The Football Death Spiral, a Way of Understanding Football Games

I can’t remember if I talked about this before, but my understanding of football games and also my analysis of football teams comes down to which team can avoid getting into a death spiral in a game. Before I go into an explanation, let me say a few things. First, I don’t think what I’m saying is all that revolutionary or new, not in terms of the concepts. I suspect what I’m about to say will sound obvious and banal to many of you. However, in all my years of watching and reading about football, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone articulate or organize some of the concepts into what I’m about to say, which is a little surprising if true. So what do I mean by the death spiral?

The Death Spiral in Football

The death spiral is essentially a vicious cycle that can occur in several ways, but here is how it commonly occurs.

Step 1: Team A gets a good lead.
Step 2: Team A begins to have longer drives, keeping Team B’s defense on the field for a long time.
Step 3: Team B becomes impatient, tries to pass their way back into the game. As a result, the time their offense stays on the field decreases. That is, Team A’s defense gets off the field quickly.

This pattern and its effects ramp up as the game goes on: Team B’s defense stays on the field longer, and they get tired, which makes it easier for Team A’s offense to extend drives and even score more points. This increases the pressure on Team B–Namely, Team B begins to feel they’re running out of time, which often leads them to pass the ball more, shortening the time they’re on the field. This, and the fact that Team A’s offense is on the field for a long time, keeps Team A’s defense fresh, and better able to prevent Team B from closing the gap. Additionally, as the game wears on, Team B becomes more one-dimensional–i.e., becoming more pass-happy–making it easier for Team A to defend. (All of this is compounded during the playoffs, because the stakes are so much higher.)

This is basically the death spiral, or at least one of the more common versions of it. In my view, a big factor in winning or losing a football game involves avoiding this death spiral, and drawing your opponent into it, if possible. This should go into strategic planning and design of a football team; that is, one can build a team that is resistant to falling into this death spiral, while also playing in a way to get opponents to fall into it. In my opinion, you can build a team that is resistant or very vulnerable to the death spiral. (We can talk about that in more detail, if you guys are interested.)

Understanding the Nature of Defense

My sense is that defense lies at the heart of this death spiral. Specifically, defenses have a breaking point. When they play too many snaps and stay on the field too long, the defense begins to crumble. The decline is fairly rapid and significant, and at some point it can collapse. Different defenses begin to erode and break to different degrees and different points. This blog post discusses the breaking point of defenses, suggesting that it occurs over 65 snaps.) If this is not the case–if there isn’t a point where a defense will break down significantly–then my guess is that the death spiral wouldn’t be a factor (or wouldn’t really exist?).

In order to avoid the death spiral, one should try to make a defense that is not only good, but one that is robust and resilient to playing a lot of snaps. Additionally, one should design an offense to be good at chewing up the clock and running as many plays as possible. This had the dual effect of wearing down an opponent’s defense, while protecting one’s own. Additionally, if an offense like this can get a lead, and not necessarily a big lead, it can induce their opponents to fall into the death spiral. Facing this situation, opponents will begin to feel pressure to score, knowing that if they do not, the other team can grind away the clock. With bigger leads, opponents may start becoming one-dimensional, passing the ball more. This makes it easier to defend, and the offense also can consume less time. These are some of the main features of the classical death spiral.

Another Type of Death Spiral

I think there is another type of death spiral, more uncommon, and I think of it as the Chip Kelly death spiral. I use Kelly’s name because my sense is that his philosophy is based on this different type of death spiral, an inverted version of it. Basically, this death spiral is based on using an uptempo offense to create a huge lead and continue to maintain a significant lead by continuing to score. This approach may wear out Kelly’s defense, but the offense’s ability to get a lead and continue to score makes up for this. If the lead is large enough, the opponents will start passing a lot, making it easier for Kelly’s defense and also shortening their time on the field.

The problem is that if the lead isn’t big enough, if they can’t continue to score TDs, and/or the opponents are good at extending drives, Kelly’s teams are very susceptible of falling into the more traditional death spiral.

Watching Football Games With This Understanding

When you watch a football, I think being aware of this concept can be really helpful and illuminating. Think of the two teams as ships at sea engage in a naval battle, with a giant whirlpool is in between them. The ships may be shooting and dodging, but they also have to be careful not to fall into the whirlpool. I think footballs are sot of like this as well. The teams are trying to score and prevent the other team from scoring, but they have to be aware of the falling into the death spiral. I think a lot of games end because one team falls into the death spiral. However, in some games neither team falls into the death spiral. If I had to guess, this situation occurs when you have two teams that have a ball-controlled offense and a good defense, or two teams that play an uptempo offense. Perhaps another situation occurs when both teams are just bad.

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