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NFL Passing, 1950 Through Week 13, 2014

In case you haven’t noticed, 2014 is on pace to become the greatest passing season in NFL history. Which may not be surprising, since just a few months ago, the three best passing seasons in NFL history were the 2012, 2011, and 2013 seasons. Falling into fifth place will be the… 2010 NFL season. So passing numbers are on the rise, but you already knew that.

Through week 13 of the 2014 season, the NFL average Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt — defined as gross passing yards, plus 20 yards for every touchdown pass, minus 45 yards for every interception, and minus sack yards, all divided by the total number of pass attempts plus sacks — was at 6.26.  Most passing statistically typically take a trip south in December (and prior to SNF, the week 14 average was 5.85), but 6.26 would be a significant outlier even in our high-flying times. The graph below shows the NFL average ANY/A for each season since 1950.  Of course, we are doing a bit of apples-to-oranges comparisons by using full season numbers for all years and through-13-weeks numbers for 2014, but so be it: [click to continue…]

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Since 1970, only three teams have finished first in both offensive and defensive ANY/A:

  • The 1996 Packers were the last team to do it. Brett Favre and Antonio Freeman helped the Green Bay offense average 6.5 ANY/A, just ahead of Miami for the league lead. On the other side of the ball, Reggie White and LeRoy Butler guided a dominant Green Bay defense that allowed just 3.1 ANY/A, far ahead of the rest of the NFL (Pittsburgh, at 3.8, was the only other defense that allowed fewer than 4 ANY/A).

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50 Carries/50 Passes in Consecutive Games

In week 10, the Browns blew out the Bengals in the Andy Dalton Thursday Night Implosion game. A less-publicized factoid from that night: Cleveland became the first team in 2014 to record 50 rush attempts in a game. It was a true team effort on the ground, with Terrance West rushing 26 times for 94 yards, Isaiah Crowell going 12 for 41, and even Ben Tate gaining 34 yards on 10 carries. All three players rushed for a touchdown, too, and Brian Hoyer added four carries, bringing the total to 52 runs.

But in week 11, the Browns had 52 pass attempts in a loss to the Texans. As it turns out, calling 50 runs and 50 passes in consecutive weeks is pretty unusual. In fact, it’s only happened eight other times in NFL history.

u mad bro

2012 New England Patriots

Facing Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in week 5, New England dominated the game on the ground. The Patriots at one point led 31-7, allowing Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, Danny Woodhead, and Shane Vereen to combine for 50 carries for a whopping 253 yards (Ridley (28/151/1) shouldered the largest load).

The next week, the Patriots helped bring Richard Sherman into the national spotlight. Tom Brady threw 58 passes as the Patriots lost 24-23 to Seattle.

1994 Pittsburgh Steelers

This was the first great season of the Bill Cowher  era, and you won’t be surprised to learn that Pittsburgh finished 2nd in rush attempts and 1st in rushing yards in 1994.  In the Steelers first playoff game — against Bill Belichick, Nick Saban, and the Cleveland Browns — Pittsburgh rushed 51 times for 238 yards. Barry Foster rushed for 133 yards on 24 carries, Bam Morris produced a very Morris-like stat line of 22/60, and fullback John L. Williams (of Seahawks fame) had two carries for 43 yards and a touchdown. Pittsburgh won comfortably, 29-9, which made what happened next so surprising.

In the AFC Championship Game against the Chargers the following week, Pittsburgh again enjoyed the lead for most of the day (Game Script of +3.9). But there, Foster gained just 47 yards on 20 carries, which led to a very pass-happy offensive approach. Neil O’Donnell finished 32 of 54 for 349 yards and 1 touchdown with no picks and was not sacked. But the Steelers, despite controlling the game and the clock (TOP of 37:13) wound up losing, 17-13.

1987 Cincinnati Bengals

In 1988, the Bengals had rookie Ickey Woods and Pro Bowler James Brooks lead the NFL’s best rushing attack. But in ’87, Woods was dominating at UNLV, while Brooks was still in San Diego. So in week 9 of the ’87 season, when the Bengals rushed 50 times, it was Larry Kinnebrew (27/100/1) and Stanford Jennings (12/91) leading the way, while Boomer Esiason also carried 10 times for 77 yards. The Bengals won in Atlanta that day, 16-10.

The following week against the Steelers, the ground game was not working, and Esiason dropped back an incredible 58 times. Esiason did throw for 409 yards, but took five sacks and was intercepted three times, as the Bengals fell, 30-16.

1986 Detroit Lions

The Lions and Packers were not very good 18 years ago, and staged a forgettable game back in week 6 of the 1986 season. Eric Hipple completed 15 of 19 passes but for only 102 yards. Fortunately for Detroit, the ground game was humming along just fine: Garry James (20/140/1) and James Jones (29/99) carried the day in Green Bay, leading the Lions to a 21-14 victory.

The next week in Anaheim, the Rams jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead; Jones and James would finish the day with just 57 yards on 22 carries. As a result, the game was in Hipple’s hands, and he went 31/50 for 316 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers aren’t bad, but Hipple was sacked twice and threw a pair of picks, including a pick six. Los Angeles threw just 12 passes all day, and held on to win, 14-10.

1985 New York Giants

The NFC East was up for grabs when the 9-5 Giants traveled to Dallas to take on the 9-5 Cowboys. Neither team ran the ball that efficiently, but the Giants went unusually pass-happy. Phil Simms had 55 dropbacks, completing 24 passes and taking five sacks, while throwing for 329 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions (including a pick six).

With the division title gone, New York needed to win in week 16 to make the playoffs. Simms threw just 16 passes, as the Giants rode Joe Morris to the tune of 36 carries for 202 yards and 3 touchdowns. As a team, the Giants rushed 51 times for 292 yards (excluding a pair of Simms kneeldowns), and blew out the Steelers, 28-10.

1984 Seahawks

Heading into the final weekend of the season, the Seahawks and Broncos were both 12-3. The teams squared off in Seattle for AFC West supremacy, just four weeks after Seattle won in Denver, 27-24. Things were different in the rematch: Denver won 31-24 despite John Elway going just 9 of 21 for 148 yards with 4 interceptions. The Seattle running game was ineffective, so Dave Krieg wound up dropping back 54 times, going 30 for 50 for 334 yards, with four sacks, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.

The loss put Seattle in the Wild Card round, and that’s when Ground Chuck took over. The Seahawks rushed 51 times for 204 yards … and completed just four passes! Dan Doornick rushed 29 times for 126 yards, while Krieg was limited to just 12 dropbacks. As you can imagine, the Seahawks defense came to play, shutting out Oakland for most of the game in a 13-7 victory.

1975 New Orleans Saints

In week 10 of the ’75 season, Archie Manning went 25 of 52 for 207 yards with no interceptions and two picks in a 16-6 loss to the 49ers. If you think 52 pass attempts (and four sacks) is a pass-heavy game plan for 1975, you are correct: it was the most pass-happy game of the season.

The next week, New Orleans jumped out to a 16-3 lead against the Browns in Cleveland, which seemed to dictate a change in strategy. Manning finished the day 6 of 10 for 92 yards, while Mike Strachan (21/99) and Alvin Maxson (16/45/2) powered the offense. The Saints finished with 177 rushing yards on 51 carries, but a late Cleveland rally turned it into a 17-16 Browns win.

1961 Houston Oilers

The early AFL Oilers teams were one of history’s great aerial attacks. In 1960, Bill Groman produced a 72/1473/12 stat line in 14 games, George Blanda guided the AFL’s top passing offense, and Houston won the AFL title. The following year, Houston averaged a whopping 36.6 points per game, Blanda threw for 3,330 yards and 36 touchdowns, Groman caught 17 touchdowns, and Charley Hennigan caught 82 passes for 1,746 yards and 12 touchdowns. And Houston again finished the season as the AFL champion.

But the 1961 season didn’t start the way you might think. In the opener against a bad Raiders team, Houston jumped out to a 28-0 lead before the half. As a result, Billy Cannon rushed 22 times for 82 yards, Charley Tolar added 101 yards on 18 carries, and the Oilers finished with 203 yards on the ground on 55 carries.

The next week, Houston lost to San Diego, an outcome the Oilers would avenge in the AFL Championship Game. After a 3-3 first quarter, Houston scored four touchdowns in the second quarter, putting the game out of hand. George Blanda finished 15/29 for 131 yards and 4 picks, while Jacky Lee came in and threw 25 times for 190 yards (with 3 touchdowns and 2 picks) in the second half. A week after rushing 55 times, the Oilers dropped back 57 times in the loss to San Diego.

The real question: why didn’t someone start crunching Game Scripts data in 1961?!

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Brady likes the second half of the season

Brady likes the second half of the season

When we think about the most dominant teams of all time, the New England Patriots of the last few years don’t leap immediately to mind. Yet, their performance late in the year has been mind-bogglingly good. From 2010-13, New England went 29-3 in the final eight games of each season, a record that no other team since 1960 can match over any four-year period. Including their three games this year, the Patriots are on a 32-3 run in regular-season games in the second half of the season. From 2010-2013, the Patriots also have the biggest four-year point differential in second-half games in the history of football.

Part of that huge point differential comes from the higher point totals that teams have than they did in the past, and from New England’s offensive-centric philosophy. As a result, when we look at Pythagenpat records, the Patriots are not as dominant.1 Here are the hundred best late-season teams over any four-year period, according to Pythagenpat record. The Patriots from 2010-13 rank only 38th on the list, behind four other recent Patriots’ runs, some of those overlapping with 2010-13. The Patriots have been great and it is an unlikely outcome that they’d have no Super Bowls in the decade so far, but they also have not been quite as strong in terms of their true strength as their second-half records would suggest. As a high-scoring team, we would have expected them to lose more of their regular season games than they have. [click to continue…]

  1. I used 0.251 as the value in the Pythagenpat formula to find exponents for each team-year. []
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Four Blowout Upsets Ties NFL Record

The Houston Texans switched from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Ryan Mallett over the bye week. The former Patriots quarterback would make his first start in Cleveland, and he would have to do so without Arian Foster. The Texans were 4.5 point underdogs, but still won 23-7, covering by 20.5 points.

In some weeks, that would be the craziest story of the week. But not this week. In fact, it probably doesn’t crack the top three.

The Broncos were 8-point favorites on the road against St. Louis. Shaun Hill against Peyton Manning somehow turned into a 22-7 Rams win. St. Louis covered by 23 points in; points spread margins aside, was the most shocking result from week 11.

The Bengals and Andy Dalton were embarrassed on Thursday Night Football against the Browns ten days ago. The Saints, meanwhile, had won 20 consecutive home games under Sean Payton prior to losing in overtime against the 49ers last week. As a result, Cincinnati was 8.5-point underdogs in New Orleans on Sunday, yet came away with a 27-10 win, covering by 25.5 points.

But the biggest cover by an underdog1 came in the Washington/Tampa Bay game. Traveling to D.C., the 1-8 Bucs were 8-point underdogs.  Tampa entered the day with a -15 in the SRS, easily the worst in the NFL. And then the Bucs won 27-7, covering by 28 points in the process. Rookie wide receiver Mike Evans picked up 209 yards and two touchdowns, giving him 458 receiving yards and five touchdowns over the last three weeks.

If you’re thinking all these underdog blowouts were unusual, you are correct.  Last year, there was only one week all season where multiple underdogs of at least 3 points wound up covering by at least 20 points.  That came in week 3, when the Colts won by 20 as 10-point underdogs in San Francisco and the Panthers won by 38 points against the Giants as 3-point dogs. [click to continue…]

  1. The Packers covered by 28.5 in a very Sanchez-tastic performance, but the Packers were favored by 4.5 points. []
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Sixteen Straight Losses

Carr holds up the number of Raiders wins

Carr holds up the number of Raiders victories in 2014.

Can you think back to November 18, 2013? Lorde’s “Royals” was the number one song in the country. The price of gas was $3.30/gallon. Barack Obama was the President. And Matt McGloin (3 touchdowns, no interceptions) and Rashad Jennings (150 rushing yards) had just led the Raiders to victory over the Houston Texans.

That upped Oakland’s record to 4-6, although the team wasn’t quite that good. At the time, Football Outsiders ranked the Raiders as the 31st best team in football. On the other hand, the week 11 victory came in McGloin’s first start: surely, good things were on the horizon, right?

As it turned out, not so much. McGloin would lose each of his next five starts; Terrelle Pryor started the finale against Denver, which would be another Raiders loss. Derek Carr has since taken over, but he has yet to win a game in his young career. At 0-9, he has a chance to break both the rookie record for losses in a season (14) and the single-season record for quarterbacks losses (15). [click to continue…]

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The braintrust.

The braintrust.

The Jets passing offense being bad does not qualify for news.  However, the Jets passing offense and passing defense combining for historically inept numbers? Sure, that qualifies.

New York has thrown 8 touchdown passes this year against 11 interceptions. That’s a -3 differential which is pretty bad.  Only two other teams have negative ratios this year: the Jaguars, also at -3 (11 TDs, 14 INTs), and the Vikings at -5 (6/11).  But the Jets pass defense has allowed 24 touchdowns while forcing just 1… ahem, ONE… interception.  That +23 ratio for opposing quarterbacks is better than any offense this year (the Broncos are at +19 (24/5), and the Patriots and Steelers are both at +20 with matching 23/3 TD/INT ratios).

From the perspective of the Jets defense, though, that +23 reverses to a -23.  Add to that the -3 from the offensive side of the ball, and New York’s combined TD/INT ratio from both units is an incredibly bad -26.

How bad? It’s tied for the 2nd worst number through 9 games since 1970, just narrowly behind the 1975 Cleveland Browns. Those Browns began the year with 3 passing touchdowns and 17 interceptions through nine games. Okay, that was even bad for the dead ball era, but what about the defense? Cleveland allowed 19 passing touchdowns while forcing just six interceptions during that stretch! Those numbers led to an 0-9 start under first-year head coach Forrest Gregg.

The table below shows all teams to start the season with at least a -20 ratio in this statistic I just made up. Here’s how to read the line from the famous 1944 Card/Pitt combination, forced together due to World War II. Through nine games, that team threw 8 touchdowns and 40 interceptions (-32), while allowing 19 passing touchdowns and intercepting just 15 passes (-4), for a total score of -36. [click to continue…]

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It was criminal how good Ben was on Sunday

It was criminal how good Ben was on Sunday

Against Indianapolis in week 8, Ben Roethlisberger was close to perfect. He completed 40 of 49 passes for 522 yards. He threw six touchdowns, and didn’t throw an interception or take a sack. That’s a magnificent performance: in fact, among players with an 80% completion percentage in a game, he set a record for completions. It goes without saying that 500+ yard games are rare, and 6+ TD games are rare, and the combination of both are really rare.

But was it the best passing game ever? Not so fast. Let’s start by calculating his Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, which gives a 20-yard bonus for touchdown passes, a 45-yard penalty for interceptions, and deducts sack yardage from the numerator (and adds sacks to the denominator). Roethlisberger averaged 13.10 ANY/A, a sparkling number. That’s an outstanding number that needs no qualifier, but it’s even more impressive when you consider the opponent. Entering the day, the Colts were allowing just 5.52 ANY/A to opposing passers.

Therefore, the Steelers star averaged 7.58 more ANY/A against the Colts than the average passer in 2014. Over the course of 49 dropbacks, this means Roethlisberger produced a whopping 372 Adjusted Net Yards above average, with average being defined as what all other passers did against Indianapolis.

That number may not mean much in the abstract. But if the Colts defense continues to allow just 5.52 ANY/A to all other passers year, that would give Roethlisberger the 7th best passing game since 1960. [click to continue…]

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Passing Kings, From Friedman to Manning

Friend-of-the-program Bryan Frye has contributed a fantastic guest post for us today. Bryan lives in Yorktown, Virginia, and operates his own great site at nflsgreatest.co.nf, where he focuses on NFL stats and history. Be sure to check out Bryan’s site, and let him know your thoughts on today’s posts in the comments.


Last Sunday, Peyton Manning broke the record for career touchdown passes. You may have heard about it. Rather than add more flotsam and jetsam to the vast sea of internet articles dedicated to Manning, I thought I would instead focus on the rich history of the record itself.

[click to continue…]

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Here is graphic video of a famous football player performing an act of cowardly violence against a defenseless victim. The offender did not receive any penalty for his actions. After committing that crime, the assailant showed no remorse at the condition of the victim, who lay prostrate on the ground. Not disciplined for earlier acts of violence, that player struck again, this time paralyzing his defenseless victim. That victim would eventually die far too young, in part as a consequence of that attack.

For this perpetrator, the response was much worse than insufficient punishment or radio silence. Jack Tatum was celebrated for many of his hits, perhaps most notably the one on Sammy White in Super Bowl XI. The Ray Rice punch makes all of us cringe, but the hit on White―and even more so the one on Darryl Stingley ― should also make us cringe. [click to continue…]

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Betting Bad: Thinking About Uncertainty in Prediction

Barack Obama was not the only winner in the 2012 presidential election. Nate Silver, now founder and editor in chief of Five Thirty Eight, and other stats-y election forecasters basked in the praise that came when the returns matched their predictions.

But part of the praise was overstated. At the very end, Silver’s models essentially called Florida a toss-up, with the probability of an Obama win going just a few tenths of a percentage point above 50%. But because his model gave Obama the slightest of edges in Florida, his forecast in most of the media essentially became a predicted Obama win there. In addition to accurately forecasting the national popular vote, Silver then received credit for predicting all fifty states correctly.

I am all in favor of stats winning, but the flip side of this is the problem. If Obama had not won Florida, Silver’s prediction―which, like that of other forecasters such as Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium, was excellent―would have been no less good.1 And if stats folks bask too much in the glow when everything comes up on the side where the probabilities leaned, what happens the next time when people see a 25% event happening and say that it invalidates the model?2

Lots of people have made this point before — heck, Silver wrote about this in his launch post at the new 538 — but it is really useful to think carefully about the uncertainty in our predictions. Neil has done that with his graphs depicting the distribution of team win totals at 538, and Chase did so in this post last Saturday. Football Outsiders does this in its Almanac every year, with probabilities on different ranges of win totals. [click to continue…]

  1. This is a column about football, but you might want to check out some of the stuff through that link on the differences between Silver and Wang on the upcoming midterm elections. They both know way more than I do, but for the small amount that it is worth, I lean more towards Wang on this one. []
  2. Of course, maybe Football Outsiders has already run into that with the 2007 Super Bowl prediction. Perhaps sports people are ahead of politics on this stuff. []
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Projecting Success for New Head Coaches

In 1995, Football Outsiders graded the Eagles special teams as the worst in the NFL. The next two years, Philadelphia ranked 20th and 26th, respectively. In 1998, after hiring a new special teams coordinator, the team still finished just 25th. But, over the next eight years, the Eagles’ special teams flipped dramatically, ranking as the second-best in football during that period. In fact, from 2000-2004, Philadelphia ranked in the top five in the Football Outsiders’ special teams ratings each season.

When the Ravens hired the coordinator of those special teams, John Harbaugh, as their head coach in 2008, Baltimore turned one of the more surprising coaching hires in recent history into one of the best. Based on where the team was when it hired him, Harbaugh’s first three years were about the best since 1990 of any coach not named Harbaugh, at least according to DVOA. The Ravens made the playoffs in Harbaugh’s first five seasons, winning the Super Bowl in the last of those. Harbaugh’s success even caused Chase to wonder whether it would change the way teams hired head coaches.

Since Harbaugh was so successful as a coordinator, does that mean he was a good bet to be a successful head coach? At first glance, you might think just about every coordinator who gets promoted or poached to become a head coach was very successful in his previous job. As it turns out, that’s not always the case. Once we correct for expectations, a little more than one in four hired head coaches actually underperformed in their previous jobs, at least according to DVOA.

Consider one man who performed particularly poorly as a coordinator: Eric Mangini. The 2005 New England defense had a DVOA that was 15.2 points lower than we would have predicted based on the Patriots’ performance in the preceding seasons. He was not so much of a (Man)genius to have a good defense in 2005, and that may have given some hint that he was not the greatest bet to succeed as a head coach, either.1

This leads to an obvious question: on average, have teams done better when they have hired head coaches who were actually good in their previous jobs (either as coordinators or head coaches)? Let’s take this to the data. [click to continue…]

  1. Always a bonus when painful Jets memories come up organically. There are always other coaching greats like Joe Walton for Jets fans to remember fondly, at least for epic nasal invasions. []
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Is Quarterback Stability on the Rise?

This time last year:

Brady will be the Patriots week 1 starting quarterback for the 13th year in a row.

Brady will be the Patriots week 1 starting quarterback for the 13th year in a row.

It’s easy to remember those times and think “man, life moves pretty fast.” But I’m going to take the opposite approach.

Twenty-five teams — twenty-five teams! — are bringing back the same week 1 starting quarterback from week 1, 2013. That, of course, doesn’t include Foles or Henne, who ended last year as starters. Last year, twenty-six teams had the same week one starter as they did in 2012. As it turns out, the past two seasons have seen the highest week 1 starting QB retention rate of any seasons since the merger. [click to continue…]

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Not Tim Couch

Not Tim Couch.

The preseason is meaningless, right? Well, as it turns out, it might give us a window into quarterback development, despite what you might think. The threshold for whether the preseason is useful is whether including that information tells us anything about a quarterback’s potential that we don’t already know from his draft position (or perhaps certain analytics). I have been putting together data from preseason box scores going back to 1997. The data show that, for some quarterbacks, the preseason is not quite meaningless.

Neil Paine showed some interesting evidence relating to this idea on Friday. Looking at team performance since 2009 for teams with new quarterbacks, Neil showed that preseason passing efficiency helps predict regular season passing efficiency. It’s important to note that part of this result may have been pretty predictable even before we watched those preseason games. The 2012 Redskins replaced Rex Grossman and John Beck with the #2 pick in the draft who would have been #1 in an average year. So we would expect a big improvement to come just by way of moving from Grossman to a healthy RGIII. [click to continue…]

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A couple of years ago, I asked how long it should have taken the Jaguars to move on from Blaine Gabbert. Today I want to revisit that general idea, but look at how long it takes the best quarterbacks to identify themselves as top-tier players. A couple of months ago, I looked at the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Using the top 75 quarterbacks from that list, I removed any player whose career began before the merger; that left me with 42 passers.

First, I looked at how each quarterback fared in relative Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt — i.e., ANY/A relative to league average — through their first 16 starts. Just over two-thirds of these passers were above average during their first 16 starts, with 1/3 of those quarterbacks being at least 1 ANY/A better than league average.  That group of fourteen quarterbacks — which Aaron Rodgers just falls shy of joining — can be categorized as above-average quarterbacks from the beginning. They are Kurt Warner, Dan Marino, Daunte Culpepper, Chad Pennington, Tony Romo, Mark Rypien, Jeff Garcia, Boomer Esiason, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Joe Montana, Steve McNair, and Ken Stabler. Obviously a number of those quarterbacks were not immediate starters in the NFL, but they did excel as soon as they became starters.

The graph below shows each of the 42 quarterbacks’ Relative ANY/A through their first 16 starts. The X-Axis represents the quarterback’s first year, and the Y-Axis shows their RANY/A value through 16 starts.

QB breakout 1

Now, let’s remove the 14 quarterbacks who had a RANY/A of at least +1.0 through their first sixteen starts. How did the other 28 quarterbacks fare in starts 17 through 32 in RANY/A? Eleven of them produced a RANY/A of at least +1.0 in their next sixteen starts: Bert Jones, Matt Schaub, Ken Anderson, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Brad Johnson, Carson Palmer, Jim Everett, Steve Young, Dan Fouts, and Steve Grogan.

[click to continue…]

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Some teams, like the Rams have done a good job of fielding a very young roster; others, like the Raiders, have made a conscious effort to head in the other direction. Overall, the Rams are more representative of the current trend. NFL teams have made a shift towards younger players in the last three years, although you might be surprised by just how dramatic and sudden the change has been. The drop in Approximate Value (AV)-weighted ages of NFL rosters in the last three years is more than 50% larger than in any other three-year period in NFL history.

healy 1

Looking at the graph, there are two seismic shifts that changed the age distribution of the NFL in the Super Bowl era: the increase that started in the late ‘80s and the decrease in the last five years. These changes tell us about how changes in the collective bargaining agreement can change the NFL landscape in both subtle and dramatic ways.

First, the increase in NFL roster age in the 1980s coincides pretty closely with the introduction of Plan B free agency in 1989. It looks like the increase maybe starts a year too early. Remember, though, that the 1987 age may be skewed a bit by the three games with replacement players. Taking that point in mind, the increase from 1988 through 1993 coincides exactly with the introduction of limited free agency. [click to continue…]

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In the Super Bowl era, there has been just one team that was both the youngest in the league and one of the five best teams in football: the 2012 Seattle Seahawks. As friend of Football Perspective Neil Paine recently pointed out, being young and great has historically been a good predictor of teams that have become dynasties. Consider the table below. It captures every team since 1966 that ranked amongst the five youngest teams by Approximate Value (AV)-weighted age and had at least 12 Pythagenpat wins, adjusting everything to a 16-game schedule.1

TeamYearPyth WinsAV-wtd ageAge Rank
PIT197213.525.65
DAL199212.626.42
DAL199312.426.74
STL199914.226.65
CHI200112.426.55
SDG200612.626.55
IND200712.826.74
SEA201212.625.81
SEA201313.1263

There are seven unique teams on this list, not counting the two repeaters. When trying to predict what’s going to happen with the Seahawks, there are two different ways to look at this list. The first looks good for their dynasty potential. The first two teams on the list, the ’72 Steelers and the ’92 Cowboys went on to win multiple Super Bowls. The closest comparison in terms of age also looks pretty good. Teams used to be younger, so the best comparison probably isn’t the ’72 Steelers, who were even younger by age but were only the fifth-youngest team in 1972, but the ’92-’93 Cowboys. They are the only other team on this list to be so young and so good.

Of course, even the Cowboys had a pretty short run. Their stay at the top was nothing like the ’70s Steelers or ’80s Niners, who were also quite young.2 Free agency helped to minimize their time on top. The ’90s Cowboys were the first great team in the free agency era. Players gained full freedom of movement only in the year after their first Super Bowl. Plan B free agency allowed limited movement starting in 1989.

Free agency and the salary cap help to explain the path of the other four teams on the list. They point towards a more cautious prediction about the Seahawks’ dynasty hopes. Between them, the ’99 Rams, ’01 Bears, ’06 Chargers, and ’07 Colts won one Super Bowl and played in two others. Within three years of their great-and-young season, only the Chargers were significantly better than league-average.

These more recent examples may do a better job of predicting the Seahawks future success. Before the beginning of full free agency in 1993, good-and-relatively-young teams appear to have generally followed a clear and sustained upwards trajectory over the long term. Since then, however, success has generally been less sustainable. The table below looks at teams’ strengths over time according to PFR’s Simple Rating System.3 Here I’ve made the cutoff any team that was in the five youngest teams in a given year and also had a SRS rating of at least 6. The table shows the trend in strength for the previous season and the following three seasons.

TeamYearSRS (t-1)SRS (t)SRS (t+1)SRS (t+2)SRS Wins (t+3)AV-wtd ageAge Rank
PIT1972-3.6108.26.814.225.65
BAL1975-8.78.69.85-8.825.95
SFO1981-6.26.2-2.48.712.725.83
NOR1987010.11.54.6-1.3264
DAL19924.49.99.610.19.726.42
Average-2.828.965.347.045.325.943.8
TeamYearSRS (t-1)SRS (t)SRS (t+1)SRS (t+2)SRS (t+3)AV-wtd ageAge Rank
DAL19939.99.610.19.72.426.74
IND1999-5.46.17.9-3.81.225.61
STL1999-2.311.93.113.4-3.326.65
IND20006.17.9-3.81.2726.33
CHI2001-6.37.9-5.3-3.5-8.226.55
BAL2003-2.16.36.1-1.89.326.43
IND20031.2711.410.85.926.54
SDG2004-6.89.19.910.28.826.52
BAL20046.36.1-1.89.3-6.726.73
SDG20059.19.910.28.8526.85
JAX20064.87.56.8-2.5-6.526.52
SDG20069.910.28.856.626.55
SDG200710.28.856.64.826.42
IND20075.9126.55.92.926.74
SEA20120.812.21325.81
SEA201312.213263
Average3.349.095.864.952.0926.413.25

One surprising pattern in these data is just how infrequently young teams won in the past. From 1966-1992, only five teams were among the five youngest and still had an SRS of at least 6. Since 1993, it’s happened 16 times. In the past, teams had more of an opportunity to gradually build strength. So it looks like there was a greater share of young teams building for something and old teams trying to stay on top. Since 1993, the standard deviation of team ages is about 20% smaller than it was before that. In the last ten years, the standard deviation is about 30% smaller than it was before 1993. The ages of rosters are more compressed than they used to be.

The other thing to take away from these tables is the dropoff in years 2 and 3 since full free agency. For the pre-1993 teams, the good-and-young teams held much of their value. After starting at an average SRS of 8.96, they were still at 7.04 two years later and then 5.3 three years later. Since 1993, teams have deteriorated more quickly. From an average of 9.09, the more recent high quality young teams fell to 4.95 two years later and all the way to 2.09 three years later.

Since there are only five teams in the pre-1993 group, we want to be careful with interpreting too much into the earlier data. It’s possible that the ’72 Steelers and ’81 Niners are anomalies. At the same time, the success three years later is skewed downwards by the ’75 Colts, who would have been much stronger in ’78 if they had a healthy Bert Jones.

With the bigger set of more recent teams, the clear takeaway is that in the current era, even very good and young teams are just slightly better than average than three years later. The Seahawks may buck this trend, but they probably won’t. With Russell Wilson to sign and long-term cap hits for players like Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, they’re more likely to have a brief run than a long one.

Another alternative may be available, though. If Wilson makes the leap into the Brady-Manning class (he may) and Pete Carroll turns out to be a truly elite coach (also possible), they may be able to fashion a New England-kind of dynasty. That sort of dynasty is not really built on youth. Consider the aging patterns of the last five teams of the decade.

healy age

The ‘60s Packers, ‘70s Steelers, ’80s Niners, ‘90s Cowboys all showed the same pattern of being relatively young and then progressively aging during their runs. On the other hand, the Patriots show an entirely different pattern. They’re the only dynasty to actually not age as their run progressed. They started old and stayed old through their Super Bowl years. While the Seahawks are starting off younger than those Patriots teams, excellence at QB and coach still offers them their best hope of building a dynasty in the current NFL. The benefits of being young and good are much more fleeting than they used to be.

  1. My AV-weighted age calculations are very similar to Chase’s, but not always exactly the same. For example, I have Seattle third in 2013, while he has them second. We both had Seattle at 26 years, but I have Cleveland also at 26, instead of 26.1. []
  2. They were the third-youngest team in 1981, their first championship year. []
  3. I thank Bryan Frye for sharing his SRS dataset. []
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The past couple of days, we looked at the players with the most receiving yards and rushing yards in their final 16 regular season games. Today, we get to the quarterbacks.

Only one non-active player threw for 4,000 yards in his final 16 games.

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Three other players threw for 3900+ yards. That doesn’t include Dan Fouts (3,805) or Dan Marino (3,869), but it does include quarterbacks from the great, the good, and the ugly category.

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I’m still short on time, so let’s keep the trivia train rolling.  Yesterday, I looked at the players with the most receiving yards in their last 16 regular season games. Today, the players with the most rushing yards in their last 16 games.

Excluding LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, and Doug Martin, only five players have rushed for over 1,500 yards in their final sixteen games.  The record-holder rushed for 1,702 yards in his final sixteen games.  Do you know who it is?

Trivia hint Show


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One other player rushed for at least 1,600 yards in his last 16 games  Can you name him?

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What about the other three players who rushed for 1,500 yards in their careers? All three retired early.

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I’m very short on time this week, so here’s a fun trivia question. Last week, I noted that Justin Blackmon gained 1,201 receiving yards in his last 16 games. As it turns out, if Blackmon never plays in another NFL game, that would set the record for most receiving yards in a player’s final sixteen games (this excludes all active players, of course).

Who holds that record now? Two players gained just over 1,100 yards in their final sixteen games. Can you name them?

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Rounding out the top five: Hart Lee Dykes caught 71 passes for 1,098 yards in his final sixteen games, as an off-the-field incident (which has nothing on this off-the-field incident) and repeated knee injuries ended his career. Finally, Terrell Owens gained 80 receptions, 1,087 yards, and 10 touchdowns in his last sixteen games.

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Bill Walsh and Joe Montana Must Change to Succeed

Lots of stats, but few wins have defined the Walsh/Montana era

Lots of stats, but few wins have defined the Walsh/Montana era.

The San Francisco Times
September 23rd, 1981

I’m not here to tell you that Bill Walsh is a bad coach.  And I’m not here to tell you that Joe Montana can’t possibly succeed in the NFL. It’s just that if they want to still be here in two years, some changes are in order.

Walsh comes from the great Paul Brown coaching tree, and like his mentor, Walsh likes to throw the ball. That strategy, while unconventional, can work well when you have a Hall of Famer like Otto Graham or even a great talent like Ken Anderson. It doesn’t work when you have a scrappy young player like Montana. And lest you forget, Brown never won anything without Graham, and Brown’s Bengals went 55-56-1 with zero playoff wins.

Undeterred by that evidence, Walsh went about bringing Basketball On Cleats to Candlestick Park. Was his first year a success? San Francisco finished third in passing yards, 4th in first downs, and 6th in total yards. Quarterback Steve DeBerg led the NFC in completion percentage, too. But while Walsh’s horizontal passing game led to lots of yards and first downs, the team won only two games.  Running backs Paul Hofer and Wilbur Jackson each caught 50 passes, but to what end?

They were two of only nine running backs to hit the 50-catch plateau in 1979, but what good is it passing to your running backs when you can’t attack a defense vertically? In a telling statistic, Baltimore was the only other team to have two running backs catch 50 passes, and the Colts went 5-11. The 49ers ranked 3rd from the bottom in rush attempts that season, but were above average in yards per carry.  Maybe somebody should tell The Genius that San Francisco could have benefited from more runs and fewer passes.

The man who thinks he’s the smartest person in every room surely was going to learn from his 1979 failures, right? In 1980, Montana was handed the reins.  How did he do? Walsh continued with his horizontal offense: Montana completed 64.5% of his passes, the 4th highest by a quarterback in NFL history (behind the great Ken Stabler and two Brown robots, Anderson and Graham). But the team went just 2-5 in Montana’s starts.

Fullback Earl Cooper was a nice player at Rice, but he was drastically overused by the 49ers last season.  In addition to a team-high 171 carries, he caught 83 passes — but for only 567 yards.  Cooper became the first player in NFL history to catch 80 balls and not get 700 yards, much less 567 yards. Cooper averaged an anemic 6.8 yards per reception, and prior to last year, no player with fewer than seven yards per catch had come within 20 passes of Cooper’s 83 grabs. In other words, the 49ers relied more heavily on a player doing so little more than any team in NFL history.  Sure, the 49ers ranked 5th in passing yards, but they ran just 415 times, the second fewest number in the league. The team led the NFL in pass attempts and went 6-10 with an eight-game losing streak in the middle of the season. Genius. [click to continue…]

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In 2013, the average completion went for 11.63 yards. That’s a pretty low number historically, although it’s actually a bit higher than some of the recent NFL seasons. Take a look at how Yards per Completion has generally been declining throughout NFL history:

ypc

If you want to discuss the quarterbacks who excelled in this metric, controlling for era is crucial. One simple way to measure the best passers when it comes to YPC is to measure how they fare in this metric relative to league average, and multiply that difference by the player’s number of attempts. For example, Nick Foles averaged 14.2 YPC last year, which was 2.6 YPC above average. Over the course of his 317 pass attempts, we could say he provided 529 yards above the average completion. That was the highest in the NFL last year, while Matt Ryan produced the lowest average. [click to continue…]

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Quarterback Wins: Outlier Seasons

Testaverde led the Jets to the AFCCG in 1998

Testaverde led the Jets to the AFCCG in 1998.

The 1998 season was one of my favorite years in NFL history. It was also a pretty weird one. We had Terrell Davis rushing for 2,000 yards, rookies Randy Moss and Fred Taylor making defenses look silly, and a quartet of old quarterbacks stun the football world. Doug Flutie came out of nowhere Canada to lead the Bills to a 7-3 record after being out of the NFL for nine years. Randall Cunningham, who had retired after the ’96 season, came off the bench in ’98 to produce one of the best backup seasons in NFL history. The other two quarterbacks are the stars of this post.

Vinny Testaverde had a very up-and-down career, although he was almost certainly a much better quarterback than you remember. Okay, Testaverde has lost more games than any other quarterback, but he played on some really bad teams throughout his career. Testaverde retired with a career winning percentage of 0.423. In 1998, he started 13 games for the Jets; based on that career winning percentage, we would have expected him to win 5.5 games in 1998. Instead, Testaverde went 12-1 in the regular season, giving him 6.5 more wins than we would expect. If that sounds remarkable to you, it should: that’s the 2nd largest discrepancy of any quarterback in NFL history in a single season (minimum 40 career wins). [click to continue…]

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Smith struggled as a rookie; then again, so did many greats

Smith struggled as a rookie; then again, so did many greats.

In 2013, Geno Smith had the worst passer rating (66.5) in the NFL. The year before, Mark Sanchez had a passer rating of 66.9, which was very nearly the lowest in the league (Matt Cassel had a rating of 66.7). But while the Jets didn’t quite do it, a couple of teams have managed to have different quarterbacks in consecutive seasons finish with the lowest passer ratings in the NFL (minimum 14 attempts per game).

In 2000, a second-year Akili Smith was given the starting job and posted a miserable 52.8 passer rating. A year later, Jon Kitna took over for the Bengals, and his 61.1 rating was the worst among qualifying passers.

In 1993, Mark Rypien finished with the worst passer rating in the league two years after winning the Super Bowl. Washington drafted Heath Shuler the following year, and as a rookie, Shuler finished with the worst passer rating in the NFL.

The Seahawks almost pulled off this feat in the prior two years. In 1992, Stan Gelbaugh had the worst passer rating as part of the historically inept Seattle passing attack. In 1991, Jeff Kemp finished with the worst passer rating in the league. Kemp, the son of Jack , started the year with Seattle but finished it with Philadelphia. He didn’t have enough attempts with the Seahawks to qualify, so I probably wouldn’t include the ’91-’92 Seahawks in this category, although that may be pickin’ nits.

The table below shows the quarterbacks to finish with the lowest passer rating in the NFL in each year since the merger. For each passer, I’ve included his age as of September 1st of that season, his traditional metrics, and his passer rating. [click to continue…]

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Ellington races for a long touchdown

Ellington races for a long touchdown.

In November, I wrote about the unique running back by committee taking place in Arizona. At the time, Rashard Mendenhall was averaging 3.1 yards per carry, while backup Andre Ellington was averaging 7.2 yards per rush on 54 carries. I thought it would be fun to revisit the Ellington/Mendenhall time share now that the season is over, and to use a slightly different methodology.

Mendenhall ended the season with 687 yards on 217 yards, a 3.2 yards per carry average. Ellington finished his rookie year with 118 carries for 652 yards, producing 5.5 yards per rush. One way to measure the magnitude of the difference in the effectiveness of these two players — and boy was there a large difference — is to simply look at the delta in the players’ yards per carry averages. In this case, that’s 2.36 yards per carry.

Where does that rank historically? Some teams — I’m looking at the Lions in the early Barry Sanders years — gave only a handful of carries to their backup running backs. So one thing we can do is to take the difference in the yards per carry between the team’s top two running backs and multiply that number by the number of carries by the running back with the lower number of carries. In each instance, I’ve defined the running back with the most carries as the team’s RB1, and the running back with the second most carries as the RB2. In Arizona’s case, that would mean multiplying -2.36 (Mendenhall’s average, since he was the RB1, minus Ellington’s average) by 118, the number of carries Ellington recorded. That produces a value of -278. [click to continue…]

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Yesterday, I looked at the best AV-weighted winning percentages of offensive players. Today, we examine the same numbers but for defensive players and kickers since 1960. Again, players who entered the league prior to 1960 are included, but for purposes of this study, only their 1960+ seasons count (assuming they produced at least 50 points of AV). That’s a pretty important bit of detail to mention when it comes to the top player on the list. The player with the best AV-adjusted winning percentage since 1960 is Packers linebacker Bill Forester, who entered the NFL in 1953 but only gets credit for his 1960-1963 seasons in Green Bay (spoiler: those were pretty good ones). After him, of course, we have yet another Patriots lineman. Today it’s Vince Wilfork: [click to continue…]

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A true winner and Tom Brady

A true winner and Tom Brady.

Yesterday, I looked at the weighted career winning percentages for running backs, with the weight being based on each player’s yards from scrimmage in each season of his career. Today, I want to do the same thing but for all offensive players, using PFR’s Approximate Value ratings.

By this methodology, Dan Koppen has the highest AV-weighted career winning percentage of any offensive player since 1960. The table below shows his AV and team’s winning percentage in each season of his career. Because Koppen’s best season came in 2007, when the Patriots went 16-0, Koppen’s career winning percentage gets a big boost from that season (18.7% of his career winning percentage comes from ’07 since 18.7% of his career AV comes from that year). On the other hand, Koppen played in just one total game for the 13-3 Patriots (2011) and the 13-3 Broncos (2013), so he gets almost no credit for those performances. Of course, he doesn’t need it, because his average season, after adjusting the weights based on his AV grades, was a 13-3 season.

YearTmGGSAVRecord% of Car AVWtWin%
2003NWE161570.8758%0.07
2004NWE1616100.87511.5%0.101
2005NWE9950.6255.7%0.036
2006NWE1616100.7511.5%0.086
2007NWE151516118.4%0.184
2008NWE1616100.68811.5%0.079
2009NWE1616100.62511.5%0.072
2010NWE1616110.87512.6%0.111
2011NWE1110.8131.1%0.009
2012DEN151270.8138%0.065
2013DEN000.8130%0
Total0100%0.813

The table below shows the top 500 career AV-adjusted winning percentages among all offensive player since 1960 (minimum: 50 points of AV). As always, players who entered the NFL before 1960 are included but only their seasons beginning in 1960 count. The table below is fully sortable and searchable, so get to searching and leave your thoughts in the comments. [click to continue…]

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Average margins in Wins and Losses

Okay, some fun trivia to kick off the week. Do you know which team last year had the worst points differential in games they lost? I’ll put the answer in spoiler tags.

Click 'Show' for the Answer Show


Where does that rank historically? I thought it would be fun to look at the teams since 1950 with the worst average margin of defeat looking exclusively at performance in losses. This was a bit of a tricky one, but Scott Kacsmar was able to guess it on twitter. The answer?

Show' for the Answer Show


The table below shows the 100 teams with the worst average points differential in losses since 1950. As always, the tables in this post are fully sortable and searchable. For viewing purposes, I’m displaying only the top 20, but you can change that in the dropdown box on the left. [click to continue…]

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The Coryell Index

Yesterday, we looked at the Billick Index, a measure of coaches who managed teams that were good at preventing offensive touchdowns and bad at creating them. Today, the reverse, which is appropriately named after Don Coryell. Coryell’s teams were slanted towards the offense even when he was in St. Louis, but the situation exploded when he went to San Diego. Here’s a look at Coryell’s year-by-year grades in the Coryell Index: for example, in 1981, his Chargers scored 23.1 more offensive touchdowns than the average team, while opposing offenses against San Diego scored 10.1 more touchdowns than average. Add those two numbers together, and there were 33.3 more offensive touchdowns scored in San Diego games than in the average game in 1981 (this is the same information presented as yesterday, but now the “Grade” column reflects the number above average).

YearRecordOFFDEFGRADE
19734-9-11.8-11.813.5
197410-43.52.51
197511-36.50.55.9
197610-44.8-1.86.6
19777-76.6-6.613.1
19788-46.8-1.68.4
197912-412.46.65.8
198011-51119.9
198110-623.1-10.133.3
19826-314.3-0.314.6
19836-105.1-16.121.1
19847-96.4-13.419.8
19858-819.8-15.835.6
19861-72.4-2.95.3
Total111-83-1124.4-69.6194

[click to continue…]

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The Billick Index

Touchdowns were at a premium in Billick's games

Touchdowns were at a premium in Billick's games.

The 2004 Ravens were hardly Brian Billick’s most interesting team. But those Ravens serve as a shining example of what you envision when you think of Baltimore in the 2000s: terrible on offense and great on defense. The team went 9-7 despite the Kyle Boller-led offense producing just 24 touchdowns, tied for the second fewest in the league. But Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Chris McAlister, and even Deion Sanders were on a defense that allowed only 23 touchdowns, the second best mark in the NFL. So Baltimore was +1 in net offensive touchdowns, but that doesn’t really demonstrate the type of team the Ravens were.

Here’s a better way: the average team in 2004 produced 35.9 offensive touchdowns. This means the Baltimore offense fell 11.9 touchdowns shy of average, while the defense was 12.9 touchdowns above average. So if you don’t like watching offensive touchdowns, the 2004 Ravens were the team for you: 24.8 fewer offensive scores came in Ravens games than in the average game that season.

That’s the 4th largest negative differential in NFL history, behind…

  • The 2002 Bucs (-25.1), who allowed 18.1 fewer touchdowns than average while scoring 7.1 fewer offensive touchdowns;
  • The 2005 Bears (-26.2), who allowed 14.6 fewer offensive touchdowns to opponents, and produced 11.6 fewer offensive touchdowns than average; and
  • The 1967 Oilers (-28.7), who allowed 17.3 fewer offensive touchdowns than average and scored 11.3 fewer offensive touchdowns than the rest of the AFL.

[click to continue…]

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