January 22, 2010

NFL 2009: The Year Only Passing Mattered

Audacious Epigone has a nifty table showing the correlation between a team's wins during the NFL's 2009 regular season and various team statistics. The most striking is the very high correlation between Wins and Yards Gained per Pass Play (which, I believe, is net of yards lost on sacks of the quarterback, but without adjustments for touchdowns and interceptions thrown) -- r = 0.80 -- versus the very low correlation between Wins and Yards per Rush [Run] Play -- r = 0.09.

For example, the two top teams in yards per running play were the Tennessee Titans (8-8) and the Carolina Panthers (8-8), while two worst running teams per play were the Indianapolis Colts (14-2) and the San Diego Chargers (13-3).

A correlation with number of wins of 0.80 with yards per pass attempt is very high considering that's not even looking at defense or special teams play. In general, you wouldn't expect this high of a correlation because of diminishing returns: if your upcoming opponent has been passing, not running, its way to victory, then you'll try on defense to shut down their passing game at the cost of giving up more yards per run.

Now, A.E. has checked out the last eight NFL seasons, and 2009 turns out to be the extreme case in recent years:

YearPassRun
2009.80.09
2008.48.15
2007.76.24
2006.44.10
2005.60.40
2004.56.45
2003.67.07
2002.50.11

So, passing has been more correlated with winning than running for each of the last eight seasons, but 2009 was definitely the Year of the Quarterback. I found myself writing a lot about NFL quarterbacks in 2009, so at least I was responding to a real phenomenon.

One issue is that there are only 256 regular season NFL games per year, so the sample size isn't enormous, and that's one reason for year-to-year swings.

Of course, when you get to the playoffs in January, especially in outdoor games in northern cities, passing can let you down, such as New England's passing attack getting whomped by Baltimore's running game outdoors in the Boston area in the first round of the playoffs.

A question is whether the NFL's popularity could diminish if the game stays a one-dimensional test of passing skills. Personally, the kind of football I liked best was college football in the late 1960s and 1970s when coaches frequently invented all new offenses (the Veer, the Wishbone, and so forth) and have a number of years of success before defenses would catch up. It was interesting to see teams with wildly different offensive styles on the same field, which you can still see in the college game. In the NFL, in contrast, the skill level has always been so high that gimmicky innovations seldom work.

On the other hand, it could be that fans just like passing more than running -- that the few seconds when the ball is in the air is just more exciting than the ball on the ground. Thus, the long term on-field trend in the NFL toward more skillful execution of passing plays is in the business interests of the NFL. There's worse situations a sports league can be in than that.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

19 comments:

green mamba said...

This is certainly a lot different than the football I remember watching while growing up: Walter Payton pounding it out, breaking tackles and carrying multiple tacklers with him about thirty times a game. Then again, the Bears were lousy during Payton's great early years; they had no passing game.

Anonymous said...

For example, the two top teams in yards per running play were the Tennessee Titans (8-8) and the Carolina Panthers (8-8), while two worst running teams per play were the Indianapolis Colts (14-2) and the San Diego Chargers (13-3).

And the Chargers got bounced in the playoffs, at home, by the New York Jets, one of the worst passing teams in the NFL.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, YPA is and has been a huge indicator of winning %. See the Cold Hard Football Facts which has been tracking this for years:

http://www.coldhardfootballfacts.com/Articles/2_992_Passing_YPA.html

Less predictive in the playoffs, though, as you point out.

Anonymous said...

It used to be that yards passing against seemed negatively correlated with winning, thinking back to The Hogs and the Giants days when they routinely finished last in the conference in yards passing against but first in their division.

The explanation was that you couldn't run against them and since their opponents were behind in the third and fourth quarters they aired it out. The passing game was more hit and miss back then, though; I remember when Ken Anderson types would have 60% completion percentage that was very good. Today, 60% is low, and that is among the biggest differences I can see (I know, this has been covered here, just sayin').

Michael said...

Today's defenses are designed to make offenses 1 dimensional - which means shutting down the run and forcing the pass. This is usually accomplished by bringing in 1 or more extra defenders (usually safeties) closer to the line of scrimmage, and teaching the players in coverage to be mindful to support stopping the run.

I don't think it's a stretch to suspect that this incredible focus on stopping the run is a window of opportunity for today's skilled QBs to put up huge passing numbers and win games.

Anonymous said...

I would say the passing game was more hit *and* miss back then. The rules still allowed defenders to do some nasty stuff to receivers that they can't do today.

A lot of receivers went out for a pass, got hit, and missed the catch.

Bill said...

And the Chargers got bounced in the playoffs, at home, by the New York Jets, one of the worst passing teams in the NFL.

The Jets had the league's best pass defense this season.

OhioStater said...

Well a passing oriented game has more action since the clock stops after plays to the sideline and incompletions. A recent study says a football game has 11 to 13 minutes of action, but a typical run play burns 30 seconds of clock, but on average pass plays use a lot less.

Jody said...

Echoing Anon above, there's been a noticeable change in the rules over the last few years where QBs are almost untouchable (Brady rule) and WRs were much more protected.

Both of which made defenses more hesitant, offenses more confident and gave passing offenses extra yardage per game thanks to penalties (see the Ravens as the ones best known for being screwed by the rule change).

-a different Jody

George said...

"New England's passing attack getting whomped by Baltimore's running game outdoors in the Boston area in the first round of the playoffs."

Losing Brady's main target and NE's big threatman, Welker, had a big negative effect on NE at seasons end...

Anonymous said...

Apropos of nothing, did anyone else notice Senior Tim Tebow passing for more than 450 yards and accounting for 530+ yards in total offense in the Sugar Bowl?

Wow, that was a passing performance. Tebow is in Nashville working out at the D1 fitness/training center, http://www.tennessean.com/article/20100122/SPORTS01/1220340/Tim+Tebow+hones+skills+at+Franklin+facility ,under the eye of Zeke Bratkowski (remember him, from the Atlanta Falcons back in the day?), adjusting his throwing motion to be more NFL-like.


If I were a football coach, I think I'd simply coach quarterbacks by having them emulate the throwing motion/footwork of Peyton Manning as close as they physically could. His actions have little wasted motion, the passing arm is "up" and cocked with the football as soon as he drops back. He only lowers the ball to chest level when moving around in the pocket to evade pressure, and even then keeps it close to the throwing shoulder while keeping his feet moving so that he can direct himself towards a open reciever/move the ball back up into the "cocked" position and fire it with one quick simultaneous move. Its ergonomically as efficient as can be. He might sacrafice a little velocity, but its worth it as it gives the defensive backs the least amount of a "tell" as possible to break on the ball.

Anonymous said...

I've been saying this all year but didn't need no faggy statistics to back it up.

Dan in DC

albertosaurus said...

A while back I recommended to you that you work on becoming a football statistics guru. It's good to see that you are following my advice.

Truth said...

"A while back I recommended to you that you work on becoming a football statistics guru. It's good to see that you are following my advice."

Just the other day, Steve was telling me that he had never CONSIDERED using stats in his posts until your comment.

Anonymous said...

Noticed a couple of nostalgia stories in the last few days:

1969 NY Jets flashback: sportsillustrated.cnn.com

George Blanda flashback: nytimes.com

According to the article, George Blanda is now 82 years old, and, by my calculations, Joe Namath will turn 67 in May.

Yikes!!!

Time flies.

Before you know it, we'll all be dead and gone...

ricpic said...

What about the NY Jets? Their offense is almost wholly dominated by the run and they're sixty minutes away from the Super Bowl.

Anonymous said...

Saints are a bunch of cheap-shot artists, but Minnesota's last two offensive plays in regulation were real head scratchers.

12 men in the huddle, followed by a soft, squigly pass, thrown against the grain, opposite direction, on a diagonal, for an interception?

Ugh.

I hate to see a bunch of punks like the Saints win a game like this.

Hopefully the Colts will smack them down.

Matthew S. said...

This has everything to do with rule changes. As has been stated qb's are untouchable and cornerbacks are basically not allowed to touch receivers until they catch the ball. All the newer rules are in favor of the passing game. The NFL is engineering this change in favor of more passing yards and higher scores.

David said...

>The NFL is engineering this change in favor of more passing yards and higher scores.<

It's show biz. The more viewers, the more looky-loos who prefer flash, dash, and drama.

"Good" games are games with even scores until the last 2 seconds. The OMG factor.

Kick football off TV. It would regain its purity. (Football, not TV)