The red zone is not a real place on any football field, and its prominence in football parlance is only limiting our understanding of the game. After spending thousands of hours of my life with Dierdorf, Buck, and all the other great orators of our time, it’s still unclear to me why everyone seems to think the “red zone” is an acceptable concept. Of course we all know this is the area within 20 yards of the goal line, but beyond that — what the hell? I guess it’s called the red zone because teams are more likely to accumulate points once they arrive there, but the placement of the red zone boundary at the 20-yard line has always seemed so arbitrary. Why not the 15? Why not the 25? Most NFL kickers can make 45-yard field goals on a regular basis, so why doesn’t the red zone start at the 28?
When we talk about the red zone, we’re talking about an over-hyped subset of playing space, but this idea of vague spatial zones is not unique to football. In our era of Google Maps and GPS, the understanding of space in sports remains almost foolishly antiquated; every sport is plagued by these kinds of vague colonies of playing space. Soccer has its “attacking third”; baseball has its “strike zone”; basketball has its “mid-range”; the list goes on and on. Some of the partitioning is imprecise, some of it is arbitrary, some of it is both. But, regardless, these divisions not only affect the way we talk about every sport, but perhaps more importantly, their ambiguity hinders the way we understand sports in general. It’s cool that pro wrestling has its Muta Scale, which is awesomely arbitrary, but other sports need some more legitimate scaling.
The good news is that we’re getting better. Recently, at the end of close NFL games, as a team is frantically driving toward a last-gasp field goal attempt, we've seen the television networks superimpose a red line at the edge of “field goal range” as a way to visually emphasize this key spatial threshold. This line is definitely “red,” but it's never placed at the 20-yard line — it’s always somewhere between the 30 and the 40. The field goal range boundary line is perhaps our best precedent for where a “red zone” might actually begin; after all, the line is placed at the estimated edge of the point-scoring zone. But, the field goal range line raises a broader question: What is the relationship between field position and scoring expectations in the NFL?