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Introduction to the expected points metric

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NFL analytics are influencing the game more than ever. And expected points is the stat currently influencing decision-making most often

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Oakland Raiders Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In football, each and every individual play can affect the outcome of the game. That’s one of the thing that makes this game so great. And on every play, depending on the down, distance and situation, an amount of expected points can be determined.

Deep in the red zone, a team’s expected points on a particular drive will be closer to 6, while a 3rd and long play from a team’s own 1-yard line would offer negative expected points, as it is more likely to give up a safety or opposing touchdown than it is to score in that poor of a situation.

To give a more full understanding of how the expected points metric works, let’s use the handy-dandy Expected Points Calculator, courtesy of Sports Info Solutions.

Here, we take a look at the Raiders expected points at the start of their final drive of the first half. They were down 14-10, starting on their own 24 yard line, and expected to score 1.15 points from the drive’s onset.

As you can see in the graphic above, the Raiders need to gain 5 yards on first down to create a positive EPA, or expected points added, and their expected point total will rise to 1.70 at the next possible first down.

On this particular play, the Raiders gained 17 yards on a swing pass to Josh Jacobs, which in turn increased their expected point total on the drive by 0.9, as shown below.

Fast forward to later on in the drive, and the Raiders find themselves sitting in a 3rd and 1 situation from the opposing 9-yard line. Between the end of Jacob’s 17-yard swing pass and Alec Ingold’s 9-yard, Spider-2 Y-Banana endzone plunge, the Raiders added 2.3 expected points along the way.

In this situation, the team only needs to gain one yard to improve their expected points added and create a 1st and goal. By scoring a touchdown on this play, the Spider-2 Y-Banana call itself increased the Raiders output by 2.65 points, going from 4.35 to 6.95 points on the drive.

Why 6.95 instead of 7? You can ask Daniel Carlson and other kickers who have been missing extra points about that one.

Expected points added can be calculated for both offensive and defensive performance, and often will influence a coaches’ decision to play things more aggressively or conservatively. If the difference in expected points between succeeding and failing on a 4th and 1 and call is favorable, the coach will likely opt to go for it. This may be exactly how Jon Gruden decided to hit the Chargers with a fullback dive on 4th and 1 at the apex of the aforementioned drive.

On that 4th and 1 from the Chargers’ 40-yard line, the Raiders saw that their chances at scoring would go up by an entire point if they converted. In a tight game decided by just 2, all points were at a major premium.

Expected points are a major factor in creating Pro Football Focus’ player grades, Sports Info Solutions’ Total Points Earned metric and other similar stats being invented year-by-year. Having an understanding of how expected points works can help us understand what calls work best in certain situations, when to be conservative, and when to stay aggressive.