INDIANAPOLIS --- The Colts are leading the NFL in plays per game, averaging 76.9 each week. In the last three games, Indianapolis is running a whopping 80 players per game (against some decent teams, by the way: Baltimore, Houston, and Cincinnati). Those snap counts are way up from last year's league-leader Denver, who ran 72.1 plays per game in 2013.
It's also significantly higher than the Colts ran last season, when they were 17th in the NFL at 64.1 plays per game.
So, what's the significance of plays per game? That depends who you ask.
Uptempo minded head coaches like Bill Belichick and Chip Kelly will tell you plays per game is what matters and time of possession is overrated. When I covered Chip Kelly his first two years as a college head coach at Oregon he'd always answer questions about time of possession the same way. He answered it the same way again last year as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.
"I've heard the question about time of possession, but we've talked about all the time -- time of possession is how much time can the other team waste. Most games, we lose the time of possession," Kelly said during the 2013 preseason. "But it's how many snaps do you face?"
For Kelly, his philosophy is the best way to score a lot of points is to run a lot of plays (usually quickly).
Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano looks at plays per game slightly differently. For him, it's a byproduct, not a primary goal, and time of possession does matter.
"Time of possession is the key here," Pagano told Colts.com Wednesday. "We don't go into any game with a set number of plays that we would like to run. The number is a byproduct of good football on 1st and 2nd down, and moving the chains on 3rd, a simple concept all can understand and figure out."
And the reward for that is two-fold.
"Also, it keeps opposing offenses on the sideline chewing ice and becoming frustrated, while keeping our defense fresh," said Pagano. "The formula seems to be working at this point. We hope to keep it going this week."
Ultimately, Pagano and Kelly are saying very similar things about plays per game, despite disagreeing on time of possession. In the end, it's about running as many more plays as possible than your opponent; therefore, giving your offense more chances to score and their offense less chances to score.
"I think it's the byproduct of scoring as many points as you can," said Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, when asked Wednesday if plays per game is a primary focus or not. "I think it's also a byproduct of a great defense that's getting us the ball back."
The Colts defense has done just that this season, highlighted by a shutout of the Bengals that started with 8 consecutive 3-and-outs by Cincinnati's offense. During the current 5-game winning streak, Indianapolis is running an average of 26.2 more plays per game than its opponent. That is an astounding difference! (The Colts also edged the Eagles and Broncos in snaps by a much smaller margin in close losses. That's where turnovers came into play, with a -3 turnover differential in the first two weeks).
The snap counts skyrocketing for the Colts offense has also led to an adjustment in game preparation.
"It takes a toll on your conditioning. So, it's important for guys to get a little extra running in after practice, during practice," said Colts tight end Dwayne Allen this week about getting more work in because of the increase in plays per game. "You'll see (Luck) running during practice, getting his conditioning in. I like to get mine after. The offensive line is always practicing at a high pace, so they can be conditioned for games."
"Our conditioning is off the charts," said Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. "We can go 12 rounds with whoever."
The Colts are certainly hoping to go the distance. The NFL leader in plays per game over the past six years has averaged more than 11 wins per season.