Slingshot bikinis and the great passing offenses

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Aug 19, 2007



By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Ass Man
 
Our copy of the brilliant ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia is so dog-eared and tired that Michael Vick threatened to electrocute it.
 
The first edition was released last year and it's become a staple of the ever-growing Cold, Hard Football Facts library (now up to two "Animal House" betamax videos and three football books). We pore over the encylopedia the way you probably pore over pictures of slingshot bikini models (see the gratuitous photo here for more analysis of the slingshot bikini).
 
While you've been out there this summer contemplating the slingshot vs. the micro-mini, we wanted to find the greatest passing teams of all time, based upon Passing Yards Per Attempt – the easiest and most accurate measure of a team's passing success.
 
Passing Yards Per Attempt is a Cold, Hard Football Facts "Quality Stat" because it has a direct correlation to winning football games. Despite its importance, it is not an easy stat to find historically. (Someday soon, we'll finally have all our Quality Stats calculated throughout NFL history.)
 
Most resources look only at passing yards or TDs or maybe even the confusing (but typically effective) passer rating. In the few places that Passing Yards Per Attempt does raise its freckly little head, it's typically an individual stat, not a team stat.
 
It's unfortunate. As we've shown time and again, total passing yards doesn't really tell you a whole hell of a lot. It just tells you who threw the ball a lot (Hellooooo, Drew Bledsoe!). It does not tell you who threw the ball effectively. It does not tell you who forced opponents into fits of rage as they were ripped by pinpoint passes that chewed up yardage at an alarming rate.
 
But the trusty ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia came through for us again. It has the gross passing yards and passing attempts for every NFL, AFL and AAFC team since 1931. It's like crack for football geeks ... though you have to enjoy it on your own, and not in the friendly company of the neighborhood crack house.

Using the encyclopedia as our main resource, we were able to calculate the greatest passing teams of all time.
 
We're going to reference these lists throughout the year as we look during the 2007 season at the effectiveness – and importance – of each team's passing attack. We also plan to publish a bunch of these Passing Yards Per Attempt lists throughout the year, and add them to our permanent record of pigskin.
 
We jump into the effort here today with a list of the most prolific passing teams of the Super Bowl Era. You can see the entire list – along with some of the Cold, Hard Football Facts that can be culled from the list – below.
 
Why compile these lists?
 
Well, the importance of Passing Yards Per Attempt over total passing yards has been fairly well chronicled over the years by the Cold, Hard Football Facts. YPA has a direct correlation to winning football games. Total passing yards has very little correlation to winning football games.
 
All you need to know is this: The last two quarterbacks to lead the league in Passing Yards Per Attempt each won the Super Bowl (Peyton Manning with Indy in 2006, Ben Roethlisberger with Pittsburgh in 2005).
 
If you want to find the last quarterback to lead the league in passing yards and win a championship, you have to go back to Johnny Unitas with Baltimore in 1959.
 
Plus, as you'll see here, great passing teams are usually great teams. The "pundits" typically tout the need to "establish the run" (Hellooooo, Merril Hoge!). The truth, you'll soon find, is that teams that pass effectively are more likely to be good than teams that run effectively.
 
GREATEST PASSING TEAMS - Super Bowl Era
 
YEAR
TEAM
RECORD
ATT.
YARDS
YPA
1
1989
San Francisco
14-2
483
4584
9.49
2
2000
St. Louis
10-6
587
5492
9.36
3
1968
Kansas City (AFL)
12-2
270
2492
9.23
4
1988
Cincinnati
12-4
392
3592
9.16
5
1969
Dallas
11-2-1
355
3212
9.05
6
1984
Miami
14-2
572
5146
9.00
7
2004
Indianapolis
12-4
527
4732
8.98
8
1982
San Diego
6-3
338
3021
8.94
9
1976
Baltimore
11-3
361
3221
8.92
10
1983
Green Bay
8-8
526
4688
8.91
11
1966
Green Bay
12-2
318
2831
8.90
12
2001
St. Louis
14-2
551
4903
8.90
13
1976
Oakland
13-1
361
3195
8.85
14
1969
Cincinnati (AFL)
4-9-1
308
2720
8.83
15
1998
Atlanta
14-2
424
3744
8.83
16
1971
Atlanta
7-6-1
285
2495
8.75
17
1999
St. Louis
13-3
530
4580
8.64
18
1972
Miami
14-0
259
2235
8.63
19
1968
Baltimore
13-1
359
3094
8.62
20
2004
Minnesota
8-8
552
4754
8.61
21
1990
LA Raiders
12-4
336
2885
8.59
22
1993
San Francisco
10-6
524
4480
8.55
23
1994
San Francisco
13-3
511
4362
8.54
24
1992
San Francisco
14-2
480
4054
8.45
25
1972
N.Y. Jets
7-7
347
2930
8.44
26
1991
Washington
14-2
447
3771
8.44
27
1998
Minnesota
15-1
533
4492
8.43
28
1971
Dallas
11-3
361
3037
8.41
Note: In the form we use as a Quality Stat, Net Passing Yards Per Attempt involves taking total passing yards and subtracting yards lost to sacks. We then add the number of sacks to the number of passing attempts to get true Passing Yards Per Attempt – the average gained every time a team dropped back to pass.
 
This proved exceedingly difficult for this exercise. Namely, sacks did not become an official stat until 1982 – so calculating their impact on teams' passing efforts throughout history is virtually impossible.
 
Thus, for this exercise, we looked only at gross passing yards divided by attempts. It's not perfect. In fact, it's a bit inflated. But since we're looking here at only the best passing teams of all time, you can imagine that sacks would not have led to a serious change in the rankings. Let's put it this way: If a team averaged 8.8 yards every time it got off a pass, chances are their quarterbacks weren't under a lot of pressure to begin with.
 
THE COLD, HARD FOOTBALL FACTS on Passing Yards Per Attempt
 
The Rams Were the Greatest Show on Turf
From 1999 to 2001, the Rams earned acclaim as one of the most explosive offenses of all time. The Cold, Hard Football Facts in this case bear out the pigskin platitudes.
 
Those three Rams teams each averaged more than 8.6 YPA and all three rank among the 17 most prolific passing offenses of the Super Bowl Era. No other team in modern NFL history put together such productive passing attacks over the course of three consecutive seasons (though Steve Young's 49ers came pretty close).
 
Interestingly, the best of the bunch was the 2000 Rams offense, which averaged an amazing 9.36 YPA over the course of the season. That team was also the worst of the group. It went 10-6 and failed to make the Super Bowl – thanks in large part to one of the worst defenses in football that year (471 PA).
 
As they've long proven, the Cold, Hard Football Facts show that balance in many areas is more important than dominance in one.
 
Boomer Was A Mi-T-Fine Country Quarterback
Several weeks ago, we argued that a pretty good case could be made for Boomer Esiason as a Hall of Fame quarterback.
 
More evidence is found on this list of greatest passing offenses. We were shocked to find that his 1988 Bengals, which famously lost to San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIII, boasted the fourth most productive passing offense of the Super Bowl Era (9.16 YPA).
 
That Joe Montana Guy Wasn't Bad Either
The best passing offense of the Super Bowl Era?
 
That's right, it belonged to Joe Montana and the 1989 49ers, the guy who led the last-second scoring drive to submarine Boomer and the Bengals a year earlier. San Francisco in 1989 averaged a truly phenomenal 9.49 YPA. They were the first – and still the only – team since the prolific Browns and Rams of the 1950s to average more than 9.4 YPA over the course of a season.
 
Fittingly, Montana earned his first NFL MVP award in 1989, his 11th year in the league.
 
We Really, Really Like Those Slingshot Bikinis
At right, another gratuitous photo for your viewing pleasure.
 
Pass to Daylight
There are a handful of legendary running teams in NFL history. We'd put the 1972 Dolphins and the Packers of the 1960s high on the list of those legends.
 
The 1972 Dolphins went undefeated, were the first team to field a pair of 1,000-yard backs (Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris) and had a third threat in Jim Kiick, who rushed for more than 500 yards that year.
 
The 1960s Packers won five championships and, for the first four of those championships, fielded a pair of Hall of Fame running backs: Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung.
 
But what you'll find if you look beyond the gritty, ground-churning legend is that what separated the great running teams from the truly great teams like the 1972 Dolphins or the 1960s Packers is a passing attack that shredded opposing defenses with the lusty efficiency that we shred pork butt. (The 2006 Falcons were among the great running teams of all time, with a nifty 5.7 average on the ground. But they couldn't pass the ball any better than four-legged Fido. Hence, the 7-9 record.)
 
The undefeated 1972 Dolphins led the NFL that year with an amazing 8.63 Passing Yards Per Attempt – the 18th best passing attack of the Super Bowl Era. Conversely, they finished merely second on the ground that season to Pittsburgh, with an average of 4.8 YPA. (The 1972 Steelers averaged 5.1 YPA on the ground.)
 
Two Packers teams from the 1960s, meanwhile, make the all-time list of most productive passing attacks. The 1966 Packers are No. 11 of the Super Bowl Era, with a truly majestic 8.90 YPA. If we include teams from the pre-Super Bowl (a list we'll publish in the days ahead) the 1962 Packers also make the cut, with an average of 8.43 YPA.
 
As we'll show you later this season, the 1960s Packers do not deserve the praise as one of the great ground teams of all time. Sure, they were phenomenal on the ground in the first half of their title run. But the later teams – the units that won the three straight titles from 1965 to 1967 – were below-average running teams. In fact, in two of those years they were among the very worst running teams in football.
 
They were, however, virtually unstoppable through the air.
 
AFL Passing Attacks Paled Next to NFL Attacks
The AFL developed its reputation based upon an exciting, wide-open game that made the NFL looked boring by comparison. At least that's the storyline here 40 years after the AFL's heyday.
 
This reputation is even perpetuated today by no less an authority than NFL Films, which tends to focus on the gun-slinging ways of the AFL during its years of competing with the NFL.
 
The Cold, Hard Football Facts are quite a bit different. AFL teams may have thrown the ball more – and more recklessly, as evidenced by the brutal number of INTs that plagued the league – but they did not throw it better than NFL teams.
 
The truth is that NFL passing attacks were far more efficient and successful than those in the AFL.
 
NFL teams outpaced AFL teams in Passing Yards Per Attempt and Passer Rating in every single year over the entire decade that preceded the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
 
In some years, it wasn't even close. In 1962, for example:
  • NFL teams averaged a truly phenomenal 7.9 YPA (the league average in recent years rarely surpasses 7.0 YPA)
  • AFL teams averaged a pedestrian 6.8 YPA
  • The NFL's league-wide passer rating was 72.6
  • The AFL's league-wide passer rating was a dreadful 57.9
AFL football may have been wide open, but it wasn't very effective or successful.
 
***
 
We'll have much more on this topic in the weeks and months ahead. In our next installment, we'll show you the list of the most productive passing attacks in all of NFL history, and maybe even some more slingshot bikini models.
 
There's some pretty amazing stuff out there ... and the passing stats aren't bad, either.

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