Three Yards and A Cloud of Dust: The Evolution of Passing in the NFL

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  • Author: Patrick Rhodes
  • Date: 31 Jan 2014
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of iStock Photo

Introduction

"Three yards and a cloud of dust" (1) - that's how Woody Hayes described his "crunching, frontal assault of muscle against muscle", the offense that defined the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 50s and 60s. He went on say that, in regards to the passing game, "only three things can happen when you pass and two of them are bad". Hayes' colourful description of his offense springs directly from the original vision of American Football: run, run, run. Were he alive today, he would be shocked to see that the game has evolved into a philosophy of pass, pass, pass. This phenomenon has elevated one player position above all others: the quarterback. He has become king; all other players are subject to the whims of the crown. How did this happen? Let's review the game, its history and follow it through.

thumbnail image: Three Yards and A Cloud of Dust: The Evolution of Passing in the NFL

The Most Popular Sport in the World

American Football - simply known as “football” in the United States - generates the most revenue of any sporting franchise in the United States and indeed the world (2). In 2012, the NFL (National Football League) took in nearly $10 billion dollars (U.S.) compared to the Premier League at $3.3 billion. Still not impressed? Attendance numbers tell the same story: the NFL attracts nearly 4 million spectators more than the nearest competitor which, interestingly, is not what you might guess (hint: it’s not the Premier League and it’s not some other American sports league). If you guessed the Bundesliga association football (i.e. “soccer”) league in Germany, congratulations! That league holds the number two designation (3), which drew 13.8 million visitors during the 2011-12 season compared to 17.2 million for the NFL.

To say that the game is popular in the United States is like saying a hurricane mildly disrupts traffic. Indeed, football is deeply embedded into American culture from cradle to grave. Since I have been self-aware on this Earth, football has maintained a religious fervor all the way from the Pop Warner leagues through high school, through university settings and of course the progamme.

Football - What's in a Name?

The word “football” implies a strong relationship between your foot and the ball, does it not? Ironically, American football has very little to do with one’s feet outside of running - the ball is either already in a player’s hands or is being thrown from one player to another. When the ball does touch a player’s foot (on purpose), it’s reserved for kicking, which doesn’t happen very often. Kicking is reserved for “special teams” action when one team is attempting a field goal, punting, the extra point* or kicking to the other team.

*The NFL is considering the removal of the point after a touchdown.

The fact is, the first incarnations of the game were derived from rugby and soccer, using the feet to advance the ball or score, hence "football". In fact, when the first game was played between Rutgers and Princeton on November 6, 1869 (4), the rules forbade the forward pass - the very thing which now has come to define the sport.

Rules, rules, rules

To understand how the passing game came to fruition, we have to understand why rule changes prompting its rise were born. In the case of football, it was due to numerous injuries and in fact, death.

Death in any “ball” sport is a rare event. When it happens in football, it’s more likely to be from indirect causes (heat stroke, for example) rather than direct causes (5) (such as head trauma). When I say death in this context, I mean a death that happens on the field or shortly after leaving the field. Long-term effects from football are a hot topic (6) and outside the scope of this article (which is not to diminish its importance or impact in any way). All of that being said, football was extremely dangerous in its early form. In fact, in 1905 there were nineteen fatalities and nearly 160 severely injured players (7) - much of which has been attributed to the reliance upon brute strength and masses of colliding players to advance the ball (and at the time, with little or no protection). Safety became critical to the game’s - and player’s - survival. Speed and skill were prioritized and thus, the forward pass was introduced in 1906 as a first step in that direction. At the time, most did not believe it would ever be employed with regularity; in fact, the New York Times had this to say about the rule change:

“There has been no team that has proved that the forward pass is anything but a doubtful, dangerous play to be used only in the last extremity.” (8)

Although that statement seems ridiculous now, it had some merit at the time given that the balls were mostly round and incomplete passes resulted in turnovers. Safety was continually addressed in further rule changes (9) and, as a by-product, these changes facilitated the passing game (Table 1) (10):

Table 1:


The Rise of the Quarterback

Football grew in popularity and by 1920 a stable professional league was formed which would become today’s National Football League (NFL) (11). The above rule changes, when combined with the gradual reshaping of the football (eventually resulting in today’s “prolate spheroid”) allowed the quarterbacks to pick apart defenses with increasing precision (Figure 1) (12):

Figure 1:


The NFL introduced a passer rating formula designed to rate a quarterback's performance (passing only - their ability to scramble, run, etc. is not accounted for in the formula). The graph above shows the league average (mean) passer rating was 27.2 in 1932, but has steadily risen attaining a mean of 85.0 in 2013. If this trend continues, we can project a league-wide average quarterback rating of 100 in the year 2034. That’s pretty amazing since the designers of the formula intended 66.7 to be an “average” quarterback while any rating above 100 would be considered “excellent”. That means the “average” quarterback of 2034 would be considered “excellent” if the formula isn’t adjusted (or perhaps the game itself).

For the curious, here’s a box plot revealing that the passer rating spread was mostly unremarkable and uniform (i.e. a normal distribution) since 1970*. Note that the median trend followed the mean trend rather closely (Figure 2).

*Before 1970, the NFL consisted of only a few teams causing integrity problems with the data, therefore, only data since 1970 was used.

Figure 2:


Changes in Offensive Strategy

Rule changes and ball improvements aren’t the only advances in the game - there have been several offensive geniuses over the years which have produced complete paradigm shifts in the way the game is played. Many of these schemes have names as colourful and entertaining as the offense itself such as “Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust”, “Run to Daylight”, “Air Coryell”, “Pistol”, "West Coast Offense" and “Wildcat”. The general trend, however, has focused on the quarterback tossing the ball more often for fewer yards at a time, resulting in a gradual abandonment of the long pass (Figure 3) (13):

Figure 3:


The average yards per completion has dropped from nearly 15 to 11, revealing the trend for shorter, quicker passes. Since the year 2000, the trend towards shorter passes seems to have hit a wall at around 11 yards on average (more clearly seen with the grey loess curve above). I suspect that’s where it will remain unless the rules change, extending the length needed to gain a first down (teams currently need ten yards for a new set of "downs"). Therefore, even though the above trend line would eventually hit zero in theory, the real world dictates otherwise. Don’t look for 2 to 3 yards passes to become the norm at any point in the future.

The Correlation

Given the upward trend of the passer rating and the downward trend of yards per completion, it makes sense to see if there is a correlation (Figure 4) (14):

Figure 4


Indeed, there is a strong link between passer rating and yards per completion (r2 = 0.74). Short, more easily-completed passes produce a higher completion rate as well as more touchdowns and lower interceptions - all factors in the passer rating formula. Of course, a similar correlation would seem likely for the other factors in the passer rating such as interceptions, touchdowns and completion percentage. However, the point here is that yards per completion is a major driving force - when you reduce the length of the passes, all of the other factors in the passer rating trend in your favour - not the other way ‘round. It’s the one variable in the passer rating formula that the quarterback/offense has direct control over in play design.

With all of the information presented here, it seems likely that the two quarterbacks for this year’s Super Bowl (2014) should have high ratings. Indeed, the Denver Broncos feature one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game: Peyton Manning and his 115.1 passer rating (15). They will be facing off against the Seattle Seahawks starring Russell Wilson and his 101.2 quarterback rating (16). Both of these quarterbacks are considered “excellent” by the passer rating formula noted above. To this author, this comes as no surprise that two elite quarterbacks end up facing each other in the championship game. Personally, I’m going with Peyton and the Broncos for the win.

Conclusion

Given that quarterbacks are throwing for more yardage than ever and throwing more times per game than in years past, the quarterback has indeed become the most important position in football. Additionally, large amounts of money and fame await those who prove themselves to be elite passers. These factors have motivated quarterbacks to become better and better as noted in their ratings. Unfortunately, the game now relies upon this one position more than ever; teams perform very differently given who is taking the snaps. Watch the starting quarterback go down with an injury and then observe what happens to the offense - you'll usually see a vastly different team from that point forward (how vast depends on the disparity in quarterback skill levels).

How long this trend continues is anybody's guess, but the days of "three yards and a cloud of dust" appear to be over for the most part.

Addendum: Change the formula?

Are today's quarterbacks really that much better than those of years gone by? If our only measuring stick is the passer rating formula, then the answer is yes.

Unless you change the formula.

In my opinion, these "old school" quarterbacks might be better than we think, despite what I've written above. The fact is, these passers existed in offenses which relied more on the running game and “vertical” (long distance) passing. That, combined with the rule changes listed above, put them in situations where their completion percentage was lower, sacks were more numerous and passing yardage was down (along with attempts). In other words, they played under brutal conditions.

I wonder how these quarterbacks would compare to today’s players if the formula were tweaked to better reflect the conditions of the time? I decided to do an experiment and see for myself with the following changes:

1. The weight to the yards per completion portion of the formula was doubled. Earlier offenses relied on a power running game while also throwing long balls. By doubling the 10 weight of this stat, it rewards that style of offense (and it’s also very difficult to execute).
2. The weight of the completion percentage calculation was halved. Short passes are easier to complete than long ones, therefore, I decided to reward the long ball passers by reducing the influence of lower completion percentages.
3. The weight of the interceptions calculation was also halved. The short game produces fewer of these, percentage-wise, therefore I wanted to reduce this effect as well.

The tweaked formula still produces the same range of ratings as the original formula:

Before anyone throws up their arms in protest that I’m just willy-nilly changing the final outcome without giving proper rigor to redefining the formula - you’re basically correct. It’s just an experiment to create a little intrigue and discussion about the formula. The resulting graph shows the new passer ratings, but skewed a little more to the offensive playing styles in the 1960s and 1970s (Figure 5):

Figure 5:


The “old school” quarterbacks don’t look as bad, do they? The chart still shows an upward trend, but it’s not as steep. In the current system, there is a 19.2 point difference in rating between 1969 and 2013. With the new formula, that difference is only 12.2 points. So, while today's quarterbacks still rate better than their predecessors in the revised system, they aren't as far ahead. To be honest, the formula would need to be completely reworked in order to really allow those early quarterbacks to really shine - they played under difficult conditions. The ten yard rule for a first down comes to my mind here - we might see a real trend like this evolve if first down yardage is lengthened, forcing teams to throw further.

References

(1) Wikipedia, Woody Hayes (accessed Jan 2, 2014); available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woody_Hayes

(2) CNN Money, Why football is still a money machine (accessed Jan 2, 2014); available from http://money.cnn.com/2013/02/01/news/companies/nfl-money-super-bowl/  

(3) Sporting Intelligence, NFL remains by far the best attended domestic sports league in the world (accessed Jan2,
2014); available from http://www.sportingintelligence.com/2013/01/04/nfl-remains-best-attended-domestic-sportsleague-in-the-world-040101/    

(4) Scarlet Knights, Rutgers - The Birthplace of Intercollegiate Football (last accessed Jan. 2, 2014); available from
http://scarletknights.com/football/history/first-game.asp

(5) Boden, B. P., Breit, I., Beachler, J. A., Williams, A., & Mueller, F. O. (2013). Fatalities in High School and College
Football Players. American Journal of Sports Medicine; available from http://www.theorthocentermd.com/articles/fatalities_in_hiigh_school_and_college_2013.pdf  

(6) National Football League, NFL, ex-players agree to $765M settlement in concussions suit (last accessed Jan 2,
2014); available from http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap1000000235494/article/nfl-explayers-agree-to-765msettlement-in-concussions-suit  

(7) Nineteen Killed on Gridiron, (1905, Nov 27). The San Francisco Call; available from http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1905-11-27/ed-1/seq-1/#words=NINETEEN  

(8) New Football A Chaos, The Experts Declare (1906, Sep 30). New York Times; available from http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F2071EF7345A12738DDDA90B94D1405B868CF1D3

(9) The Sports Attic, History of NFL Rules (last accessed Jan 2, 2014); available from http://www.sportsattic.com/araig/NflRulesHistory.htm

(10) National Football League, Evolution of the rules: from hashmarks to crackback blocks (last accessed Jan 2, 2014);
available from http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap1000000224872/article/evolution-of-the-rules-from-hashmarksto-crackback-blocks

(11) Pro Football Hall of Fame, History: History of NFL Franchises, 1920-Present (last accessed Jan 2, 2014);
available from http://www.profootballhof.com/history/stats/franchises.aspx

(12) Pro-Football-Reference.com (2013). Passing League Averages Per Team Season [Data File]; available from http://www.pro-football-reference.com/

(13) Ibid

(14) Ibid

(15) Pro-Football-Reference.com, Peyton Manning (last accessed Jan 20, 2014); available from http://www.profootball-reference.com/players/M/MannPe00.htm

(16) Pro-Football-Reference.com, Russell Wilson (last accessed Jan 20, 2014); available from http://www.pro-footballreference.com/players/W/WilsRu00.htm

Bio: For more information on the author of this article, please visit: http://rhodestales.com/

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