NFL Quarterbacks: Air Yards vs. Yards After Catch (1992-2012)

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 23, 2013



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

 

While passing yards are thought of as an individual quarterback stat in the NFL, we know a good chunk of those yards come from the receiver after he catches the ball. That’s why it would be beneficial to separate the air yards from the yards after catch (YAC).

Some will argue the quarterback’s accuracy and ball placement is directly tied into the YAC. A well thrown pass in stride gives the receiver every chance to maximize YAC while a poorly thrown ball that needs adjusted to could see the receiver fall to the ground just to make the catch.

That can happen on some plays, but there is no denying once the ball leaves the quarterback’s hand, his job on the play ends. The receiver is either going to catch it or not, and what he does with the ball in his hands is mostly on him.

When ESPN did the research to build its QBR stat, they found that “Not surprisingly, pass protection is related mostly to the QB and the offensive line, but yards after the catch is more about what the receiver does.”

So what’s the league average for YAC? How much YAC is appropriate for a good quarterback? Can you ever have too much YAC in that it sacrifices offensive efficiency? Which quarterbacks get the most? The least? Is it consistent from year to year?

Finally armed with two decades (back to 1992) of data on the topic from an excellent source at Sporting Charts, we can answer such questions with facts.

 

Rising Trend: More YAC in Today’s NFL

Before we get into the data, please note that the tables at Sporting Charts only include quarterbacks with at least 500 yards passing in a season. While complete data would be desirable, a quarterback with fewer than 500 yards frankly did not have a season worth studying anyway. But just keep in mind some of these career totals are incomplete and this is all for the regular season only.

Looking at only quarterbacks with the league-minimum 224 attempts as a qualifier, we found that the average since 1992 is 43.8 percent YAC. That means the average quarterback gains 56.2 percent of his yards through the air.

Breaking it down by year, we see that percentage of YAC has been rising as the league keeps throwing more short passes and screen passes. The following chart shows this progression by year between air yards per attempt (blue) and YAC per attempt (red):

Air yards have seen some peaks and valleys, maxing out in 2004 at 4.28 yards per attempt. But overall it is trending down while YAC continues to rise. Ever since the 2008 season, the gap between the two has been no higher than 0.65 yards per attempt. It’s no wonder we keep seeing historic completion percentages.

When Tom Brady threw this “pass” to Danny Woodhead for a 50-yard gain in 2010, it could have started a revolution that would end passing stats as we have come to know them.

Imagine if Drew Brees started doing this little toss in New Orleans 50, 70 or 100 times a season when handing the ball off for what is essentially a run (toss). Suddenly, completing 75 percent of your passes for 6,000 yards is well within reach.

With receivers like Danny Amendola, Percy Harvin and Tavon Austin taking on big roles, we may only be a few years away from a league where the lines between air and YAC intersect.

 

Is YAC% Consistent?

In our sample of quarterbacks from 1992-12, we looked at everyone who threw at least 150 passes in consecutive years for the same team. Obviously offensive philosophy has a big impact on this, so we wanted to at least be able to control for the same team even if a team can change drastically in one offseason.

The year-to-year correlation coefficient for YAC% (percentage of passing yards from YAC) was 0.38. That’s similar to what Chase Stuart (0.34) found with a different sample of quarterbacks.

Not insignificant, but not as strong as something like yards per attempt or completion percentage. There were some big changes in one year.

The biggest happened to Jon Kitna in Seattle from 1999-00. Kitna only had 32.6 percent YAC in 1999, but that went way up to 53.1 percent in 2000 despite retaining many of the same leading receivers (Sean Dawkins, Derrick Mayes, Ricky Watters and Christian Fauria). The biggest change was the addition of rookie wide receiver Darrell Jackson in 2000, but that shouldn’t have mattered.

One big thing that did change was offensive coordinator Mike Sherman being replaced by Gil Haskell, who came over from Carolina where Steve Beuerlein had a huge year in 1999. But even Beuerlein only had YAC percentages of 43.21 (1998) and 44.3 (1999) under Haskell.

The biggest decline in YAC came for Alex Smith in San Francisco from 2006-07. Smith had 51.4 percent YAC in 2006, but that fell to just 34.9 percent in 2007. However, Smith only threw for 914 yards on 193 attempts for a pathetic 4.74 yards per attempt that season, so it’s not like this was a positive.

Getting back to our sample of 665 seasons where the quarterback qualified with at least 224 attempts, we ran some more correlation tests involving YAC%.

Correlation with YAC%

Correlation coefficient

Win % as a starter

-0.03

Completion %

0.16

Passer Rating

0.05

Yards per Attempt

-0.08

A lot of weakness here as two of the stats actually have a negative coefficient. The higher the YAC, the worse the win percentage as a starter, though frankly there is no significant relationship to speak of here.

At best you get a 0.16 with completion percentage, which would speak to the quarterback taking what the defense gives him, which means more short passes, which means a higher YAC percentage. But even this relationship is not strong.

This suggests YAC is not important to having success as a quarterback. Let’s better exemplify that by looking at the individual numbers.

 

The Best and Worst Quarterbacks at YAC

We’ll start by looking at the seasons with the most and least YAC since 1992 (minimum 224 attempts). Up first are the most YAC-dependent quarterback seasons. See if you can find a good one:

Highest Quarterback YAC% Since 1992 (Minimum 224 Attempts)

Rk

QB

Year

Team

Rec.

PR

Yds

AIR

AIR%

YAC%

1

Jason Campbell

2009

WAS

4-12

86.4

3,618

1,457

40.27%

59.73%

2

Mark Rypien

1993

WAS

3-7

56.3

1,514

623

41.15%

58.85%

3

Jon Kitna

2010

DAL

4-5

88.9

2,365

974

41.18%

58.82%

4

Mark Brunell

2006

WAS

3-6

86.5

1,789

738

41.25%

58.75%

5

Christian Ponder

2012

MIN

10-6

81.2

2,935

1,222

41.64%

58.36%

6

Matt Cassel

2008

NE

10-5

89.4

3,693

1,577

42.70%

57.30%

7

Shaun Hill

2010

DET

3-7

81.3

2,686

1,152

42.89%

57.11%

8

Matt Hasselbeck

2009

SEA

5-9

75.1

3,029

1,304

43.05%

56.95%

9

Jason Campbell

2010

RAI

7-5

84.5

2,387

1,029

43.11%

56.89%

10

David Carr

2006

HOU

6-10

82.1

2,767

1,198

43.30%

56.70%

11

Shane Matthews

1999

CHI

3-4

80.6

1,645

723

43.95%

56.05%

12

Drew Brees

2003

SD

2-9

67.5

2,108

927

43.98%

56.02%

13

Alex Smith

2010

SF

3-7

82.1

2,370

1,053

44.43%

55.57%

14

Ryan Fitzpatrick

2012

BUF

6-10

83.3

3,400

1,514

44.53%

55.47%

15

Sam Bradford

2010

RAM

7-9

76.5

3,512

1,570

44.70%

55.30%

16

Brandon Weeden

2012

CLE

5-10

72.6

3,385

1,514

44.73%

55.27%

17

Bobby Hoying

1998

PHI

1-6

45.6

961

432

44.95%

55.05%

18

Bruce Gradkowski

2006

TB

3-8

65.9

1,661

750

45.15%

54.85%

19

Brett Favre

2006

GB

8-8

72.7

3,885

1,764

45.41%

54.59%

20

Matthew Stafford

2009

DET

2-8

61.0

2,267

1,031

45.48%

54.52%

21

Kelly Holcomb

2005

BUF

4-4

85.6

1,509

688

45.59%

54.41%

22

Kyle Orton

2009

DEN

8-7

86.8

3,802

1,737

45.69%

54.31%

23

Jimmy Clausen

2010

CAR

1-9

58.4

1,558

713

45.76%

54.24%

24

Boomer Esiason

1992

CIN

4-7

57.0

1,407

646

45.91%

54.09%

25

Philip Rivers

2012

SD

7-9

88.6

3,606

1,667

46.23%

53.77%

Christian Ponder won 10 games as a starter last year, but we’ve detailed his struggles. Percy Harvin had an unfathomable 81.4 percent of his yards come after the catch last season playing with Ponder. The Vikings backup is now Matt Cassel, who was feasting on the short passes to Wes Welker in the absence of Tom Brady in 2008.

Jason Campbell makes the top 10 twice, including our high man at 59.73 percent YAC in 2009 with the Redskins. Another Captain Checkdown in Trent Edwards didn’t make this list, but Campbell at the top sounds right. No one likes throwing a pass behind the line of scrimmage that will gain eight yards (10+ YAC) on 3rd-and-12 quite like Campbell.

That may be the reason why having a lot of YAC is not necessarily a good thing. You rack it up by dinking and dunking on down-and-distance situations that call for a hard pass to convert.

Seriously though. These quarterbacks went 119-187 (.389) as starters. The closest things to good seasons on this list belong to Cassel (2008) and Kyle Orton (2009 Broncos). Josh McDaniels was in charge of both offenses, which is probably not a coincidence.

Brett Favre (2006) and Drew Brees (2003) should end up in the Hall of Fame, but these were not good seasons for either. The same can be said for Boomer Esiason in 1992 and Philip Rivers last year.

Let’s look at the top 25 seasons with the lowest YAC percentage:

Lowest QB YAC% Since 1992 (Minimum 224 Attempts)

Rk

QB

Year

Team

Rec.

PR

Yds

AIR

AIR%

YAC%

1

Scott Mitchell

1994

DET

4-5

62.0

1,456

1,099

75.48%

24.52%

2

Browning Nagle

1992

NYJ

3-10

55.7

2,280

1,669

73.20%

26.80%

3

Jeff George

1993

IND

2-9

76.3

2,526

1,768

69.99%

30.01%

4

Scott Mitchell

1996

DET

4-10

74.9

2,917

2,030

69.59%

30.41%

5

Jeff Hostetler

1993

RAI

10-5

82.5

3,242

2,250

69.40%

30.60%

6

Steve McNair

2001

TEN

7-8

90.2

3,350

2,303

68.75%

31.25%

7

Steve McNair

2003

TEN

10-4

100.4

3,215

2,198

68.37%

31.63%

8

Rodney Peete

1993

DET

6-4

66.4

1,670

1,138

68.14%

31.86%

9

Andrew Walter

2006

RAI

2-6

55.8

1,677

1,139

67.92%

32.08%

10

Trent Green

2000

RAM

2-3

101.8

2,063

1,400

67.86%

32.14%

11

Jon Kitna

1999

SEA

8-7

77.7

3,346

2,257

67.45%

32.55%

12

Jim Kelly

1992

BUF

11-5

81.2

3,457

2,322

67.17%

32.83%

13

John Elway

1998

DEN

10-2

93.0

2,806

1,875

66.82%

33.18%

14

Jon Kitna

2001

CIN

6-9

61.1

3,216

2,147

66.76%

33.24%

15

Kerry Collins

2010

TEN

2-5

82.2

1,823

1,217

66.76%

33.24%

16

Matt Hasselbeck

2006

SEA

7-5

76.0

2,442

1,629

66.71%

33.29%

17

Mark Brunell

2001

JAX

6-9

84.1

3,309

2,205

66.64%

33.36%

18

Daunte Culpepper

2000

MIN

11-5

98.0

3,937

2,621

66.57%

33.43%

19

Billy Joe Tolliver

1999

NO

1-6

58.9

1,916

1,271

66.34%

33.66%

20

Jake Delhomme

2004

CAR

7-9

87.3

3,886

2,577

66.31%

33.69%

21

Doug Flutie

2000

BUF

4-1

86.5

1,700

1,127

66.29%

33.71%

22

Mark Brunell

1996

JAX

9-7

84.0

4,367

2,885

66.06%

33.94%

23

Warren Moon

1993

HOU

10-4

75.2

3,485

2,302

66.05%

33.95%

24

Chris Chandler

1999

ATL

4-8

83.5

2,339

1,545

66.05%

33.95%

25

Carson Palmer

2004

CIN

6-7

77.3

2,897

1,909

65.90%

34.10%

Here we do see some better names and better seasons. Steve McNair was co-MVP in 2003. He only had 31.6 percent YAC, which is slightly more than the 31.3 percent he had in 2001. As a 3,000-yard passer, only Jeff Hostetler with the 1993 Raiders had a lower YAC percentage (30.6) since 1992.

These quarterbacks went 152-153 (.498) as starters.

Jim Kelly (1992) and John Elway (1998) show up for Super Bowl seasons as well as Warren Moon’s final year in Houston (1993). Daunte Culpepper’s 2000 season was one of the best sophomore quarterback seasons ever.

Scott Mitchell ranking twice in the top four with Detroit? Okay, maybe he deserves a little more respect in his career.

It’s just a comparison of 50 total seasons, but so far, advantage to the low-YAC quarterbacks.

Now let’s break this down more into career numbers, keeping in mind there will be missing seasons and that this only goes back to 1992. We also limited this to the 96 quarterbacks with at least 1,000 attempts.

This table is sorted by ascending YAC percentage (active players in bold):

QB

TOTAL

AIR YARDS

YAC

DIFF

Att.

Yds

YPA

YDS

AIR%

YPA

YDS

YAC%

YPA

Scott Mitchell

2195

14934

6.80

9701

64.96%

4.42

5233

35.04%

2.38

2.04

Tommy Maddox

1017

7007

6.89

4350

62.08%

4.28

2657

37.92%

2.61

1.66

Jim Kelly

2217

15893

7.17

9861

62.05%

4.45

6032

37.95%

2.72

1.73

Craig Erickson

1038

7339

7.07

4502

61.34%

4.34

2837

38.66%

2.73

1.60

Jeff Hostetler

1898

13246

6.98

8049

60.77%

4.24

5197

39.23%

2.74

1.50

Kordell Stewart

2321

14586

6.28

8839

60.60%

3.81

5747

39.40%

2.48

1.33

Mark Brunell

4485

31247

6.97

18904

60.50%

4.21

12343

39.50%

2.75

1.46

Rodney Peete

1602

10947

6.83

6614

60.42%

4.13

4333

39.58%

2.70

1.42

Byron Leftwich

1451

9636

6.64

5807

60.26%

4.00

3829

39.74%

2.64

1.36

Doug Flutie

1751

12143

6.93

7310

60.20%

4.17

4833

39.80%

2.76

1.41

Chris Chandler

3290

24084

7.32

14412

59.84%

4.38

9672

40.16%

2.94

1.44

Dan Marino

3628

25975

7.16

15456

59.50%

4.26

10519

40.50%

2.90

1.36

Troy Aikman

3660

25860

7.07

15381

59.48%

4.20

10479

40.52%

2.86

1.34

Stan Humphries

2350

16085

6.84

9562

59.45%

4.07

6523

40.55%

2.78

1.29

Warren Moon

3106

21418

6.90

12727

59.42%

4.10

8691

40.58%

2.80

1.30

Jeff George

3106

22372

7.20

13288

59.40%

4.28

9084

40.60%

2.92

1.35

Steve McNair

4544

31304

6.89

18562

59.30%

4.08

12742

40.70%

2.80

1.28

Randall Cunningham

2032

14561

7.17

8610

59.13%

4.24

5951

40.87%

2.93

1.31

Peyton Manning

7793

59487

7.63

35111

59.02%

4.51

24376

40.98%

3.13

1.38

Derek Anderson

1436

9148

6.37

5395

58.97%

3.76

3753

41.03%

2.61

1.14

Jon Kitna

4358

29188

6.70

17201

58.93%

3.95

11987

41.07%

2.75

1.20

Steve Beuerlein

2655

19276

7.26

11345

58.86%

4.27

7931

41.14%

2.99

1.29

Drew Bledsoe

6651

44211

6.65

26012

58.84%

3.91

18199

41.16%

2.74

1.17

Eli Manning

4457

31527

7.07

18547

58.83%

4.16

12980

41.17%

2.91

1.25

Michael Vick

2876

20188

7.02

11858

58.74%

4.12

8330

41.26%

2.90

1.23

Erik Kramer

1942

13143

6.77

7715

58.70%

3.97

5428

41.30%

2.80

1.18

Aaron Brooks

2963

20261

6.84

11886

58.66%

4.01

8375

41.34%

2.83

1.18

Carson Palmer

4110

29465

7.17

17264

58.59%

4.20

12201

41.41%

2.97

1.23

Mike Tomczak

1076

7555

7.02

4420

58.50%

4.11

3135

41.50%

2.91

1.19

Marc Bulger

3171

22814

7.19

13342

58.48%

4.21

9472

41.52%

2.99

1.22

Josh McCown

1034

6516

6.30

3804

58.38%

3.68

2712

41.62%

2.62

1.06

David Garrard

2151

15312

7.12

8933

58.34%

4.15

6379

41.66%

2.97

1.19

Matt Ryan

2637

18957

7.19

11042

58.25%

4.19

7915

41.75%

3.00

1.19

Mark Sanchez

1867

12092

6.48

7021

58.06%

3.76

5071

41.94%

2.72

1.04

John Elway

3227

23501

7.28

13628

57.99%

4.22

9873

42.01%

3.06

1.16

Jim Everett

2320

15597

6.72

9030

57.90%

3.89

6567

42.10%

2.83

1.06

Jake Plummer

4350

29253

6.72

16879

57.70%

3.88

12374

42.30%

2.84

1.04

Neil O'Donnell

2835

18975

6.69

10942

57.67%

3.86

8033

42.33%

2.83

1.03

Kerry Collins

6163

40441

6.56

23302

57.62%

3.78

17139

42.38%

2.78

1.00

Tim Couch

1714

11131

6.49

6396

57.46%

3.73

4735

42.54%

2.76

0.97

Jim Harbaugh

2842

19209

6.76

10978

57.15%

3.86

8231

42.85%

2.90

0.97

Kent Graham

1148

6826

5.95

3900

57.13%

3.40

2926

42.87%

2.55

0.85

Vince Young

1268

8745

6.90

4995

57.12%

3.94

3750

42.88%

2.96

0.98

Gus Frerotte

2915

20236

6.94

11548

57.07%

3.96

8688

42.93%

2.98

0.98

Jay Fiedler

1697

11696

6.89

6673

57.05%

3.93

5023

42.95%

2.96

0.97

Rick Mirer

1920

11423

5.95

6516

57.04%

3.39

4907

42.96%

2.56

0.84

Ben Roethlisberger

3762

29844

7.93

17016

57.02%

4.52

12828

42.98%

3.41

1.11

Vinny Testaverde

4798

33343

6.95

18979

56.92%

3.96

14364

43.08%

2.99

0.96

Trent Dilfer

3024

19721

6.52

11213

56.86%

3.71

8508

43.14%

2.81

0.89

Chad Henne

1361

9131

6.71

5177

56.70%

3.80

3954

43.30%

2.91

0.90

Jake Delhomme

2894

20651

7.14

11684

56.58%

4.04

8967

43.42%

3.10

0.94

Bobby Hebert

1443

10027

6.95

5662

56.47%

3.92

4365

43.53%

3.02

0.90

Chris Miller

1056

6993

6.62

3947

56.44%

3.74

3046

43.56%

2.88

0.85

Rex Grossman

1380

9246

6.70

5207

56.32%

3.77

4039

43.68%

2.93

0.85

Dave M. Brown

1553

9729

6.26

5466

56.18%

3.52

4263

43.82%

2.75

0.77

Charlie Batch

1326

9016

6.80

5060

56.12%

3.82

3956

43.88%

2.98

0.83

Daunte Culpepper

3199

24153

7.55

13541

56.06%

4.23

10612

43.94%

3.32

0.92

Chad Pennington

2370

17232

7.27

9651

56.01%

4.07

7581

43.99%

3.20

0.87

Jay Cutler

2955

21316

7.21

11910

55.87%

4.03

9406

44.13%

3.18

0.85

Matt Hasselbeck

4989

34372

6.89

19163

55.75%

3.84

15209

44.25%

3.05

0.79

Dave Krieg

1712

11814

6.90

6573

55.64%

3.84

5241

44.36%

3.06

0.78

Trent Green

3739

28475

7.62

15832

55.60%

4.23

12643

44.40%

3.38

0.85

Tony Banks

2329

15126

6.49

8393

55.49%

3.60

6733

44.51%

2.89

0.71

Elvis Grbac

2395

16381

6.84

9068

55.36%

3.79

7313

44.64%

3.05

0.73

Kyle Boller

1432

8260

5.77

4564

55.25%

3.19

3696

44.75%

2.58

0.61

Kurt Warner

3994

31940

8.00

17619

55.16%

4.41

14321

44.84%

3.59

0.83

Tony Romo

3240

25737

7.94

14196

55.16%

4.38

11541

44.84%

3.56

0.82

Steve Bono

1211

7296

6.02

4024

55.15%

3.32

3272

44.85%

2.70

0.62

Josh Freeman

1873

12963

6.92

7051

54.39%

3.76

5912

45.61%

3.16

0.61

Brad Johnson

4164

28126

6.75

15283

54.34%

3.67

12843

45.66%

3.08

0.59

Andy Dalton

1044

7067

6.77

3837

54.29%

3.68

3230

45.71%

3.09

0.58

Mark Rypien

1143

6938

6.07

3741

53.92%

3.27

3197

46.08%

2.80

0.48

Brian Griese

2761

19218

6.96

10358

53.90%

3.75

8860

46.10%

3.21

0.54

Jeff Blake

3185

21490

6.75

11537

53.69%

3.62

9953

46.31%

3.12

0.50

Drew Brees

6122

45698

7.46

24489

53.59%

4.00

21209

46.41%

3.46

0.54

Jeff Garcia

3676

25537

6.95

13655

53.47%

3.71

11882

46.53%

3.23

0.48

Rich Gannon

3381

23643

6.99

12615

53.36%

3.73

11028

46.64%

3.26

0.47

Matt Schaub

2662

20911

7.86

11136

53.25%

4.18

9775

46.75%

3.67

0.51

Aaron Rodgers

2606

21332

8.19

11341

53.16%

4.35

9991

46.84%

3.83

0.52

Steve Young

2961

24266

8.20

12826

52.86%

4.33

11440

47.14%

3.86

0.47

Kyle Orton

2124

14054

6.62

7417

52.78%

3.49

6637

47.22%

3.12

0.37

Brett Favre

10165

71838

7.07

37872

52.72%

3.73

33966

47.28%

3.34

0.38

Joe Flacco

2489

17633

7.08

9274

52.59%

3.73

8359

47.41%

3.36

0.37

Tom Brady

5944

44724

7.52

23472

52.48%

3.95

21252

47.52%

3.58

0.37

Philip Rivers

3534

27743

7.85

14552

52.45%

4.12

13191

47.55%

3.73

0.39

Matthew Stafford

1863

12807

6.87

6696

52.28%

3.59

6111

47.72%

3.28

0.31

Sam Bradford

1498

9378

6.26

4872

51.95%

3.25

4506

48.05%

3.01

0.24

Cam Newton

1002

7920

7.90

4108

51.87%

4.10

3812

48.13%

3.80

0.30

Donovan McNabb

5374

37276

6.94

19323

51.84%

3.60

17953

48.16%

3.34

0.25

David Carr

2206

14026

6.36

7222

51.49%

3.27

6804

48.51%

3.08

0.19

Alex Smith

2177

14280

6.56

7315

51.23%

3.36

6965

48.77%

3.20

0.16

Joey Harrington

2538

14693

5.79

7475

50.87%

2.95

7218

49.13%

2.84

0.10

Ryan Fitzpatrick

2249

14336

6.37

7286

50.82%

3.24

7050

49.18%

3.13

0.10

Matt Cassel

2005

13242

6.60

6684

50.48%

3.33

6558

49.52%

3.27

0.06

Boomer Esiason

2105

13656

6.49

6858

50.22%

3.26

6798

49.78%

3.23

0.03

Jason Campbell

2131

14417

6.77

6919

47.99%

3.25

7498

52.01%

3.52

-0.27

Here is a section for total passing stats, the air stats and the YAC stats. The difference comes in the yards per attempt from YAC subtracted from the yards per attempt from the air.

No one has a greater difference than Mitchell (+2.04). Campbell is the lowest at -0.27 as he’s the only quarterback since 1992 to have his receivers gain more than half (52.01 percent) of his yards.

That’s quite a run of top-four picks at the bottom here with Rivers, Stafford, Bradford, Newton, McNabb, Carr, Smith and Harrington.

Again, it’s too difficult to say being low, medium or high on this list is the right place to be. There are great, mediocre and bad quarterbacks spread throughout each section.

The Manning brothers are eerily close with Peyton (40.98 percent) just ahead of Eli (41.17 percent). Is that DNA shining through?

Joe Flacco and Cam Newton are known as long bombers, but they bookend a group that includes Brady, Rivers, Stafford and Bradford. Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are not that far away.

 

Breaking Down Yards per Attempt into Air and YAC

What’s great about the above table, which you should paste into Excel and play around with, is that it breaks down the yards per attempt (YPA) stat, a golden stat, into its components of air and YAC.

If we look at the top 10 quarterbacks in YPA on just YAC, greatness does shine through for the most part:

QB

TOTAL

AIR YARDS

YAC

DIFF

Att.

Yds

YPA

YDS

AIR%

YPA

YDS

YAC%

YPA

Steve Young

2961

24266

8.20

12826

52.86%

4.33

11440

47.14%

3.86

0.47

Aaron Rodgers

2606

21332

8.19

11341

53.16%

4.35

9991

46.84%

3.83

0.52

Cam Newton

1002

7920

7.90

4108

51.87%

4.10

3812

48.13%

3.80

0.30

Philip Rivers

3534

27743

7.85

14552

52.45%

4.12

13191

47.55%

3.73

0.39

Matt Schaub

2662

20911

7.86

11136

53.25%

4.18

9775

46.75%

3.67

0.51

Kurt Warner

3994

31940

8.00

17619

55.16%

4.41

14321

44.84%

3.59

0.83

Tom Brady

5944

44724

7.52

23472

52.48%

3.95

21252

47.52%

3.58

0.37

Tony Romo

3240

25737

7.94

14196

55.16%

4.38

11541

44.84%

3.56

0.82

Jason Campbell

2131

14417

6.77

6919

47.99%

3.25

7498

52.01%

3.52

-0.27

Drew Brees

6122

45698

7.46

24489

53.59%

4.00

21209

46.41%

3.46

0.54

It’s a lot of active players, but that’s what we expect these days. These are the quarterbacks who play efficiently but also get a considerable amount of help with YAC.

What if we took all 2012 qualified passers and removed YAC from their stats? Who would see the biggest drop in YPA? In other words, here are the 2012 passing leaders in air yards per attempt (AIR YPA):

Rk

QB

Air%

YAC%

YPA

Rk

AIR YPA

YAC YPA

DIFF

1

Eli Manning

62.99%

37.01%

7.37

11

4.64

2.73

1.91

2

Russell Wilson

57.76%

42.24%

7.93

4

4.58

3.35

1.23

3

Peyton Manning

57.20%

42.80%

7.99

2

4.57

3.42

1.15

4

Tony Romo

58.54%

41.46%

7.57

9

4.43

3.14

1.29

5

Drew Brees

56.19%

43.81%

7.73

6

4.34

3.39

0.96

6

Andrew Luck

60.45%

39.55%

6.98

17

4.22

2.76

1.46

7

Robert Griffin III

51.69%

48.31%

8.14

1

4.21

3.93

0.27

8

Cam Newton

52.24%

47.76%

7.98

3

4.17

3.81

0.36

9

Matt Ryan

54.06%

45.94%

7.67

7

4.15

3.53

0.62

10

Mark Sanchez

64.41%

35.59%

6.36

30

4.10

2.26

1.83

11

Josh Freeman

56.24%

43.76%

7.28

12

4.10

3.19

0.91

12

Jay Cutler

58.56%

41.44%

6.99

16

4.09

2.90

1.20

13

Jake Locker

58.92%

41.08%

6.93

19

4.08

2.85

1.24

14

Ryan Tannehill

58.93%

41.07%

6.81

22

4.01

2.80

1.21

15

Matt Schaub

53.14%

46.86%

7.37

10

3.92

3.45

0.46

16

Tom Brady

51.67%

48.33%

7.58

8

3.92

3.66

0.25

17

Aaron Rodgers

50.29%

49.71%

7.78

5

3.91

3.87

0.05

18

Joe Flacco

54.20%

45.80%

7.19

14

3.90

3.29

0.60

19

Matthew Stafford

56.51%

43.49%

6.83

21

3.86

2.97

0.89

20

Chad Henne

56.72%

43.28%

6.77

23

3.84

2.93

0.91

21

Ben Roethlisberger

52.13%

47.87%

7.27

13

3.79

3.48

0.31

22

Sam Bradford

55.16%

44.84%

6.72

26

3.71

3.01

0.69

23

Michael Vick

53.98%

46.02%

6.73

25

3.63

3.10

0.54

24

Andy Dalton

50.89%

49.11%

6.95

18

3.54

3.41

0.12

25

Carson Palmer

48.03%

51.97%

7.11

15

3.42

3.70

-0.28

26

Matt Cassel

52.51%

47.49%

6.48

28

3.40

3.08

0.32

27

Blaine Gabbert

55.96%

44.04%

5.98

32

3.35

2.63

0.71

28

Philip Rivers

46.23%

53.77%

6.84

20

3.16

3.68

-0.52

29

Ryan Fitzpatrick

44.53%

55.47%

6.73

24

3.00

3.73

-0.74

30

Nick Foles

46.26%

53.74%

6.41

29

2.97

3.45

-0.48

31

Brandon Weeden

44.73%

55.27%

6.55

27

2.93

3.62

-0.69

32

Christian Ponder

41.64%

58.36%

6.08

31

2.53

3.55

-1.02

Eli Manning ranked just 11th in YPA, but when it comes to AIR YPA, he led the league at 4.64. Russell Wilson and Eli’s brother were not far behind, but both ranked top four in YPA. Eli just didn’t get as much YAC.

There is nearly no difference between AIR YPA between Andrew Luck (4.22) and Robert Griffin III (4.21), yet once you add in YAC, Luck falls to 17th in the league and Griffin climbs to No. 1. Again, this is mostly on the receiver.

The often criticized Mark Sanchez makes the largest jump in terms of ranking, going from 30th in YPA to 10th in AIR YPA. His skeleton crew of receivers did him few favors in a terrible season last year. Sanchez and Cleveland rookie Brandon Weeden were two of the worst quarterbacks in football, yet at least by this measure, Sanchez was considerably better than Weeden who had 55.27 percent YAC.

The biggest falls belong to Aaron Rodgers (down 12 spots) and Carson Palmer (down 10).

One could take this a step farther and start looking at touchdowns caught in the end zone versus ran in, but that’s for another day.

Colin Kaepernick missed the qualifying cut by six attempts, but he would have led the league with an excellent 5.03 AIR YPA in 2012. That would have ranked 22nd since 1992:

NFL QB Seasons with 5.00 AIR YPA Since 1992

Rk

QB

Year

Team

Yards

AIR

AIR YPA

Air%

YAC%

1

Trent Green

2000

RAM

2,063

1,400

5.83

67.86%

32.14%

2

Peyton Manning

2004

IND

4,557

2,832

5.70

62.15%

37.85%

3

Chris Chandler

1998

ATL

3,154

1,858

5.68

58.91%

41.09%

4

Ben Roethlisberger

2004

PIT

2,621

1,662

5.63

63.41%

36.59%

5

Daunte Culpepper

2000

MIN

3,937

2,621

5.53

66.57%

33.43%

6

Steve McNair

2003

TEN

3,215

2,198

5.50

68.37%

31.63%

7

Tony Romo

2006

DAL

2,903

1,850

5.49

63.73%

36.27%

8

Jeff George

1999

MIN

2,816

1,788

5.43

63.49%

36.51%

9

Jeff Hostetler

1993

RAI

3,242

2,250

5.37

69.40%

30.60%

10

Steve McNair

2001

TEN

3,350

2,303

5.34

68.75%

31.25%

11

Randall Cunningham

1998

MIN

3,704

2,259

5.32

60.99%

39.01%

12

Kurt Warner

2000

RAM

3,429

1,843

5.31

53.75%

46.25%

13

John Elway

1998

DEN

2,806

1,875

5.27

66.82%

33.18%

14

Ben Roethlisberger

2005

PIT

2,385

1,400

5.22

58.70%

41.30%

15

Marc Bulger

2005

RAM

2,297

1,495

5.21

65.08%

34.92%

16

Peyton Manning

2006

IND

4,397

2,889

5.19

65.70%

34.30%

17

Mark Brunell

1996

JAX

4,367

2,885

5.18

66.06%

33.94%

18

Peyton Manning

2005

IND

3,747

2,309

5.10

61.62%

38.38%

19

Steve Young

1992

SF

3,465

2,035

5.06

58.73%

41.27%

20

Kurt Warner

2001

RAM

4,830

2,760

5.05

57.14%

42.86%

21

Chris Chandler

1999

ATL

2,339

1,545

5.03

66.05%

33.95%

22

Colin Kaepernick

2012

SF

1,814

1,097

5.03

60.47%

39.53%

23

Jim Kelly

1992

BUF

3,457

2,322

5.03

67.17%

32.83%

24

Matt Hasselbeck

2005

SEA

3,459

2,256

5.02

65.22%

34.78%

25

Marc Bulger

2004

RAM

3,964

2,429

5.01

61.28%

38.72%

Here’s a look at the yearly YAC percentages for five quarterbacks with a pretty good chance to end up in the Hall of Fame:

NFL Career Yards After Catch Percentage (YAC%)

Season

Brett Favre

Peyton Manning

Tom Brady

Drew Brees

Aaron Rodgers

1992

48.37%

-

-

-

-

1993

52.53%

-

-

-

-

1994

50.90%

-

-

-

-

1995

48.36%

-

-

-

-

1996

44.40%

-

-

-

-

1997

39.59%

-

-

-

-

1998

45.13%

47.45%

-

-

-

1999

44.66%

42.56%

-

-

-

2000

46.01%

35.76%

-

-

-

2001

47.62%

43.45%

51.85%

-

-

2002

44.29%

40.10%

52.66%

48.90%

-

2003

47.43%

43.47%

44.72%

56.02%

-

2004

37.99%

37.85%

36.00%

43.02%

-

2005

45.76%

38.38%

46.33%

43.29%

-

2006

54.59%

34.30%

48.97%

47.31%

-

2007

51.29%

38.19%

42.01%

47.75%

-

2008

51.24%

40.65%

-

47.31%

40.91%

2009

48.29%

46.49%

48.98%

46.47%

48.80%

2010

53.65%

42.62%

51.44%

45.39%

47.86%

2011

-

-

51.65%

45.85%

46.59%

2012

-

42.80%

48.33%

43.81%

49.71%

AVG

47.28%

40.98%

47.52%

46.41%

46.84%

There’s a lot of consistency for Brees and Rodgers as of late, which speaks to their consistent play and the offensive design by Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy. Brady and Favre have a very similar career rate.

Interesting how 2004, which was when illegal contact was reemphasized, was the lowest YAC-percentage season for Favre, Brady and Brees.

Though he may increase his numbers by playing at an advanced age, for now Peyton Manning stands out as doing things a bit differently on this list.

He started out as a rookie with 86 completions to running back Marshall Faulk in 1998, but Manning has annually played in a system that relies on less YAC than his peers. In his prime run (2004-07), Manning never topped 38.4 percent in YAC. Rodgers has been at least 40 percent every season. Brees has been at least 43 percent in every season.

Brady has seven seasons higher than Manning’s maximum. Favre has 10 higher.

Few quarterbacks have been able to throw with efficiency and volume without relying on much YAC. A quarterback has thrown for 4,000 yards 92 times since 1992, but only 13 times has a quarterback done it with less than 40 percent YAC. Manning owns the list with four of the top 10 seasons:

4,000 Yards with <40% YAC (Since 1992)

QB

Year

Team

Yds

AIR

AIR YPA

Air%

YAC%

Mark Brunell

1996

JAX

4,367

2,885

5.18

66.06%

33.94%

Peyton Manning

2006

IND

4,397

2,889

5.19

65.70%

34.30%

Dan Marino

1992

MIA

4,116

2,687

4.85

65.28%

34.72%

Peyton Manning

2000

IND

4,413

2,835

4.96

64.24%

35.76%

Drew Bledsoe

1994

NE

4,555

2,888

4.18

63.40%

36.60%

Scott Mitchell

1995

DET

4,338

2,710

4.65

62.47%

37.53%

Peyton Manning

2004

IND

4,557

2,832

5.70

62.15%

37.85%

Carson Palmer

2006

CIN

4,035

2,503

4.81

62.03%

37.97%

Brett Favre

2004

GB

4,088

2,535

4.69

62.01%

37.99%

Peyton Manning

2007

IND

4,040

2,497

4.85

61.81%

38.19%

Jon Kitna

2007

DET

4,068

2,496

4.45

61.36%

38.64%

Elvis Grbac

2000

KC

4,169

2,525

4.62

60.57%

39.43%

Andrew Luck

2012

IND

4,374

2,644

4.22

60.45%

39.55%

Not surprisingly, Manning ranks second to only Ben Roethlisberger in AIR YPA since 1992:

QB

TOTAL

AIR YARDS

YAC

DIFF

Att.

Yds

YPA

YDS

AIR%

YPA

YDS

YAC%

YPA

Ben Roethlisberger

3762

29844

7.93

17016

57.02%

4.52

12828

42.98%

3.41

1.11

Peyton Manning

7793

59487

7.63

35111

59.02%

4.51

24376

40.98%

3.13

1.38

Jim Kelly

2217

15893

7.17

9861

62.05%

4.45

6032

37.95%

2.72

1.73

Scott Mitchell

2195

14934

6.80

9701

64.96%

4.42

5233

35.04%

2.38

2.04

Kurt Warner

3994

31940

8.00

17619

55.16%

4.41

14321

44.84%

3.59

0.83

Tony Romo

3240

25737

7.94

14196

55.16%

4.38

11541

44.84%

3.56

0.82

Chris Chandler

3290

24084

7.32

14412

59.84%

4.38

9672

40.16%

2.94

1.44

Aaron Rodgers

2606

21332

8.19

11341

53.16%

4.35

9991

46.84%

3.83

0.52

Craig Erickson

1038

7339

7.07

4502

61.34%

4.34

2837

38.66%

2.73

1.60

Steve Young

2961

24266

8.20

12826

52.86%

4.33

11440

47.14%

3.86

0.47

Jeff George

3106

22372

7.20

13288

59.40%

4.28

9084

40.60%

2.92

1.35

Tommy Maddox

1017

7007

6.89

4350

62.08%

4.28

2657

37.92%

2.61

1.66

Steve Beuerlein

2655

19276

7.26

11345

58.86%

4.27

7931

41.14%

2.99

1.29

Dan Marino

3628

25975

7.16

15456

59.50%

4.26

10519

40.50%

2.90

1.36

Jeff Hostetler

1898

13246

6.98

8049

60.77%

4.24

5197

39.23%

2.74

1.50

Randall Cunningham

2032

14561

7.17

8610

59.13%

4.24

5951

40.87%

2.93

1.31

Trent Green

3739

28475

7.62

15832

55.60%

4.23

12643

44.40%

3.38

0.85

Daunte Culpepper

3199

24153

7.55

13541

56.06%

4.23

10612

43.94%

3.32

0.92

John Elway

3227

23501

7.28

13628

57.99%

4.22

9873

42.01%

3.06

1.16

Mark Brunell

4485

31247

6.97

18904

60.50%

4.21

12343

39.50%

2.75

1.46

Marc Bulger

3171

22814

7.19

13342

58.48%

4.21

9472

41.52%

2.99

1.22

Troy Aikman

3660

25860

7.07

15381

59.48%

4.20

10479

40.52%

2.86

1.34

Carson Palmer

4110

29465

7.17

17264

58.59%

4.20

12201

41.41%

2.97

1.23

Matt Ryan

2637

18957

7.19

11042

58.25%

4.19

7915

41.75%

3.00

1.19

Matt Schaub

2662

20911

7.86

11136

53.25%

4.18

9775

46.75%

3.67

0.51

Doug Flutie

1751

12143

6.93

7310

60.20%

4.17

4833

39.80%

2.76

1.41

Eli Manning

4457

31527

7.07

18547

58.83%

4.16

12980

41.17%

2.91

1.25

David Garrard

2151

15312

7.12

8933

58.34%

4.15

6379

41.66%

2.97

1.19

Rodney Peete

1602

10947

6.83

6614

60.42%

4.13

4333

39.58%

2.70

1.42

Michael Vick

2876

20188

7.02

11858

58.74%

4.12

8330

41.26%

2.90

1.23

 

Conclusion

Personally, I am tired of seeing a quarterback get all the yardage credit for a little screen pass that Jimmy Clausen could probably complete wearing a blindfold at least 50 percent of the time. Okay, maybe 40 percent. More than ever in the NFL we are seeing short passes too.

There are a lot of interesting numbers that came from the above study, but there are also many things that are hard to draw a conclusion from.

Tom Brady’s AIR YPA is 3.95, which puts him at 46th with Jon Kitna and Vince Young breathing down his neck.

Aaron Rodgers and Steve Young are often compared, but did you notice Craig Erickson sandwiched between the two in AIR YPA?

The fact that YAC vs. AIR doesn’t translate well either way to winning and success is good to know, but what do we do with such data? It shouldn’t be thrown out, but it can be calculated differently.

Some YAC is better than others, but breaking that down statistically would be nearly impossible. One idea would be to split up YAC based on pass depth. You would expect a higher number from passes thrown behind or at the line of scrimmage, so that could help.

If a quarterback throws a perfect pass to a receiver 35 yards downfield and he runs (in a straight line) the final 35 yards for a 70-yard touchdown, he gets 35 YAC. That’s really not the YAC we want to credit either player for, because another quarterback could make the same exact throw, but his receiver was in the end zone when he makes the catch, meaning zero YAC. The effort on the throw-and-catch was the same from the quarterback and likely the receiver too, but the field position dictated a huge difference in YAC.

It would be a radical change, but if all passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage were changed to runs, that would have a big impact on the stats. Of course we’re a bit too far into the history of the game for such a change to take place as past stats would be completely incomparable (if some aren’t already).

I’ll stop yakking on the YAC for now, but it was good to finally put some numbers behind the concepts we often hear about.

 

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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