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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.

lg avg anya

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.

  • BK

    Do the best passing teams that also pass the most just have bad passing defenses? Or are they bucking a league-wide inefficiency by playing more aggressively, even when winning?

    A quick glance at 2009 and 2011, when the best passing teams passed the most, shows the best pass offenses didn’t have particularly bad pass defenses those seasons. No overlap between top-5 offensive AY/A and bottom-5 defensive AY/A.

    • ANY/A allowed may not be the right tool here due to the heavy interception weight. In 2011, the Packers, Saints, and Patriots all ranked in the bottom quarter of defenses as measured by DVOA that year — http://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/teamdef2011 — and that helped boost the gross totals of Brady, Brees and Rodgers. The Giants were in the bottom quarter of the league in both points and yards allowed, and Manning threw for 4900 yards. So I do think that is what was driving those numbers.

  • Adam

    Due to the game script effect, I doubt that the best passing teams will ever pass much more frequently than they do now.

    • It’s possible, although as the passing game comes with a higher floor, that may change. Still, I find it interesting how consistent this relationship has been over time.

      • Adam

        Even if passing becomes way more efficient than rushing in terms of gaining yards, rushing will always be a strategy guaranteed to bleed clock late in games. The best passing teams are more likely to have big leads in the second half, giving them incentive to run more. Kind of a circular relationship.

        Can you envision an NFL where teams are still chucking it while up 21 points in the fourth quarter? Barring a fundamental shift in the structure of the game, I can’t see this happening regularly.

        • No, but I could see it inching closer. The CC between pass attempts and pass efficiency is, presumably, roughly 0. I think it’s interesting that it appears to have been 0 for much of recorded history. I can envision a time when that changes, but agree it would require a fundamental shift.

          The best-passing teams should, in theory, want to maximize possessions (if we assume that they are also the best teams). That could lead to more fast-paced offenses, and the best passing teams having more pass attempts.

          • Adam

            Good point about maximizing possessions, I hadn’t thought about that. In recent years, the ’12 Pats and ’13 Broncos have employed this philosophy to great success.

  • sn0mm1s

    I have been arguing on another board that teams should be passing *much* more. How much more is open to debate I suppose but my guess would be around 80%. Basically, running out the clock and 3 yards or less to convert a set of downs is where you should run and the vast majority of the other DnDs should be passing.

  • Phil

    “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.”

    I think that’s an overly cheeky conclusion, as much as that seems fun to imagine, I think that overly discounts the possibility that teams are effectively setting up their efficient passes with runs that get them good defensive looks to pass that ball against

    (tongue firmly in cheek, but my Madden career suggests that if it’s obvious you’re going to do nothing but pass, eventually you’ll get a lot of exotic defensive looks that will make it hard to pass the ball well [though I have to say, that there are Madden defensive coordinators out there that seem to do a better job of coming up with exotic defensive answers to the spread than real life (or at least Big XII) defensive coordinators do])

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    Seattle, Arizona, and Cincinnati also probably did a fair amount of running to run out the clock

    • Phil

      thinking about it more, I think the right way to say it is, I don’t think that’s a question that’s been answered by the evidence in file at the moment

      I think if we ever get to the point where we can sort stats by play concept (I’ve seen basketball stats that seem to be sorted this way), it’ll be interesting to see if there are diminishing returns to play concepts the more you run them

      college play seems to suggest that there isn’t, as most of the best offenses seem to operate off fairly small playbooks and fairly simple concepts

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      I think game theory suggests that you need enough offense to counteract all your constraints, and not more http://smartfootball.com/offense/why-every-team-should-apply-the-constraint-theory-of-offense#sthash.yMp2RXDw.dpbs
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      I think as more and more new stats get collected in the future, this will be a fun question to explore