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Interceptions are much more likely to be returned for touchdowns now

by Chase Stuart on March 28, 2013

in History, Passing, Statistics

Good bit of trivia from my buddy Scott Kacsmar: there were 71 interceptions returned for touchdowns in 2012, the highest number in NFL history. Another interesting fact about the 2012 season: just 2.6 interceptions were thrown per 100 attempts, the lowest figure in NFL history.

We already know that the league-wide interception rate has been rapidly decreasing for years, but the significant increase in interceptions returned for touchdowns per interception is an under-reported story. Last year was the year of the Pick Six, but the Pick Six rate (INTs returned for touchdowns per interception) has been on the rise for several years. The graph below shows both the interception rate (100*INTs/Att) in blue (and measured against the left vertical axis) and the Pick Six rate (100*INT TDs/INT) in red (and measured against the right vertical axis):

Pick Six rate

As to “why” the Pick Six rate has risen, I don’t think it’s all that hard to figure out. It isn’t a coincidence that interception rate is decreasing while Pick Six rate is increasing; both metrics are influenced, I suspect, by the increase in the prevalence of the short passing game in the NFL. When Daryle Lamonica and Joe Namath were throwing deep every other pass, the likelihood of a pick-six was pretty low; the defensive back who would intercept the pass would be far from the offense’s end zone and likely to catch the ball while falling down or in a crowd. Now, though, defensive backs can jump on shorter pass routes and have literally nobody between them and the end zone on some interceptions.

Andy Dalton and Matthew Stafford led the way with four pick sixes last year, although eight other quarterbacks threw three interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. And before you blame Mark Sanchez, he only threw one last year!1 The 15% Pick Six rate in 2012 is likely unsustainable, but the steady climb isn’t a fluke. The short passing game is driving the increase – at least, in my opinion. But there are probably other factors at play, so I’ll open this up to the crowd: Why do you think the Pick Six rate is rising?

I’ll close with the data from the graph in table form:

Year
INT TD
INT
G
INT/G
ATT
INT RT
PK 6 RT
2012714685120.91177882.6%15.2%
2011495065120.99174102.9%9.7%
2010575115121172693%11.2%
2009485255121.03170333.1%9.1%
2008524655120.91165262.8%11.2%
2007525345121.04170453.1%9.7%
2006495205121.02163893.2%9.4%
2005475065120.99164643.1%9.3%
2004535245121.02163543.2%10.1%
2003585385121.05164933.3%10.8%
2002465285121.03172923.1%8.7%
2001595454961.1161813.4%10.8%
2000515314961.07163223.3%9.6%
1999585624961.13167603.4%10.3%
1998535094801.06154893.3%10.4%
1997474794801157293%9.8%
1996415424801.13159663.4%7.6%
1995525124801.07166993.1%10.2%
1994454744481.06150563.1%9.5%
1993354694481.05144143.3%7.5%
1992475194481.16134083.9%9.1%
1991324884481.09139503.5%6.6%
1990354804481.07135163.6%7.3%
1989365594481.25143383.9%6.4%
1988275534481.23141313.9%4.9%
1987295404201.29134914%5.4%
1986295814481.3144694%5%
1985416024481.34144234.2%6.8%
1984515844481.3143254.1%8.7%
1983496204481.38140474.4%7.9%
1982223492521.3879334.4%6.3%
1981306094481.36141804.3%4.9%
1980306274481.4137054.6%4.8%
1979305974481.33129794.6%5%
1978306394481.43118295.4%4.7%
1977285623921.4397865.7%5%
1976284973921.27102604.8%5.6%
1975255333641.4699735.3%4.7%
1974315003641.3796095.2%6.2%
1973304703641.2988455.3%6.4%
1972304803641.3290115.3%6.3%
1971355443641.4994125.8%6.4%
1970265103641.497965.2%5.1%
1969385443641.49103775.2%7%
1968475543641.52100345.5%8.5%
1967605933501.69103295.7%10.1%
1966445353361.59100905.3%8.2%
1965414803081.5690595.3%8.5%
1964405013081.6391875.5%8%
1963345143081.6789545.7%6.6%
1962275673081.8488126.4%4.8%
1961345643081.8389226.3%6%
1960284932681.8478136.3%5.7%
1959102211441.5337146%4.5%
1958112431441.6939516.2%4.5%
1957112311441.633396.9%4.8%
1956112401441.6732827.3%4.6%
1955132581441.7938206.8%5%
1954152941442.0442326.9%5.1%
1953183061442.1342677.2%5.9%
1952152971442.0640247.4%5.1%
195112288144238817.4%4.2%
1950243431562.243078%7%
1949253892041.9152387.4%6.4%
1948204192321.8159217.1%4.8%
1947244142321.7852927.8%5.8%
1946163992221.845968.7%4%
194571931001.9321079.2%3.6%
1944102341002.34211411.1%4.3%
19438182802.28173210.5%4.4%
194272191101.9922499.7%3.2%
1941102201102221010%4.5%
1940102231102.0322549.9%4.5%
  1. Although he had three in 2011 and two more fumbles returned for TDs that year. []

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Danny Tuccitto March 28, 2013 at 12:13 am

Interesting. The shorter-passing theory makes sense. My question, though: What the hell happened in the 1988-1989 offseason? That seems to be the inflection point when Pick Six rate exploded.

Reply

Jim A March 28, 2013 at 1:26 am

I’d like to see if average pass distance has really decreased as steadily as pick-six rates have increased, particularly over the past 10 years or so.

Also, has the average return line of scrimmage changed recently? As I recall from years ago, the average interception was returned very close to the original LOS.

Reply

Richie March 28, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Would “average pass distance” be as helpful as looking at frequency of passes of <5 yards? Maybe they trend the same.

But a QB could throw 5 passes of 5 yards each and one pass of 30 yards, and have an average distance of 9.2.
Another QB could throw 2 passes of 4 yards, and 4 passes of 10 yards, and have an average of 8.0.

So the second QB would have a lower average, but fewer passes within 5 yards. (I have no idea what the true distribution of passes is.)

Reply

Nate Dunlevy March 28, 2013 at 7:21 am

Along the lines of what Jim is thinking, I’d guess teams are more willing to pass near the goal line.

Indy had three pick sixes this season that occurred inside the five yard line. As teams throw more even when backed up against the goal line, it would stand to reason that more passes would be returned for a score.

Reply

Arif Hasan March 28, 2013 at 8:44 am

I think that the short passing game is very likely the biggest factor in the increase in return touchdowns, although I have to imagine that decreasing interceptions might decrease pick practice both on the field and in actual practices. Then again, increased practice times might have countered that. Who knows?

Also, the decrease in two-way players has de-emphasized tackling for offensive players, but that would have a flat influence after a certain point.

Reply

Xx March 28, 2013 at 9:31 am

Danny,

Deion sanders happened.

Reply

Rich S March 28, 2013 at 11:17 am

I think the question might be a bit backwards: why haven’t pick sixes declined at the same rate as interceptions overall? Looking at int TD’s as a percent of overall attempts and most of the trend goes away. Over the years 1992 to 2011 and the pick 6 rate (with respect to attempts) is flat to many decimal places. (Granted, there is a bit of cherry picking there – I started with 1990 through today and took off the very high year last year and two low years at the beginning.)

The trend from 1980 or 1990 through now shows a slight increase with time, but not what i would consider an explosion.

Reply

Mike Whitehouse March 28, 2013 at 11:22 am

Wish we had a way of plotting where these pick 6′s are occurring on the field, both from a vertical perspective (LOS) and a horizontal perspective. Anecdotally, I’d say a good chunk of pick 6′s occur in the short hook, curl, and flat zones. We can look to the widespread proliferation of Cover 2 & other zone coverages in the last 20 years as a factor here: these short zones are now-manned by ball-hungry defenders with eyes on the QB, willing and eager to jump short passes because they know they have the protection of a coverage umbrella over top.

Food for thought.

Reply

Chase Stuart March 28, 2013 at 11:23 am

We do – although it is a PITA to data mine. It’s on the to-do list, though.

Reply

chris March 28, 2013 at 11:26 am

Luck only had two pick-sixes in 2012, and the shorter return was for 40 yards. There were 4 pick-sixes with returns of less than 10 yards last year, the most in the last 13 years, but that’s not a high number. I don’t think the rise is related to passing near your own goal line.

Average distance from the line of scrimmage for a pick six last year was 6.49 yards. That’s an increase from 2011′s 6.18 yards, and the second longest distance in the last six years.

Only 54 players threw an interception last year, the lowest number since at least 1998. The average number of players throwing an interception per season is around 65, so that’s quite a large decrease.

My guess, and that’s all it is right now, is that last year’s QBs were unusually young, and that’s there’s a correlation between age and interception count. Drew Brees might disagree, but that’s what I’d look at, not the distance or area of the field of the pick-six.

Reply

Richie March 28, 2013 at 2:25 pm

A theory: fewer fullbacks playing, and more TE’s going into pass patterns leaves fewer players near the LOS to tackle the interceptor.

Reply

Richie March 28, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Average distance of interception return since 2000:

Year Dist
2000 44.4
2001 45.8
2002 49.7
2003 46.2
2004 45.4
2005 44.4
2006 44.0
2007 48.3
2008 52.1
2009 45.5
2010 40.8
2011 38.6
2012 42.5

Reply

Richie March 28, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Median distance since 2000:

2000 37
2001 42
2002 41
2003 43
2004 43
2005 40
2006 38
2007 49
2008 45
2009 39
2010 35
2011 33
2012 40

Reply

Norman March 29, 2013 at 11:21 am

Defensive personnel moving more to the speed end of the speed-strength continuum.

Many QBs not even making an attempt to tackle.

Reply

Eric October 20, 2013 at 12:01 pm

This fits my impressions over the years. There are a lot of correlations that make sense, besides just the increase in short passes. Empty backfield which started in a big way with the run’n'shoot offenses of the late 80s/early 90s. Increased speed on defense, especially LBs and DLs who used to get caught from behind. Increased proclivity to pass deep in your own end.

However, I wonder if looking at the bellweathers might be a useful method. To me, the Dungy Bucs and the current run of Bears teams are the ones who seem to have an insane number of return tds. Both teams represent the trend to speed but also the Tampa 2 scheme. That scheme allows DBs to leave a cushion and jump on the ball on short patterns. Not only do the get picks, the get them while running full speed, largely towards the opponents goal line. Hard to catch a guy who is running full speed the other way.

Reply

Rick Liebling November 25, 2013 at 5:19 pm

Looking at it from a totally different perspective. Could recent rule changes regarding hitting a defenseless opponent be having an effect? Are defensive players thinking: If I tackle this guy high, or at the knees, it will be a penalty, so better to go for the interception than the tackle?

Reply

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