Dec
19
2020

Stupid Stats: Passing Yards

Welcome to the third installment of Stupid Stats. For the first installment, click here. For the second installment, click here. Stats in sports help fans, players, coaches, scouts, and executives attach a numerical value to a player or team’s performance. Some stats provide a clear representation of a player’s performance. On the other hand, some stats are entirely misused and generally fail to accurately portray a player.

Another of football’s main culprits? Passing yards.

Passing yards are accumulated when a quarterback throws a pass to a receiver. Productive quarterbacks reach 300 passing yards in a game regularly, and they often post between 4,000 and 5,000 yards in a season. Norm Van Brocklin holds the records with 554 passing yards in a game while Peyton Manning set the all-time season mark with 5,477 yards in 2013.

Why is it stupid?

The figure ends up with no context about how the yards were accumulated. Screen passes and touch passes could provide massive yardage to a quarterback, but the quarterback does not have to make a difficult throw. On the other hand, some quarterbacks routinely make great throws that are either dropped and not counted or the receiver fails to get extra yards after the catch.

Similarly, the volume of pass attempts often goes unmentioned. Take an example from the 2007 season. Vince Young and Eli Manning had games with exactly 184 passing yards, one passing touchdown, and zero interceptions three months apart. Young threw 27 passes to get those 184 yards. Manning threw 53. Ignoring pass attempts, they had identical games. Factoring in pass attempts, Young had the clear efficiency advantage at moving the football.

Debunking Efficiency versus Volume

In general, efficiency returns to the mean as volume grows. For example, 10 pass attempts could include several drops or losses of yardage and result in a low yardage total. Similarly, 10 pass attempts could include several big plays that can skew yards per attempt higher; these are outliers. As volume grows, efficiency tends to normalize out.

This general rule means one excludes Russell Gage’s 19.5 yards per attempt on two pass attempts.

Two players should be similar in yardage or attempts for a proper comparison. Kirk Cousins and his 220 yards on 20 pass attempts is a significantly more efficient game than most other games. Josh Allen and Justin Herbert had over 240 yards in Week 14 games, but they had over 40 attempts as well. All else being equal, Cousins had a better passing performance.

Note: Throwing for 240 yards against the 2020 Steelers is more impressive than throwing for 220 yards against a team that often forgets to have 11 men on the field.

Air Yards versus Yards After Catch

When judging quarterback performance, not all yards are created equal. The ratio between air yards and yards after the catch is important in the determination of which quarterback is making the best throws. Currently, Denver (9.3 intended air yards per pass attempt) and Atlanta (8.9) are pushing the ball down the field more than any team in the league.

Matt Ryan and (usually) Drew Lock is making generally more difficult throws. In a vacuum, their accumulated passing yards are due to quarterback talent (and scheme) than Washington or New Orleans (both 5.9) for example.

From a YAC realm, no team helps out its quarterback more than the Packers (5.8 yards after the catch per completion). Over 50 percent of Green Bay’s passing yards come after the catch.

Caveats:

These figures can be skewed by the scheme, quarterback talent, and wide receiver talent. The San Francisco passing offense is built on pass-catchers being able to break tackles and gain extra yards. Jimmy Garoppolo and Nick Mullens throw many short passes in the hopes that the likes of Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle can create after the catch.

One undervalued skill that some quarterbacks have is the ability to lead receivers to more yards after the catch. These passes are dropped in perfectly, so the receiver does not have to break stride to catch the pass. Some throws, while on target, force a receiver to slow down or make adjustments to catch the pass.

Some pass-catchers break an inordinate amount of tackles and generate ridiculous amounts of YAC. Receivers such as Cooper Kupp and A.J. Brown routinely turn solid pickups into huge plays. While Jared Goff and Ryan Tannehill often throw well-placed passes, Kupp and Brown have combined to avoid 32 tackles per Pro Football Focus.

Verdict:

Passing yards lack context in a debate. Stats such as yards per attempt intended air yards, and yards after the catch add context to passing yards. It is useful to ask yourself who should get the credit on a given pass play. Sometimes, the quarterback deserves most of the credit. Sometimes, the receiver deserves most of the credit. There are even times where the quarterback and receiver should split the credit.

As a whole, use a healthy variety of stats in discussions. Passing yards do not need to be discarded, but they need context to be used properly.