Super Bowl 48: Swept Under The Turf, Super Bowl Edition

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

You know what broadcasters talk about all the time? Third-down conversion rates. You know what never gets brought up, but might be more important? How a team performs on second down.

Right off the bat, a stat.

The Seahawks converted 76 of 204 third-down tries this season. 37.3 percent.

Their opponents converted 76 times in 216 tries. 35.2 percent.

NFL median actually exceeds both numbers. 38 percent.

Captain Obvious has just informed me that the Hawks won 13 games with a nondescript conversion rate -- 17th in the league! -- while their opponents rode what would have been the league's 22nd rate to a 3-13 record.

My take-away from all that? Seattle's sitting in the Super Bowl and 15 of the 16 teams above them in third-down conversion percentage are watching the game tomorrow. So maybe third downs aren't a thing. I mean, they come right after second down, inevitably. And they lead to crucial decisions. They exist. Unless you avoid them altogether. Is it possible that converting second downs is actually more important, more predictive, more useful?

Let's see if the data bears me out, on a one-season scale. (Pre-research note: I might expand the scope of this analysis if the results are interesting. Making adjustments for distance-to-go and penalties and increasing the sample size all sound like good plans. Perhaps after the Game To End All Games.)

2013's First Half

Second downs converted into firsts, with batting average attached:

Opponent Seattle
Week 1, at Car, W 3-15, .200 9-21, .429
Week 2, vs. SF, W 4-17, .235 7-23, .304
Week 3, vs. Jax, W 8-23, .348 9-20, .450
Week 4, at Hou, W 10-30, .333 4-19, .211
Week 5, at Ind, L 5-20, .250 10-22, .455
Week 6, vs. Ten, W 5-18, .278 5-19, .263
Week 7, at Ari, W 8-24, .333 7-23, .304
Week 8, at Stl, W 6-22, .273 4-15, .267
Total, 7-1 49-169, .290 55-152, .362

Notes

1. The Texans game gives us plenty of data. Houston started 4-of-6, Seattle 1-of-5 on second down. Then the Hawks converted two second downs -- half of their total -- on their final game-winning drive.

2. The Colts game, for all of its coulda-shoulda-wouldas, saw Seattle convert 9 of its 13 second downs to start the game. That's an unreal percentage, and it led to a 19-14 lead that was more like 27-7 in terms of domination. But then Seattle failed on 8 of its last 9 second downs as the offense sputtered.

3. The Rams game yields this: Seattle's final second-down conversion was the 80-yard Tate TD. St. Louis made three of its last four second downs as it drove for a potential winning score. Its final attempt on 2nd was stuffed by Earl Thomas at the 2.

4. Once-inept Jacksonville converted 4 late second downs to make things respectable; Arizona converted six late second downs. Otherwise those teams were held in check, as befits the blowout score.

2013's Second Half

More numbers.

Opponents Seattle
Week 9, vs, TB, W(OT) 5-19, .263 5-15, .333
Week 10, at Atl, W 4-16, .250 8-23, .348
Week 11, vs. Min, W 7-20, .350 4-15, .267
Week 13, vs. NO, W 1-18, .056 8-18, .444
Week 14, at SF, L 9-23, .391 4-16, .250
Week 15, at NYG, W 8-20, .400 10-23, .435
Week 16, vs. Ari, L 3-22, .136 4-17, .235
Week 17, vs. Stl, W 5-18, .278 10-23, .435
Total, 6-2 42-156, .269 53-150, .353

Notes:

1. The Niners game stands out like a sore thumb. Ah well, revenge cuts both ways.

2. The Saints' only second-down conversion was the Jimmy Graham TD catch that impacted the game minimally. In that game, the Hawks went 8-for-12 on early second downs. That merits an exclamation point! Or two!!

3. Arizona converted its last three second downs on its go-ahead drive. Bad timing there. Or good timing, depending on your perspective and the purposes of this column.

4. The team totals are really consistent from the first half to the second half of the season.

Playoffs

Two mammoth wins!

Opponent Seattle
vs. NO, W 7-20, .350 4-19, .211
vs. SF, W 4-16, .250 5-17, .294
Total, 2-0 11-36, .306 9-36, .250

Notes

1. If good-to-great defenses hold their opponents to meager second-down conversion rates, then it makes sense that only 78 points were scored in these playoff games combined. The Saints, Niners and Seahawks all have good-to-excellent offenses by DVOA. But when you can't turn those second downs into firsts as easily, your scoring will probably suffer.

2. On the Niners' third-quarter TD drive that answered the Lynch score, both second downs were made -- a two-yard Hunter run on second-and-one, plus that 26-yard how-did-he-do-that Boldin touchdown grab.

3. Both playoff games came down to the final possession, which gibes with the somewhat similar second-down stats. Small sample size applies, naturally.

4. Holding the Niners to 8 of 33 on the year in Seattle, a scant 24.2 percentage of second downs converted, feels really good and no doubt went a long way toward the Hawks winning both games.

Totals after 18 games

One final table. Not to rule them all.

Opponents, 3 wins, 15 losses Seattle, 15 wins, 3 losses
102-361, .283 conversion rate 117-338, .346 conversion rate

Before Any Conclusions, Some Related Reading:

Jason Drake talking about The Slog Factor, in October

Jason Drake yesterday

Jason's articles this year really opened my eyes to how overblown third-down stats are. Many, many thanks to him. May I someday possess half his analytic tools and most of his wit.

Conclusions:

Winning second down, by turning it into a first "ahead of schedule," allows a team to avoid the cross roads that is third down. If you're turning seconds into firsts, you never have to reach the crucial play whose outcome leads to a punt, a field goal attempt, a conversion or a risky fourth-down attempt on offense.

So while a team's third-down results tell the story of how one game went, how that team did on second down appears to tell the story of how their games are likely to go in the near future. It might serve as a predictor for future success within a season. That remains to be investigated.

While Seattle only out-percentaged its foes on third down by 2.1 points, the margin on second down-conversions was far more suited to a team that reached the Super Bowl: a whopping 6.3 points.

It appears, after scratching the surface of second-down success, that the less you have to decide what to do after third down, the better off your team is. So convert those seconds instead. Directly bypass the play that leads to icky things like kicking the ball. Do it tomorrow, Hawks. Like you have been all year.

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