clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Singletary’s Formula for Success through 10 Games

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Sorry again for being a day late. Had to get all my ducks in a row at work before the long weekend.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Today we unveil a new post at Niners Nation involving a statistical evaluation of Mike Singletary's Formula for Success. Unlike Fooch's similar posts in the past, I'm going to be looking at the big picture rather than the most recent game. So think of these posts as a snapshot of where the 49ers stand according to their coach's recipe for winning. If Singletary's view is correct, then the Niners should be a winning team when these numbers look good, a team hovering around .500 when these numbers are mediocre overall, and a losing team when these numbers look bad.

For those that don't remember Singletary's Formula for Success, here it is:

  1. Total Ball Security
  2. Execute
  3. Dominate the Trenches
  4. Create Good Field Position
  5. Finish

Luckily for us, we can evaluate these 5 ingredients objectively because many of the stats that Football Outsiders* (FO) publishes directly (or indirectly) relate to them. For instance, if a team's OL and defensive front 7 aren't playing well, their ALY stats aren't going to be very good. Of the 5 ingredients, only Total Ball Security requires stats besides those published by FO. That's because, although turnovers - and especially the game situations in which turnovers occur - are a major component of DVOA, it's still useful to have the raw numbers. "Total" implies zero turnovers, and zero is a raw number, not an advanced statistical estimation.

So, hopefully, you get the idea. Now, it's time for the evaluations. My turkey's getting cold.

After the jump, you'll be shocked - shocked! - at what Singletary's formula says about this year's 49ers...


Through 10 games, the Niners have given the ball away to their opponents only 15 times. That's certainly not the 0 times that Singletary is looking for, but it is the 12th-lowest total in the league. When breaking down the 15 giveaways, "SF QB" has thrown 9 INTs and the team has lost 6 fumbles. However, a little known statistical fact is that the recovery of a fumble is basically a completely random event. In other words, whereas the occurrence of a fumble depends on the ball-carrier's ability to keep control of the pigskin and the tackler's ability to strip the ball-carrier of the pigskin, the recovery of a fumble depends on (a) having the good fortune of being in the vicinity of a fumbled ball, and (b) having the good fortune of a tapered, oblong ball bouncing in your direction. Because it has so much of this random variability included in it, Fumbles Lost is an inadequate stat if you really want to know about ball security.

For that, you have to instead look at the simple Fumbles stat, i.e., how many times a team fumbles the ball. Fumbles is a measure of the 2 skills I mentioned above, and doesn't involve nearly as much randomness as Fumbles Lost does. So if we look at the Niners' Fumbles stat, we find that they've put the ball on the ground 16 times through 10 games, which is tied for 13th-worst in the NFL. Compare that to their 13th-best Fumbles Lost stat, and we see that the 2009 49ers have been middle-of-the-road in terms of holding onto the ball, but have been lucky when it comes to keeping possession when they do fumble. In fact, the math here is pretty simple. If recovering a fumble is random, then a team should expect to recover their own fumbles 50% of the time. Given that the Niners have fumbled 16 times, that means they should expect to keep possession on 8 of them. They've instead kept possession on 10 of them. Hence, their Fumbles Lost stat would be worse if not for the good fortune of recovering their own fumbles more frequently than expected.


Here on NN, we've had discussions in the past trying to pin down exactly what Singletary means by "execute." Although others might disagree, my view is that, for the players, execution involves calling play X, and everyone on the field properly executing their responsibilities on that play. For example, proper execution on play X might mean Michael Crabtree running his route exactly 14 yards downfield, each OL blocking the rusher(s) he's supposed to block, Frank Gore correctly identifying and picking up a blitzer, and Alex Smith dropping back exactly 5 yards and getting rid of the ball in exactly 1.4 seconds. For the coaches, on the other hand, execution involves creating a game plan during the week and properly implementing that game plan during the game. For example, in watching film and looking at the stats, the coaches create a game plan against the Titans that calls for passing the ball a lot, so proper execution in this sense means, well, actually passing the ball a lot during the TEN game (p.s. they did).

Based on these rough definitions of execution, it's difficult to come up with an available statistic with which to judge it directly. However, DVOA seems to do a descent job of measuring execution - at least the way I've conceptualized it - indirectly. Specifically, if Crabtree runs his route 13 yards instead of 14 yards, it might cost the Niners a "successful" play on 3rd & 14, and the successfulness of a play is measured by DVOA. If Smith throws the ball late, an incompletion or INT is likely, and both of these stats are incorporated into DVOA.

Similarly for the coaches, if the Niners don't pass the ball well against TEN's pass DEF, it means that their performance was worse than expected given TEN's previous poor performances on pass DEF. DVOA incorporates this idea, of course, because it uses opponent adjustments: Throw really well against a bad pass DEF, and you end up with a high Pass OFF DVOA; throw well, and you end up with an average Pass OFF DVOA; throw poorly and you end up with a below-average Pass OFF DVOA. In other words, DVOA captures how well a team's coaches execute the proper game plan, and therefore indirectly measures the team's execution overall.

Here are the 49ers' overall team DVOAs and rankings through 10 games (bold = top 8 in the NFL; italics = bottom 8):







Special Teams










Based on these stats, we can say that the 49ers are a below-average team when it comes to executing on OFF, an above-average team when it comes to executing on DEF, and an average team when it comes to executing on ST. Therefore, it's not surprising that, according to TOT DVOA, the Niners are an average team overall in terms of execution.

One additional way to evaluate execution that's a tad bit more direct is to use 1st-Quarter DVOA. As I've said before in various posts and comment threads, the 1st quarter is the time of the game during which the 15-or-so-play script, aka the game plan, is being implemented. It's these plays where the Niners find out if they can execute the plays they want to call in a given game. If they're executing well in the 1st quarter, it bodes well for their overall execution for the entirety of the game; and vice-versa.

Here are the 49ers' 1st-Quarter DVOAs and rankings for the OFF and DEF through 10 games:









As you can see, using this more-direct measure of execution, the 49ers are even farther below average in terms of offensive execution, and slightly less above-average in terms of defensive execution. Even here, though, the overall conclusion's the same: they're average.


As I mentioned in the introduction, measuring whether or not the Niners "dominate the trenches" is pretty straightforward using ALY (and ASR). After all, "the trenches" is exactly what these stats assess. So here are the 49ers' OL ALY and ASR, as well as their defensive front 7 ALY & ASR (bold = top 8 in the NFL; italics = bottom 8):

















Clearly, the OL is not dominating the trenches. On the contrary, they're getting dominated in the trenches. On the defensive side, the front 7 is, in fact, dominating the trenches against the run, and is fighting to a draw in the trenches when it comes to pass rush. Overall then, once again the 49ers seem to be an average team according to Singletary's Formula for Success.


For this aspect of the formula, I'm going to use 2 different stats: Field Position Points for each ST unit and Inside-the-20 DVOA (Aside: Sorry, don't have time to put together DANLOLS this week...maybe next week). Field Position Points (and DANLOLS) is a pretty straightforward from a measurement perspective. That is, field position is exactly what it's measuring. Inside-the-20 DVOA, on the other hand, is more of an indirect measure. Basically, my rationale here is that, if a team's OFF plays inefficiently while backed up inside their own 20 yard line, then their DEF is likely to have horrible field position after a punt. Similarly, if a DEF plays efficiently while having their opponent backed up inside the 20, than their OFF is likely to have great field position after a punt. This is an indirect measure, for sure; but I think it's a valid one.

Below are the Niners' ST DVOA stats broken down by unit (bold = top 8 in the NFL; italics = bottom 8):













Kickoff Return


Punt Return






From this table, we can see that Andy Lee and the punt coverage unit are creating great field position, "SF PR" is creating horrible field position, and the other 3 units are creating average field position. Overall then, these stats tell us that the 49ers are mediocre at this piece of Singletary's Formula.

Here are the 49ers' Inside-the-20 DVOAs and rankings for the OFF and DEF:









It turns out both the OFF and the DEF are well below average when it comes to creating great field position for each other. When the OFF is backed up inside their own 20, they play so inefficiently that any punt is likely to force the DEF to operate on a short field. Of course, as we saw in the last table, Lee and company have limited the damage considerably. So, if not for the punt team, the OFF would basically be killing the DEF with their inefficient play while pinned deep.

The surprising thing is that the DEF is returning the favor, so to speak. When the Niners' opponent is pinned deep, the DEF plays so inefficiently that it lets the other team off the hook, and fails to give the OFF a short field. Perhaps that's why we don't see that many short scoring drives from the OFF? Hmmm. In any event, the totality of the stats in this section suggests that, much to Singletary's dismay, the 49ers are creating average, not great, field position.


To measure this final piece of the formula, I'm going to use two pretty straightforward FO stats: 4th-Quarter DVOA and Late & Close DVOA. If you're not familiar with Late & Close DVOA, it's basically tells you how efficient a team is on plays during the 2nd half when neither team has more than a 7-point lead. So I guess you could say that, whereas 4th-Quarter DVOA tells us how well the 49ers finish overall, Late & Close DVOA tells us how well the 49ers finish close games.

Here are the 49ers' 4th-Quarter DVOAs and rankings for the OFF and DEF (bold = top 8 in the NFL; italics = bottom 8):









As finishers, they're pretty average; shocking, I know. During the 4th quarter, the Niners' OFF plays slightly above average, while the DEF plays slightly below average.

Here are the 49ers' Late & Close DVOAs and rankings for the OFF and DEF (bold = top 8 in the NFL; italics = bottom 8):









When the game is close during the 2nd half, things change considerably. Specifically, the OFF is horribly inefficient, whereas the DEF is pretty darn efficient. Therefore, as finishers of close games, the OFF sucks and the DEF is pretty good.

Taking these two tables together, we see what part of the 49ers' problem is in terms of finishing. It's that the OFF finishes really well when winning/losing has already been pretty much decided, but they finish really poorly when winning/losing is still in doubt. Assuming you've watched most of the Niners' games thus far this season, this perfectly matches what your eyes have seen. Namely, the OFF plays really well during the 2nd half when either they're blowing out their opponent (e.g., vs. the Rams) or they're being blown out by their opponent (e.g., @ the Texans, @ the Packers), but they play really badly during the 2nd half when either they're slightly behind (e.g., couldn't complete huge comeback @ HOU and @ GB, couldn't come back late vs. TEN) or slightly ahead (e.g., sat on the ball @ the Vikings, @ the Colts, and vs. TEN). Hell, they even played like crap late in a close game they actually won 2 weeks ago vs. the Bears.

So, when you hear players and coaches talking about how the only thing standing between them and "a winning team" is learning how to finish games, what they really mean is that the OFF needs to learn how to finish close games. The DEF finishes games fine overall, and especially when they're close. The OFF, however, can't seem to get out of their own way when the game is on the line.


Based on Mike Singletary's Formula for Success:

  1. Total Ball Security - they're average.
  2. Execution - they're average.
  3. Dominate in the Trenches - they're average.
  4. Create Great Field Position - they're average.
  5. Finish - they're average.

Is it any wonder then that they can't seem to shake this whole "7-9, 8-8, or 9-7 is the best we can do" thing every year? Look at the bright side, though. By knowing that Singletary's Formula of Success is an eerily accurate indicator of whether or not the 49ers are a winning team, at least we can focus on these 5 aspects of performance as being the most important ones to improve going forward.

Coming up tomorrow - at least that's the plan - team DVOA stats and rankings.

*DVOA, ALY, and ASR statistics used to produce this article were obtained from Football Outsiders.