It’s out there.  We’ve all heard it.  “The Saints offensive numbers look so good because they’re always falling behind and racking up yards and scores when the game has already been decided.  It’s all garbage time stats, nothing more.”  Or words to that effect.  But is it true?  Let’s run the numbers and put this myth to the test, MythBusters style.  (Buckle up, Buster, it’s crash test time.)

All data used in this analysis is courtesy of my goto site for football stats: pfref.com.

So, how to test this?  Well, my impression of “garbage time” would be when the game is out of reach on the scoreboard.  You’re down big and the other team is playing a soft defense, the goal being preventing the big plays over the top.  The opposite of this would be games where the scoreboard is tight.  If the Saints offense struggles in tight game situations, but then pours it on when down big, then the myth of the garbage time stats would be confirmed, but if the Saints offense is lighting it up even in tight games, then the myth is busted.  (The fact the Saints offense also does well when down big is irrelevant, IMO.  A stellar offense will do well in all game situations.)

This table shows the plays executed while the scoreboard differential is 7 or fewer points.  In other words, teams are either up by 7 or fewer points or down by 7 or fewer points; these are one score games.   Plays column is the number of plays that offense executed during these tight games.  ToGo is the average yardage to go for a 1st down (or in the case of goal to go, for a touchdown).  Yds is the average number of yards gained per play.  1st% is the percentage of plays that resulted in a 1st down (or touchdown), and TO% is the percentage of plays that resulted in a turnover.  TD is the total TD’s scored.  TD’s per 100 plays is self-explanatory.

Tm Plays ToGo Yds 1st% TO% TD TD’s per 100 plays
ATL 587 8.62 6.9 37.6% .9% 37 6.30
NWE 540 8.43 6.54 35.0% .2% 34 6.30
KAN 513 8.49 6.24 31.6% .4% 26 5.07
WAS 756 8.53 6.14 31.3% .9% 29 3.84
PIT 597 8.43 6.1 32.5% 1.5% 29 4.86
NOR 675 8.06 6.03 33.3% 1.2% 36 5.33
OAK 723 8.58 5.92 29.3% .8% 33 4.56
SEA 650 8.76 5.92 29.7% .3% 25 3.85
CHI 564 8.96 5.85 29.8% 1.4% 15 2.66
DAL 779 8.67 5.84 34.3% .6% 37 4.75
MIA 601 8.75 5.83 28.6% 1.3% 27 4.49
GNB 653 8.17 5.82 31.7% .3% 31 4.75
SDG 679 8.55 5.78 30.6% 2.5% 30 4.42
TEN 541 8.67 5.59 28.1% .7% 23 4.25
NYG 705 8.43 5.56 27.7% 1.8% 26 3.69
CIN 665 8.5 5.54 29.9% 1.1% 27 4.06
NYJ 622 8.54 5.47 27.3% 1.4% 20 3.22
ARI 688 8.59 5.36 28.6% 1.3% 25 3.63
IND 598 8.51 5.35 28.9% 1.5% 23 3.85
DET 772 8.62 5.35 30.1% .8% 27 3.50
BUF 627 8.77 5.34 29.2% .5% 24 3.83
DEN 582 8.4 5.29 26.5% .7% 21 3.61
CAR 562 8.73 5.23 28.8% 2.0% 21 3.74
MIN 573 8.61 5.22 28.3% .5% 18 3.14
CLE 533 9.22 5.1 26.3% .9% 13 2.44
TAM 726 9.01 5.05 28.2% 1.7% 24 3.31
BAL 731 8.84 5.01 26.5% 1.4% 18 2.46
JAX 649 8.63 4.73 24.5% 2.2% 17 2.62
SFO 511 8.73 4.72 27.0% 1.4% 17 3.33
PHI 698 8.51 4.69 28.4% 1.1% 17 2.44
LAR 658 8.57 4.67 24.3% 2.1% 17 2.58
HOU 737 8.32 4.56 25.1% 1.4% 17 2.31

ATL had the top offense in terms of yards per play when the score was within 7 points one way or the other.  (They did struggle when up by 25, but that’s neither here nor there.)  The Saints were 6th best in yards per play in these tight game situations.  If we sort by TD’s per 100 plays, the Saints were 3rd best.  Sort by 1st down percentage, and the Saints are 3rd best.  This *is* a legitimate top 10 offense.  Enough with the garbage about garbage time stats.

NFL yards per play 2016 tight games (plus or minus 7 on the scoreboard)

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