Please Don’t Try to Argue that Passing Yards (and 300 yard games) are Important

I was surprised when I read the NFL’s Around the League entry quoting information from ESPN’s Mike Sando related to Alex Smith and 300 yard passing games.  Specifically, the articles pondered passing yardage being overrated, but quickly concluded they were not:

  • “Are passing yards overrated? Not according to some recent numbers:
  • Teams with a 300-yard passer went 180-141 over the past three seasons.
  • In games featuring a lone 300-yard passer, quarterbacks crossing that mark are 132-93 since 2009.”

The article went on to insinuate that in order for Alex Smith to be viewed favorably as a QB he needs to throw for more passing yards and more 300 yard passing games (he had zero 300 yd games last year).

Many of you may already know where I’m going with this, but the NFL is not strictly a “volume” league.  Winning 56% of the time (180 of 321 games) is NOT what I would consider a true key to winning, or a stat which is strongly correlated to winning.

The NFL is all about efficiency.  It’s not about total volume, but how well you do on every single throw.  Passing yards per attempt (ypa) is a far, far superior stat to total passing yards.  And it always has been.  For instance:

  • Teams whose QB throws for over 9 yards per attempt are 180-30 the last 3 seasons.
  • That’s the same number of wins (180) but only 30 losses vs. the 140 losses shown above (for 300 yds total passing).  Therefore producing 86% winners vs. 56%.
  • And when you factor in defense (like Mike did above), and look for games featuring lone 9 ypa passers, these teams went 170-20 (89%) the last 3 seasons.

In fact, the NFL has ALWAYS been about passing efficiency, not passing volume:

  • Since 1995, games featuring a lone 300+ yd passer saw those teams go 482-389 (55%).
  • Since 1995, games featuring a lone 9+ ypa passer saw those teams go 738-94 (89%).

The interesting point is that while the NFL has seen 871 games featuring a lone 300 yd passer since 1995, it has also seen 832 games featuring a lone 9 ypa passer.  There have been a total of 4,374 games played since 1995.  Therefore, 20% of all games played have featured lone 300 yd passers and 19% have featured lone 9 ypa passers.  Meaning both of these feats are similarly difficult to attain.  However, one results in 55% wins and the other results in 89% wins.  Night and day in terms of correlation to victory.

How does this factor into the Alex Smith debate?

The 49ers went 2-0 last year and 3-0 in 2010 when throwing for over 9 ypa.  5 total games in 2 yrs is actually tied for 11th most in the league.  Meaning there are 19 teams who threw fewer than 5 games of 9+ ypa the last two years.

And many of these teams likely wish they could improve in this category as well, including multiple playoff teams from 2011 such as the Lions, the Falcons and the Ravens.

That said, it is no surprise that many of the best teams in the NFL also have had the most games of 9+ ypa the last 3 seasons:  GB, NE, Pit and SD, and not far behind are Oak, Hou, NO, Dal, NYG and Phi.

Does Alex Smith and the 49ers offense need to improve in ypa?  Of course they do.  The next stat makes that painfully obvious:

  • In 2011, when SF averaged 7+ ypa, they went 7-0 SU and ATS, winning games by 16 ppg.
  • When they averaged fewer than 7 ypa, they went 7-4 SU and 5-4-2 ATS, winning games by less than 4 ppg.

They were the only team to be undefeated both SU and ATS when throwing for 7+ ypa in 2011.  They simply have a good enough defense to consistently see success, so long as their QB delivers an efficient enough performance through the air.

So while many of the NFL’s most traditional media outlets still rely on “300 passing yards” as a yardstick to measure success, remember that it’s far less important to have a “300 yard game” than to have a strong yds/attempt outing from your quarterback. The former has produced winners to the tune of 55-56% whereas the latter has produced winners 86-89% of the time.

And for the final nail in the coffin to the debate as to which holds more value?

In 2011:

  • Teams who threw for over 9 ypa and UNDER 300 total yards went 36-2 (95%).
  • Teams who threw for over 9 ypa and OVER 300 total yards went 30-10 (75%).

Expanding back to 2009:

  • Teams who threw for over 9 ypa and UNDER 300 total yds went 102-4 (96%)
  • Teams who threw for over 9 ypa and OVER 300 total yds went 78-26 (75%).

Efficient passing teams (9 ypa) who passed for more yards (300 yds) actually did much worse than teams who efficiently passed for a lower quantity of yardage.

Passing for a large volume of yardage is NOT a trait a team should emulate in an attempt to achieve success.  Passing for a high efficiency (yards/attempt) IS a trait worth striving to achieve and is far more correlated to victory than total passing yards.