What's Going On With Passing In 2011?

Passing numbers have been on the rise since 1978, but they’ve exploded this season. In 2010, offenses averaged 222 yds per game, while so far this year they’re averaging 246. Compare that to the 2000 season in which offenses averaged 206 yds per game.

What’s going on with passing? Is it higher completion percentage? Is it deeper passes? Is it simply more pass attempts? Let’s take a closer look at the numbers to get a better idea of what might be causing the dramatic increase.

Before I get to my theories, I’m going to throw a bunch of graphs at you. Each graph looks at one or more dimension of the passing game by year. Pay close attention to the axis numbers on the left side of each graph so you’re not deceived by varying scales. First, let’s look at Expected Points Added per Play (EPA/P). This combines all the other stats into one understandable number representing the net point differential gained or lost by each pass play. This includes sacks, penalties, turnovers, and everything else. This will give us an overall idea of passing’s relative potency over the past decade.

Next, let’s look at net Yards Per Attempt (Net YPA). This is a very handy stat for getting a feel for the level of passing success throughout the league. Notice the dramatic increase from last year to this year.

Next up are sack and interception rates. With all the passing going on, the downside could be an extra exposure to passing’s inherent risks. But instead, we see a steady decline in sack and interception rates, and this season the trend is continuing.

What about the number of pass attempts? Here we see that teams are (correctly) passing more often each game by about 1.5 more attempts per game by each offense. The number of attempts looks relatively steady until a couple years ago, when it began a noticeable climb.

Next, lets look at yards per reception. You'll notice this graph closely mimics YPA. This season, YPR has dramatically increased right along with YPA. This suggests that the increase in total yards is due to more yards gained on completions rather than more completions.

The next graph shows the long-term increase in both completion percentage and passing success rate (SR). However, completion percentage isn't appreciably higher than it was in recent seasons.


So if YPR is increasing, and completion percentage is about the same as it's been, QBs must be throwing deeper, right?  Data in this category only goes back through 2006, but we still see a discernable trend. Contrary to what we'd expect, the trend is downward. Teams are attempting fewer deep passes, and so far 2011 has the lowest deep attempt rate of recent seasons, slightly shy of 19%.

Yards are up. Yards per completion are up. Yards per reception are up. Completion percentage is level. Deep passes are slightly down. Sacks are down. Interceptions are down. So how do offenses increase yards per reception without throwing deeper? The answer is Yards After Catch (YAC).

YAC is way up. Last season offenses averaged 110 yards of YAC per game. This season, they're averaging 123. In 2010, YAC comprised 48% of all passing yards, and so far in 2011, YAC comprises 53% of all passing yards.

Further, teams are responding to the increased effectiveness of the pass by passing more often. This compounds the effect, resulting in the record setting torrent of total passing yards we've witnessed.

If I had to guess, the underlying cause is the rise of the screen pass. High YAC percentage usually comes from screens and check downs. I don't have data on pass types, but the guys at ESPN do. I bet we're seeing more and more screens, particularly WR screens where one receiver runs a 'pick' pattern. At least, that's what I've noticed with just my two eyeballs.

I've heard many commentators suggest the lockout has somehow had more severe effects on complex pass coverage schemes. I can't rule that out, but it seems like an easy, lazy conjecture--impossible to prove and impossible to reject. If passing were dramatically down this season, the very same commentators would be saying that the lack of off-season practice disproportionately affected complex passing offenses. If field goal percentage were down, they'd say the same thing about kickers and holders, too.

For those, like myself, who were waiting to see these passing numbers regress to the mean as the season goes on, we shouldn't hold our breath. This season is part of a long-term trend in passing in the NFL. It may in fact regress to some degree, but the true mean of today's NFL is not necessarily last season's numbers or an average of the last several seasons. The game continues to change.

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17 Responses to “What's Going On With Passing In 2011?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Interesting. The numbers fit nicely with Bill Simmons' theory:

    We'll remember the concussion crackdown as an unequivocal tipping point for passing dominance. A bunch of smaller tweaks have helped over the years (can't touch the QBs, can't jam receivers, etc.), but now that you can send receivers and tight ends over the middle ad nauseam without worrying about them getting decapitated by safeties and linebackers? It's a different sport. Two weeks ago, the Patriots threw to Wes Welker twenty times in Buffalo. If they had run some of those same routes with him in 2002, he'd be in a coma right now. And why do you think we have so many emerging tight ends (Graham, Jermaine Gresham, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Pettigrew, etc.) all of the sudden? Football is changing before our eyes and people aren't even seeing it yet — the same offenses that always worked in Madden (either two TE/two WR, five WR or 4 WR/1 TE) now work in real life. In video games, you didn't care about sending Welker over the middle 16 times and having him get pounded — he was a video-game character. Now, you can do it with the real Welker. That means three things ultimately …

    1. We're going to see a boom in receiving numbers that parallels the home run numbers during the steroids era. Welker really might finish with 160 catches and 2,000 yards. It's not crazy.

    2. Green Bay, New Orleans, New England and (possibly) San Diego have a distinct advantage this season … and I think they're slowly starting to realize it.

    3. Peyton Manning must be going nuts.

  2. Jim Glass says:

    "It's a different sport. Two weeks ago, the Patriots threw to Wes Welker twenty times in Buffalo. If they had run some of those same routes with him in 2002, he'd be in a coma right now."

    That's a different sport?

    Look at this NFL film about the 1978 rule changes that started the process of opening the passing game -- with examples of how receivers were treated until then:

    The Top 10 Things That Changed The Game

    That was a different sport!

  3. James says:

    Except the numbers don't fit with Simmons' theory, he made a theory to fit in with the numbers.

    And over the summer and during the preseason every commentator I heard expected offensive numbers to be down due to the lockout, but now they say it's the defensive numbers that are down. Either one could be true (or neither and they're equally effected), but there's no evidence either way, just as Brian said. I don't think anyone really knows WHY it's happening, but at least we now know it's YAC.

  4. Matt Tort says:

    Interesting thoughts Brian, thanks for the hard work you put in every week.

    I've got some data that could shed some light on just how much or not the passing game is changing the NFL. From 1999-2009 the number of games that go over/under have been steady at 50/50 a season. Last season was the first time that it wasn't 50/50 but 60/40 in favor of going over the total. This has continued this season so far at 60/40.

    What really is interesting though is that point spread ratio is still 50/50. The favorite has just the same chance as the underdog. This has not changed last season or so far this year.

    Maybe I'm wrong for thinking this way but what that tells me is that yes passing is up but it really is not having an impact on game results other than the points scored. So as bee-ranom suggested that certain teams have an advantage I would disagree. Of course if a team has a dreadful QB they may have an disadvantage but that's been the case since the rules changed towards the passing game in 1978.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Going to through out a few ideas that may contribute:

    1. We're only 1/4 of the way through the season... I seem to remember something about how passing is less effective toward the end of the season as a result of the cold weather.

    2. The change in kickoff distance has made average drive length longer to score after a kickoff. It's easier (i suspect but don't have the data to back up) to pass when you're further away from the end zone, so those first extra 5 yards (rough average) of extra room to work with may be disproportionately scooped up by passing?

  6. Brian Burke says:

    #1 is true, but I'm not sure the effect is that big.

    #2 is brilliant, and it's the first I've heard the theory. Anytime there's some kind of break-away TD plays, run or pass, it's going to go for an extra 5 yds.

  7. willkoky says:

    Is # 2 also causing the scoring Matt mentioned? If a kick receiving team starts 5 yards further back and has to punt, the punt receiving team is also 5 yards closer to scoring on them then it was last year, resulting in "yes passing is up but it really is not having an impact on game results other than the points scored."?

  8. Anonymous says:

    I hate to say it, since it's the most cliched complaint ever made about football, but bad tackling might be a contributing factor to more YAC. I don't know if that's a function of the lockout or something more deeply-seated in the developmental stages of the game, but it does seem like a problem.

  9. Brian Burke says:

    Tackling would be suspect #1.

  10. JMM says:

    The change in practice rules also plays a role. Passing routes and timing can be practiced in shells. The running game is best practiced with full pads, which has been limited both in preseason and week to week.

  11. Buzz says:

    This passing strategy of gaining YAC and doing it effectively is why Bill Belichek and his coaching staff are the best in the league. And to be honest it's not close. This is an article I wrote last year http://community.advancednflstats.com/2010/12/are-short-passing-qbs-secret-to-nfl.html which was the start of some research that I did on passing games and the Pats in particular. What really made the Pat's offense go last year wasn't so much Brady as it was great WR YAC and short passes that weren't as easy to intercept.

    At the end of the day the Pats have been on the cutting edge of in game strategy for the last decade or so, whether its going for it on 4th down, utitilizing RB by committee, 2 TE sets, or throwing WR screens. They were among the first team to utilize each of these among others.

    It's also not a surprise that the rest of the league, which has often been a copy cat league, that they would notice what the Pats did last year and started to utilize it a little bit more throughout the rest of the league.

    My guess is that this type of passing attack is here to stay. Or at least until the defenses start to adapt, and really I am not sure if they will ever be able to fully adapt.

  12. stevekirsch says:

    I'm with JMM on this one. It wouldn't surprise me if the lack of hitting in practice contributed to poorer tackling.

    Also, I think teams are using the short passes/screens as substitutes for running plays. If you go back to how coaches favor success rate, the short passes make sense.

    These short passes also cause the corners to move up to cover and open up the longer passes. It's almost like coaches can use the short pass to set up the long pass.

    Also, as passing effectiveness increases, defenses will put more emphasis on the pass rush. This leaves them vulnerable to the screen.

    With opposing defenses loading up the box to defend against the run, coaches need an alternative for a consistent high success rate play. When they gear up for the increased passing effectiveness, the screens become more effective.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Think it was Theisman last SB: "You can´t defend the perfect pass". Heard the same before, and myself, i say it since 1991 when i saw Rypien could complete passes at will. If the D covers the deep routes, you go short. If you get blitzed like hell, Rypien destroyed ATL with 440+ yards on deep throws. It´s all about the OL baby... protect your QB and any "7th round QB" would destroy every NFL-Defense.

    May Brian and Jim Glass can remember: I wrote it here 2 yrs ago: Pass on every down. Until the run becomes more or at least even efficient. That is only on 3rd and longs (as Brian studies show )where teams already pass on 90% (!) of all plays. That seems to be the break even point. I might have been ahead of time (just kidding; Martz and Coryell truly were), but now football people understand the passing premium.

    The "lockout point" is absolute and complete nonsense. Not only b/c Easterbrook brought it up before, but since we have comparisons:
    In NFL Europe every year it took weeks for the offenses to make up for the short pre season. All seasons started with low scoring and later scoring went up. One O-Coach explained it with the difficultness of bringing the OL´s in sync ....

    Anyway, the efficiency numbers will regress to the mean later in the season, but get ready for even more pass attempts over the long run.

    Finally, the only logic reason for the better efficiency must be the rule changes in 2007 and mid-season of 2010.
    I see no way how to defend a slant in pass for example. No way, if your QB is protected.

    Karl from Germany.

  14. Anonymous says:

    "1. We're only 1/4 of the way through the season... I seem to remember something about how passing is less effective toward the end of the season as a result of the cold weather."

    "#1 is true, but I'm not sure the effect is that big."

    I am not even sure if it´s a factor at all. At least the good teams pass the ball with the same efficiency in September as in Januar as my Playoff-Study showed (PPG up, Y/PP up).

    And i also don´t think it´s the screen pass that lead to better efficiency numbers. If a screen pass went for 5.5 Y/Att (IIRC) in 2000 and 2001, and now goes for 5.9 Y/Att, it still brings down the overall effieciency numbers. It´s the mid-range-passes (throws up to 10 yards behind the LOS) over the middle that are most efficient. And since no more head hitting, this passes are "unstoppable" for the future.

    I love it :-)

    Karl from Germany.

  15. Chuck says:

    as a former defensive back and former defensive back coach, i have a selfish position. defenses at every level just aren't able to be as physical with qbs and receivers as they used to be. we are seeing the culmination of that this year in the nfl. these offensive players are protected so much that qbs are able to pass more freely, receivers are more open when they catch the ball, and the tackles are less forceful when they do occur. this leads to more completions and more YAC. not to mention rookies are coming in more prepared to bolster stats because the proliferation of the pass at lower levels.

  16. Cheeze says:

    Take a look at this study by bleacher report on size at the receiver position. Small shifty guys are harder to bring down period. The rule changes aside. 4 of the top 6 yac leaders this year are under 6 ft. 200lbs., not including djax, nate Washington (177 lbs), and maclin.

  17. Wrecktangle says:

    Although I can't prove it (well, I did mention it in some of the betting forums in August), I was expecting the offenses to be better in 2011 than normal. My reasoning went back to what happened in 1987, our last "decent" strike. For the three replacement weeks, offenses got ahead of defenses. I looked at it from the stand point of it only takes a QB and a few receivers to get on the same page, where 11 guys on defense have to work together to make a defense work.

    So, in 2011, with a short ramp-up to the regular season, I felt that we'd see great offenses and very lopsided win records, i.e. teams that would be 8-0 and 0-8 at midseason and two teams achieved that.

    Simplistic maybe, stat heavy it's not, but I like it when at least one prediction comes through.

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