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1-Yard TD Passes

The 2nd touchdown of Ken Stabler’s career came in mop up duty at the end of a blowout in 1972 against the Oilers. With the Raiders up 27-0 on Monday Night Football, Stabler threw a one-yard touchdown off of play-action late in the fourth quarter.1

A month later, Mike Ditka caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Craig Morton to put the Cowboys up 24-0 against the Chargers in the first half.2 In December, Denver’s Charley Johnson found Haven Moses for a 1-yard touchdown in the first half against the Chiefs.

Why am I reviewing some random 1-yard touchdown throws from 1972? Well, I’m not reviewing some random 1-yard touchdown passes from 1972; I just finished reviewing all of them. That’s right: there were just three touchdown passes of one yard in the entire 1972 season.

For some perspective, consider that there have been two games in NFL history with three 1-yard touchdowns! One was this game between the Jaguars and Texans in 2012 when James Casey and Garrett Graham caught 1-yard touchdowns from Matt Schaub, and Marcedes Lewis caught a 1-yarder from Chad Henne. The other came between the Steelers and Broncos, when Jay Cutler threw one-yard touchdowns to Cecil Sapp and Tony Scheffler, while Ben Roetlhisberger opened up the scoring with a 1-yarder to Heath Miller.3

The graph below shows the number of 1-yard touchdown passes in the NFL (or the AAFC or AFL) during each season since 1946. The chart is as jarring any you’ll ever see about the evolution of the passing game:

1 yd PTD

To be fair, there are 512 games in the modern NFL regular season, but were only 144 when there were 12 teams and 12-game seasons. If we pro-rate each season to 512 games, would that flatten the curve? I thought it might, but as it turns out, it doesn’t do too much to minimize the sharpness:

1 yd PTD (pro-rated)

Okay, you’re thinking, but what about 1-yard TD passes as a percentage of all TD passes? Well, the effect has risen sharply there, too.

1 yd PTD (perc)

Nearly 8% of all touchdown passes last year were of the 1-yard variety. By historical measure, that’s insane. Here’s some more perspective:

  1. That was probably not the most memorable part of that broadcast. []
  2. Dallas would go up 31-0 before John Hadl (!) led a spirited second-half comeback that fell just short. []
  3. And there were two 1-yard touchdown throws in well, the worst playoff game of the 2014 postseason. []
  • There are 256 games in the modern NFL season, not 512.

    • Thanks, Chris. For purposes of today’s analysis, I think it makes more sense to consider 512 games. But in any event, it’s a semantics difference when it comes to pro-rating the numbers, whether it’s from 144 to 512 or 72 to 256.

  • jtr

    Rather than 1 yard TDs divided by total TD passes, wouldn’t 1 yd passing TDs divided by total 1 yd TDs be a more meaningful metric? Since a 1 yd TD pass can only come from the 1 yd line, we’re basically measuring the willingness and effectiveness of teams passing vs rather from the 1. The last graph is kind of a silly metric, measuring the probability that it was from the 1 given that it was a passing TD. It would make a lot more sense to measure the probability that it was a pass given that it was a 1 yd TD.

    • Richie

      In 1970, there were 100 1-yard touchdown runs (in 336 games, .297/game). In 2014, there were 122 1-yard touchdown runs (in 512 games, .238/game).

      I expected a bigger difference. I figured the rate of plays from the 1-yard line wouldn’t fluctuate much. But it looks like teams run about one more play from the 1-yard line every half a game than they did in 1970. (This is assuming that the rate of non-scores from the 1-yard line is similar._

  • Dr__P

    In an earlier era, Eddie LeBaron threw a TD pass that was measured in inches. That was well before the league said anything was measured from the one yard line regardless of the actual line of scrimmage

  • Joseph

    Thanks so much for presenting this fascinating data. It’s been clear to me for quite some time now that QBs over the last couple of decades have been padding their passer ratings — and their salaries! — by raising their TD totals through these short throws. In the old NFL this was usually where the running backs were rewarded for all the pounding they took. I think if you were to carry out calculations for TD passes under 5 yards, or under 10 yards, the differences would be even more dramatic. Great work!

    • Andropov

      Is it QBs padding their stats, or smart teams taking advantage of the expectation that they’ll try to pound it in, or simply teams utilizing the most effective part of their offense regardless of distance to the goal? I think there are a lot of explanations for the shift that don’t come back to QBs being greedy or glory hounds.

      • Joseph

        My impression is that that last couple of decades has seen a major increase in the importance of passing stats — both in terms of how often stats are emphasized in the media and in connection with salary levels. Unitas certainly didn’t worry about his stats, and apparently didn’t even know he had a record going in his TD passing streak. You don’t think any of the current crop of active QBs try to pad the stats with all the short TDs, rather than let the running back get some of the glory? How many times is it mentioned by the media that QB X had 4 TD passes in the game as if this is a great accomplishment, and then you see that 3 of them were under 10 yards? I think the astonishing trend line that Chase has documented here is indicative is something more than just “smart team play”.

        • Andropov

          Okay, let’s try a different tack- do you have any evidence of this? Coaches, GMs, or players suggesting that this is true? Or is this just you assuming the worst about a group of people because you can?

          • Joseph

            No, you must be right. There’s no such thing as stat-padding. Nor are there “glory hounds” in professional sports. The explosive rise in one-yard TD passes in recent years is doubtless best explained in terms of the rise in “smart team play.” The ten such passes Brees threw to break Johnny U’s record were obviously the best calls to make to score the needed points. The high number of TD passes that Brady throws late in Patriot blow-out wins is again a measure of “smart team” play (contrary to the slander reported in the 2010 blog article “The Patriots, Tom Brady, and Stats Padding”). And when former players like Ron Jaworski offer comments like the following, it’s obviously due to envy or sour grapes: “I’ve been around this league for 40 years. I came in as a rookie in 1973. I actually played against Johnny Unitas and George Blanda … that’s some experience guys you know. Through my years of experience, this game’s about winning a Championship. It’s not about padding numbers and putting up stats” (from the ESPN 710′s ‘the Brock and Salk’ program in August 2014).

            • Andropov

              If Drew Brees is on my team, he is almost undoubtedly the best way to get a single yard, regardless of situation. It can be both the best option and a decision influenced by record chasing. This is not an all or nothing thing. I just don’t think the primary motivation is QBs chasing stats.

  • Richie

    This helps explain my concern with “counting” TD passes as more valuable in things such as passer rating and ANY/A. All these QB’s getting 1-yard TD passes in recent years doesn’t make them better. It just means that the coaches are calling more pass plays in that situation.

    • Adam Steele

      But….all those goal line pass attempts depress Y/A, so rewarding TDs with a bonus is the fairest way to compensate for that. The 20 yard bonus in ANY/A is reasonable, while the 80 yard bonus in passer rating is absurd.