This story appears in the August 22, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
BEFORE THE RED ZONE became known as a deodorant, an NFL television station and an integral part of football's lexicon, the term was simply a motivational tool to get the 1981 Redskins out of last place. Their coach at the time, Joe Gibbs, coined the phrase after realizing his 0-4 team had the league's worst scoring offense inside opponents' 20-yard line. His philosophy, as he explained to his players, was simple: If you can't score deep in enemy territory, you will have a tough time winning. Not for nothing, Washington won eight of its final 12 games that season.
Three decades later, the red zone is hallowed ground, obsessed over by coaches and armchair quarterbacks. Few metrics are cited more by stat geeks than red zone scoring rate, which in college is the percentage of times an offense puts points on the board once it reaches the 20. (NFL teams enter the red zone once they cross the 20.)
Just one problem: The red zone isn't nearly as important as we've been led to think. In fact, when it comes to indicating how well a team closes out drives and keeps opponents from doing the same, red zone stats often deceive more than they illuminate.
So with apologies to a certain Super Bowl-winning coach, we created a new metric called value drive. It eliminates the red zone's fatal flaws while adding a few features that give it real predictive firepower. If you want to know which offenses and defenses have the goods to lead a BCS drive this fall and which are destined to come up short, this is your stat. Allow us to explain how value drive works -- and why it's better.
SHUTTING DOWN EASY STREET
Why is the 20-yard line so special anyway? It's not the dividing line between an easy scoring opportunity and a tough one. The 20 represents a 37-yard field goal, which FBS teams have converted 66 percent of the time over the past four seasons.
"I don't pay any attention to the 20-yard line," says new West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, the former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator who led the nation's most efficient red zone unit last season. "What I care about is where our field goal kicker can make it, whether it's the 31, 32, 34 or whatever." Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer doesn't give any weight to the 20 either. "We've tracked the red zone for a number of years, and I've always equated it with the 30-yard line," he says. "That's where field goal possibilities begin."