NFL: Has the NFL Really Turned into a Pass-First League?

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NFL: Has the NFL Really Turned into a Pass-First League?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

You hear it all the time. Fans, players, the media and anyone associated with the NFL use the term "passing league" to refer to the style of play in today's game.

When you think of teams like the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, you can't help but agree with that logic.

Players like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have made a living throwing the football. The Colts, Patriots and Packers have made winning a habit by airing it out.

But even in light of that, does that necessarily mean that the league has completely molded into a pass-first league?

Earlier in the 2000s, the term "passing league" was lightly thrown about, if even at all. In today's NFL, there is so much more glamour in seeing an 80-yard Hail Mary for a touchdown than seeing a team that battles it out in the trenches.

Perhaps everyone has been paying a little too much attention to the Packers, Colts and Patriots of today, failing to realize that a large amount of the game still focuses on running the football.

During the 2001 NFL season, the NFL as a whole passed the football 54.2 percent of the time. During 2005, passing plays accounted for 53.3 percent of the total plays. The year 2010 saw a rise in that percentage to 55.3 percent.

Data does show that the 2010 season did account for the highest percentage of passing plays. However, that really doesn't paint the big picture.

Has the NFL as a whole evolved into a pass-first league?

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During 2001, the NFL averaged 32.6 attempts a game. During 2005, that average dropped to 32.2. During the 2010 season, that average spiked to 33.7 attempts a game.

Again, data shows 2010 as a year where the league passed the football more. 

Does this average really show that the league has completely evolved into a pass-first attack?

As more data shows, NFL teams have become more efficient at scoring. 2010's total of 751 touchdown passes was 116 more than 2001's total and 107 more than 2005's total. 

Even more so, these statistics don't really show an ultimate increase in passing attempts per game or offensive totals, but an increase in productivity. Take this, for example: 2001's quarterback rating was 78.6, 2005's quarterback rating improved to 80.1 and 2010's quarterback rating was a more improved 83.9.

2010 also shows similar improvement in average yards per rush (4.19). That average was higher than 2001's 4.05 average and 2005's 3.98 average.

Perhaps the tag of "passing league" has become a little too overemphasized. While data does show that today's game utilizes the passing attack more often and more efficiently, it also shows that offensive efficiency as a whole has risen.

2010's total TD count of 1,150 was higher than both 2001 (1,000 touchdowns) and 2005 (1,075).

Years 2001 and 2005 showed about the same totals for number of attempts (25.5) for every touchdown pass. 2010 showed an increase of 23 attempts for every touchdown pass.

In terms of rushing, during 2001, for every 38 rushing attempts, one touchdown was scored. During 2005, that total was just under 34 rushing attempts for every touchdown. 2010 showed a slight drop in that average with just under 35 attempts for every touchdown. 

The old adage of "defense wins championships" has been replaced by today's adage of "you can't win if we score more points than you." With that being said, it is usually easier for teams to score more points with a prolific passing attack than an efficient rushing attack.

Rightfully so, 2010 was a year capitalized by offensive prowess, lopsided scores and great quarterback play.

The table below shows most of the statistical data used in this article.

Year Pass Att. Pass TD Pass Att./Game Rush Att. Rush TD Rush Att./Game Total TD
2001 16181 635 32.6 13666 365 27.6 1000
2005 16464 644 32.2 14375 431 28.1 1075
2010 17269 751 33.7 13920 399 27.2 1150
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