Adam Steele is back to discuss Marginal YAC, this time in the context of the 2014 season. You can view all of Adam’s posts here.
Back in September, I posted a three part series introducing Marginal Air Yards and Marginal YAC. Today, I’m going to update the numbers for 2014 and analyze some interesting tidbits from the just completed season.1
League-wide passing efficiency reached an all-time high in 2014 with a collective 6.13 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt average. However, this past season was also the most conservative passing season in NFL history; 2014 saw the highest completion rate ever (62.6%), the lowest interception rate ever (2.5%), and also the lowest air yards per completion rate ever (5.91 Air/C). Passing yards were comprised of 51.4% yards through the air and 48.6% yards after the catch, the most YAC-oriented season in history.2 This trend shows no sign of reversing itself, so expect more of the same in 2015.
Here are the 2014 Marginal Air Yards (mAir) and Marginal YAC (mYAC) for quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts. The 2014 leader in Marginal Air Yards is…Peyton Manning? Yes, the noodle-armed, duck-throwing, over-the-hill Peyton Manning averaged 4.54 Air Yards per pass Attempt; given that the average passer on this list averaged 3.70 Air Yards per pass Attempt, this means Manning averaged 0.84 Air Yards per Attempt over average. Over the course of his 597 attempts, this means Manning gets credited with 500 marginal Air Yards, the most of any quarterback in the NFL.
|#||Quarterback||Team||mAir||mYAC||Att||Comp||Yards||AirYds||YAC||Com %||Air/C||YAC/C||Air/A||Air %|
Among full time starters, Peyton had the highest Air Yards/Completion (6.86) and the highest ratio of Air Yards/Passing Yards (57.4% Air).3 His relative lack of arm strength was more than compensated for by superb anticipation and accuracy on downfield throws. In fact, his 2014 performance was right in line with his other two seasons in Denver:
By conventional wisdom, Manning’s 2013 is viewed as historically great and by far his best season as a Bronco. I have to disagree. His mAir numbers were dominant in all three seasons, ranking first or second in each year. But his mYAC saw a major spike in 2013, far out of step with the rest of his career (Peyton has always been a low YAC passer). The explanation is pretty simple – the 2013 Broncos were the best screen pass team in NFL history. Manning racked up an absurd amount of yardage on bubble screens to Demaryius Thomas and RB screens to Knowshon Moreno. While these plays were obviously successful from the team’s perspective, I don’t think Manning deserves much credit for them. His passing yardage and TD count were significantly inflated by passes that involve very little skill on the part of the quarterback. Conversely, the 2012 Broncos with OC Mike McCoy threw hardly any screens, and by 2014 Moreno was gone and defenses figured out how to stop the bubble plays. Considering the lack of easy throws, a weaker offensive line, and a harder schedule, it’s conceivable that Manning did just as much for the Broncos in 2014 as he did in 2013.
The consensus best QB of 2014 was Aaron Rodgers, who is highly likely to take home his second MVP trophy. Rodgers’ career has been uniquely amazing when you break down his air yards and YAC:
Since 2009, Rodgers has posted positive mAir and mYAC in every season, with all but one season yielding triple digit production in both categories. Going back to 1992 when this data started being tracked, no other quarterback has been this prolific at generating air yards and YAC at the same time. For the majority of passers, I believe that YAC is mostly a product of system, receivers, and, frankly, luck. But Rodgers is a clear exception, and watching him play it’s easy to figure out why. First, the timing and accuracy of his throws are ultra precise, allowing him to hit his receivers in stride and run after the catch. Second, he creates open space for his receivers by scrambling and extending plays until the coverage breaks down. Watching Packers games, I’m struck by how often their receivers are wide open, a byproduct of Rodgers’ unique skill set for manipulating defensive coverage schemes. If he keeps up this pace into his late thirties, Aaron Rodgers will have a legitimate argument for being the GOAT.
At the other end of the spectrum, the presence of Josh McCown and Mike Glennon in the top 10 illustrates the limitation of using air yards as a measuring tool. The Buccaneers “offense” consisted of heaving deep balls in the vicinity of Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson and hoping for the best. This is not to be confused with actual quarterbacking skill. McCown in particular had a horrendous season in spite of his prodigious air yardage; his completion %, sack %, first down %, interception %, and fumble % were all way below average. Please retire, Josh. It’s time.
As awful as McCown played, my vote for Worst QB of 2014 goes to Robert Griffin III. He was essentially a bystander as the Washington offense ran in spite of him. RGIII was sacked on a comical 13.4% of his dropbacks, the worst rate in the league. But that wasn’t even his greatest failing:
Among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts, Griffin’s 2014 was the most YAC dependent season of all-time. Actually, that’s an major understatement. RGIII is the only QB in history to post a season below 40% air yards, and he shattered the previous “record” by over seven percentage points. He averaged a pathetic 3.78 air yards/completion; to put that in perspective, 22 quarterbacks in 2014 averaged more than 3.78 air yards per attempt.
Then again, maybe it’s a Washington thing – four of the six worst Air% seasons have come from the team, and under four different coaching regimes no less. But don’t fret, RGIII, as you had plenty of company in 2014. Alex Smith’s presence here is to be expected, as he treats the line of scrimmage like a break in the time-space continuum. Bortles was a rookie on a terrible team, although he did nothing to improve matters in Jacksonville. But Jay Cutler and Russell Wilson? Cutler’s issues this year were well documented, and his two best wide receivers were both hobbled by injuries, but an Air% of 43.0% is unforgivable considering Cutler’s arm talent. But hey, at least Matt Forte got to break the record for receptions by a running back. Wilson’s 2014 season was quite odd; his otherworldly rushing prowess and team success obscured how much he declined as a passer. In 2012-2013, he compiled an impressive +590 mAir, ranking in the top five both seasons. This year, his downfield consistency all but disappeared, and his ANY/A fell from near the top to barely average. I have no explanation.
Lastly, I want to take a minute to clarify my intentions in creating these metrics. My purpose for separating air yards from YAC is not to make a definitive judgment on a quarterback’s skill level. Rather, I’m trying to shine a light on who contributes the most and least to his team’s offense. Let’s say two quarterbacks post identical stat lines; QB A achieved his with intermediate passes, while QB B did it with nothing but screen passes. I’m not claiming QB A is better, I’m just saying he carried more of the load than QB B in this particular sample.
- A big thanks to Chad Langager at sportingcharts.com for helping me compile this data. [↩]
- Even though YAC data only goes back to 1992, I feel safe in using the phrase “all-time” with regard to YAC dependency. The offensive schemes of yesteryear emphasized downfield passing, which generated far less YAC than the short passing games of today. [↩]
- If we used Air Yards per Completion to instead calculate marginal Air Yards, Manning would still rank third, behind just Brian Hoyer and Josh McCown. [↩]