Tempo and Efficiency

Careful watchers of Florida State's offense the last few years have noticed a trend that quarterback E.J. Manuel and the offense seem more efficient when operating at a high tempo or no-huddle offense. Manuel appears more decisive and accurate, and the offense seems to move better as a result.

Saturday's game at Virginia Tech again seemed to validate this theory, as all three of Florida State's touchdown drives came when running the hurry-up offense, while the offense struggled to move the football when operating at a slower pace. Nowhere was the difference more evident than with the seeming ease with which Manuel and the offense drove down the field with under two minutes remaining, finishing with Rashad Greene's lengthy go-ahead touchdown.

But given the human propensity for confirmation bias, we need more than just a few anecdotes to conclusively demonstrate that the offense is indeed more efficient when operating at a higher pace. In order to test this hypothesis, I went back and watched every play on offense against FBS competition from the beginning of last year's Champs Sports Bowl against Notre Dame through the home game against Duke immediately preceding the trip to Blacksburg.

I put every drive into one of two categories: uptempo or regular tempo, defining an uptempo drive as anything in the two-minute or no-huddle offense and all drives where the average snap occurred with more than 15 seconds left on the play clock (approximately). Everything else was categorized as regular tempo. All one-play drives and run-out-the-clock situations at the end of halves or games were thrown out, as were drives in which Manuel was not under center.

I then defined a "successful" drive as any drive ending in a touchdown or field goal attempt. (This had the unfortunate effect of declaring a few good drives that successfully flipped field position to be "unsuccessful," but it was the simplest way to measure.) After looking at the drives categorized by tempo, the difference in success rate was staggering. I had expected the uptempo drives to be more successful (as regular readers of this column know, I have long been an advocate of FSU going more uptempo with Manuel under center), but I had not expected a disparity of this degree:

Normal Tempo Drives: 42.3% success rate (25/59) with 7 turnovers

Uptempo Drives: 86.7% success rate (13/15) with 1 turnover

Given the somewhat loose definition of "uptempo" I used, the numbers could move a little bit one way or another. Likewise, the uptempo numbers are on a much smaller sample size, which means they'd likely move down a bit with more use. But that does not change the basic fact that on a drive-by-drive basis, the Florida State offense has been twice as successful when going uptempo as they have been at its regular pace over the last nine games against FBS competition. Even Oregon's explosive offense does not operate at near the success rate FSU has achieved when going uptempo.

When going through the different drives, it was also clear that Manuel was significantly more efficient when moving more quickly, as evidenced by the offense only having a single turnover in fifteen drives when the tempo is faster. Turning back to the "eyeball test," when watching all these drives back-to-back, Manuel indeed appeared more decisive and accurate and less mechanical when forced to move more quickly between plays.

Much like basketball teams that slow things down to protect a lead, the Seminole offense appears to bog down when the tempo gets too slow, losing its sense of urgency and aggressive edge. (As an extra note, the final few drives against NC State were among the slowest tempo of any over this period.) This was not the case when Christian Ponder was under center, but as long as Manuel is the quarterback, I think these numbers demonstrate that the FSU offense is better off operating at as fast a pace as possible.

In the past, Fisher (who from the start has wanted to emphasize defense as a head coach) has expressed concern that going uptempo too often puts too much strain on the defense. There is no question that operating at a higher pace will put more pressure on the defense in terms of asking them to play more. But if the offensive efficiency improves even by a third, it is well worth that additional pressure, because very few teams are going to score over 50% of the time against Florida State's defense, regardless of how many plays they've had to stop. In that case, the pressure on the defense is reduced by points rather than pace.

An increased tempo offers a couple other benefits against overmatched opponents. First, a faster tempo can foster a sense of urgency and focus, theoretically helping prevent the "playing down to one's opponents" phenomenon. Secondly, in much the same way a casino wants people to play as much as possible (since the odds favor the house), the better team is less likely to experience a low-odds upset with every play that's added to the game, since each play favors the better team and more trials reduce the impact of fluke events.

I do agree with Fisher that sometimes it's better to slow the tempo down a bit, especially given the number of snaps a few key players have had to log on defense, but my suggestion is that the ‘Noles only slow it down once they've gone uptempo long enough to put the game out of reach. Then the offense can begin to protect the defense with pace rather than points.

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