2020 was a disaster on many levels but the quality of play fear never fully materialized in the NFL. That was especially true for the passing game, even as some teams were forced to trot out players like Kendall Hinton and Carson Wentz to play quarterback.
Despite a shortened and virtual offseason, 2020 set passing records for things like completion percentage, passing touchdowns, touchdown rate, interception rate, and fantasy points as Rich Hribar pointed out in his fantasy quarterback season in review. This builds on years of increased passing production, where even if records aren’t set every season, the numbers remain close to all-time highs.
Those passing touchdowns along with the touchdown and interception rates all got better while passing attempts didn’t get a dramatic increase. In Hribar’s post, he noted some of the 2020-specific circumstances that potentially played a role in the increased passing efficiency across the league. That’s worth diving into what about the 2020 bump could continue and what might have been the result of the unique season.
Home-field advantage was nonexistent in 2020, but that was already something that showed up in 2019. Still, passers had their best road numbers this past season.
Road Production, 2016-2020
Many of these trends toward better road numbers started in the 2018 season and finally flipped in 2020. This past season, quarterbacks averaged a higher completion percentage and yards per attempt with a lower interception rate on the road. Home passers still had a higher touchdown percentage and better sack rate.
Home vs Road Difference, 2016-2020
While some numbers took some big swings, 2020 wasn’t a complete outlier. Teams in 2019 had a bigger advantage in interception rate on the road and they were closer to home splits in both touchdown rate and sack rate than road passers were in 2020.
As far as individual performances, only two of the top-10 seasons by Expected Points Added per attempt since 2016 came in 2020, according to Sports Info Solutions. Four were in 2019. Extending to the top-15, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady show up from this past season with no other performances from 2019. Mahomes might be the poster boy for road performance as all three of his seasons as a starter are in the top-15 individual seasons by EPA per attempt among 169 quarterbacks with at least 100 road attempts in a year. However, Josh Allen’s 2020 might be the most impressive of the group — the only passer with at least 100 road attempts to have positive EPA on at least 60% of his passes.
Top-15 Quarterbacks by EPA/Att on Road, 2016-2020
Another factor in the 2020 season was the lack of penalties, especially offensive holding. Per nflpenalties.com, there were 14.91 holding calls per team this season — fewer than one per team per game. That number had been 22.88 in 2019, a figure that had been fairly consistent over the past few seasons.
Holding Penalties Per Team, 2016-2020
|Year||Penalties per team|
It’s unclear whether this will be a point of emphasis that stretches beyond 2020. More holdings were called over the second half of the season, but those penalties still fell well short of previous norms. That kept offenses on the field moving the ball forward, which obviously helped with scoring. But holding has been well covered throughout the year, so let’s take a look at other penalties.
There is a theory that less crowd noise was an advantage to quarterbacks, especially on the road. We covered the road splits above, but another place the lack of noise came was with the cadence at the line. Clear communication was made easier for the offense, but it also could have been used against the defense to draw offsides penalties for free plays. Those penalties weren’t called more often in 2020 and they’ve been down significantly by almost a penalty per team from the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Defensive Offsides Penalties Per Team, 2016-2020
|Year||Penalties per team|
The home-road split on these penalties was nearly even with 75 called against home teams and 77 called against road teams. That’s a much closer split than one might expect, and well below the peak years of this penalty, but it’s another split that was more pronounced in 2019. During that season, the home team was called for defensive offsides more often than road teams. There was also a nearly even split in 2017 and 2016 had an insane split toward the home team.
Defensive Offsides Home/Road Splits, 2016-2020
|Year||Total Penalties||Home Penalties Against||Road Penalties Against||Home %|
Of course, there are now quarterbacks who have gotten better at taking advantage of the free play when an offsides penalty is called, regardless of the stadium. The Kansas City Chiefs were the beneficiary of a league-lead 14 defensive offsides called (the next highest team had nine) and seven were declined because of a positive play from Patrick Mahomes. Giving Mahomes free plays can help league-wide passing numbers on its own.
There was a big shift in neutral zone infraction penalties with 53% of calls against the home team, but those penalties are blown dead before the play. The extra five yards certainly help an offense, but not as much as the free plays from an offsides.
Defensive holding calls were down significantly, which gave cornerbacks some leeway off the line of scrimmage, but that was paired with an increase in defensive pass interference (nearly one more per team), which is obviously worse for the defense and has a much bigger yardage impact for the offense. 5,005 yards were gained in 2020 on accepted defensive pass interference penalties, an average of 15.9 yards per penalty.
Defensive Holding & Defensive Pass Interference Penalties per Team, 2016-2020
|Year||Defensive Holding||Defensive Pass Interference|
While there were a number of factors surrounding how the game was played, the actual way the game was played had a significant impact on the passing environment this past season. We can start with pacing. When Chip Kelly came into the league as the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, he brought his hurry-up offense to the pros. It caught on for a bit, but since that time NFL offenses gradually put on the breaks.
The 2018 season was one of the slowest years in Football Outsiders’ database, both in average seconds per play and average seconds per play in neutral situations (mostly factoring out garbage time). Play sped up in 2019 but they were back to Kelly-like numbers in 2020 with the second-fastest average seconds per play, behind 2013, and the seventh-fastest average seconds per play in neutral situations.
NFL offenses were playing faster and continued to do a better job at creating space in the passing game. Before the 2019 season, we explored how offenses were creating space by limiting tight window throws and reducing the average depth of target of passes. The tight window throw numbers (defined by a yard or fewer of separation) hit their low in that 2018 season but 2020 again came close with the lowest aDOT over the past five seasons, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
|Year||aDOT||Tight Window %|
At worst, these safer throws have limited the danger in passing by setting a high floor — a big reason why completion rates have risen and interception rates have dropped. The best offenses, of course, have been able to push the ball down the field while still limiting dangerous throws — the ultimate creation of big plays in space.
Depth of Target
The average depth of target has continued to decrease, but it’s not all about just throwing shorter passes. NFL offenses, for the most part, have figured out ways to leverage the distance of pass attempts for their advantage. Even as the league-wide aDOT dipped below 8.0 yards in 2020, NFL teams threw at or behind the line of scrimmage at the lowest rate over the past five seasons.
Percentage of Pass Attempts Behind Line Of Scrimmage, 2016-2020
|Year||Behind Line %|
That was a plus for passing efficiency, since throws at or behind the line averaged -0.07 Expected Points Added per attempt in 2020. Running back rushing attempts averaged -0.04 EPA per attempt last season.
Offenses have gotten better at throwing to the short and intermediate parts of the field. EPA per attempt has gone up on throws between 1-10 yards past the line of scrimmage and throws from 11-19 yards past the line remain the most efficient by target depth.
What also stands out is how passing offenses cut down on the number of deep passes (20 or more air yards) but got better production from them in 2020. Completion rates have slowly risen over the past few seasons while the rate of overall passes then went deep has dropped. In 2020, 38.6% of passes that traveled at least 20 air yards were completed (an at least five-year-high) but only 10.5% of attempts went deep (at least a five-year-low).
Deep Passing, 2016-2020
|Year||% of Att||Comp%||YPA||TD%||INT%|
In addition to the completion rate improving, yards per attempt and touchdown rates increased while the interception rate on those passes dropped. Offenses were generally better at picking their spots to go deep to get the most out of those attempts. That led to higher efficiency and as shown on the graph above, EPA per attempt on deep passes nearly matched those to the intermediate level in 2020.
What Does It Mean?
The 2020 season presented some unique circumstances across the NFL, but many of the factors that contributed to the improved passing environment started shifting over the past few seasons. The lack of penalties, especially offensive holding, was new in 2020 and should be something to monitor going forward but other things like reduced home/road splits have been emerging for years. There is no singular smoking gun that has helped produce better passing numbers.
The biggest trend to watch is how NFL offenses have consistently gotten smarter about the passing game and how to implement it. From smarter and more progressive playcallers to quarterbacks that have been able to make an immediate impact in the league (with a projected talented rookie class incoming), teams have gotten better at assessing what is on the roster and how best to use it. That, to the benefit of passing games across the league, does not appear to be stopping anytime soon.