Pass the Victory, Please

By Daniel Adler

Does throwing for over 300-yard mean success for the passer’s team?  It does, especially lately, according to an article by Michael David Smith in the Wall Street Journal.  Recently, the winning percentage for teams with a 300-yard passer is on the rise.  Mike Martz reasoned that teams are now using the pass to get ahead and not just passing to desperately catch-up when trailing, “Teams are throwing because they want to now, not because they have to,” Martz told The Journal.

Matt Cassel is 2-2 when attempting 40 passes or more; Tom Brady is 16-9

However, looking at the outcome for 300-yard passers does not tell the whole story.  We would expect those throwing for big yardage to have a good chance of winning—this makes the sub .500 winning percentage in some years quite surprising.  To really confirm Martz’s story, we need to consider how teams fare when a quarterback attempts a certain number of passes.  If teams really are passing more by choice, we would expect to see improved outcomes not just when a quarterback passes over 300 yards, but also when they attempt a certain number of passes.  The incidence of 40 attempts is relatively similar to the frequency of 300-yard passers, so it seems like a convenient starting point.

Using Pro-Football-Reference’s fantastic new game index tool, I was able to confirm Smith’s numbers and also check to see whether teams passing 40+ times per game have fared better in recent years.  I also looked to see whether the incidence of 40+ attempts/300+ yards has increased.  One note is that all numbers here are based on individual stats, so teams that have 300+ yards or 40+ attempts with multiple quarterbacks do not make the list.  The statistics include games played this Thanksgiving, but not this past weekend.

For the visual people out there:

So while there is a noticeable upward trend of 300+ yard passers winning, the same cannot be said of quarterbacks that attempt 40+ passes.

Unsurprisingly, there is a huge correlation (r^2=.49) between the win percentage for 300+ yard passers and 40+ attempt passers.  There is a lot of overlap between these groups.  389 players appear on both list (i.e. 46.5% of those who attempt 40+ passes also throw for 300+ yards and 54.7% of those who throw for 300+ yards also attempt 40+ passes).  Of quarterbacks who throw for 300+ yards and attempt 40+ passes, the win percentage is .382 (much higher than the .190 rate for those who throw 40+ passes and less than 300 yards) .  Those who throw for 300+ yards and attempt less than 40 passes win at a .764 rate.  Throwing lots of yards=good.  Throwing lots of passes=bad.  Doing both=not great.

The win percentage for quarterbacks who throw for 300+ yards and attempt 40+ passes does appear to be on a bit of an upward trend lately, however, nothing historically surprising.

This year does not seem to represent any major shift in the way the game is played.  Yes, throwing 300 yards is good.  It is very advantageous to do so with less than 40 attempts.  Much of the success of this year’s 300+ yard teams is driven by the fact that there are more than usual who are gaining 300+ yards without attempting over 40 passes.

This season alone there have been 35 quarterback games with a 300 yard passer doing so under 40 attempts (10.7% of all quarterback games).  In previous seasons, this happened at a frequency of 4.7%-7.2%.  One thing to keep in mind is that the numbers may be artificially high right now since later in the season, as the weather gets colder, passing games may be grounded.

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4 Responses to Pass the Victory, Please

  1. Dave says:

    The importance of the pass relative to the run HAS changed. It might be a bit more gambling oriented than you’d like, but I think its helpful:

    http://the-sports-page.com/video/NFLRunPassBalance.html

    And yes, I did that. Lemme know what you think.

  2. dadler3 says:

    Very interesting research. I’m not a gambler myself, but I do understand that it drives a lot of important research. One thing that would be really fascinating to test is whether the importance of running vs. passing changes as the season goes on/depends on the weather. Does running matter more in the cold? The conventional wisdom says yes, but I have the sneaking suspicion that it may not be true.

    Thanks for reading our site and for referring us to that presentation.

  3. dadler3 says:

    Oops…I wrote that comment as I was listening to the very end of the presentation. You do remark that rushing may be more important early in the year…which is surprising and actually supports the opposite of the common wisdom–rushing matters most in the cold. I suspected that there may be no difference, but it is surprising if rushing is actually somehow less important in bad weather. I guess the next thing to look at is not just week, but also the temperature (obviously correlated, but we’re talking about a pretty small sample size).

    Nice research.

  4. Dave says:

    I’d be happy to study weather if I had any data. If you do and were inclined to offer it, I’d certainly add it and do a study.

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