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Guest Post: Marginal YAC, 2015 in Review

Adam Steele is back to discuss Marginal YAC, this time in the context of the 2015 season. You can view all of Adam’s posts here.

Marginal Air Yards: 2015 Year In Review

Today I will be updating my Marginal Air Yards metric for the now completed 2015 season. New readers who aren’t familiar with Marginal Air Yards can get up to speed by reading my three part intro-series and 2014’s year in review.

There were 44 quarterbacks who threw at least 100 passes in 2015, and they are ranked by mAir below:

RkQuarterbackTeammAirmYACAttAirYdsYACAir/CYAC/CAir/AAir %
1Carson PalmerARI810-52537289717748.475.195.3962%
2Ben RoethlisbergerPIT646-234469246914697.744.615.2662.7%
3Jameis WinstonTB448-152535252815148.14.854.7362.5%
4Cam NewtonCAR442-114496237014678.014.964.7861.8%
5Tyrod TaylorBUF421-155380189811377.844.74.9962.5%
6Russell WilsonSEA32961483220618186.715.534.5754.8%
7Blake BortlesJAC294-118606265017787.465.014.3759.8%
8Andy DaltonCIN283105386178314676.995.754.6254.9%
9Matt RyanATL278-247614266519266.554.734.3458%
10Brian HoyerHOU263-28736916979097.584.064.665.1%
11Marcus MariotaTEN196-44370163411847.15.154.4258%
12Kirk CousinsWAS147-116543225819085.965.034.1654.2%
13A.J. McCarronCIN64-951195273276.674.144.4361.7%
14Drew BreesNO27120627246424065.765.623.9350.6%
15Brandon Weeden2TM26-441405704745.884.894.0754.6%
16Kellen MooreDAL22271044263536.985.794.154.7%
17Andrew LuckIND21-14429311607217.164.453.9661.7%
18Peyton ManningDEN-13-8233112749756.434.923.8556.6%
19Tony RomoDAL-17-121214534315.465.193.7451.2%
20Ryan TannehillMIA-2113586225719516.225.373.8553.6%
21Brock OsweilerDEN-211127510489196.165.413.8153.3%
22Jay CutlerCHI-26147483185118085.955.813.8350.6%
23Josh McCownCLE-4324292109210175.875.473.7451.8%
24Jimmy Clausen2TM-48-831254383016.084.183.559.3%
25Tom BradyNE-54252624237123995.95.973.849.7%
26Ryan FitzpatrickNYJ-61-7562212317826.345.323.7854.4%
27Eli ManningNYG-6532618233720996.045.423.7852.7%
28Ryan Mallett2TM-66-2722448824546.493.343.6166%
29Johnny ManzielCLE-77212237907106.125.53.5452.7%
30Case KeenumSTL-81171254054235.335.573.2448.9%
31Derek CarrOAK-90-19573213718506.115.293.7353.6%
32Matt CasselDAL-91-652057065705.934.793.4455.3%
33Matt HasselbeckIND-103-352568927985.725.123.4852.8%
34Zach MettenbergerTEN-142-1071665034324.984.283.0353.8%
35Blaine GabbertSF-17315728292311085.196.223.2745.4%
36Colin KaepernickSF-197952447518645.2263.0846.5%
37Joe FlaccoBAL-30268413130314884.95.593.1546.7%
38Alex SmithKC-312332470151519714.936.423.2243.5%
39Teddy BridgewaterMIN-322257447141518164.856.223.1743.8%
40Sam BradfordPHI-391200532167720484.855.923.1545%
41Aaron RodgersGB-427172572179620255.185.843.1447%
42Matthew StaffordDET-441277592186024024.676.043.1443.6%
43Nick FolesSTL-45217933785811944.526.282.5541.8%
44Philip RiversSD-456345661211326794.846.133.244.1%

Using conventional passing stats, the QB field in 2015 was bunched very close together – the majority of the league’s signal callers floated together in a sea of mediocrity. Curiously, when we parse their numbers by air yards and YAC, the exact opposite becomes true. This year, we saw a lot of quarterbacks rack up gaudy air yardage numbers, with just as many sinking to the depths of air yardage depravity. As impressive as Carson Palmer’s season was by conventional stats, he was historically dominant when air yards are factored in. Ben Roethlisberger put together a similarly dominant 2015, and perhaps would have matched Palmer had he not missed time due to injury. Although the Buccaneers limped to a 6-10 record, Jameis Winston had an extremely impressive rookie campaign, finishing 3rd in mAir and 2nd in air yards per completion. Another first year starter, Tyrod Taylor, was an air yardage monster in 2015, nearly eclipsing Winston on 155 fewer attempts. Speaking of young quarterbacks, the turnaround for Blake Bortles this year was borderline miraculous. In his rookie year of 2014, Bortles finished dead last in mAir, posting a ghastly -513. But in 2015, he jumped all the way up to 7th with a healthy +294. Color me surprised.

At the other end of the spectrum, Captain Checkdown became a very popular alias in 2015. We have the usual suspects like Alex Smith and Sam Bradford, two quarterbacks who personify the inability to go deep. But then we find some names that seem quite out of place lurking near the bottom, most notably Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers. In fairness, both of them were hamstrung by key injuries to their supporting cast, and they did compensate somewhat with high mYAC, but it’s still shocking to see these two perennial greats fall off a cliff as they did in 2015. How shocking? Check out their season-by-season splits:

A. RodgersmAirmYACAttAir/CYAC/CAir/AAir %

Since becoming the Packers’ starter in 2008, Rodgers had generated positive mAir every season without exception, finishing at or near the top of the league on an annual basis. Until 2015, that is. Rodgers fell to an unreal -427 mAir and a corresponding 41st place finish. I never dreamed he would have a season of this nature until he was well past his prime. Now, to Rodgers’ credit, he has also been a YAC extraordinaire throughout his career, and this year he still registered a strong +172. But even with the YAC boost, he still finished with a career low (by a mile) 6.7 yards per attempt.

P. RiversmAirmYACAttAir/CYAC/CAir/AAir %

Mr. Rivers has also been a very consistent air yardage generator throughout his career, highlighted by a trio of top three mAir finishes from 2008-10. His only major hiccup came in 2012, but in 2015 Rivers sunk to a new low at -456 and a startling last-place finish. Like Rodgers, he has traditionally been a YAC gobbler as well, and this year YAC was his only saving grace with a formidable +345 mYAC. I have to think that both of these guys will bounce back in 2016 and play more like their usual selves, although Rivers is now in his mid-30s and his struggles in 2015 could be foreshadowing the decline phase of his career.

Earlier I mentioned Carson Palmer’s historical mAir production in 2015, but where exactly does it stack up? Here are the top 50 Marginal Air Yards seasons since data became available in 1992:

#QuarterbackTeamYearmAirmYACAttAir/CYAC/CAir/AAir %
1Daunte CulpepperMIN2000810-1784748.824.435.5366.6%
2Carson PalmerARI2015810-525378.475.195.3962%
3Peyton ManningIND2006785-3535577.984.175.1965.7%
4Mark BrunellJAC1996782-2995578.174.25.1866.1%
5Peyton ManningIND20047631004978.435.135.762.1%
6Steve McNairTEN2003702-2154008.794.075.568.4%
7Kurt WarnerSTL20016652015467.365.525.0557.1%
8Peyton ManningIND2000654-2185717.944.424.9664.2%
9Steve McNairTEN2001649-2694318.723.975.3468.7%
10Ben RoethlisbergerPIT2015646-2344697.744.615.2662.7%
11Jeff HostetlerLAA1993599-1294199.534.25.3769.4%
12Tony RomoDAL2006577-783378.414.795.4963.7%
13Tom BradyNE20075557057875.074.8258%
14Randall CunninghamMIN19985521494258.725.585.3261%
15Chris ChandlerATL19985443453279.786.825.6858.9%
16Peyton ManningIND2005544-434537.574.715.161.6%
17Aaron RodgersGB20115422585027.236.314.9453.4%
18Carson PalmerCIN2006538-1345207.734.734.8162%
19Jeff GeorgeMIN1999528483299.365.385.4363.5%
20Ben RoethlisbergerPIT20095211175067.055.794.754.9%
21Kurt WarnerSTL20005174043477.846.755.3153.7%
22Peyton ManningIND2007509-1085157.414.584.8561.8%
23Matt HasselbeckSEA2005506-2254497.674.095.0265.2%
24Peyton ManningDEN2014500-1955976.865.14.5457.4%
25Eli ManningNYG20114841815897.686.064.6855.9%
26Tony RomoDAL2007484785207.445.134.7959.2%
27Trent GreenSTL2000483-662409.664.575.8367.9%
28Scott MitchellDET1995482-1265837.834.714.6562.5%
29Drew BreesNO2009465625146.475.624.5753.5%
30Jake DelhommeCAR2008453-64148.215.164.8861.4%
31Jameis WinstonTB2015448-1525358.14.854.7362.5%
32Drew BledsoeNE1998447-624819.054.774.9565.5%
33John ElwayDEN1998445-1203568.934.435.2766.8%
34Carson PalmerCIN2005444-2685097.044.084.7763.3%
35Cam NewtonCAR2015442-1144968.014.964.7861.8%
36Ben RoethlisbergerPIT2007439-1384047.574.384.9563.4%
37Elvis GrbacKC200043545477.755.044.6260.6%
38Ben RoethlisbergerPIT2004434112958.484.895.6363.4%
39Drew BreesNO2011429-896576.345.374.5154.1%
40Eli ManningNYG2012427-2455367.754.554.6463%
41Steve YoungSF19934262844627.165.664.8655.9%
42Philip RiversSD20094243224866.966.464.5451.9%
43Peyton ManningDEN2012424-1325836.664.994.5757.2%
44Jim KellyBUF1992421-1514628.634.225.0367.2%
45Tyrod TaylorBUF2015421-1553807.844.74.9962.5%
46Steve BeuerleinPHO1993421-1304188.024.254.9565.4%
47Tony RomoDAL2014420-284356.685.514.6754.8%
48Matt SchaubHOU2009413645836.445.614.3753.5%
49Marc BulgerSTL2004410-174857.574.785.0161.3%
50Dan MarinoMIA1992408-1495548.144.334.8565.3%

So close! Palmer finishes a mere fraction of a yard behind Daunte Culpepper for the greatest air yardage season on record. If I had an MVP vote, it would have gone to Palmer. He somewhat quietly had one of the best QB seasons in recent memory, and led the Cardinals to their most successful regular season in franchise history. Roethlisberger also cracked the historical top 10, with the aforementioned Winston, Taylor, and probable MVP Cam Newton joining him in the top 50. This is only the second season since 1992 (the other being 2000) to place five quarterbacks in the top 50.

Of course you also want to see the bottom 50, right?

#QuarterbackTeamYearmAirmYACAttAir/CYAC/CAir/AAir %
1051Christian PonderMIN2012-6351194834.075.712.5341.6%
1050Mark RypienWAS1993-6341023193.755.371.9541.1%
1049Sam BradfordSTL2010-614175904.445.492.6644.7%
1048Joey HarringtonDET2003-606-1095544.754.572.6550.9%
1047Blaine GabbertJAC2011-561144134.925.622.546.7%
1046Joey HarringtonDET2004-5592454895.395.733.0248.5%
1045Brett FavreGB2006-5523586135.146.182.8845.4%
1044Blake BortlesJAC2014-513954754.455.942.6242.8%
1043Derek CarrOAK2014-509-3875994.914.492.8552.3%
1042Boomer EsiasonCIN1992-498722784.495.282.3245.9%
1041Tom BradyNE2002-4971516014.785.312.9747.3%
1040Joey HarringtonDET2002-4971094295.265.412.6349.3%
1039Brett FavreGB1993-4892245224.935.46347.5%
1038Bruce GradkowskiTB2006-48913284.245.152.2945.2%
1037Donovan McNabbPHI2000-488195695.115.092.9650.1%
1036Matt HasselbeckSEA2009-4851304884.455.892.6743.1%
1035Chad HenneJAC2013-4811555034.526.112.7442.5%
1034Brandon WeedenCLE2012-4732935175.16.32.9344.7%
1033David CarrHOU2006-472164423.975.22.7143.3%
1032Bobby HoyingPHI1998-468-422243.794.641.9345%
1031Chris WeinkeCAR2001-458-1435405.514.492.9955.1%
1030Philip RiversSD2015-4563456614.846.133.244.1%
1029Drew BledsoeNE2000-4541475315.045.52.9647.8%
1028Nick FolesSTL2015-4521793374.526.282.5541.8%
1027Matthew StaffordDET2015-4412775924.676.043.1443.6%
1026Jay CutlerCHI2014-4391035614.435.882.9243%
1025Kyle BollerBAL2004-434-1874645.814.113.2358.5%
1024Aaron RodgersGB2015-4271725725.185.843.1447%
1023Ryan FitzpatrickBUF2012-4272605054.956.16344.5%
1022David KlinglerCIN1993-4261063434.875.312.747.9%
1021Drew BreesSD2003-4051713564.525.762.644%
1020Jason CampbellWAS2009-4023805074.466.612.8740.3%
1019Alex SmithKC2013-3991105084.85.962.9144.6%
1018Alex SmithKC2014-3952464644.376.412.8540.5%
1017Jimmy ClausenCAR2010-394-92994.545.382.3845.8%
1016Sam BradfordPHI2015-3912005324.855.923.1545%
1015Shaun HillDET2010-3881364164.485.972.7742.9%
1014Steve BonoKC1996-3801144385.425.532.9149.5%
1013Drew BledsoeNE1995-376-1856366.364.53.2358.6%
1012Matt CasselNE2008-3754215164.826.473.0642.7%
1011Ryan FitzpatrickBUF2011-360355695.25.653.2347.9%
1010Philip RiversSD2012-3591435274.935.743.1646.2%
1009Jason CampbellWAS2008-355535064.955.353.0848%
1008Matthew StaffordDET2009-3511423775.136.152.7345.5%
1007Ryan FitzpatrickCIN2008-350-2973724.783.842.8455.5%
1006Jon KitnaSEA2000-3501084184.815.452.9846.9%
1005Peyton ManningIND1998-3451425756.035.443.4252.6%
1004Stan GelbaughSEA1992-339182555.874.932.7854.3%
1003Kyle BollerSTL2009-338581763.136.041.7434.1%
1002Shane MatthewsCHI1999-330652754.335.522.6344%

While none of this year’s passers could equal the futility of Christian Ponder or Joey Harrington, 2015 became the first season to place five quarterbacks in the bottom 50. Apparently historical greatness must be balanced out by historical suckiness!

What are your observations? If you have any ideas on other things I could do with this data, please let me know!

  • Derek Carr’s 2014 really stands out to me. Ninth worst mAIR on record paired with the worst mYAC on record. Seven other QBs also had negatives in both areas, which is just terrible. I think it points to the assertion that QBs don’t produce the worst passing seasons without a little (lack of) help.

    • Adam

      For sure. Derek Carr was a relatively impotent QB in his rookie year, but he had zero help from his receivers in breaking big plays. If he had benefitted from even average YAC, his Y/A would have looked much more reasonable.

      Carr actually didn’t have the worst mYAC season on record, just the worst among the bottom 50 mAir seasons. The worst mYAC seasons:

      Matt Ryan, 2010: -524
      Jon Kitna, 2001: -491
      Mike Glennon, 2013: -458
      Peyton Manning, 2010: -444
      Scott Mitchell, 1996: -389

  • Trepur

    I’m torn on the air yards debate. I think it’s stupid to ignore yards after the catch, cause their are various reasons why a great QB would have low air yards/completion:
    A) Maybe a QB recognizes an upcoming Blitz and calls a screen leading to a big gain but no air yards.
    B) Maybe the opposing secondary is better vs deep passes then short passes, and recognizing this the offensive coordinator has the QB throw mostly quick slants and flats.
    C)Maybe your team has no deep threat receivers, and so your QB has limited options downfield.

    I also think it’s pretty telling that Culpepper, aided by the greatest wide receiver of all time, tops this list. Having great deep-threat receivers helps your air-yards, having great slot-receivers (and throwing more short passes as a result) hurts it.

    That said I’m a big fan of aggressive play calling, especially in situation where your team is trailing. I think deep throws are underused by most coaches, and that since Blair Walsh and the 49ers there’s been too much emphasis on short passing, which the college-spread offense in college has only made worse.

    I love what Bruce Arians has done in Arizona, and I think more coaches should follow his model. Also, while I have been critical of Cam Newton this year, imagine how much more potent that offense (and his air yards) would have been if the Panthers ahd a deep-threat receiver. Forcing defenders to play deeper would also help Newton with his option-runs. I should however note that I’m still not endorsing Newton for MVP, Palmer also has no deep threat receivers and was still able to succeed in deep passing.

    • Rob Harrison

      I think you mean *Bill* Walsh; right now, I wouldn’t call the Vikings’ kicker an advertisement for the short passing game.

      • Trepur

        I did mean Bill, been typing Blair too much recently, guess it became reflex. lol

    • Adam

      I also think it’s stupid to ignore yards after the catch! My intention here is to highlight QB’s splits between air yards and YAC, and let readers draw their own conclusions. It simply offers another perspective, which I think is always beneficial.

      Generally speaking, I do believe QB’s have more control over air yards than YAC. But the glaring exception is exactly what you mentioned – the jump ball receiver. There have been a handful of these guys in recent history, and their presence undoubtedly inflates the air yardage of whichever QB is throwing to them. The most prominent example is indeed Randy Moss, who helped Culpepper and Brady reach air yardage numbers they haven’t come close to duplicating without him. I think Culpepper is one of the most overrated QB’s in NFL history, and Randy Moss is the primary reason why. Other jump ball receivers include Calvin Johnson, AJ Green, DeAndre Hopkins, and Vincent Jackson, who have all inflated their quarterbacks’ stats to a significant degree.

  • WR

    This is interesting stuff, Adam. Thanks for the update. But I’m not sold that we should rate QBs higher when they produce more air yards than YAC. There’s two main reasons for this.
    1. It’s not clear that teams which rely more on air yards will win more games than teams that run YAC-heavy offenses.
    2. I suspect that impressive air yardage totals, and outstanding QB seasons in general, are largely the product of the quality of the receiving corps. Look at the best mAir seasons on the list. McNair is probably the only one in the top 10 who didn’t have at least 2 star targets down the field. I don’t remember the 93 raiders very well, but most of the other guys in the top 20, same thing, including the best years of Brady and Manning.

    Culpepper produced the best mAir season ever in 2000, but then had the most YAC-heavy season ever in 2004. Are we saying that Culpepper forgot how to throw downfield between 2000 and 2004? Because that seems ridiculous. Doesn’t it indicate that the same QB may post radically different results when surrounded by different receivers, and in a new scheme?

    • eag97a

      Agree, I haven’t gone over Adams’ other posts regarding air yards maybe this is just an agnostic ranking?? In any case this metric just gives us more granular info about the passing game but I have doubts about the metrics’ utility in judging qb performance. It might shed some light about a certain qbs’ passing scheme in a particular season but beyond that nothing much really.

      • Adam

        This is most definitely an agnostic ranking. I’m not advocating that we should judge QB’s by air yards alone, or anything close to that. It’s simply another tool to add context to our evaluations. Air yard/YAC tendencies have as much to do with a QB’s playing style and scheme as they do his innate skill.

        • eag97a

          Thanks for the clarification. Seeing the comments posted by the others here are you of the opinion that air yardage leaders are better than YAC-masters? I see a preference among the readers here for vertical passers while I’m agnostic with respect to how you structure your offense since most of the enjoyment to me as a fan besides the rooting interest are strategic/tactical possibilities in football while flashy passing plays are highlight reels for me and exciting to be sure they are just there for optics IMO

          • Adam

            I don’t think air yards are “better” than YAC, per se. Ultimately, the QB’s job is to drive his team down the field and into the endzone, so in a practical sense it doesn’t matter where those yards come from. An 80 yard screen pass is just as effective as an 80 yard bomb. However, if we want to divvy up credit amongst the offensive players on a given team, I believe the QB deserves more credit for his air yardage than his YAC (under most circumstances). Basically, I believe a deep throwing offense asks more of the QB than a short passing game does.

            For example, Alex Smith averaged a healthy 7.6 Y/A this year, and the Chiefs’ passing game was pretty effective as a result. But how much of that 7.6 Y/A is Smith really responsible for? Given that his receivers did most of the work after the catch, I don’t think very much. So I’m not saying Smith is a *bad* quarterback, just that he wasn’t asked to do much in terms of carrying his offense.

            • eag97a

              I could get on board with that idea its just very devilishly hard to apportion credit in a very team based sport. As long as people acknowledge that the qb has some credit in the short passing game as well as the vertical game and IMO I even give some credit to the qb in the running game since it his job to go the correct audible and being a very good qb itself alone alters defensive game plans against him. I’m just bothered with the thought that if dink and dunk was so much easier than the vertical game why haven’t other teams replicated it and sustained success? AFAIK no team has replicated even half of the Pats’ success. PM might have gone over to the short passing game the past few years but he was more vertical earlier in his career. Ditto with Breesus. I appreciate that the coaching and FO of the Patriots is the gold standard but I think that is not enough to explain their winning. I suspect that synergistic effects of GOAT level coaching and qbing plus excellent ownership and FO comes into play and by definition synergy is very hard to identify and quantify. We can see the prevalence of dink and dunk offenses in the current NFL but so far I haven’t seen above average results among the other teams and we can see the success of the Seahawks, Packers, Panthers and even the Bengals and nobody watching will say they are dink and dunk. There is just so many ways to win in the NFL and I can rightfully say that the dink and dunk is one of them.

              • Adam

                You’re kind of making my point for me. The Patriots have engineered great offenses for the better part of a decade now, and it’s based off the synergy (your word) of coach, QB, and receivers. The performance of their offense as a whole is beyond questioning. But how much of that is Tom Brady responsible for? This is where it gets murky, and frankly the main reason I rate Brady lower historically than most people do. He could be 80% responsible for the Pats’ offensive success, or it could be mostly Belichick’s doing and Brady is only responsible for 30%. I genuinely have no idea. I think the most objective way to divide credit here is to simply even it out among the three parties – 1/3 Brady, 1/3 Belichick, 1/3 receivers and o-line.

                • eag97a

                  Some people would conclude otherwise and rate Brady higher because of the difficulty of stringing successful short passes in a row and in tighter windows than fewer long bombs. It is undeniable that it takes more physically to throw a deep pass than a short one but is it actually a better reflection of a qbs skillset when throwing deep rather than throwing short? And we should frame this question in the context that passing is just a subset of a qbs skillset. That is why I always have said that PM (even Marino) is undeniably the better passer than TB, but the better qb is a different question and probably has a different answer.

    • Adam

      I’m not sold on the superiority of air yards either, at least not at face value. Context is essesntial in evaluating a QB, and obviously it’s easier to throw downfield when the QB has receivers who can get open deep and make tough catches. That said, I think the causation arrow runs both ways – a QB who throws a great deep ball will make his receivers look better than they really are. As usual, the truth is somewhere in between.

      Culpepper is the equivalent of an error code in the system. I believe his amazing 2000 mAir season is mostly a result of playing with Randy Moss, but his record mYAC 2004 season is a head-scratcher for me. Moss only played in eight games that year, and was hobbled by injuries even when was on the field, so that explains the dive in Culpepper’s mAir. But the extreme amount of YAC that came with it? I don’t get it. Perhaps defenses were still scheming for a vertical offense (with or without Moss), which left all the underneath routes open with plenty of space to run after the catch. NFL defenses often play in a sub-optimal manner because coaches are stubborn and stuck in the past, so maybe that’s what happened against the 2004 Vikings.