards downfield (6.7 air yards per free play). Deshaun Watson (six passes, 56 air yards, or 9.3 air yards per free play), Kurt Warner (12 passes, 48 air yards, 4.0 air yards per free play) and even Peyton Manning (17 passes, 121 air yards, 7.1 air yards per free play) stand out as the opposites of Rodgers.

How Do NFL Coaches Use Their Challenges?

After an unsuccessful challenge of an incomplete pass on Thursday Night Football against the Los Angeles Chargers, Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden fell to 0-for-7 on challenges in the 2019 regular season. But Gruden is not the only one with limited success — through Week 10, 13 of the league’s 32 head coaches have yet to win a coaches’ challenge this season.

With that in mind, here’s a chart showing how frequently coaches throw a challenge flag (x-axis) versus how successful they are on those challenges (y-axis). The data shows all games for each coach dating to 2004, the first year in which the league allowed up to three successful challenges per team.

Click to enlarge graphic.

Click to enlarge graphic.

In the top right of the graph, Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur has been the most frequent/successful challenger (winning four of seven challenges), though that has come with only ten games worth of data. More robustly, John Harbaugh, Sean Payton, Bruce Arians, Pete Carroll and Doug Marrone stand out as coaches with multiple seasons under their belts who frequently, but relatively accurately, use coaches’ challenges.

Alternatively, among coaches with at least half a challenge per game, only Freddie Kitchens of the Cleveland Browns has yielded a lower success rate than Gruden. And in the top left, Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys boasts a low challenge frequency (0.29 per game), but when he has challenged, he has successfully overturned the decision on the field more than 50 percent of the time (23-for-45).

Among non-active coaches, and using games after 2004, count former Seattle coach Mike Holmgren as one of the most passive challengers (0.28 per game), with Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos (0.52 per game) on the more aggressive side. Meanwhile, Jim Caldwell (Indianapolis Colts) won 63 percent of his challenges, compared to 27 percent for Norv Turner.

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