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Face-offs Don’t Matter?

On Sunday, the self proclaimed source of the sport published an article titled, ‘Do Face-offs Matter?’, proposing the idea that face-offs don’t hold as much worth as everyone traditionally believes. Take a look and read it for yourself.

As you can probably imagine, Connor and Krieg both immediately began scratching their heads at the thought of any one statistic in lacrosse being more or less important than the others. With that, both of these fine gentlemen decided to take a spin at a little rebuttal to the idea that face-off don’t matter.

Krieg’s View on Faceoffs

After reading the article, I immediately began to wonder, how could anyone think face-offs aren’t as important as other aspects of the game? They are a part of what makes our sport unique. How many other sports are you given a 50/50 shot at the ball after you score? Hockey for sure, Aussie Rules Football is another, and you could argue football if you consider the onside kick, but outside of those, there aren’t many big sports that allow a scoring team an opportunity to regain possession on the very next play.

And that uncertainty is part of what makes lacrosse great; how quickly a game can swing in one team’s favor by the opportunities that face-offs bring to the table. Let’s look at three main reasons why face-offs are very important, or at least just as important as any other statistic in lacrosse – FOGOs, Opportunities, and the ‘Big Picture’.

Before we do that though, let’s get on the same page. My definition of a face-off ‘win’ is gaining possession after the draw. Winning the draw is just part of the battle. You can win the draw and still lose possession, that is what makes wing play just as important as the draw itself. It’s an important distinction to make.


This argument is short and sweet. Why would we have a position dedicated to face-off men if the face-off wasn’t just as important as other statistics? There are guys in our sport who make a living off being great face-off men. We wouldn’t dedicate a position entirely to face-off men if face-offs didn’t matter just as much as every other part of the sport.

CJ Costabile and Alex Smith are both fantastic examples of how important a great face-off man is. CJ Costabile won a very important face-off in the Duke vs. Notre Dame Championship game, I believe that ended well for him and the Blue Devils. Alex Smith helped lead Delaware to a National Semifinal appearance in 2007 by dominating at the face-off X and controlling the ball.


Face-offs create opportunities, opportunities that can’t be had without gaining possession of the ball or, winning the face-off.

Swezey says it himself:

What’s important is what a team does once it gains possession.

That’s the whole point behind a face-off – fast breaks, slow breaks, possessions, shots, none of these are possible without gaining possession of the ball. What is one of the best ways to gain possession? Win the face-off! Yes, it’s very true that these stats don’t mean much if you turn the ball over, but the same could be said for a lot of other statistics as well. After the above quote, Swezey goes on to say,

Face-offs still matter as a way to stop momentum or make a comeback. But overall, face-off wins, despite my protestations to the contrary, no longer seem all that important.

I couldn’t disagree more. Just the same as if you have a high shot percentage or a lot of saves, the amount of face-offs wins you get help make up the big picture to a recipe for success.

The Big Picture

Stats are just numbers and you can form them to make whatever point you want. Lacrosse is way more than just a game of statistics and that is what makes it great. Success on the field is accomplished by winning in many different ways on the field, both offensively and defensively, and each way is just as important as the next.

I wish I could remember his exact quote, but I was watching a post game interview with Dom Starsia after a Virginia victory and he brought up a great point. He talked about how his team was able to win because of the different ways they were able to score. Some goals were man-up, some were settled, some fast break, and even some came from their defense. Face Offs factor in there too, and that alone makes them important.

Every statistic in the game of lacrosse contributes to a loss or victory. Shots, turnovers, saves, face-off wins, they ALL matter equally in my mind. To put too much weight on one aspect of the game just leaves holes for tripping up in another. A win in lacrosse, and really any sport for that matter, is most often accomplished by putting together a complete game, in which all parts are equally important. After all, lacrosse is a team sport, right?


Connor’s View on Face-offs

Connor Wilson has a much more reasonable view on the article… although he does seem to have serious issues with numbers.

Face offs DO matter… Well, sometimes. Gee, that was helpful.

The problem with this discussion on face offs is that it focuses on the use of a simple statistic as a predictor of wins and losses, and it doesn’t really focus on whether or not they truly matter within their own context. One can look at any number of games this year (and in the past) and see teams go on runs of goals after a couple straight face off wins. One also sees certain teams that win face offs AND possess the ball well, and others that win face offs but lose the ball, and sometimes the latter leads to lost games. One could then make an argument that face offs don’t matter, but one would be wrong.

Face offs, much like any statistic or portion of the game, are only a small part of a much larger equation. For example, one could look at man up chances and see that Team A is scoring at a 40% clip, and one might think that Team A is dangerous with the extra man, and that it is something to plan for. But what if Team A doesn’t draw a lot of penalties? What if that 40% is 4-10 on the season and Team A has played 10 games? That changes the statistic’s importance a bit, and it changes how the stat can play in a game, doesn’t it? It’s not to say that man up doesn’t matter, but the relative importance of that one stat has been seemingly diminished by the fact that opportunities are rare. So, like man up percentages, face offs can not be looked at in a bubble.

The problem with using face offs for much of anything, other than grading FoGos, and who won possession first, is that the stat is designed to tell you anything but just that. To use it as a predictor of wins is shortsighted, but the stat itself is valid. So to use it as a predictor now, is to use an antiquated statistic. At least when it comes to grading a team’s chances of winning, much like a batting average has become in baseball, you can tell something from it, but it doesn’t give you the whole picture. It’s not even close.

How often does a particular face off man win possession and then his team gets possession in the offensive box? How often does a team face off lead directly to a goal? How many turnovers does a team have after winning face offs? How likely is a team to generate a turnover off a face off? The list of possible stats goes on and on. By using those newly generated numbers, we might get a better stat, or it might just be more a more complex stat, that doesn’t tell us anything more. But we won’t know until we try.

So, after all that, perhaps this isn’t an issue of the stat being wrong, or irrelevant, at all. Perhaps it is just a case of people trying to use it in the wrong way, and then scapegoating the statistic when it doesn’t work out like they thought it would. Face off wins are still face off wins, and when viewed in a larger context, they can still be used to predict winners. Statistics aren’t misleading on their own, but people using them to make unfounded assumptions are. Here’s to the Face Off stat, being what it is.

What do YOU think? Do Face-offs matter?