A passing "Stat That Matters"

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Aug 06, 2006



For every action, there is a reaction.
 
And for every "Stat That Matters," there is one that does not.
 
Put passing yards high on the list of "Stats That Do Not Matter."
 
Tom Brady led the league in passing in 2005 (4,110 yards). His team went 10-6 and got bounced in the divisional round of the playoffs after he tossed two costly interceptions in what was his first loss in 11 postseason appearances.
 
Daunte Culpepper led the league in passing in 2004 (4,717 yards). His team went just 8-8 and got bounced in the divisional round in the weakest conference in post-merger NFL history.
 
Peyton Manning led the league in passing in 2003 (4,267 yards). His team went 12-4 and actually fought its way into the AFC title game, where Manning summarily threw four INTs and the season came to a crashing halt.
 
We could go on and on. In fact, we did.
 
If you want to find a passing yards leader who actually won an NFL championship, you have to go all the way back to 1959 – when there were just 12 pro teams and the facemask was in its infancy. That's the year Johnny Unitas had one of the great passing seasons in NFL history. He led the league with 2,899 yards and 32 TD passes (in 12 games) and guided the Colts to their second consecutive title.
 
We discovered the futility of passing yards in an effort to find a passing "Stat That Matters."
 
This is what we did. We looked back over the past three seasons and measured the winning percentage of the Top 10 quarterbacks in four key passing categories:
  • Yards per attempt
  • Passer rating
  • Passing yards
  • TD passes
Passer rating gets a lot of grief from fans and "pundits" who think it's an overly complex, manufactured stat. But the truth is that it has a very high correlation to winning football games. We've always liked passer rating, despite its complexities. Our ongoing studies of the relationship between quarterback performances and game results have led us to trust passer rating in most instances. And now we have another reason to support it.
 
However, in terms of usefulness over at least the last three years, passer rating fell just shy of a woefully underused passing stat: yards per attempt. In fact, one could argue to dismiss the passer rating system and simply replace it with yards per attempt to measure a quarterback's effectiveness. We're not making that argument right now, but it's certainly one that can be made.
 
Ask Pittsburgh fans about the utility of this oft-ignored statistic. Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger trailed well behind other quarterbacks in almost every major passing category but one: yards per attempt. He led the league with a nifty 8.9 yards every time he attempted a pass.
 
Here are the combined winning percentages of the Top 10 quarterbacks in these four statistical categories. You'll notice that yards per attempt and passer rating were clustered closely in terms of winning percentages across the board. They were even close in the number of playoff games: The Top 10 QBs in yards per attempt have played in 46 playoff games over the past three seasons; the Top 10 in passer rating have played in 44. Conversely, the leaders in passing yards have participated in just 30 playoff games. 
 
Put most simply, leaders in yards per attempt and passer rating won more often and participated in more playoff games than leaders in TD passes and passing yards.
 
Last three seasons combined
Category
Reg. Season
Pct.
Playoffs
Pct.
Overall
Pct.
YPA
300-140
.682
25-21
.543
325-161
.669
Passer rating
299-142
.678
25-19
.568
324-161
.668
TD passes
303-184
.622
20-19
.513
323-203
.614
Passing yards
288-185
.609
16-14
.533
304-199
.604
 
The most interesting part of our study is that we found that the correlation between these stats and winning football games were as predictable as the tides. In each of the past three seasons, yards per attempt and passer rating had the highest correlation with winning and were clustered very tightly; TD passes were always a distant third, while passing yardage finished dead last each and every season.
 
Here's a season-by-season breakdown of how these four key passing stats correlate with victory:
 
2005
Category
Reg. Season
Pct.
Playoffs
Pct.
Overall
Pct.
YPA
102-45
.694
10-6
.625
112-51
.687
Passer rating
98-43
.695
9-6
.600
107-49
.686
TD passes
106-69
.606
6-7
.462
112-76
.596
Passing yards
95-64
.597
3-4
.429
98-68
.590
 
2004
Category
Reg. Season
Pct.
Playoffs
Pct.
Overall
Pct.
Passer rating
100-49
.671
9-7
.563
109-56
.661
YPA
100-49
.671
8-7
.533
108-56
.659
TD passes
98-58
.628
7-7
.500
105-65
.618
Passing yards
96-61
.611
8-6
.571
104-67
.608
 
2003
Category
Reg. Season
Pct.
Playoffs
Pct.
Overall
Pct.
YPA
98-46
.681
7-8
.467
105-54
.660
Passer rating
101-50
.669
7-6
.538
108-56
.659
TD passes
99-57
.635
7-5
.583
106-62
.631
Passing yards
97-60
.618
5-4
.556
102-64
.614

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