On Football Rankings and Measuring Efficiency—Brian Fremeau, FEI

video board in Notre Dame Stadium at night displaying
Photo credit: Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Episode Notes

Brian Fremeau is the creator of the eponymously named Fremeau Efficiency Index, or FEI, a college football rating system based on opponent-adjusted possession efficiency. (Don’t worry—we start out by unpacking what that means.) Since diving into the world of football analytics back in the early 2000s, Brian has contributed work to Football Outsiders, Blue & Gold Illustrated, The Athletic, espn.com, and ESPN The Magazine.

In this episode, our season two finale, Brian breaks down things like how we can more precisely measure a college football team’s strength of schedule, the nature of the red zone, and what, technically, constitutes garbage time. He and host Ted Fox also happen to be old friends, and if you like sports, math and statistics, and/or simply hearing someone thoughtfully dig into widely held assumptions, we think you’ll enjoy listening to Brian just as much as Ted always has.


Episode Transcript

*Note: We do our best to make these transcripts as accurate as we can. That said, if you want to quote from one of our episodes, particularly the words of our guests, please listen to the audio whenever possible. Thanks.

Ted Fox  0:00  
(voiceover) From the University of Notre Dame, this is With a Side of Knowledge. I'm your host, Ted Fox. The idea behind this show is pretty simple. A university campus is a destination for all kinds of interesting people representing all kinds of research specialties and fields of expertise. So why not invite some of these folks out to brunch? Yes, I said brunch, where we'll have an informal conversation about their work, and then I'll turn those brunches into a podcast. It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it. With a Side of Knowledge is supported by Sorin's restaurant inside Notre Dame's Morris Inn, which serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. If you see us recording, feel free to stop by and say hi. Preferably not when we're chewing. Also, this is the last episode of season two, but we're not going away during the break. If you follow @withasideofpod on Twitter, you'll see we just launched a new feature called We Heart Podcasts where Notre Dame faculty members and others offer quick recommendations of shows they love. You can play them right from Twitter with nothing to download. Our first guest there is economist Chloe Gibbs, and we hope you'll check it out. As for Season Three of this podcast, look for us to be back in late July or early August. And now on with the show. 

Brian Fremeau is the creator of the eponymously named Fremeau Efficiency Index, or FEI, a college football rating system based on opponent adjusted possession efficiency. Don't worry, we start off by unpacking what that means. Since diving into the world of football analytics back in the early 2000s--we cover that origin story as well--he has contributed work to Football Outsiders, Blue and Gold Illustrated, The Athletic, espn.com, and ESPN The Magazine. Brian and I have known each other almost as long, and I have always enjoyed talking with him about things like how we can more precisely measure a college football team's strength of schedule, and what technically constitutes garbage time. If you like sports, math and statistics, and/or simply listening to someone thoughtfully dig into widespread assumptions, I think you'll enjoy listening to him, too. (end voiceover)

Brian Fremeau, welcome to With a Side Knowledge.

Brian Fremeau  2:35  
Thank you very much. I'm so excited for this. This is great.

Ted Fox  2:38  
Brian and I have known each other for a long time. And as I like to joke going into this, we probably had some version of this conversation about 50 times in your kitchen. (both laugh) 

Brian Fremeau  2:47  
(laughing) We have rehearsed and rehearsed. I hope we nail it today.

Ted Fox  2:52  
So I wanted to start maybe with kind of a primer on the Fremeau Efficiency Index, which is a college football rating system based on opponent adjusted possession efficiency. So before we talk about what that means and is trying to get at, I'm wondering if we could talk about a few of the component statistics you calculate to arrive at a team's overall ranking. One of those is adjusted possession advantage. What is adjusted possession advantage?

Brian Fremeau  3:24  
This is the perfect medium to try to explain something that is formulaic. Right? (both laugh) I need a spreadsheet in front of me and some visual cues to probably do this justice. But the idea of pretty much all of the work I do with college football stats is to glean more information than the basic box score offers and to then process it in a way that helps make a little bit more sense about what just happened. So as far as adjusted possession advantage is concerned, the offense's goal when they have the ball is to score--primarily to score via put in the endzone, get a touchdown. The defense's goal is to stop them from scoring. That's the essential game that's being played in American football. And at the end of the day, we just add up the points that have been scored by each team and one team is on top. But what's happening in terms of the sequences of how teams score--the offense takes possession, works with the ball, either scores or doesn't, the other offense takes the field after, there's a push and pull of possessions, and the field position that is traded on and off plays into how valuable those contributions by the offense are. It's much more difficult to score on offense when you're pinned at your own one yard line and have to drive the length of the field than it is when you recover a turnover in opponent territory and only have to move a few yards to put points on the board. 

So that adjustment starts with that field position component, how much work and how much effort and how challenging was it to produce on a given possession. The other adjustment that's made is how strong was the opponent that you face. A team that is exceptional on offense playing a team that is poor on defense is going to have a much easier time scoring than one that is more evenly matched. And so when you can take some basic evaluations of how good an offense and how good a defense is and sort of process the result, taking that into account, you get a better sense of how strong a given team truly is. If you play a lot of poor opponents, your results might look great, but have we really revealed how good you are? So that's really how I arrive at that, those two key adjustments are based on that field position and the strength of the opponent.

Ted Fox  5:38  
And so when you're talking about a possession advantage, it's if the net possession advantage was 2.91, that means on an average possession, when you put that offense against the defenses they're playing, that possession is worth 2.91 points.

Brian Fremeau  5:52  
Yeah, we're gonna spend the whole time talking about this probably right? (Brian laughs) No the idea is, is exactly what you're getting at, right? A touchdown is worth six points, typically close to an average close to seven points, because the extra point afterward is automatic, or nearly automatic. So let's use seven points as an example. Offense scores a touchdown, seven points are recorded; how much of that seven points belongs to the offense's contribution? You know, if they started at midfield, maybe only four points of that, of that seven really was the contribution by the offense; the other three were either gifted to them by a result of the previous possession that put them in great field goal range or field position range and/or some combination of what the defense is doing that allowed for that extra value to be recorded. So you're right: The end result is a more precise number, not Team A is seven points better than Team B, but Team A might only be 2.9 points better than Team B, because we're taking into account and better evaluating the true values that the teams are bringing to the table, the actual performance that's happening on the field. And that, I mean, that is what I'm most curious about. When I watch games, I have a very analytical bent as a fan. I haven't always had that. But I certainly developed it as I matured. And I'm very curious to dig in on that kind of level of detail because it helps me understand what actually happened. Team A beat Team B is too broad a brush to paint for a game that's much more complex. And so I'm far more interested in trying to identify those kinds of nuances and that level of detail.

Ted Fox  7:39  
One of the other components you talk about is strength of schedule. And we were kind of, we're talking about relative strengths there in terms of an individual offense or an individual defense. But I think what you're doing with strength of schedule is interesting because it's not what we typically see thrown out there in terms of a measurement of strength of schedule. How do you compute your number that you call strength of schedule? 

Brian Fremeau  8:03  
Yeah, one of the things that I certainly will admit is that there isn't a single definition of it. I mean, I trust my own definition of it, for sure. But I value the fact that there are many others who do some of the kind of work I do, and many others who don't dig into the detail and simply lean on the average ranking number of a given opponent as somehow being meaningful. What I dig in on is, how difficult is it to go undefeated? Or how difficult is it to play a given set of opponents and come away either unscathed, or with only one loss, let's say? That is a more refined definition than simply adding up the relative strength, the strength of your opponents and averaging them because especially for the top teams, you're not playing an average of your opponents every week, you're playing the individual opponents. So you might play the number two team in the country and the number 130 team in the country and the average strength of schedule might say that's equivalent to playing two teams ranked 65. That simply isn't true. You aren't playing two teams ranked 65. You have a roughly, if you're the number one team in the country, you might have a roughly 50% chance maybe of winning that game against the top two matchup, and you have 100% chance of winning the other game. And that adds up more to a 75% likelihood of winning the two games. If you played two teams ranked 65 and you're the number one team in the country, you're gonna win them both going away, you're gonna be resting your starters, you're gonna be that much stronger than that opponent. 

So it's really an acknowledgement that measuring strength of schedule, and certainly debating strength of schedule, has as much to do with how strong your own team is as it is how strong your opponents are. A team could face the same set of opponents as another team, and if they're a strong team, they may be able to handle that set of opponents more easily, and if they are an average team, they might have not an average record but a very poor record because of the relative strength. So I definitely dig in on that as a way to, again more properly examine the merits of teams. And this really plays into the inevitable conversations around who's most deserving of going to the playoffs and which teams are better prepared for those top matchups at the end of the year. Strength of schedule becomes part of that conversation.

Ted Fox  10:19  
Mm hmm. Kind of then going back to talking about opponent adjusted possession efficiency, what motivated you or why is it that--because I know you started working on this back around 2002--what motivated you to want to look at that metric specifically, at individual possessions? Because that is, again, that's something that I don't know if you're the only person that does that, but that's not how we--you're right, that we typically think about games as, Oh, there's a final score, it was 49 to 35, and that tells me what I need to know about the competitiveness of the game. But you're further breaking that game down to a micro level of actually looking at possession by possession, and I'm wondering, why was that a metric or the metric that you felt was most worthy of the kind of the deep dive exploration that you do with it?

Brian Fremeau  11:11  
Yeah, I could, I could tell the story of pain that started this as a Notre Dame fan. I've watched a lot of Notre Dame games over the years and one in particular in 2002 I recognize in retrospect as sort of what spawned to this, this level of inquiry. To briefly summarize: Notre Dame played Boston College. Notre Dame was, in 2002, Notre Dame was an undefeated team playing what was presumed to be an inferior opponent and certainly was inferior, maybe not dramatically inferior, but an inferior opponent in Boston College. Notre Dame actually dominated most of the traditional stats in the game. Boston College, frankly, didn't move the ball across midfield at any point with their offense during the game, and won. And I was in the stands that day, and it was the day that I ...

Ted Fox  12:02  
As was I, I was at the same game. (both laugh)

Brian Fremeau  12:03  
We both get to share in that. We weren't with one another probably opposite ends of the stadium (both laugh). But the the idea that that result could happen had a profound impact on me because it--it really challenged me to scrutinize what I thought I knew about this game that I've been watching for all of my life. This was a result that seemed impossible. And I certainly could point to the very obvious statistical factors there were: Notre Dame turned the ball over seven times. But there were other aspects of that game that just, I wanted to know more about, I wanted to actually dig in a little bit on what is the value of a turnover? Simply fumbling the ball over is giving up possession: Your offense had the ball, your offense no longer has the ball. But, fumbling at different portions of the field carries different meaning. Is it more valuable or less valuable to fumble in enemy territory? There's a couple of different ways that could be approached. And that game really, really caused me to think about those kinds of questions and realize, once I began to think about them, that the tools weren't out there to answer those questions. The box score that most are familiar with, outlining the results of the game, gives some basic yardage stats and first down success and certainly the turnover numbers, but doesn't tell a clear enough narrative about the elements of the game that really contributed to a result. 

So I started collecting that data on my own and kind of rolled up my sleeves and did it by hand at first. I mean, certainly I was referencing widely available information, play-by-play summaries and that sort of thing. But I was putting that all into a notebook as I was processing an approach to digging in on these numbers and probably spent more time than I should have with that notebook (both laugh). And not really thinking of the ways that I could be more efficient myself in turning this into, you know, using the computer as a processing tool. But over the next few years, I started to develop this mostly for my own interest in my own inquiry, and I was also noticing that I was watching the games themselves a little differently over that time. Instead of groaning at the result of an interception, which I certainly still did, standing in the stands, I was interested in the resulting field position because I knew the value that that might have carried, or I was paying closer attention to the numbers of possessions. You asked about why possessions and to be honest, it isn't as granular as you can get in football; certainly the play, the individual line of scrimmage play on first and 10 or, you know, third and two is a bit more granular than the possession itself that would include those two plays, but I found early on that possessions were something I could easily latch on to and easily collect. I mean, because I was doing initially by hand, play-level detail was going to be too overwhelming; possessions were manageable. 

I also found that over time, and I still do to this day, that--and this is very different than some of the other sports--the most granular you can get in football provides much more noise in the information than maybe some other sports. In baseball, you want to drill into the details of an at bat, it's an individual unique event, there are very few players involved in a given at bat, and you can parse that level of detail because the batter is trying to do something very specific, and the pitcher is trying to do something very specific. In football on a given play, there are 22 people on the field. Not only do you not know precisely what all of their jobs are supposed to be based on the play call on offense or the play call on defense, you have no real way of measuring whether they did that job (Brian laughs) either without much more sophisticated data collection tools. And so I was, I have for many years, been very resistant to digging in on the play level because it seemed to look a lot more nebulous on what I might pull out of that, or a lot more noisy, maybe, information is a better way to put it. Whereas the possession is a little bit more straightforward, it's more like that at bat in that the offense is trying to do one thing, the defense is trying to stop them. So that's really how I settled on possessions, and you know, 15 years later or more, I guess, after starting that initial work, it still provides a lot of, like, interest to me because there's more to be gleaned from that.

Ted Fox  16:31  
I'm gonna put this out here now not for you to answer right away, but I want to leave it kicking around in the back of your head. We already ate, so it's a full stomach, (both laugh) so we should be able to focus. But what to you as a lifelong watcher of football has been one of the more counterintuitive conclusions you've drawn as an analyst and something that would have surprised you? So you don't need to answer it right now.

Brian Fremeau  16:52  
But I can. I mean, something that comes immediately to mind is work that I still do. So like I've said, I break down the unit contributions, the offense and the defense. But there's a whole set of contributions that are bucketed into something we call special teams. That includes you know, kickoff and kickoff returns, and punts and punt returns, field goal kicking. As a fan, the priority on having exceptional special teams play feels significant, right? You are so frustrated when something seems to go wrong on one of those kickoff return units or kickoff units. Or you're elated because it's one of the more exciting plays in football when your team has a big return, a return for a touchdown. And from an emotional standpoint, from a momentum standpoint that we try to classify things under, it feels hugely significant, those kinds of plays. As an analyst, it is significant in--those plays certainly are significant in game outcomes. A kickoff return can be game-changing in many ways. It is truly insignificant in terms of evaluating how strong a given team is when you lean on those kinds of results because they don't happen with any level of frequency or consistency. 

Even the teams that do it well, the best quote-unquote kickoff units in the country, will occasionally give up a kickoff return. And it's such an unusual play and such a costly play, certainly in that game outcome, we seem to want to point to that as, Well, that's something we need to work on. And I don't work with coaching staffs or anything like that, but as a fan, I am always reminded, now that I have this analytical approach, I'm reminded that that was a fluke, that truly was a fluke result that though it plays into the narrative of the game I'm watching, it doesn't play into the narrative of the team I'm watching. And that was very much a change in my mentality by doing this work because it took uncovering that in the data to really realize that was what was going on. Even though as a Notre Dame fan, specifically, my favorite memories as a youth are kickoff returns as an example.

Ted Fox  19:12  
Rocket Ismail and Tim Brown.

Brian Fremeau  19:13  
Rocket Ismail, exactly. And to know, not that those, you know, that those plays weren't significant, but to know that those plays and those events aren't telling as much of the truth as we think they are about what just happened on the field. 

Ted Fox  19:28  
One thing I've always enjoyed talking to you about is your concern with garbage time possessions. And I'm going to ask about your actual definition of garbage time here in a minute. But you've wanted to find ways to keep those kind of meaningless, throwaway possessions that almost every game--not all games, but almost every game ends up having them at some point. Is that something that's common in the analytics community that people are trying to exclude that? Because it seems like it would be a major point in the favor of math versus human polling because, I mean, we always hear about that with, you know, coaches or media members, how many games can you watch, really, and you're looking at a final score and you're forming an opinion based off that. So this would seem like the math would actually, by trying to exclude those things, and I'm wondering how common of a practice that is in terms of analytics?

Brian Fremeau  20:18  
I think those who again are like me wanting to scrutinize and examine and dig in on the data, it is becoming, it has become very common. What I found is, as with other things like opponent adjustments, there are many definitions and many different approaches to what garbage time is.

Ted Fox  20:38  
So I enjoyed this on Twitter this week, because this year at Merriam Webster, they added garbage time to the dictionary, and you quoted it and said, This is great, but it's not specific. (Brian laughs) And it was, it was a definition someone like me would give of like, Oh the game's out of hand, and the team has the ball. So, for the purposes of what you do, what do you consider garbage time to be?

Brian Fremeau  21:00  
There isn't a single garbage-time possession in a first half as a basic rule of thumb. So what I'm doing is I'm identifying which events--in this case, possessions--am I excluding from the data set when I'm evaluating results? It's actually a bit counterintuitive. You do say, there must be some math behind it. And there is. There's mathematical reasons to exclude the garbage time. But it also is, it's difficult because the amount of data in football is precious, you almost don't want to throw any of it away if you can avoid it. I mean, in baseball, again as an example, there's 162, games, and many, many more plate appearances for individual players. In football, the best teams, the top teams in college football specifically, play 14 games, 15 games, maybe there's maybe a dozen possessions in the game, there just are far fewer events. So the idea of excluding or discarding any of them feels like an affront to the data, the data set in the first place. But what you do find--and this really came again from the fan perspective first before I found the numbers to validate it--was that there are points in games that clearly these two teams are not playing the same game that we saw them playing the first half. And by that I mean, starters maybe had been removed from the field and backups are in play, the emotional effort that's put out there, one team might be trying to deliberately run out the clock just to get it to the finish line, the other team actually might be happy to do that as well because they're down. 

Ted Fox  22:33  
(both laugh) Just to get it over with.  

Brian Fremeau  22:33  
Just to get it over with. But when does that flip? So there is a possession, and the way I calculate it, that occurs typically late in the second half--depending on the level of the blowout, it could happen very early in the second half if a team is dominating by enough--that after which it is effectively mathematically impossible for the other team to catch up. The offense is only going to get a certain number of remaining possessions because of the way the clock will work against them. And they're down by too many points in order to, even if they play those possessions perfectly, to actually result in a victory. That ultimately is the moment that garbage time kicks in, according to my definition. It is retroactively calculated, which is a little bit of a cheat, I suppose, because when I am watching a game, I can't necessarily call it out.

Ted Fox  22:35  
(both laugh) 7:53, garbage time starts now! 

Brian Fremeau  23:14  
Right, that's true. But I have found--though Merriam Webster has a great summary, I should clarify (both laugh), it is not specific enough, at least to actually produce the clean data set that I want to now work with. But the way I calculate it is retroactive. But when I am watching games, I can tell within certainly--for 90% of games, I can tell the possession that that begins because I've now learned by training my own eyes how many possessions are likely to follow because I've just become more attuned to that part of the game. So I do think that it often results in not just are starters being swapped in and out, but also other choices that coaching staffs might make. They are becoming less aggressive in fourth-down attempts because they know the result is already in hand, or they're becoming more conservative because they have such a large lead they want to protect it. So there are a few elements of the game that really kind of you can pick out as being indicative of garbage time, but I am very precise in defining it that way. And the reason I do that is because others define it differently. So when I am producing numbers and sharing them, and hopefully, teams and fans and other media might pick up on those numbers, I don't want anyone to challenge something that I'm producing as saying, Well, actually they scored seven touchdowns in that game, not five; my numbers are saying they scored five. Well, that's because I have this clear definition of garbage time; I'm only counting these results. And so it's important for me to put that out there so there isn't a confusion about why my numbers might be different. 

Ted Fox  25:01  
Just like you, as we were talking before we start recording, just like you don't count games against FCS opponents.

Brian Fremeau  25:06  
That's right.

Ted Fox  25:06  
That's the same thing. Those don't go into what you're counting. 

Brian Fremeau  25:09  
And that has as much--again, it's a deliberate choice to discard data, which isn't always intuitively the wise thing to do. But it is in that case, it's discarding data that I know I can't trust, and I can't trust it in the sense of being able to have informed opponent adjustments. We talked about earlier that how strong is the opponent you're facing is a critical part in evaluating the results of the game, especially in college football, where the very best teams and the very worst teams even at the top level of FBS, they're very different in terms of skill. Well, I know enough about the very worst teams in FBS because of the collection of opponents they play. I don't know enough about the FCS level to trust that opponent adjustment would be valuable. And I found that, again, the data set is more--and my processing of that data--is more informed and more accurate when I discard it than when I include it. So that's why I do that.

Ted Fox  26:07  
And anyone interested in actually the specific ways you define these things and calculating them, if they go to your website, bcftoys.com, they can see those definitions there. And that's also the place where each week during the season, you rank from one to 130, all the teams in college football, you end up with a top 10, a top 25, or probably most relevantly now given the current playoff structure, a top four. Because the top four get into the college football playoff at the end of the year. And I'm wondering, how have your rankings, the numbers that you end up with at the end of the regular season, how have they compared to what the playoff committee is putting forth?

Brian Fremeau  26:49  
Yeah, I have mixed feelings about it to be honest (both laugh) as I explained this. One is I am intuitively interested in having them match reality at a certain level. I want to be providing some value in a different perspective, but not so much of a different perspective that it looks like nonsense. 

Ted Fox  27:10  
Saying that Buffalo is the number one team in the country (both laugh). Central Michigan, how did they ...

Brian Fremeau  27:12  
(laughing) How did you possibly put four MAC teams into the playoff? So there needs to be a common sense, and generally speaking, that is already in place. I rarely have results that fly totally out of whack. But my numbers again, they're describing a very specific opponent adjusted possession efficiency; at the end of the day that is how I rank teams. I have a lot of other ancillary or supporting data that might distribute those teams and rank them differently. And you could argue that that ranking is a version of the best, these are the best teams. If they faced off and played a full round robin, they would, they should, result again in that order of result. Right? The best team would win more often than the second-best team and more often than third and so on. That definition of best is what the playoff committee has been charged with selecting. What I found in kind of companion research that I've done in my work is that the playoff committee doesn't choose the best teams. They choose, what I what I think is more accurately described as, a most deserving set of four teams. That's an important distinction because it certainly in college football fandom, a team that goes undefeated, even if people doubt their merits on how they may perform in the playoffs, there is a general acknowledgement that that team has earned position in the playoff. 

My numbers might like others suggest that team is no better than the eighth-best team in the country or 10th, or possibly even worse than that. And they were fortunate, you know, based on things like we talked about with kickoff returns, let's say, or unpredictable results. I still might argue, again as a fan, that the playoff committee is making a good choice by putting that team in the playoff, but the numbers may not line up. I'd like the validation that there is some connection to the playoff committee's instincts. But I also, I like it when my numbers might point to something that is a little bit different because it both helps me kind of scrutinize, Is this work, am I getting after something that I might not be able to recognize with my own eyes that prompts more questions and more inquiries? But I'm also sharing information to, you know, my audience, as modest or as large as it may be at different times, to also ask those kinds of questions. What are we valuing? Are we looking for the teams that a Vegas bettor might pick as the best four teams in the country because of their instincts? Or are we trying to pick teams that are more deserving? Those are interesting--they're not global challenges that the world needs to face, but they're interesting challenges in this sports world that are fun to debate, and I'm a contributor to that.

Ted Fox  29:55  
The last thing I wanted to ask you, and it's kind of--I mean, there's part of me that's thinking, Oh, ending on that answer there because it's a great high-level answer. But there's something that, one of the most interesting things you've ever done, and I saw you tweeting about this again last month, it's been several years now. But it was something you did for ESPN The Magazine about the red zone. And speaking of things that Merriam Webster defines, I looked it up; the red zone is also in the dictionary and defined the way we all, broadcasters, talk about it, understanding it's the opponent's 20 yard line and in, and that's how it's been set up as this measure of offensive efficiency, of how successful are you at scoring touchdowns or kicking field goals once you as an offense get to that point on the field. And I know that you did some work that suggested that maybe the 20 yard line, that isn't the line we should be looking at as saying, Oh, this is where we should reasonably expect you to be able to come away with points. So, what did you discover, what was kind of the the history--I mean, was the red zone just chosen kind of arbitrarily as like, Oh, we'll just look at the 20 yard line. 

Brian Fremeau  31:00  
Yeah, the research I did, it was somewhat arbitrary. It's not some magical part of the field where everything changes. There are reasons why the 20 yard line makes sense or has become commonplace, a commonplace marker, certainly. And broadcasters and many others have leaned in on it because it's something that's easy to latch onto and became just part of the lore. But it wasn't a reference point in all of football's history; it really didn't start until the 1970s, or really even the 1980s, to catch on as a concept. The reasons why it is at the 20 yard line are somewhat accidental, and somewhat, they reference the point in the field where the ability to stretch the defense has been eliminated, right? Good example is some of your plays, you could run at any point on the field, the routes that your receivers may run could be deep routes, whether you're on your own 10, whether at your midfield or even on your opponent's 30 yard line, let's say. But once you get to the 20, part of the playbook goes away. You can't--the back of the endzone is too close and the defense therefore, you're more compressed, you have less room to work and so essentially your playcalling changes. That was one of the things the coaches I talked to talked about as being the main reason they do pay attention to the red zone. But very few of them in their preparations talked about it as the 20 yard line as being somehow that marker where that begins. Some of them, it was all the way back at the 40 yard line because of the way they structured their offense. Others, they thought it was much more of a, as you approach the end zone, it becomes incrementally more difficult, which certainly makes a lot of intuitive sense, as well. But the 20 as a measuring stick--the point of that article was, like, the 20 as a measuring stick really should go away as part of our lexicon, and we should be much more tuned into that kind of gradual pressure of advancing towards the endzone, altering the way the teams perform, and altering the way the teams might prepare. 

The other part of that article that I talked a bit more was that if we simply change the definition to the 30 yard line, the performance of teams in the new red zone, a 30 yard in, would be much more indicative of their strength than the 20 on in. So the article really played up that particular angle; the editors at ESPN liked that piece. In fact they have this great artwork as part of the article where they had a bunch of players on a field, repainting the red zone out to the 30 yard line. But that idea that the 30 was just more of an informed position on the field to take the data that occurs from that point in as being replicable. The things that happen between the 20 to the endzone aren't as replicable, there's a bit more randomness to success or failure in that part of the field than there is when you move it back to the 30. So that was another part of it. It was really interesting research, I approached that project not knowing that that was going to be the outcome of it. I think when I pitched the idea, it was much more I'd like to talk to coaches about field position was the pitch, with less of a hook, and the red zone idea kind of emerged from that. But yeah, it is definitely a piece that I really enjoyed doing and I reference from time to time still. 

Ted Fox  34:21  
Brian Fremeau, it has been an education as always. Thank you for making time for the show.

Brian Fremeau  34:25  
I enjoyed it very much. And brunch was delicious, Ted, I appreciate that as well (Ted laughs).

Ted Fox  34:30  
Glad to hear it. 

(voiceover) With a Side of Knowledge is a production of the Office of the Provost at the University of Notre Dame with support from Sorin's restaurant. Our website is provost.nd.edu/podcast.