Time (of possession) is on winners' side

Chip Kelly's mantra: "Time of possession is about how much time the other team can waste."
Chip Kelly's mantra: "Time of possession is about how much time the other team can waste." (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 20, 2013

I did some research Wednesday - no, this was not a career precedent - in an effort to find out how rare it is to be last in the NFL in time of possession and still be first in your division with just two weeks remaining.

We all know that Eagles coach Chip Kelly believes time of possession ranks just behind color of sports drink, cleavage revealed by cheerleaders and amount of time spent with the media in determining how well his football team is going to perform.

"Time of possession," Kelly has said time and time again, "is about how much time the other team can waste."

Perhaps there is some truth to what Kelly is saying, but if the coach who is so fond of sports science tried to prove his point to his players before this season with math and history, he'd have zero followers. Instead, he has them all on his side and together they are defying the numbers from the past.

In fact, as I did my time-of-possession research Wednesday morning while the Eagles practiced for Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears, I was reminded of a column by the late Mike Royko that I read years ago inside Chicago's famous Billy Goat Tavern.

The abridged version went something like this: A guy at a bar tells the bartender about the absurd amount of alcohol his friend is able to drink. The bartender believes the man to be lying because if his friend drank that much he would surely be dead. There's more, but in the happy end the friend does drink every bit as much as his friend said and he is very much alive.

Based on what I found, the Eagles should not just be dead in the NFC playoff race, they also should be buried beneath just about every other team in the conference. Since 2000, no team that has finished last in the NFL in time of possession has had a winning record. Only one team - the 2006 Tennessee Titans - finished at .500. The combined record of the 13 teams to finish last in time of possession is 57-151.

Some of the NFL's historically bad teams have been among the teams that just didn't possess the football enough. Detroit's 0-16 team in 2008 was next to last in time of possession and Carolina's 1-15 team in 2001 was last.

Kelly's Eagles are the anomaly. The coach says time of possession doesn't matter and his players say, "OK then, it doesn't matter."

"I think our whole offense is not predicated on time of possession," center Jason Kelce said. "We don't emphasize it and it's not our deal. We're trying to get as many plays as possible and in order to do that we try to speed the game up."

That's fine in theory and we've seen it in practice in other places. The high-powered offenses in New England and Denver do not rely on ball control to put up big numbers, but both of those teams are run by veteran quarterbacks who are comfortable going fast. Both teams also have possessed the football considerably more than the Eagles this season.

Through 14 games, the Eagles' average time of possession per game is 25 minutes, 53 seconds. Only three teams since 2000 have averaged less than 26 minutes per game and they all had losing records. Twelve of the 13 teams that have been last in the NFL since 2000 have been outscored, and 11 of the 13 have been outscored by more than 100 points.

And then there are Kelly's Eagles. They head into their game against the Bears with an 8-6 record and with a chance to clinch the NFC East title if Dallas loses in Washington. The Eagles are seventh in the NFL in points and second in total offense. Conventional wisdom says that a team that likes to run the ball should also be the type of team that controls the clock. The Eagles are first in the NFL in rushing.

"Time of possession, for most coaches, is one of the biggest things they preach on, especially running teams," Kelce said. "You want to eat up as much clock as possible and give the opposition as few chances as possible to get something going. There are teams that want to do that and there are teams like us that have a very explosive offense and we just want to have as many plays as possible."

The last three teams to finish last in time of possession also finished last in total plays. The Eagles are tied for 11th, averaging 66.1 plays per game. That's a statistic that undoubtedly disappoints Kelly.

"The whole strategy behind this thing is the more plays we get to run, the more chances we have to score," Kelce said.

The flip side, of course, is that the defense spends more time on the field, and the Eagles' 1,023 defensive snaps are the most in the NFL. The Eagles also have the league's 30th-ranked defense and are coming off a game in which they surrendered 48 points.

Is that a byproduct of playing more snaps than other defensive teams or is it the result of a team still building on that side of the football? Time will sort that one out because as long as Kelly is here the Eagles will not be slowing down.

And for what it's worth, the Eagles are 4-0 when they have won the time of possession battle this season and 4-6 when they have not.


An Irrelevant Statistic?

The Eagles are last in the NFL in time of possession this season, a statistic that coach Chip Kelly has deemed irrelevant. Here's a look at the records, the total number of points scored and the point differential for NFL teams that have finished last in time of possession since 2000:

Year    Team          Record    Points    Point Differential

2000   Cleveland    3-13       185       minus-174

2001    Carolina       1-15       253       minus-157

2002    Detroit       3-13       306       minus-145

2003    Houston       5-11       255       minus-125

2004   Oakland       5-11       320       minus-122

2005    N.Y. Jets       4-12       240       minus-115

2006    Tennessee    8-8       324       minus-76

2007    San Fran.      5-11       219       minus-145

2008    Seattle       4-12       232       minus-233

2009    Seattle       5-11       280       minus-110

2010    Tennessee    6-10       356       plus-17

2011    Indianapolis   2-14       243       minus-187

2012    Tennessee   6-10       330       minus-141

2013    Eagles       8-6       364       plus-15

- Bob Brookover


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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