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A lot of analysts talk about third-down efficiency. Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas recently wrote:
To me this is the biggest area in which the Cowboys need to improve. They converted just 35 percent of their third-down opportunities. The Cowboys scored a lot of points (27.4 a game) but they couldn't stay on the field. That was surprising, although I realize the more you score, the less plays you run. But that was the lowest percentage by far since the Cowboys adopted Jason Garrett's offense. The lowest before last season was 39.4 percent in 2011. In 2012, they converted 43.9 percent of the time, which was the highest in Garrett's era. Last season's offseason focus was improving in the red zone, and the Cowboys did that. This season the improvement has to come on third down.
There’s no doubt that third downs are extremely important, but I think there’s a general misconception that offenses should do everything in their power to improve their third-down conversion rate.
I disagree completely. When you start to call plays in a manner that helps optimize third-down conversions, you necessarily limit overall offensive efficiency. The easiest way to improve on third down is to decrease the yardage needed to gain a first down, which could be accomplished by running the ball on first and second downs. In doing that, though, offenses would simply see more third downs.
Converting 40 percent of 50 third downs is much superior to converting 42 percent of 100 third downs; it’s OK to get a first down on first and second downs, too.
The best offense isn’t the one that has the highest third-down conversion rate, but rather the one that avoids third down altogether by calling plays optimally on first and second down. That might occasionally lead to 3rd-and-10, but it will also help accomplish the goal for any offense: scoring points.