Alex Smith sacks Cam Newton, conventional wisdom

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 08, 2012



By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Kool-Aid maker

 
It’s a sorry state of statistical affairs in the NFL when a player can be dead-on-balls accurate with his comments, but then be forced to backtrack by the unfortunately stubborn power of dim-witted conventional wisdom.
 
Just ask San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who is obviously drinking tasty and refreshing Cold, Hard Football Facts Kool-Aid.

He launched into a tirade about the unbearable lightness of passing yards earlier this off-season, even parroting CHFF's own terminology. Pro Football Talk reported it this way:
 
“I could absolutely care less on yards per game,” Smith said in May. “I think that is a totally overblown stat because if you’re losing games in the second half, guess what, you’re like the Carolina Panthers and you’re going no-huddle the entire second half. Yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games. That’s great. You’re not winning, though.”
 
The story resurfaced this week, when Smith walked back his comments during a press conference.
 
CHFF devotees, however, know that Smith was 100 percent completely accurate in his analysis: passing yards are largely meaningless in the NFL. Passing effectiveness means everything. And the easiest way to measure effectiveness is by passing yards per attempt (YPA). 

A half century of frustration for high-volume passers

The weight of the Cold, Hard Football Facts in Smith’s defense is quite overwhelming. In fact, here is a great anecdote to illustrate the point:
  • The last quarterback to lead the NFL in passing YPA and win a championship was Ben Roethlisberger in 2005.
  • Before Big Ben the QBs to lead the NFL in passing YPA and win championships were Kurt Warner in 1999; Steve Young in 1994; Joe Montana in 1989; Terry Bradshaw in 1978; Ken Stabler in 1976; Roger Staubach in 1971; and Bart Starr in 1966 and 1967.
  • The last quarterback to lead the league in passing yards and win a championship was Johnny Unitas way back in 1959. That was more than a half century ago, for those of you keeping score at home.
Notice a trend? Quarterbacks who lead the league in passing effectiveness routinely win championships. Quarterbacks who lead the league in passing yards win headlines and little else.
 
But the importance of passing YPA relative to passing yards goes much deeper than just the anecdotes. Smith, in fact, spoke words that were magic to the all-knowing ears of the Cold, Hard Football Facts.

“I was going after more of the passing-yards statistic and I don’t really believe there’s a great correlation to winning in the NFL. I don’t. I don’t buy it. If you’re looking for a statistic that has a better correlation to winning, it’s probably yards-per-attempt.”
 
Wow. Smith is not only drinking the CHFF Kool-Aid, he's echoing our terminology about “correlation to winning.” In fact, we track what we call the “Correlation to Victory” of numerous indicators at CHFF Insider. We tell you how often teams win when the win certain statistical battles. We discussed the Correlation to Victory of various indicators a couple weeks ago on CHFF TV.
 
“Correlation to Victory” proves in no uncertain terms that Smith was correct about the importance of passing YPA. Let’s look at the numbers from the 2011 season:
  • Teams that passed for a higher average per attempt when 182-74 (.711)
  • Teams that passed for more yards went 129-127 (.504)
It was actually a down year for the performance of both indicators. But the relative performance of those numbers is fairly consistent with longer term trends. Here’s how teams have performed over the past five seasons (2007-11):
  • Teams that passed for a higher average per attempt when 942-336 (.737)
  • Teams that passed for more yards went 694-582 (.544)
Hell, teams that call heads during the opening coin flip probably win as often as teams that pass for more yards.
 
Smith singled out Newton when highlighting the futility of big-volume passing performances: “Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games,” said Smith. “That’s great.  You’re not winning, though.”
 
Smith could not have been more accurate. Newton topped 300 yards passing three times in 2011, all of those games in the first four weeks of the season. The Panthers lost all three games:
  • Newton passed for 422 yards in his Week 1 debut at Arizona. The Panthers lost, 28-21.
  • Newton passed for 432 yards in Week 2 against Green Bay. The Panthers lost, 30-23.
  • Newton passed for 374 yards in Week 4 at Chicago.  The Panthers lost, 34-29.
In fact, Carolina lost all six of Newton’s most prolific passing efforts in 2011. Meanwhile, he passed for 208 yards or less in five of six Carolina victories. His most prolific effort in a winning performance was 256 yards in a 33-20 victory over the Redskins.
 
Newton is a prolific passer and a human highlight reel with all the promise in the world in front of him. But he was also the poster child in 2011 of the general meaninglessness of big-volume passing days: he lost when he passed for a lot of yards; he won when he did not.

Pointing fingers in the wrong direction

In Smith's case, he was forced to walk back his comments not so much because he was wrong about his argument. He was not. He was 100 percent accurate in his assessment about the importance of passing yards per attempt vs. passing yards.
 
He had to back-track because he called out an individual fellow quarterback, in this case 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year Cam Newton.

Clearly, it’s considered bad form in any industry, whether football or widget sales, to point the finger at a colleague or competitor, especially a burgeoning young star like Newton. But it's especially bad form when you consider that Newton was also extremely effective on a per-attempt basis, too. Incredibly effective, actually.

Newton averaged 7.84 YPA in 2011 – a great number by any standard and significantly better than Smith, whose average of 7.07 YPA was just above the average number by an average QB in an average season. Newton, in other words, was far more productive than Smith on each throw.

For a little perspective, consider that prolific Hall of Fame passer Dan Marino topped Newton's 7.84 YPA just once -- during his record-setting 1984 season.
 
So why, then, if YPA is so important, did the Panthers go 6-10 with the productive Newton at QB, while Smith’s 49ers went 13-3?
 
Well, remember, football is a team game, folks. You can produce one of the great rookie seasons of all time – as Newton did in 2011 – and it won’t help if you’re burdened with a brutal pass defense.
 
And in the case of the Carolina, Newton was indeed burdened with a brutal pass defense. Smith, on the other hand, was paired with one of the league’s toughest pass defenses.
  • San Francisco’s defense surrendered just 6.87 pass YPA in 2011, 11th in the NFL
  • Carolina’s defense surrendered 8.41 pass YPA in 2011, 32nd and dead last in the NFL.
The Panthers pass defense, in other words, was dreadful. For a little perspective, keep in mind that only two QBs in history boast a higher career average per pass attempt than the Panthers surrendered in 2011: Otto Graham (8.63 YPA) and Sid Luckman (8.42 YPA).
 
So opposing quarterbacks in 2011 tore up Carolina's defense at a clip on par with the two most effective passers in the history of football. Hell, it’s a miracle the Panthers won six games, given the burden of that historically inept pass defense.
 
We noted above that Smith was right, that passing YPA does have a very high “Correlation to Victory,” as we call it. This correlation was especially high for the 49ers and Panthers.
  • The 49ers lost three games in 2011; they lost the battle of passing YPA in all three games.
  • The Panthers lost 10 games in 2011; they lost the battle of passing YPA in nine of those 10 games (the only exception for either team was Carolina’s loss to Chicago in Week 4, when Carolina outgained Chicago through the air 8.1 to 6.0).
The performance of both the 49ers and Panthers in 2011, and most teams throughout history, proves that Smith was 100 percent accurate in his analysis: passing effectiveness trumps passing volume in almost every instance.

So he certainly has no need to apologize for his the validity of his analysis. It's kind of embarrassing for the football world that he even has to explain himself. But it's probably not too smart to name names, especially if that name is Cam Newton.

Pair Smith with Carolina's defense in 2011; or pair Newton with San Francisco's defense in 2011, and the results for each quarterback and each team would have been dramatically different.

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