The NFL has become a pass-happy league. Everyone knows that, and, for the most part, seems to accept it.
Fans don’t spend hundreds of dollars on tickets, high definition TVs, and NFL Sunday Ticket packages because they enjoy watching teams run dives, traps, and counters for five yards. They would much rather watch Drew Brees, Andre Johnson, Peyton Manning, and Larry Fitzgerald light up defenses with amazing touchdown passes and record-setting offenses. And understandably so.
But is such an emphasis on the pass really a good thing for a team? Is a grounding of the ground game the surest way to ensure success where it matters most—in the standings? Funny that you asked…
To answer this question, I reviewed statistics from Week 1 and created the thrilling new statistical category Points per Pass Attempt (PPA). Simply put, PPA is the number of points a team’s offense scores divided by the amount of pass attempts its quarterback makes. For instance, if Team A scores 20 offensive points and throws 40 passes, its PPA would be .5 (20/40).
For those of you who think that throwing the football willy-nilly around the gridiron is the way to go, the following data might be a revelation of sorts.
Of the 10 teams who recorded the highest PPA values from Week 1, only one—Philadelphia, with a PPA of .59, right at the league average—actually lost their game. On the flip side, of the 10 with the lowest PPAs, only two—Washington (.19) and Baltimore (.26)—won their games, and only the Ravens had a lower PPA than their opponent. Right off the bat, we learn that PPA, although a measure of passing efficiency more so than passing frequency, might have some credence.
PPA, as was just alluded to, simply does not tell the whole story. It is also necessary to see whether the teams that pass most often have higher winning percentages.
In a word, no.
Of the 10 teams who threw the most passes in their opening games, only two—Arizona (41 passes, .41 PPA) and Baltimore (38 passes, .26 PPA)—were victorious. And the Cardinals were aided by the Rams’ ridiculous decision to have their rookie quarterback, Sam Bradford, throw 55 passes. No wonder their PPA (.24) ranked 28th out of 32 teams.
Conversely, the 10 teams who threw the fewest passes went 8-2 in the season’s opening weekend, and teams that threw the ball fewer than their opponent went 12-3-1 overall. Teams with higher PPAs than their opponents were even more successful, posting an eye-opening 15-1 mark.
But what does this all mean, you ask? How can we read so much into data from just Week 1? This is a fair argument on the surface, although one that can be picked apart fairly easily.
Firstly, there is an old adage that offenses tend not to be in sync and firing on all cylinders in the opening game. If this were truly the case then wouldn’t teams be less inclined to throw the football at the start of the season? And isn’t that what four months of mini-camps, training camps, and preseason games are for?
Coaches that use the “not in sync” excuse to defend poor offensive showings are simply refusing to admit their own unpreparedness or, more likely, their general schematic shortcomings.
But just for argument’s sake, let’s imagine that teams tend to game-plan and perform better as the season goes on. Once that happens, and once the best dozen reach the postseason, shouldn’t all matters of efficiency—including the brand new PPA formula—gain traction?
Let’s then go ahead and take a closer look at last year’s playoffs. After all, they culminated with the two best passing offenses and two of the NFL’s great quarterbacks vying for the Super Bowl, so passing must be the way to go. Right?
To quote the great Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend!”
In the 11 NFL playoff games last year, the team with a higher PPA went 9-2, and the team that threw fewer passes went 11-0.
I’ll repeat that: The team that threw fewer passes did not lose once in last season’s playoffs.
The Baltimore Ravens, who advanced to the divisional round, again become a great case study and PPA poster boy. In their wild-card round, they put a 33-14 drubbing on New England despite throwing only 10 passes and completing a mere four. Their PPA of 3.3 was exactly 10 times that of the Patriots, a team as synonymous with the pass as any.
So what did the Ravens do in their next game, a trip to Indianapolis? They only threw the ball 35 times, scored three points, accumulated a putrid PPA of .09, and saw their season come to an abrupt end at the hands of the Colts, whose PPA was a significantly higher .45.
There are a gazillion ways to analyze NFL teams’ success and try to decipher exactly what type of strategies guarantee winning, but the numbers here don’t lie. The NFL might be a quarterback-driven league, but that does not automatically make it a pass-driven league.
When the team who has thrown the ball more efficiently has won 24 of the last 27 NFL games, and when the team has thrown the ball less has won 23 of them, well, that might just be a formula you want to run with.