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Guest Post: Marginal YAC, 2014 in Review

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.

Manning is more of a downfield thrower than you think

Manning is more of a downfield thrower than you think

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.

#QuarterbackTeammAirmYACAttCompYardsAirYdsYACCom %Air/CYAC/CAir/AAir %
1Peyton ManningDEN500-19559739547272711201666.2%6.865.14.5457.4%
2Tony RomoDAL420-2843530437052031167469.9%6.685.514.6754.8%
3Ben RoethlisbergerPIT3298860840849522580237267.1%6.325.814.2452.1%
4Drew BreesNO293-33465945649522733221969.2%5.994.874.1555.2%
5Brian HoyerCLE2767343824233261898142855.3%7.845.94.3357.1%
6Aaron RodgersGB26428252034143812190219165.6%6.426.434.2150%
7Josh McCownTB222-2573271842206143377356.3%7.794.24.3865%
8Mike GlennonTB217-207203117141796944857.6%8.283.834.7768.4%
9Andrew LuckIND21413961638047612495226661.7%6.575.964.0552.4%
10Matt RyanATL213-16762841546942538215666.1%
11Ryan FitzpatrickHOU2002531219724831355112863.1%6.885.734.3454.6%
12Colin KaepernickSF154-17347828933691924144560.5%6.6654.0357.1%
13Drew StantonARI151-682401321711104067155%7.885.084.3360.8%
14Eli ManningNYG140-7860137944102366204463.1%6.245.393.9453.7%
15Cam NewtonCAR129-12844826231271788133958.5%6.825.113.9957.2%
16Joe FlaccoBAL115-11055534439862170181662%6.315.283.9154.4%
17Philip RiversSD101-4857037942862212207466.5%5.845.473.8851.6%
18Charlie WhitehurstTEN71-18185105132675657056.8%7.25.434.0957%
19Mark SanchezPHI6110530919824181205121364.1%
20Zach MettenbergerTEN48102179107141271170159.8%6.646.553.9750.4%
21Kirk CousinsWAS25225204126171078093061.8%6.197.383.8245.6%
22Colt McCoyWAS185612891105749256571.1%5.416.213.8446.5%
23Tom BradyNE4-13858237341092159195064.1%5.795.233.7152.5%
24Austin DavisSTL1-602841802001105394863.4%5.855.273.7152.6%
25Carson PalmerARI-1018224141162681980762.9%5.815.723.6650.4%
26Shaun HillSTL-3027229145165781883963.3%5.645.793.5749.4%
27Jake LockerTEN-3231468699350948458.9%5.925.633.4951.3%
28Nick FolesPHI-37731118621631115104859.8%5.995.633.5951.5%
29Teddy BridgewaterMIN-644440225929191425149464.4%5.55.773.5448.8%
30Geno SmithNYJ-983836721925251261126459.7%5.765.773.4449.9%
31Ryan TannehillMIA-105-22959039240452080196566.4%5.315.013.5351.4%
32Michael VickNYJ-108-941216460434026452.9%5.314.132.8156.3%
33Russell WilsonSEA-15936545228534751515196063.1%5.326.883.3543.6%
34Andy DaltonCIN-2068948230933981579181964.1%5.115.893.2846.5%
35EJ ManuelBUF-2061341317683827955958%3.677.362.1333.3%
36Kyle OrtonBUF-232-1244728730181423159564.2%4.965.563.1847.2%
37Robert GriffinWAS-2363152141471694556113868.7%3.787.742.632.8%
38Matthew StaffordDET-25224860236342571977228060.3%5.456.283.2846.4%
39Alex SmithKC-39524646430332651323194265.3%4.376.412.8540.5%
40Jay CutlerCHI-43910356137038121638217466%4.435.882.9243%
41Derek CarrOAK-509-38759934832701709156158.1%4.914.492.8552.3%
42Blake BortlesJAC-5139547528029081246166258.9%4.455.942.6242.8%

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:

YearmAirmYACAir/CYAC/CAir %

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:

QuarterbackTeamYearmAirmYACAir %
Robert GriffinWAS2014-23631532.8%
Jason CampbellWAS2009-40238040.3%
Alex SmithKC2014-39524640.5%
Mark RypienWAS1993-63410241.1%
Jon KitnaDAL2010-20325441.2%
Mark BrunellWAS2006-24421841.3%
Christian PonderMIN2012-63511941.6%
Chad HenneJAC2013-48115542.5%
Matt CasselNE2008-37542142.7%
Blake BortlesJAC2014-5139542.8%
Shaun HillDET2010-38813642.9%
Jay CutlerCHI2014-43910343%
Matt HasselbeckSEA2009-48513043.1%
Jason CampbellOAK2010-18930343.1%
David CarrHOU2006-4721643.3%
Russell WilsonSEA2014-15936543.6%
Shane MatthewsCHI1999-3306544%
Drew BreesSD2003-40517144%
Alex SmithSF2010-21320844.4%
Sam BradfordSTL2013-2184744.5%

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.

  1. A big thanks to Chad Langager at sportingcharts.com for helping me compile this data. []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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. []
  • Howard in Auckland

    re: Russell Wilson: “This year, his downfield consistency all but disappeared, and his ANY/A fell from near the top to barely average. I have no explanation.” How about really bad play calling that relied to an absurd extent on bubble screens to Percy Harvin even after he left the team, and that never worked, even when he was with it.

    • James

      My guess would be a combination of random variation and the loss of a very much underrated Golden Tate.

      • Red

        In hindsight, it was an awful decision to keep Harvin and let Tate walk. Honestly, Percy Harvin always struck me as a guy who blinded people with his athleticism, despite not really knowing how to play football.

    • Red

      Was Bevell’s playcalling really that much different compared to previous years? In the handful of Seahawks games I watched this year, Wilson was throwing deep just as often as he did in 2012-2013. Of course, deep balls are high variance plays, so it could be that he simply missed more in 2014 even though his true talent level didn’t change. Thanks for the comment.

  • Richie

    Rule #1 of internet football analysis: Do not diss Seahawks players.

    • Red

      For real. I mean, Doug Baldwin might feel disrespected and yell at you.

  • Daniel

    Manning’s numbers seem to fit. On the one hand, as you mentioned, defenses became a lot better at identifying and defensing the quick WR screens that were so lethal in 2013. They really did a great job of limiting YAC.

    Also, and I know this will run counter to the angry mob of ‘Peyton is completely done and needs to retire yesterday’ supporters, I thought his arm looked better this season than either of the past two, at least through the Miami game. He was throwign downfield more because he could. A completely healthy Manning would have torched that Colts team. I hope he comes back, because all the indicators outside of an injury-impacted last five games, shows a QB that can absolutely play at a high level.

    Also, I don’t want to start my own flame war, but what to make of Brady at #23? I think he’s always been dependent on YAC. Some of that is his anticipation, but that scheme just gets guys wide open way more than most in the NFL.

    • Ty

      I agree, that people are too quick to pull the “Manning is done” card. While Manning did decline in efficiency in the later part of the season, look at the defenses that they played against:

      Miami Dolphins (Had a good pass defense before they stopped caring after being eliminated from contention)
      Kansas City (On the road, Good pass defense)
      Buffalo Bills (Arguably the best pass defense)
      Cincinnati Bengals (On the road, Good pass defense)

      Manning’s arm was stronger, this season, earlier in the year, than it was the past two seasons. Arm strength just doesn’t fizzle out within weeks, unless it is injury related (which we obviously know it was).

      I also suspect that people think Manning is done, because he isn’t throwing for 400+ years every other week, and as we all know (at least here), bulk stats are not a good measure of QB play.

      I’m not sure if Manning will be back in Denver (I don’t think he will fit Kubiak’s system well, especially with his age and diminished athleticism), but I still think he can be a good QB, better than 2/3 of the current starters.

      • Richie

        Arm strength just doesn’t fizzle out within weeks, unless it is injury related (which we obviously know it was).

        Yeah, this has been driving me crazy when I hear people say Manning needs to retire. I just can’t believe he can go from one of the best QB seasons ever to “too old to play” within 12 months. Aging doesn’t work that way. Clearly he’s injured. The question is – is it a recoverable injury and does he WANT to do the rehab?

        • Daniel

          Forget 12 months, he went from basically the best (or 2nd best ) QB in teh NFL through Week 9, to an average player. That isn’t age, that is injury. Now, injuries may be tied to getting older, but he didn’t lose his ability in the span of a month.

  • Red

    Agreed on all counts. Despite being 38, Peyton’s arm really did look stronger this year until he wore down with injuries. Even during the San Diego game where he tore his quad, he averaged a robust 11.7 YPA with five completions of 25+ yards. If the quad fully heals, I think he’ll be a top five QB again in 2015.

    Brady has never been able to throw deep efficiently unless Randy Moss is on the field. In 2014, he didn’t get as much YAC help as usual, but your point still stands. Ludicrously, Brady garnered a few All Pro votes despite posting a below average Y/A! That screams “reputation vote.” In my opinion, Brady has always received too much credit for the Patriots success, and his YAC dependency is a major reason why. I plan on doing a detailed examination of Brady’s legacy after the Super Bowl, so stay tuned…

  • Gordie

    Interesting article, Red. Criticizing Griffin seems like the popular thing to do, but keep in mind that Griffin played six full starts this season. Those starts were interrupted by injury, and Griffin also had to figure out the Grudenball offense, which relies less on the offensive sets and looks that Griffin excels at (the play-action and read-option).

    As an aside, one has to wonder if Grudenball is anything special in the first place. Check out how Tampa Bay and Cincinnati’s passing offenses did with the Gruden brothers/offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. From 02-08, the Bucs ranked 20th in the league in NY/A; the 11-13 Bengals ranked 17th. The performance of a team’s passing offense with Jay Gruden hasn’t exactly been top-tier, or even above-average.