What Does History Tell Us About NFL Passing Yardage Leaders?

Since 2007, every passing yardage leader has been age-25 or older and prior to Jameis Winston in 2019, nine straight passing leaders were at least 32 years old. In addition, contrary to popular belief, the passing leaders don’t necessarily correlate with quarterbacks on the best teams.

In fact, five of the last seven leaders came from teams with a losing record and only one (Tom Brady in 2017) of the last seven came from a team that won double-digit games. All but one quarterback since 2007 (Drew Brees in 2015) started all 16 games. It may be logical to conclude that quarterbacks from the best teams aren’t winning the passing title as much because they sit in the final game of the season, but Patrick Mahomes last season is the only time since 2007 a quarterback with 15 starts would most likely have won the yardage title if not for sitting in the regular season finale.

Teams that have a great record typically throw early and run late to sit on leads, leading to fewer total pass attempts. In this category you want to find middle-of-the-road teams on good passing offenses that will need to throw in order to win games. Seeing as how most times quarterbacks on really bad teams aren’t a good enough quality to throw for that many yards, the most likely scenario is the teams that are mediocre but not quite bad enough. 

With these historical filters in mind, what is the bucket of quarterbacks that will most likely fit this season? We can eliminate rookies (Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Zach Wilson) and any quarterback who is in their first three seasons or under age 25 (Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa, Joe Burrow, Daniel Jones, Jalen Hurts, Kyler Murray) since nobody has won the passing title any earlier than their first three seasons of their career.

We can also eliminate those teams that are very run-heavy and have pass rates in one-score situations among the bottom half of the NFL. I only have data since 2016, but the pass rates of teams with the quarterback who won the passing title ranked third, 15th, first, fourth, and second in those seasons. That eliminates quarterbacks like Ryan Tannehill, Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, Derek Carr, Cam Newton, and Kirk Cousins. Matthew Stafford technically would just fall short as the Rams ranked 17th last year but seeing as how they had ranked in the top half every season under Sean McVay and with Stafford in the fold, they will probably pass more often than in 2020. I think it’s also safe to assume journeymen (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Teddy Bridgewater) or just plain old bad QBs with no shot at winning (Tyrod Taylor) can be eliminated as well. 

So where does that leave us? If we filter for age, years in the NFL and team pass rates from 2020, this bucket of QBs is the highest probability of winning the passing title:

Patrick Mahomes (+350), Josh Allen (+850), Ben Roethlisberger (+5000), Dak Prescott (+600), Matthew Stafford (+1200), Russell Wilson (+2000), Aaron Rodgers (+1400), Sam Darnold (+5000), Tom Brady (+650), and Matt Ryan (+1400).

If the theory continues to hold that most of the QBs on really good teams have a lower shot at winning this title, you can safely eliminate Mahomes and Brady. But this to me is a solid overall grouping to choose from. You have plenty of the obvious favorites and some interesting longer shots like Big Ben, Darnold, and Ryan to choose from.