Football Momentum: A Myth Or Reality?

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In a recent edition of’s “Football Freakonomics,” the experts looked into the issue of whether momentum was a myth in the NFL.  If a team is flying high, should we expect them to stay high?  If a team is low, will they stay low?

I broke down some of the stats provided in the video and asked my own panel of experts how they felt about momentum in the context of the game.

Fact: Since 2001, after a team enjoys a long kick return (40-plus yards) or punt return (30-plus yards), that team is approximately four-times as likely to score on the next play than they are to score on any other play from scrimmage.  

Special teams practitioner Graham Gano responds:

“I mean, if you don’t believe in momentum, then you’re crazy,” he said matter-of factly.  “You can feel it in the game, you can see it on the sidelines.  When you have a big return, like Banks returning one, you can look at the other sidelines and see everyone sulking around.”

For Gano, momentum is a precarious balance, waiting to shift on a given play.  At times, it can shift within a play itself.

“It can happen on one play,” he said.  “You can have a big return like that, and have a fumble or interception on the next play–I think it shifts.  I think that’s a big part of the game, and the appeal of the game.”

According to Gano, the art to breaking out of bad momentum is via a disciplined approach.  If you don’t like the results, you’re probably not preparing with good fundamentals.

“No, it’s not hard to break out, you just have to perform at the level that you know you can,” he said.  “You just have to be professional enough to go back to your normal capabilities.”

After breaking off a six-game losing skid with last Sunday’s victory over Seattle, the key for the Redskins is to translate that success to this week.  But is it possible to maintain a sense of momentum over a seven-day stretch against a different opponent?

“Momentum can carry on to other games,” he said.  “You start winning games and you feel more confident, so other teams are gonna see that you’re winning games and that’s gonna affect that.  I think game-by-game, it affects you too.”

Fact: Since 2001, when a team gets three consecutive first downs, the team has an 81 percent chance of scoring or getting a first down on the next set of downs (as compared to 72 percent at other times).

Offensive practitioner Donte Stallworth responds:

Momentum is like a phenomenon almost, but you can definitely feel it,” he explained.  “Once you get on a roll, it’s hard to be stopped.”

Much of the Redskins’ troubles during the middle part of the season boiled down to a lack of spark.  With no game-changing plays, the Redskins slid for six-straight losses.

“It gets tough, but I always look at it as someone has to take it upon themselves to make that play, to stop that,” Stallworth said, whose fourth-quarter touchdown reception in the Dallas game nearly won it.  “Usually, it only takes one big play: one big catch, one big run, one great block to make a big run–then it can all stop.

“I think it’s probably harder to keep momentum than it is to stop it.”

For instance, Stallworth explained that even when an offense is executing at a high level, there are only one misstep away from giving the momentum, and possibly the game away.  It takes near-perfect execution on each play to remain at a high level.

“I think it’s a collective effort, but it can also take one individual play as well,” he said.

As for carrying momentum between games, Stallworth credited preparation and confidence for carry-over momentum.

“I think every game is it’s own beast, but it’s the players that are involved, that dictate momentum,” he said.  “If you can pick up where you left off and start your own momentum in that particular game, then that’s where it starts to add on from the previous game.”

Fact: If an opposing quarterback completes five passes in a row, the following pass has only a 58 percent completion rate, which is lower than the 61 percent completion rating of all NFL passes.  Mathematicians would call this “regression to the mean.”  Defenders would call this “making a play.”

Defensive practitioner Ryan Kerrigan responds:

“I think in some spots, I definitely believe in momentum,” he said.  “But in general, I believe you make your own momentum.”

Coming from the defensive side of the ball, Kerrigan understands that a defense’s job is to neutralize the opposing offense first and make plays secondly.  As a result, he politely poo-poo’d my stats about momentum on offense, but did have this example to share:

“For example, you look at Iowa State and Oklahoma State game two weeks ago,” he offered.  “In overtime, Iowa State just had the ball rolling.  It’s not necessarily that the Iowa State offense is that much superior to the Oklahoma State defense–it’s just that it boiled down to momentum.

“So I believe in it, to an extent.”

After hearing the stats and the Redskins’ personal testimony, what do you think?


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