Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

16 Oct 2011

Why the Passing Game is Spiraling Out of Control

Greg Bedard has some thoughts on this year's massive increase in passing, including a good summary of the insane numbers. What do folks think. Is too much passing just too much of a good thing? Does the game need to tilt back towards rushing and defense?

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 16 Oct 2011

45 comments, Last at 18 Oct 2011, 5:01pm by Pat (filler)

Comments

1
by Temo :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 11:56am

A lot of words for saying "stop enforcing downfield contact between DBs and WRs".

I don't think much of anything else has nearly as much effect rules-wise.

2
by Mash Wilson (not verified) :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 12:03pm

I'm just fine with more passing and less rushing, it's still football to me either way. (I'd be OK with more rushing and less passing, too, if the rules were inclined to favor rushing.) High scores are better than low scores for me, I don't care much how they get there.

I have to wonder, though, if we might not soon reach a point where a smart team might design an offense around running a lot (by which I mean like 60%-plus of the time and not only when ahead) and throwing deep when the defense cheats up too much, and see it work.

7
by Theo :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 1:27pm

Now if only someone ran some numbers to see if running early in the game correlates to winning games...

17
by Mort (not verified) :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 1:21am

I dub this mythical team you postulate: "The Ravens"

18
by 0tarin :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 1:34am

Damn, I was about to post this very same thing.

3
by Anonymous007 (not verified) :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 12:13pm

They need to increase the legal contact zone from 5 yds to 10. Almost all recent rule changes have been in favour of the offense, particularly in the passing game. They need to redress the balance!

4
by Nathan :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 12:27pm

Goodbye WCO.

5
by Intropy :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 1:08pm

That seems like a really good idea. It brings some balance back and does so in a way that doesn't counteract any of the safety changes.

I think revamping the intentional grounding rules would be good as well. Get rid of the pocket and line of scrimmage nonsense. If a player is in imminent threat of being sacked and throw the ball where none of his receivers are that's intentional grounding. Throwing the ball away when a play doesn't develop or when not under threat is still fine, but none of this "I was out of the pocket so I chucked the ball out of bounds from within the grasp" stuff. Also, be more strict about when a guy is in the area.

27
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 11:45am

They need to redress the balance!

Professional football, points per game, since 1952. (2011 is excluded because scoring drops over the course of a season and we're early in the season).

Scoring has been remarkably consistent over the past 60 years at around 21 points per game (average is 20.8, but the 1970s pull that down - scoring most commonly is 21.5 points per game).

Passing, however, has been increasing dramatically over rushing. Since it's not leading to higher scoring games, and rules changes have in general favored the passing game, it means there's something else which is causing rushing to generally get less effective, and so the rules changes just compensate to keep scoring roughly constant. The most likely culprit is just the fact that players are getting bigger and faster.

I don't see the point to trying to reign in passing. If you do that, you're going to seriously reduce scoring - well below historical norms - because the modern NFL is so dependent on passing to compensate for increased athleticism.

That being said it'd be interesting to see what some inconspicuous tweaks would do - like widening the hashmarks. Of course, since the NFL no longer has a development league, there's no way stuff like that will actually happen.

30
by tuluse :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 12:01pm

I don't think points per game is a good way to measure offense. First, if defenses are given an edge in the passing game there will be more interceptions which means more returns for TDs and short fields setting up their own offense to score points despite the fact that it's harder to play offense. Second, the most teams' offenses are not actually trying to score points at the fastest rate possible. So you get an effect where a team is controlling the ball for long periods of time decreasing scoring because it is easier to play offense.

31
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 12:21pm

Yeah, except I don't have offensive DVOA back to the 1950s. Almost all statistics poorly separate offense and defense - yards/game, yards/play, etc. All of them are affected either by defense or run/pass choice (since passing is highly asymmetric in terms of its result).

But heck, yards/game have also been pretty stable over that period, except for a slight increase which is almost certainly due to the increase in kicking/punting distance (around ~20 yards/game difference since the 1960s) - and I'd expect yardage to go up noticeably this year because of moving the kickoff point up.

First, if defenses are given an edge in the passing game there will be more interceptions which means more returns for TDs and short fields setting up their own offense to score points despite the fact that it's harder to play offense.

Yeah, I don't buy that. Teams aren't stupid, if interceptions become frequent enough to affect the overall statistics, they'll stop passing and run more... and scoring will go down. Or they'll shift to passes where interceptions (specifically the big return passes) are less common.

Second, the most teams' offenses are not actually trying to score points at the fastest rate possible.

Right, they're trying to win, but I doubt that the minor effect from the last few minutes does that much to stabilize scoring.

44
by tuluse :: Tue, 10/18/2011 - 2:29pm

It's my impression that teams run a lot more lengthy drives these days compared to the past and get fewer quick scores. I'm too lazy to figure how to do this myself, but I would be curious to see drives per game through the years.

45
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Tue, 10/18/2011 - 5:01pm

Well, they have to, because they've got longer fields to work with in general, because kickoffs and punts are much longer. It's really tough to say - give the modern offenses shorter fields, and you might think scoring would go up, but coupled with the shorter fields would mean much worse field goal kicking, so that scoring would go down.

But I don't think we can get that data easily because it doesn't really exist - PFR at least doesn't have it, although you might be able to derive a rough proxy from touchdowns, field goals, punts, and turnovers. Wouldn't be exact, though, and I don't think the effect is large, so it might wash out.

33
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 12:47pm

I should also point out that in actuality, if you just look at "non-FG related scoring" points/game would be way down - because field goal kicking has improved massively since the 1960s.

If you took today's kickers (which I think most people consider special teams, not offense) and put them in the first few Super Bowl years, you'd be talking about around 0.7 more field goals per game, or points/game on the order of 25 (!!).

34
by Led :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 12:53pm

"Passing, however, has been increasing dramatically over rushing. Since it's not leading to higher scoring games, and rules changes have in general favored the passing game, it means there's something else which is causing rushing to generally get less effective..."

This doesn't necessarily follow. A decline in rushing effectiveness could be explained by changes in style of offense to take advantage of pro-passing rules.

35
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 1:25pm

This doesn't necessarily follow. A decline in rushing effectiveness could be explained by changes in style of offense to take advantage of pro-passing rules.

Yeah, it's even more complicated than that, because special teams has also been radically changing since leg strength has been improving dramatically. Field goal scoring is way up, punting distance is slightly up, and kickoff distance is dramatically up. So in general offenses have a little longer to go for a touchdown, but less distance to go for a field goal.

Rushing hasn't really changed all that much on average, actually - it's just used less. However, my gut feeling there is that you'd need to look at rushing gains in similar situations, where rushing is preferable over passing (like, goal line situations or other short distance situations), and you'd probably find that rushing effectiveness in those situations is way down.

That's really what I meant, although I didn't specify it well at all - and that couldn't be explained by changes in offense, since I'm talking about situations where rushing is purely preferable (even with pro-passing rules). That would have to just be explained by a pure improvement in rushing defense.

My guess is that if you looked at "red zone TD%", it'd probably be very down from where it was in the 1960s. That's the only way I can think that scoring would stay constant while field goal efficiency is so much higher and passing efficiency is so much higher.

But that portion really is just a guess, because we don't have enough easy-access statistics from that era.

6
by OmrothLol (not verified) :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 1:22pm

I just think it's defenses being out of shape. It's much much more important for defenses to be in shape than offenses. This particularly crazy year will be a mild abomination because of the lockout.

8
by CraigoMcL (not verified) :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 2:07pm

If passing numbers had been lower this year, you'd be saying that it's much more important for offenses to be in shape.

More likely, it's probably important for professional athletes to be in shape no matter what position they play, and the lockout has nothing to do with this.

12
by Brendan Scolari :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 5:22pm

Defense is much more tiring than offense. Defenses sub quite a bit more because of fatigue, RB is really the only position that ever subs out for the same reason on offense. Defenses in general tend to wear down more as the game progresses.

(Not saying that I agree that the lockout has thrown off conditioning and caused the crazy passing. If this were true then I'd expect to see a corresponding increase in running as well. But the idea that defense takes more conditioning than offense wasn't pulled out of thin air.)

13
by OmrothLol (not verified) :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 6:42pm

Hey man, I really honestly believe defense is about conditioning and concentration and offense is about talent and scheme IN GENERAL, and have always believed it. Cool to disagree with me, but I would not be saying that in the situation you quote.

9
by Exy (not verified) :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 2:15pm

It's a little ironic that Brian Billick and Tony Dungy seem to be among those who are against the increase in passing offense.

19
by Jerry :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 2:45am

Just a little. Both did what coaches are supposed to, which is try to maximize what their players can do. Dungy in Tampa and Billick in Baltimore weren't as pass-happy as they were where they had more suitable talent. And it's entirely possible that now, when they're just watching and commenting, they don't like watching the game as currently played as much as they would if there were more emphasis on running.

10
by zlionsfan :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 2:54pm

I think five weeks into one season is a little early to be making claims that changes need to be made. Maybe we should let the current season play out, get into another season with actual practice and preseason, and then see if the defenses are still having trouble with passing. Maybe at that point, we can think about changes here or there.

11
by QQ (not verified) :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 3:01pm

Other than the standard "I wish things were like the Old Days" I do not see a good reason presented why more Passing is a Bad Thing. Simply because football was more based upon running in the past does not mean that that is how football should be played or is best played.

21
by BJR :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 5:22am

The thing is, whether it is traditionalism, nostalgia, or whatever, I do sense there is a growing concern from fans that perhaps there is too much offence - particularly passing. The fact that it is being discussed here, for example. And if the league decides that there is a majority consensus that too many 'easy' passing yards are spoiling the game, I do not think they will hesitate to make some changes.

28
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 11:50am

There's not too much offense - that's just silly fans. See above. Offense is basically "same as it ever was."

There may be too much passing, but I would be amazed if anyone could find a way to reign in passing without cutting down scoring way below historical norms. (Without massive changes, like weight limits, eliminate free substitution, limit number of defenders near the line of scrimmage, etc.).

14
by MJK :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 7:46pm

What's happening is more and more of the "3 yards and a cloud of dust... run to win!" coaches are retiring and younger, more savvy coaches that realize that passing is (usually) more likely to give you a benefit than running (as long as you don't do it every down) are taking over. Basically, the rules have favored passing for some time, but coaches are slow to deviate and realize it.

I don't like the ideas of increasing the "bump zone" to 10 yards, as it could impact safety, and it would fundamentally change a lot of strategy that I enjoy watching (the bunch formations that offenses use to beat LOS jams are really fun, but wouldn't work if you could bump guys further downfield, for example).

I would be in favor of being stricter on intentional grounding, as I don't like the "if you're out of the pocket, it only has to get to the LOS" nonsense. However, I don't see that rule every getting changed because it is in favor of QB safety...and we know how much the offense loves QB safety.

One thing that I think would work to counterbalance the improved enforcement of downfield contact (or, shall we call it, the "Polian Rule") would be to also improve the enforcement of offensive holding. Everyone agrees that holding happens on pretty much every play. If there were more flags, than linemen would start holding less and QB's would have less time to throw. And the risk of passing increases, bringing running balance back. Of course, that is also going to decrease QB safety, so I don't see it happening. But the advantage is that the rule is already there, so you woulnd't have to change anything...just enforce rules that are currently written.

15
by Cro-mags (not verified) :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 8:31pm

I have to wonder how much of these rule changes have been enacted because more points and offense brings in more casual fans and revenue.

29
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 11:53am

I have to wonder how much of these rule changes have been enacted because more points and offense brings in more casual fans and revenue.

There was more scoring in 1967 per game than there was in 2010.

I have no idea where the "the NFL wants more points!" myth comes from.

16
by Led :: Sun, 10/16/2011 - 9:09pm

"I don't like the ideas of increasing the "bump zone" to 10 yards, as it could impact safety, and it would fundamentally change a lot of strategy that I enjoy watching (the bunch formations that offenses use to beat LOS jams are really fun, but wouldn't work if you could bump guys further downfield, for example)."

See, I don't find that kind of offense fun or interesting at all, and I've watched increasingly less college football over time because of it. Anything that encourages more downfield routes, athletic play and less horizontal stuff would be an improvement. It's funny -- I despised the Cowboys in the 1990's but they were great at what I think is the most fun, aesthetically pleasing offense to watch. I like the SD offense, too. And I think Al Davis (RIP) was foolish for not adapting to the current rules of the game, but I sympathize with his preferences. It's all taste, obviously. De gustibus and all that.

20
by Eggwasp (not verified) :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 3:02am

The bump zone isn't 10 yards?

Raider DB

22
by BJR :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 5:56am

The problem here is, the League's main concern is to appeal to it's fans. Fans do not want to see more penalty flags. Sure, I understand that if O-Linemen were flagged more for holding they would be forced to adjust, but it would make some games very difficult to watch in the meantime. And that is even before we get to QB safety.

As somebody said above, the critical point here is downfield contact between defenders and receivers. Nothing has more of an effect IMO. Right now it seems there is nothing a defender can do to defend any semi-accurate pass other than allow a receiver the catch then hope to somehow dislodge it. Maybe that's the way the game was supposed be played; but then we shouldn't be surprised at accurate QBs putting up huge numbers. I'd like to see some subtle change to allow defenders more of a chance to compete for the ball in the air, although I accept it is difficult to articulate and enforce, and very subjective.

Having said all that about less flags, one relatively minor area I would like to see the rules tightened up on are immediate 15 yard unsportsmanlike penalties called on receivers (or QBs for that matter) for berating officials to call PI fouls, or for performing that awful 'flag throwing' gesture upon an incompletion. I've noticed that creep into the game a lot recently and it stinks. Take up soccer if you want to flounce around and whine at officials.

24
by RichC (not verified) :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 9:39am

The rules allow the defender to compete for the ball in the air. The rules give the defender an equal right to the ball as the receiver.

Unfortunately, the officials seem to rule otherwise.

26
by Joseph :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 11:44am

Totally agree on your last point, BJR. When the 3rd or 4th receiver is whining for a flag because he didn't catch the ball on 3rd down, it's time to tighten up the rules.
(Aside: I liked the idea that my son's flag youth league [8 yrs and under] had. If even the COACH complained about the officiating, it was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. In one game, the other team's head coach was ejected and afterward the league fined him $1,000. Our head coach told us that the only reason he was fined that amount was because it was the maximum they could fine him (i.e., they would have fined him more for his temper-tantrum if they could have). I believe they also suspended him for the rest of the year and threatened him with permanent expulsion.)
BRING BACK GOOD SPORTSMANSHIP!!

23
by Jimmy :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 7:52am

It is too early to worry about this season as others have said it has been a strange year for the NFL so it would be a rash decision to make a change based on six games. What I would like is a bit of perspective to be used when looking at statistics for QBs passing pre and post Polian's rattle throwing. IIRC most of the top ten passing seasons by DYAR have been put up since the rule change. Maybe it is because of the rule change and not because Brady/Manning etc aren't actually higher evolution mutant football players.

25
by Jerry P. :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 11:05am

Reduce the play clock to 25 seconds and give the offense less time to shift around and make the defense dance pre-snap.

Offense is reduced without having to go back on player-safety related changes. Pace of the game increases but offenses get less time to read the defense pre-snap. Emphasis is placed on play execution rather than confusing the defense by changing 4 guys around on every play before the snap.

Call me anytime NFL. You need me.

32
by Bernie (not verified) :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 12:23pm

If passing is allowing teams to move the ball too easily, then leave all the rules as they are, and reduce the downs from 4 to 3. It works perfectly for the CFL. Scoring is still high in the CFL, and offenses still move the ball well. Plus it would require more strategy to run out games, given there's one less down to milk the clock.
Given that the field is narrower than a CFL field, it would require offenses to really buckle down and work hard again.

36
by petenorm (not verified) :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 2:42pm

God no! Don't ever mention that idea again. I hate the CFL, it's always a damn punting contest.

I say we leave it as it is. The NFL seems to move in a cycle a lot. Who knows what strategy will make the run come back stronger in a near (or not so near) future. Evolution and change in the league is one of the thing that makes the NFL interesting. There is no perfect recipe to win. You have to adapt and find new ways to win.

37
by Will Allen :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 3:59pm

I do dislike the ease with which qbs can avoid sacks by getting outside the pocket and tossing the ball at the cheerleaders, but anything which makes it harder for qbs to avoid sacks or ints would likely increase qb injuries, which would be a bad outcome.

I do miss dominant running attacks, but I don't know if there is a good solution. Of course I grew in the time which was the real anomaly, from 1970 to 1978, so perhaps I'm being unduly nostalgic.

38
by Will Allen :: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 4:01pm

I'll note, however, that I think limited substitution football would be fun. It'll never happen, of course.

39
by Stravinsky (not verified) :: Tue, 10/18/2011 - 1:31am

Isn't it this site that regularly says the way to win is pass early, build a lead and then run the ball to kill the clock? Especially after an empty headed commentator claims you have to run to win?

So now that NFL coaches are following the advice of this site and passing to build a lead, we're complaining and saying we need to go back to 1975 and pound the ball between the tackles all game?

Teams don't run because there's nowhere to run. Defensive linemen are too big and too strong, the linebackers are too fast and too big, and defensive coordinators too skilled at run stopping for any offense to have consistent success on the ground. Cripes D-lineman are pushing 400 pounds. How big do your O-linemen need to be to push a 400 pound guy out of the way? The O-line and D-line guys are getting so big there's no room for the running backs to run.

Big rushing totals nowadays come from a handful of big gains. The majority of running plays go nowhere. Teams who run the ball on 1st and second down usually end up in 3rd and long unless they break a big one.

If you want to increase rushing then either reduce the size of the defensive linemen, restrict the number of men the D can put on the line or eliminate free substitution - you start the game with 11 defensive players and 11 offensive players and you keep playing them, if anyone comes out they're out for the rest of the half. That will get rid of the 400 pounders and get more athletic players on the field. I'd even suggest making the guys play both ways again with no substitution allowed.

41
by Eddo :: Tue, 10/18/2011 - 10:47am

"Isn't it this site that regularly says the way to win is pass early, build a lead and then run the ball to kill the clock? Especially after an empty headed commentator claims you have to run to win?

"So now that NFL coaches are following the advice of this site and passing to build a lead, we're complaining and saying we need to go back to 1975 and pound the ball between the tackles all game?"

Yes, "this site" often says that. But FO analyzes how teams win in the modern NFL, not if it's aesthetically pleasing.

That's the big difference. There are people who would aesthetically prefer a more balanced offensive attack, and they're trying to come up with rule changes that make the current frequency of passing less efficient.

40
by Nathan :: Tue, 10/18/2011 - 10:00am

Wow some of the suggestions here are just insane. Talk about overreaction.

42
by BigWoody (not verified) :: Tue, 10/18/2011 - 1:29pm

OK, here's an insane (and probably not well thought out) suggestion. Intsead of adjusting rules to limit passing, adjust some to free up rushing. ALLOW down field holding on running plays, for example.

43
by BigWoody (not verified) :: Tue, 10/18/2011 - 1:33pm

*Instead

Channeled my inner RJ there.