It’s easy to think that as the NFL becomes more of a passing league — a statement that’s undeniably true — that the best teams would be passing most frequently. But that just isn’t the case. The three best teams in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt last year were Arizona, Cincinnati, and Seattle; those three teams ranked 19th, 26th, and 28th, respectively, in pass attempts. The Saints and Patriots did rank in the top five in both pass attempts and pass efficiency, but that just balances things out; it doesn’t mean the best passing teams are the most pass-happy teams.
There’s a pretty easy way to track this throughout history. The common way to calculate league-average Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt is to measure the league totals of its components: figure out how many league-wide passing yards, touchdowns, interceptions, sacks, and sack yards lost there were in any given season, and run through the calculation.
Another way, though, is to measure each team’s ANY/A average, and take an average of those averages. This approach gives each team the same weight when calculating league-average ANY/A; as a result, if this approach leads to a higher average than the traditional approach, that means the best passing teams are passing less frequently. And if the traditional approach has a higher average, that means the better passing teams are passing more often, because giving those teams extra weight (because of more pass attempts) is leading to a higher average.
I went ahead and calculated league-average ANY/A using these two methods. Then, I divided the “average of the averages” ANY/A by the “traditional” ANY/A. If the result in any given year was greater than 100%, that means the “average of the averages” ANY/A was higher, which means the best passing teams passed less frequently. That’s most clear in 1971, when 4 of the 6 most pass-happy teams finished in the bottom 6 in pass efficiency.
But in general, the range here is extremely tight, almost always between 99% and 101%. The last few years, the average has been right around 100%, with last year (as alluded to in the opening paragraph) being slightly in favor of the best passing teams passing less frequently. The 2011 season was a historic season with 4 quarterbacks reaching 4900 passing yards and 4 quarterbacks with 39+ passing touchdowns. That also was one of the strongest seasons biased in the direction of the best-passing teams passing the most frequently; those facts are probably related.
None of today’s numbers should be surprising to any loyal reader of Game Scripts, but they do bring about an interesting conclusion: as crazy as the passing numbers have gotten lately, the ceiling is even higher, once the best-passing teams pass most frequently.