Who is Winning The Win Zone?
The first third of the 2019 CFL season has come and gone with no shortage of headlines, big plays and questions as we head into the next third of the CFL season beginning tonight with a CFL on TSN Thursday night double header.
The idea of progressing from one third of the season to the next had me thinking about how teams have progressed out of their own first third of the field so far in 2019 from the ‘win zone’.
To me - everybody labels these things differently - the Win Zone is the area inside your own 30-yard line while the ‘Field Zone’ is between the 30-yard lines and the score zone is inside the opponents 30-yard line.
I was always taught that the Win Zone was labelled as such because a ‘win’ was being able to get two first downs in order to prevent giving up a safety - hello Rick Campbell - or punt from poor field position.
It’s one of the little things hammered home by coaches across high schools, USPORTS and the CFL that often doesn’t register with fans, but it really does help win football games in combination with endless other factors.
We all understand the value of good starting field position but perhaps more important is the ability to work your way out of the goal posts shadow in order to change field position or - in a best case scenario - drive the length of the field for a score!
We begin by taking a look at the percentage of snaps taken by each CFL team inside their own 30-yard line.
This is not a category any team in the CFL wants to lead the league in but the BC Lions have earned that crown. This is in large part caused by the fact BC currently sits dead last in net punting average (31.5) and punt return average (6.2) meaning in a game where offences struggle to move the ball the Lions are losing field position on every exchange of possession.
Playing backed up in your own end is exhausting for an offence and quarterback. It always feels like you’re a Banjo Bowl road trip away from the end zone and BC’s offensive struggles so far including allowing SEVEN sacks when playing within their Win Zone hasn’t helped anything.
When teams are backed up in their own end who is the best at working their way out?
To judge this I use a ‘Production Grade’ which works as follows. Each play’s yards gained are graded on a scale of 0-5 and multiplied by twenty to get a grade out of 100.
0 - Interception or fumble.
1 - Offence has to leave the field (turnover on downs, punt or field goal).
2 - Gain of three or less on 1st down OR gain on 2nd down that doesn’t allow for a short yardage team attempt on 3rd & short).
3 - Gain of three or more on 1st down or a gain on 2nd down allowing a short yardage team attempt on 3rd & short).
4 - First down gained.
5 - Touchdown or made two point conversion.
Unsurprisingly if you’ve been following along with the CFL this season, arguably the two most efficient offences (Winnipeg and Edmonton) own the top spots in being able to work their way out of trouble in their own end.
After looking at the big picture of an offences ability to leave the Win Zone I wondered which teams were doing it through the air or on the ground. A question that gave me a revealing answer about Saskatchewan posting the worst Win Zone Production Grade overall (50.0).
As seen above the Riders have the fewest percentage of snaps taken in the Win Zone in 2019 but they also have the worst ability to get out of the Win Zone.
The Riders Win Zone passing attack has been well below average so far this season. Saskatchewan’s Win Zone Run Production Grade is 4th in the CFL (58.2) while their Win Zone Pass Production Grade is a CFL worst 43.6.
That means the Riders are 14.6 production grade points better when running the ball inside their own 30-yard line. A staggering number when you consider the CFL average of runs being just 5.4 production grade points better.
Even more surprising is that Winnipeg and Toronto are actually more effective passing than running deep in their own end.
So how often are teams aggressively trying to pass out of their Win Zone?
There are many factors that go into this statistic including time, score and desperation level which explains why BC and Toronto are high up but Hamilton leading the CFL in Win Zone pass play calls did surprise me while Montreal being the most run happy team in the league deep in their own end should surprise nobody due to the continuing emergence of William Stanback as one of the CFL’s best ‘grind it out’ style runners.
The chart below looks at the accuracy of CFL quarterbacks measured against their downfield aggression.
Hamilton’s Jeremiah Masoli is one of just two passers above league average in both Win Zone air yards and accuracy which might explain why Offensive Coordinator Tommy Condell hasn’t been afraid to have him let it fly while Calgary’s Nick Arbuckle continues to appear in the elite end of many metrics in replacement of Bo Levi Mitchell.
The interesting note here is Ottawa’s quarterbacks. In training camp we were told Jonathon Jennings and Dominique Davis were “1A and 1B”. Apparently a little letter makes a big difference in Win Zone play calling and approach as Davis is far and beyond the most aggressive downfield passer from his own end while having accuracy issues and Jennings is a complete polar opposite averaging just 2.8 yards in air per attempt from his own Win Zone.
Targeted Touch Percentage is simply the percentage of a teams attempts - run or pass - intended for a single player. Let’s take a look at which skill position players are getting the most love from their team when backed up inside their 30-yard line.
While it comes in a small sample, Andrew Harris of the Blue Bombers is one of only a few players in blue and gold defences should be keying on when Matt Nichols needs to get some breathing room from his own goal line.
As mentioned earlier, Alouettes running back William Stanback has been a work horse for Montreal everywhere but especially deep in his own end while Bombers Nic Demski is the most targeted receiver in the CFL on Win Zone snaps.
Being targeted is great, but who actually helps get their team out of trouble the best amongst CFL running backs and receivers with at least 10% of their teams Win Zone targeted touches?
The Lions top man has certainly had plenty of chances to produce as BC has taken the highest percentage of their snaps backed up inside their own 30-yard line but he has consistently produced while the Lions struggle to do the same as a team.
Also interesting to note that Nic Demski is the only player in the CFL who made the top five in Win Zone targets AND production as his stellar 2019 continues.
The Win Zone is an essential part of the Canadian game and will continue to help determine who wins and loses as we enter the second third of 2019. Perhaps the Win Zone will play an important role in Toronto’s attempt to get their first win of the season tonight against Winnipeg before Hamilton’s pass happy Win Zone offence takes on Saskatchewan’s run heavy attack.
Marshall Ferguson is a former USPORTS Quarterback, now serving as TSN 1150 Hamilton morning show host, voice of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and CFL.ca analyst