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Evolution of the NFL Offense: An Analysis of the Last 80 Years

When Peyton Manning threw for 462 yards and 7 touchdown passes in the NFL’s opening game this year, he got a lot of people’s attention. Peyton joined the ranks of only 5 other players in NFL history who have thrown as many touchdowns in a single game. The Broncos are considered by many to have the most potent offense in the league, and when you consider that they don’t even have a fullback on their entire team roster, it shows just how committed this offense is to the passing game.

As far as NFL offenses are concerned, there are exactly two options when it comes to moving the ball: rushing and passing. With teams like the Broncos dominating the league, many believe that passing the football is the way of the future. With all this talk about the dying running game, and the increased emphasis on passing, I decided to take a closer look at the differences between the two options, how teams tend to use them, and what we as football fans can expect in the future. Let’s get started.

Rushing Vs. Passing: Which is Superior?

First and foremost, let’s take a look at the differences between rushing and passing. Our first analysis should probably be “Which gets more yardage?”  Get ready for a shocker…

YPC

Just kidding. Nothing shocking here. Passing generally yields more yardage than rushing. To be exact, as of last season, complete passes yielded 10.9 yards while rushing attempts yielded 4.3. That’s a difference of 6.6 yards, which is huge when you’re talking about a game of inches. What’s even more interesting to me, however, is the remarkable consistency of rushing compared to the very clear decline in the yield of pass completions. This doesn’t exactly support the thought that passing is becoming the superior option, but you can contribute the decline in yards per completion to the rise of more organized and intelligent defensive schemes.

While the chart above is interesting, it doesn’t really tell the whole story. The key element in the chart above is yards per pass completion. That is not really a useful metric though, is it? It illustrates the high upside passing plays have, but it fails to account for the fact that not every passing play results in a completion. Let’s take a look at yards per passing attempt vs. yards per rushing attempt.

Yards Per Attempt

This levels the playing field a bit. The average yardage per pass attempt is 6.4 yards less than the average yardage per pass completion. The average difference between the two over the last three years was 4.75 yards. Even with that large downgrade, the passing game averages more yardage than the running game. That means to me, that the passing game has both a higher ceiling and a higher floor than the rushing game.

But it is not as simple as that. You will notice that the line for yards per rushing attempt in the charts above is exactly the same. Sure it is adjusted for scale, but it shows the exact same data. That’s because there is no such thing as an incomplete rushing play. Rushing has been an outrageously consistent way of moving the football over the years. Passing plays on the other hand, can fail with a bad throw or if a receiver can’t hold on to the ball. What that means is that passing is essentially a high risk/high reward strategy compared to rushing, which is more of a low risk/low reward strategy.

How consistently do passing plays result in completions?

Completion Percentage

There is simply no ignoring this one. The NFL’s completion percentage has experienced 98.2% increase since 1934 and is still rising. Over the course of the past six years, completion percentage has not dipped below 60% a single time. Prior to to 2007, league passing percentage had never exceeded 59.7%.

If that doesn’t show you the current prominence of the passing game, I don’t know what will. Passing has always been on the rise, but right now we are quite simply in an elite era of passing greatness. By increasing completion percentage, teams reduce the risk associated with passing the ball.

 

Putting Points on the Board: Passing Teams or Running Teams?

In this section, we’re going to take a look at what is the winning offensive formula in the current NFL landscape. Let’s take a look at last year’s highest scoring teams.

Highest Scoring Teams

If you are a football fan, you probably recognize many of the teams above as squads that rely heavily on the passing game. Eight of them to be exact, are in the upper half of the league in terms of total passing yards. Only Washington and Seattle fall out of that group. Five of the top ten passing teams are in the chart above. Eight of these teams went to the playoffs. The teams with the top four records in the league last year (Falcons, Broncos, Texans, Patriots) are on the chart above.

Most of the time, points = wins. This is not rocket science. But which offensive strategy is most conducive to scoring points? Judging by the number of pass-heavy teams in the chart above, the theory that the NFL has become a pass-first league is supported, but let’s take an even closer look. The charts below show the total number of points scored by each team compared to that respective team’s total passing/rushing yardage for the year.

Points By Passing

 

Points By Rushing

Points = wins, right? Well according to the charts above, passing = points. Therefore, in 2012-13, passing = wins. Actually, both passing and rushing are important to scoring, but judging by the slope of the trend lines above, an effective passing game is significantly more important to scoring than a solid rushing attack. Now if what everyone is saying is true, the further back we go in NFL history, the less important the passing game should become. I crunched the numbers all the way back to 1932.

The table below shows how important each offensive strategy has been to each NFL season. To calculate this, I used something called the Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient. You can read more about it here. It is defined as a measure of the linear correlation between two variables. It produces a value between +1 and -1, where +1 is a total positive correlation, 0 is no correlation, and -1 is a negative correlation. In this study, if passing has a higher correlation coefficient than rushing, it was more conducive to scoring during that particular season. Remember, the closer to +1, the better. The more effective offensive strategy for each year is bold and highlighted in a darker shade of blue.

Correlation Coefficient Corrected 2

This chart speaks for itself in support of claims that the NFL has transitioned to a passing league. Rushing offenses have proven more effective than passing offenses in just 2 of the past 22 NFL seasons (2005 and 1997). That is about 91% in favor of passing offenses.  Prior to 1991, passing was the more effective offense in only 28 out of 59 years; about 53% in favor of rushing offenses. Overall, passing has proven to be more effective than rushing 59% of the time in NFL history.

For good measure, here is a breakdown of the offensive tendencies of NFL teams since 1932.

Rushing Vs Passing

In 1982, the total number of passing attempts surpassed the total number of rushing attempts for the first time in NFL history. The following year, there were more rushing attempts than passing attempts, but since then passing has reigned supreme. There really is not any sign that the rushing game will make a resurgence as the preferred method of putting points on the board.

What does this mean for the running back and fullback positions? As mentioned before, teams like the Broncos have just excluded fullbacks, from their lineup completely. James Starks, a running back in the air-oriented Green Bay Packers offense led by Aaron Rodgers, just recorded the first 100 yard rushing game from a Packers running back since 2010.  Is what we have come to know as the standard NFL backfield slowly dying?

It’s borderline impossible for the classic rushing game to disappear completely, but as displayed in my  Unofficial 2013 NFL Player Census, things really don’t look good for the running back position.  Their average salary, at $1,682,565, is the fifth lowest in the league. Kickers get paid more, on average, than running backs. As far as durability, running backs are the absolute worst. If you average the length of every current NFL running back’s career, you are left with 3.11 years, lower than any other position. What this also means is that most running backs are quite young. Younger players tend to be paid much less than veterans. NFL players who do not stay in the league past age 25  have seriously decreased chances at big money (by pro athlete standards). The NFL offers many better options than the running back position.

Passing effectiveness is up, passing frequency is up, and general rushing importance is down. By all indications we are in a truly airborne era of the NFL.

 

The raw data for this piece is available for download by clicking the button below.

ExcelDownload

Created By: Andrew Powell-Morse

Brought To You By: Best Tickets

For additional questions, or data requests, email andrew@besttickets.com

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Comments (4)

  1. Joey - Reply

    October 1, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Analysts have been saying the NFL is transitioning to a passing league for several years now, but this provides concrete evidence of the shift. Very interesting stuff!

  2. John - Reply

    October 6, 2013 at 12:08 am

    This is a great post, but this really focuses on the success of passing offenses vs rushing offenses, since you’re looking at yards/attempt and wins. But I would simply like to see the average number of rushing attempts vs passing attempts through the years, because this will show the true trend in changing offensive strategy (regardless of whether it’s working or not; as measured by yards and wins). Looking at the passing attempts to rushing attempts ratio throughout the history of the NFL would also be very informative.

    • Andrew Powell-Morse - Reply

      October 6, 2013 at 12:21 am

      Actually, the final graph in the piece shows exactly the statistics you’re asking about. If you’d like I can send you the numbers in a table. Shoot me an email at andrew@besttickets.com if you’re interested.

      • John - Reply

        October 6, 2013 at 5:34 pm

        Doh! I actually read this article on another website and failed to get that far I suppose, so I was looking to find the source of the article. Thanks for providing that. The divergence has really been acute in the last 3 years!

        What about rushing TDs vs passing TDs? Would be curious to know if teams are relying more on passing to generate TDs as opposed to rushing. Thanks!

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