Quarterbacks and the Progression of Air Yards

Quarterbacks and the Progression of Air Yards
Quarterbacks and the Progression of Air Yards
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

So far this season, new starting quarterbacks have been a huge storyline. Eight teams have already given a quarterback his first start with the team through three weeks. Some of the situations are connected, like how Brock Osweiler's move to Houston prompted the rise of Trevor Siemian in Denver. Teddy Bridgewater's injury in Minnesota led to the trade for Sam Bradford, which opened the door for rookie Carson Wentz in Philadelphia. We also have rookie Dak Prescott replacing an injured Tony Romo in Dallas, and Brian Hoyer has had to step in for an ailing Jay Cutler in Chicago. Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett made their starting debuts in New England due to Tom Brady's suspension, and naturally Cleveland is involved with rookie Cody Kessler as the current starter.

So many new faces, and yet the No. 1 pick in the draft has yet to take a snap for the Los Angeles Rams. While Jared Goff's time will come, we are trying to learn what we can about these young quarterbacks given the limited data that is available so far. Siemian and Wentz were just named the Offensive Player of the Week in their respective conferences. The two also share something else in common: a high volume of short throws.

Air yards are the average distance each pass travels beyond the line of scrimmage. As of Week 3, Siemian (6.85) and Wentz (6.86) rank in the bottom three for average air yards, sandwiched between Philip Rivers (6.55) and Alex Smith (7.08). The league average is roughly 8.5. Last season, the correlation between air yards in the first three weeks of the year and air yards for the entire season was 0.80.

Generally, air yards are a stat where you don't want to rank at the bottom, because that is where many ineffective passers dwell, including Blaine Gabbert. That preference for short throws often extends to crucial downs, which is why these quarterbacks tend to do poorly in ALEX and attacking the sticks. However, it is not preferable to rank at the very top in air yards either, because that is how "screw it, I'm going deep" players such as Michael Vick, Tim Tebow, Vince Young and Rex Grossman have earned their reputation as inefficient passers. The ideal quarterback would rank a little above the average, capable of effectively mixing in a variety of passes from screens to bombs, and everything in between.

Today, our interest is not in projecting the future for these young quarterbacks after three games, but to go over the collection of data on the veterans with whom we are very familiar. Earlier this week, I was asked on Twitter if a quarterback's air yards increase over time. Before looking at the numbers, I had an inkling that there would be more decreases over time, as quarterbacks figure out which throws they can get away with in the NFL. Unfortunately, it is not as if we have consistent data to study the full careers of many recent quarterbacks. Air yards are notorious for having different calculation methods depending on the source of the data. At Football Outsiders, we can go back to the 2006 season with our refined charting data, using the same dataset we use for passing plus-minus, which removes passes that were intentionally thrown away, batted down or when the quarterback was hit in motion.

I gathered that yearly data on 21 quarterbacks with at least four years of starting experience, all of whom are still active starters this year except for the retired Peyton Manning. The following table shows their average air yards by year for the period of 2006 to 2015. The final "AVG" column is an average of the averages, which means each season is weighed equally. In addition to seasons nullified by injury, I also removed any season with fewer than 100 pass attempts. This only applied to Tom Brady (2008), Aaron Rodgers (2006-07), and Matthew Stafford (2010). The season highlighted in green is the highest average season for that quarterback, and the one in red is the lowest average.

Quarterbacks: Average Air Yards, 2006-2015
Quarterback 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 AVG
Cam Newton - - - - - 9.48 9.82 9.33 10.01 10.83 9.89
Andrew Luck - - - - - - 10.34 8.21 8.96 10.05 9.39
Ben Roethlisberger 9.54 10.02 9.36 9.18 9.66 9.52 8.66 8.57 8.85 10.32 9.37
Carson Palmer 10.10 9.50 7.51 8.61 8.65 10.70 8.42 9.44 9.04 11.05 9.30
Eli Manning 8.73 9.14 9.12 9.21 9.21 9.84 9.85 9.66 8.61 7.82 9.12
Jay Cutler 10.74 8.66 9.34 8.24 9.27 8.94 10.40 9.41 7.47 8.55 9.10
Russell Wilson - - - - - - 9.66 9.54 8.11 8.76 9.02
Joe Flacco - - 8.99 8.79 9.24 9.47 10.15 9.44 8.57 7.39 9.01
Peyton Manning 9.89 9.09 8.83 8.60 8.59 - 8.52 8.00 8.66 9.65 8.87
Ryan Fitzpatrick - - 8.01 9.46 9.65 7.82 7.94 8.64 8.81 9.56 8.74
Aaron Rodgers - - 9.60 9.01 9.21 9.12 8.06 8.42 8.27 7.98 8.71
Ryan Tannehill - - - - - - 8.78 9.54 7.75 8.75 8.71
Philip Rivers 9.24 8.82 8.92 10.09 8.75 9.35 7.76 7.82 8.51 7.38 8.66
Andy Dalton - - - - - 8.60 8.75 8.70 7.99 9.02 8.61
Tony Romo 10.79 9.01 9.20 7.91 7.51 7.75 8.82 7.97 9.18 7.17 8.53
Tom Brady 8.25 8.80 - 8.77 7.78 8.21 8.95 8.44 8.04 8.05 8.36
Matt Ryan - - 9.45 8.65 8.49 8.98 8.12 6.90 7.95 8.00 8.32
Matthew Stafford - - - 8.30 - 8.47 8.83 8.66 8.11 6.77 8.19
Drew Brees 7.77 7.15 8.47 8.61 7.97 7.89 8.71 8.11 8.12 7.97 8.08
Sam Bradford - - - - 6.75 9.24 8.56 6.92 - 7.14 7.72
Alex Smith 8.37 9.78 - 7.46 7.70 7.75 7.78 6.81 5.97 6.87 7.61

If there was a most predictable outcome here, it would be Alex Smith and Sam Bradford throwing the shortest passes on average. Let's go over the findings in different sections.

The Range

The average range of air yards for this group was 2.22 yards when looking at the difference between the highest and lowest season. No one has been more consistent than Andy Dalton, with a range of 1.03 and standard deviation of 0.38. Tom Brady is right there with him with a range of 1.17 and standard deviation of 0.40. Despite Brady's long-time reputation for running a dink-and-dunk offense, his air yards have always been above 8.0 outside of 2010, when he just dipped down to 7.78.

If you know my work well, you know I like to group Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger as the five best quarterbacks in this era. All five of them have a standard deviation of 0.60 or lower, and only Dalton and Cam Newton join them. Meanwhile, Alex Smith (1.07), Tony Romo (1.08), Carson Palmer, (1.09) and Sam Bradford (1.11) are the only quarterbacks with a standard deviation greater than 1.0.

What could be the cause of that? I want to say more than just being a consistent player. The low deviation group has largely had the benefit of staying with the same head coach on the same team since 2006. Only Manning from that group changed teams and coaches, but until his final season, he usually ran his brand of offense regardless. This covers a span of two head coaches and three offensive coordinators for Roethlisberger, but he too has always kind of done his own thing. Meanwhile, Smith, Palmer, and Bradford have gone through multiple teams, coaches, coordinators and injuries as starters. While those changes may have been less frequent had they played better more consistently, the system obviously has an impact on air yards.

The Lowest Season

Sam Bradford, as a 2010 rookie, was the only quarterback to have his lowest air yards season in his first year on the table. In fact, the only other quarterbacks with their lowest season in the second year listed are Andrew Luck (2013) and Brees (2007), the latter of whom was in his seventh NFL season at the time. Our sample is obviously biased towards successful careers, but given that success is the goal, it is probably a good sign if the young quarterback is getting the ball down the field.

I found it interesting that Joe Flacco (2015), Palmer (2008), and Romo (2015) had their lowest seasons in years they were seriously injured. Then again, that can probably be explained by the shortened season not allowing the quarterback to build up reliable data with his usual sample size of passes. Romo's second-lowest season (2010) was also one in which he broke his collarbone and missed 10 games.

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One could also argue the worst statistical season for seven of these quarterbacks -- Dalton (2014), Brees (2007), Wilson (2014), Rodgers (2015), Flacco (2015), Palmer (2008), and Romo (2015) -- happened during their lowest air yards season. On the other hand, Ryan Tannehill (2014) had his best season with his shortest passes, while Peyton Manning broke many records in Denver in 2013 with what was an abnormal YAC-based offense for him. Brady's best season was 2007, but he also won an MVP award for his 2010 season. That year's drop in air yards can be explained by the in-season trade of Randy Moss, and the move towards an underneath passing offense led by Wes Welker and rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Overall, the lowest air yards season was usually not showcasing these quarterbacks at their best. Two offensive coordinators tried to help undo the lack of protection issues provided by Bruce Arians' style of offense. In Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger's two lowest seasons (2012 and 2013) were the first two years with Todd Haley taking over as offensive coordinator, as Haley wanted to get the ball out quicker. In Indianapolis, Pep Hamilton reunited with Andrew Luck from their Stanford days, but the 2013 results were not as impressive, and Luck has already moved on to his third coordinator (Rob Chudzinski).

Some other coordinator changes have been more instantly effective. Eli Manning's two lowest seasons are 2014 and 15 after switching to Ben McAdoo's system, and that will likely continue with McAdoo as the head coach now. Matthew Stafford has also adopted more of the dink-and-dunk from offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, though as we looked at in the offseason, Stafford was already playing like this before the coaching switch last year. For better or worse, all three of Alex Smith's lowest seasons have been since he went to Kansas City in Andy Reid's offense.

The talent around these quarterbacks can also explain some of the lowest seasons. Is it any surprise that Rivers' air yards have gone down since he has lost Vincent Jackson, and Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd got old? Matt Ryan's 2013 can likely be explained by Julio Jones 11-game absence, as well as the sudden decline of Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez playing on his last legs. Seattle's trade for Percy Harvin threatened to ruin the offense in 2014 with Russell Wilson not taking as many deep shots as he should.

Then there are two seemingly random cases: Jay Cutler (2014) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (2011) took the air out of the ball in familiar systems. In Cutler's case, he still had Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, but checked down to Marc Trestman's delight for a record number of receptions (102) to running back Matt Forte that season.

The Highest Season

When looking at the highest air yards seasons, we find six quarterbacks who came out firing in their first season as a starter: Cutler (2006), Romo (2006), Rodgers (2008), Ryan (2008), Luck (2012), and Wilson (2012). Peyton Manning was in his ninth year in 2006, which I still consider his greatest season; that season also gave him the highest average air yards of his last decade in the NFL.

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Three of our study's quarterbacks enjoyed their best statistical season in 2015, and it was the deepest they had ever thrown the ball, too. We are of course talking about Newton, Palmer, and Dalton. Bruce Arians has been great for Palmer in Arizona, while Newton won MVP last year with No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin missing the entire season due to a torn ACL. Dalton displayed an increased level of efficiency, though as mentioned above, he still kept his passes close to his usual depth level. Roethlisberger was a fourth quarterback to have his highest air yards in 2015, and while it was not his best overall season, one could argue it was his most impressive from a purely physical throwing standpoint. There is also an argument that Rivers had the best season of his career in 2009 when he had the highest DVOA (41.7%) and air yards of his career.

Likely just a coincidence, but a third of the list had their highest season in 2012, including Brees' lone year with head coach Sean Payton suspended, and Flacco's Super Bowl season. Peyton Manning (2006) was the only other player to win a Super Bowl in his highest (listed) air yards season, though he likely had a larger number sometime during the period of 1998 to 2005.

Finally, there are the cases of Smith and Bradford, each of whom had his highest air yards season in the second listed year (the third NFL season for Smith). Yes, believe it or not, but Smith was not always ALEX in San Francisco. His air yards were quite high at 9.78 in 2007, albeit in seven games that season. It would have been interesting to see him in Mike Martz's system in 2008, but he missed that entire season with a shoulder injury. My theory on Smith has been that upon his return in 2009, he took on a much more conservative playing approach for fear of losing his job again should he throw too many interceptions. With the team building up a better defense, this began to work, and it really took off when the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh as head coach in 2011. Smith's numbers dropped in interception rate and ALEX, while he took more sacks and was content with settling for field goals. He has continued this style with Reid in Kansas City, though a conservative offense can only go so far in January.

Bradford would just like to see a postseason start, though he has his best chance now on a 3-0 Vikings team. In St. Louis and Philadelphia, his offenses were inept, but that 9.24 air yards really stands out from 2011. The most interesting part is that Josh McDaniels was the offensive coordinator. Instead of bringing some of the shotgun-spread from his New England days, that offense tried to throw downfield to Brandon Lloyd and Danario Alexander. The result was the No. 32 offense in DVOA, and a career-worst sack rate (9.2 percent) for Bradford, as well as a high ankle sprain that limited him to 10 games. Now running Norv Turner's offense in Minnesota, Bradford's air yards are low again at 7.51, and his sack rate is 9.2 percent through two starts. Much like Smith, Bradford will rely on the defense to make this formula work.


While some very good quarterbacks have entered the league since 2006, we still have a small sample size of consistent starters with several seasons' worth of data to study. It could easily take another decade before we can more definitively conclude anything about how air yards progress over a quarterback's career. Just with this look at 21 quarterbacks, we ran into issues with players such as Manning and Brady having several years of experience by the time their first data point appeared.

One reasonable conclusion is that air yards do not tend to increase over time. From the 14 quarterbacks with at least eight years of data, we observed a gradual decline from 9.11 yards in the first year to 8.33 yards in the eighth year. But again, this includes a mixture of players at various career points rather than seasons 1-to-8 of their careers. As a quarterback ages, expectations would be for him to not get as much air on the deep ball, and perhaps to get rid of the ball faster to avoid taking more hits that become harder to overcome with age.

It is essential to continue studying this data, because air yards provide context for a quarterback's performance, including his relationships with different receivers and schemes. Only time will tell what kind of passers these young quarterbacks are going to become.


30 comments, Last at 05 Oct 2016, 11:26pm

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 30, 2016 - 4:56pm

Remind me, is air yards the average of all pass completions, or the average of all pass attempts?

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#2 by commissionerleaf // Sep 30, 2016 - 5:13pm

Peyton Manning's greatest season was either 2009 or 2010.

In 2009 he completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 7.8 yards per attempt, and completed 7 fourth quarter comebacks and 7 game winning drives according to PFR. He dragged a team with 8-8 talent to 14-2 and the Super Bowl.

In 2010 he threw for a then-career-best 4700 yards, on a team that was, for the most part, the same squad that went 2-14 a year later (except that the offense was healthier in 2011 when they were utterly useless). This team went 10-6 and made the playoffs.

Goddamnit Donald!

I absolutely understand the impulse to go for 2006; 2006 was a much better team and seemed effortless often enough, on the way to a Super Bowl win. But in terms of personal achievement against adversity, no quarterback has ever put together a more impressive 2 year stretch than Manning's last two in Indy.

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#3 by JohnxMorgan // Sep 30, 2016 - 6:47pm

I first encountered air yards at Advanced NFL Stats. Brian Burke found that run after the catch very little correlated with the quarterback and correlated much more strongly with the receiver. His rankings of quarterbacks as measured by air yards didn't produce, at least intuitively, an accurate measure of a quarterback's ability. Mostly measuring surrounding talent, nature of the offensive system the quarterback played in, and (I would guess) stuff like ratio and amount of snaps played while substantially behind (and, maybe, predilection toward heaving deep passes), it ranked Rex Grossman highly and Tom Brady poorly. As I remember it, anyway.

But his analysis of who accounts for air yards versus who accounts for run after the catch seemed solid and instructive, only I think the wrong question was being asked. And so I've long wanted to create a new metric but I just do not have the resources to do so: air success. The metric would measure the percentage of passes that were already "successful" (given the classic definition of "improving a team's expected points") at the point of the catch. If quarterbacks can neither throw a receiver into yards after the catch nor know which target is likely to achieve yards after the catch--both suppositions being natural extensions of the fact that yards after catch correlates very poorly with quarterbacks game-to-game and season-to-season--then, presumably, a quarterback is successful if his pass is caught far enough from the line of scrimmage as to be successful already, regardless of where the receiver finally ends up.

I've never seen this analyzed. I would do the legwork myself if I could access the information, and, if Brian's original analysis holds, I think air success might be a new, innovative and highly informative metric which might finally loosen that Gordian knot of how much should we credit passing success to the quarterback and how much should we credit passing success to the surrounding talent.

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#11 by Scott Kacsmar // Oct 01, 2016 - 8:00am

The closest thing I've seen to what you're talking about is what I did with Expected Failed Completions


Particularly the Short% metric.

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#4 by Denverite // Sep 30, 2016 - 7:35pm

You really should take out designed screens when calculating air yards. The QBs really have no say in whether they're run (unless they audible into them), and they'll kill the air yards average.

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#21 by lightsout85 // Oct 02, 2016 - 6:00pm

That's why I prefer some sort of "% of passes ___+ yards downfield", if we're looking to measure how often a QB goes "deep". A QB who throws a significant number of screens could actually throw deep more often than one who just throws a lot of short/medium passes (but has a higher AirY/C). If you're content with using the NFL's play-by-play designation of 15 yards+ as "deep", then this method also lets you use all pass attempts, not just completions (which air/YAC methods are limited to, if you're using publicly available data. And since deeper passes are less likely to be complete, I imagine AirY/C doesn't accurately represent (the systems of) vertical-QBs who just aren't that accurate).

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#5 by carybird // Sep 30, 2016 - 7:57pm

Air yards have decreased over time for these QBs, but the league has also become more dink + dunk. I don't think that's the only reason why air yards have decreased; it's probably also due to normal QB development. But for rookies coming into the league in 2016, a lot of them are already coming into heavy dink + dunk offenses, which was not likely the case back in 2006. So I'm not sure we can assume that new QBs will see the same kind of decrease in air yards. For example Wentz, who I'm guessing was a big motivation for this study, judging on Scott's twitter feed-- he's in an offense that's clearly designed for dink and dunkage. Doug Pederson comes from the WCO/Andy Reid school, ie, lots of screens and short passes. This doesn't necessarily explain the poor ALEX, nor is it meant to excuse him... I'm just saying that at least from what I've seen (which is far from extensive), that offense seems to be designed for D+D. Almost too much imo, considering that Wentz has shown both a strong arm and a willingness to stand in the pocket, but it's working up to this point so w/e.

Other thoughts:
-This only reinforces the fact that Palmer without a doubt should have been mvp last year. 11 air yards- highest on the list if I'm not mistaken. He was going deep consistently but was doing it with the efficiency of a short game.

-Interesting how Ben is consistently high even from the start of his career- shows his ability to continually find big plays (also probably in part the BA effect)

-Surprised Drew Brees is so low

-Curious what Peyton's numbers pre 2006 were. Prob very high, if I had to guess.

-Very surprised Tom Brady's best year was 2012. I wonder what his success was throwing deep that year? Because I do not remember being impressed with him that year, seemed like a lot of big plays were screens and crossing routes. And I know his y/a and comp pct were a little low that year as well.

-Also would be very curious to see TB pre 2006. I've always wondered if he threw the ball deep more / was better at it in his early days. Prob not 01 brady, but like, 03-05 wouldn't be surprised if he did.

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#6 by ramirez // Sep 30, 2016 - 8:23pm

Yeah, I've always felt that air yards v. YAC was mostly due to the quality of the WR personnel, as well as the playbook. Guys like Rodgers and Rivers have produced fewer air yards since the start of last season, but I think that's because of injuries and turnover in the WR corps. It's probably not a reflection of a QBs skill level. Brady is often knocked for high YAC numbers, but look he's throwing to. Since Moss left, the Patriots best receivers have been Gronk, Welker, Edelman, and Hernandez. When you're mostly throwing to guys like that, you're not going to get a lot of air yards. I'm also surprised that Brady grades out better in 2012 than 2007. 2012 was the year Brandon Lloyd was on the team, and he was their most consistent deep threat. Also, Brady had good air yards numbers in 2004, and was throwing deep pretty consistently in 2003, particularly in the SB against Carolina.

Does anyone know why Brees ranks below Brady? I would have thought New Orleans runs a much more vertical passing game than the Patriots.

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#8 by Denverite // Sep 30, 2016 - 10:40pm

This is what I was saying above. Teams that run a lot of designed screens are going to have a low air yards number, and all it means is that they throw a lot of screens.

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#12 by Scott Kacsmar // Oct 01, 2016 - 8:13am

I always thought the Saints did a great job of attacking the whole field, but there is no doubt that they loved throwing to the RBs too. The Pierre Thomas screen was a bread-and-butter play for that offense. I want to say Brees was routinely completing 120+ passes to backs per season. That's a lot. It is also no surprise that Matthew Stafford has become like that in recent years. Joe Lombardi was the OC in 2014-15 (until that Cooter snatched the job), and he came from New Orleans. The system really matters, but I would hope each team would design a system to best fit the QB's skillset.

As for removing screens, I don't get why we should do that. Sure, if you want to remove them, and call the stat adjusted air yards, then that's fine. But for the sake of general air yards, they should be included. If a QB throws a lot of screens, we should know that about his playing style. We should know they're calling more of those in favor of passes that are generally more productive. Not that many screens pop for big gains, but the fact that some do, and that they are such easy completions, makes them an attractive option for teams.

2015 screen counts - https://twitter.com/FO_ScottKacsmar/status/780504812236537857

We have screen data separated neatly in the charting data. I could tell you which teams use them the most or least, and what the DVOA is. Maybe we should be doing an article on that at some point. I think this idea that only certain QBs throw screens well enough to maximize YAC is inaccurate, just because the throws are so short, it's not hard for any QB to complete a high rate of them. I also know from my catch radius studies that receivers are really good at adjusting quickly to a ball, even if it's off target.

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#14 by Denverite // Oct 01, 2016 - 10:51am

Thanks for the reply! I think you should have an adjusted air yards number that excludes screens because they're designed low-air-yard plays where the QB usually has no control over where he's going to throw the ball. Including them is like including running plays but assigning a 0 air-yard through it. A running team that runs a lot would have a very low air yards number, but all it would say is that it runs a lot. Ditto a screen-heavy team (to a much lesser extent, of course). An adjusted air yards score would say a lot more about whether a QB -- when he drops back to pass with multiple options -- is more likely to check down and take the easy pass, or whether he's more likely to air it out.

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#23 by Aaron Brooks G… // Oct 03, 2016 - 11:33am

"As for removing screens, I don't get why we should do that."

Because you use the air yards stat as an implicit method to determine which QBs are Captains Checkdown. With screens, though, you have a one-receiver (maybe 2) route whose planned target is behind the LOS. It's not settling for a shorter pass, it's a short pass by play design. Indeed, throwing a pass with positive air yards is frequently illegal under the play design.

Basically, it's an orange mixed in with your apple sampler pack.

Points: 0

#9 by eagleinzona // Sep 30, 2016 - 11:22pm

Hello Scott,

Before you read the rest of this, I want to say that I was reading all of the respective tweets between you and Kempski the other day ... and this question didn't seem to be answered by either of you ... If any QB attempts deep passes - say with a average air length of 30 yards per throw (does that sound about right?) and those passes are NOT completed but ARE THROWN well - yes, I am talking about the Wentz uncaught passes for potential touchdowns - how does that factor in?

For example, I threw the ball 35 yards in the air but it didn't get caught even though the throw was accurate - I'll assume that we can all say that an accurate pass is one that is in the mid-section of a receiver but dropped - how does that affect this stat?

What I am really trying to determine is just how good Wentz is versus just how bad the eagles receivers are - or perhaps how bad the receivers coach is. I fully agree that the scheme for Wentz has been towards quick release passes, which I think would naturally lead to a lower air yards - is there a correlation there? - but there have also been schemes - usually right after a turnover from the defense - where a deep pass is called for and has not been caught.

Simply put, I am trying to make sense of the data I have available to me.

One other item - folks like Ben Morris at 538 seem to argue the gunslinger (no risk it, no biscuit) theory for QBs - i.e. if they're not throwing interceptions down the field then they are not taking ENOUGH chances for deep passes - what are your thoughts on that idea?

I appreciate the work that you do and hope you can answer some of the questions


Points: 0

#13 by Scott Kacsmar // Oct 01, 2016 - 8:24am

First, I think the concept of "deep pass" gets overblown. The NFL actually defines a deep pass as anything greater than 15 yards down the field. When I say I like a vertical passing game and give QBs more credit for running one, I'm not thinking about 30-40 yard bombs. I would just like to see more passes thrown in the 11-20 yard range more than anything. I also like attacking the 21-35 range more than just throwing it up 40+ yards, because the latter is getting into jump ball territory.

But when we're talking about a stat like air yards, it doesn't matter how well the ball was thrown. Just as if a piss-poor throw was still caught for a 20-yard gain, that's still going to go down as a 20-yard gain. These are just general statistics. Now in game charting, that pass might get marked as underthrown, overthrown or something else to let us know it was inaccurate. If it was thrown well and dropped, then we would mark that as a drop. Then depending on the metric, we would probably give the QB credit for the drop in something like passing plus-minus. So drop-adjusted passing plus-minus is a stat that can help a lot of this Wentz stuff, but we need our charting to be on the mark to calculate that, and it's a little difficult to get done in season. But we're trying.

I'm not really sure what to think of the gunslinger theory, but I know I'm less likely to freak out over interceptions than most analysts. It's more about avoiding the crucial ones that really cost your team the win. I also think the fact that many of the low INT% passers are also low in air yards is relevant. If you're used to throwing shorter, safer passes, then naturally your INT% should be lower. That's why I don't get too impressed with the INT% for Smith, Bradford, and even Brady. There is a huge WCO/dink-and-dunk influence when you look at the leaderboard for lowest INT%. Not to mention this era is the lowest ever for picks with all of the short throws.

Points: 0

#15 by ramirez // Oct 01, 2016 - 11:53am

I like Dendrite's idea for an adjusted air yards metric. When you look at how guys like Brady, Brees, Rivers and Rodgers have seen their air yards rates go up and down throughout their careers, it seems that the results have a lot to do with who they are throwing to, and which plays are being called. I don't understand how Brady is supposed to put up big air yards totals when he's throwing to TEs and slot receivers. But when he's had someone who consistently goes deep, his air yards go up.

As for INTs, sure, it's easier to avoid them when you're throwing short. But Brady has maintained low INT rates in seasons like 2007 and 2012 as well. And the guy with the best INT numbers is Rodgers, and I don't think anyone would accuse him of always using a dink and dunk style. I suspect there's a fundamental difference between when someone like Smith or Cassel maintains a low INT rate and a high rate of YAC, and on the other hand, when someone like Rodgers or Brady does it.

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#24 by Aaron Brooks G… // Oct 03, 2016 - 11:40am

I'm not sure the air yards for TEs is as low as you think it is.

Gronkowski and Julio Jones had the same air yard per target last year.

Those TE seam routes tend to be 10-20 yards routes. There are WRs who are higher, but a lot of them are boom-bust pure fly route guys.

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#10 by theslothook // Oct 01, 2016 - 3:18am

So one of the articles I hope to post as a guest next year is an analysis of yac and whether qbs affect it. Along the way, I realized how much yac was conditioned on context like down and distance, opponent, game script, etc

Have to think air yards are too

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#16 by KarloVonDethron // Oct 01, 2016 - 1:44pm

So Rodgers was in the study, but barely mentioned in the analysis. His worst year for this stat was last year, and for the first two games of this year he was in the basement as well. But, I've also seen some analysts knock Rodgers for holding the ball too long looking for the big play. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on those points. First time posting, Thanks for all the great work, really enjoy it!!

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#17 by Scott Kacsmar // Oct 01, 2016 - 1:53pm

Rodgers missed out on all the deep bombs, especially off play-action, to Jordy Nelson last year. They're usually good for a couple of 50+ yard TDs each season on that play. In the second half of the year, a screen to James Starks looked like their best pass play. It was sad to watch.

Overall, I'd group Rodgers in with McNabb, Steve Young and Russell Wilson as athletic quarterbacks in systems with WCO roots, but they all can throw it deep too. They keep interceptions down by lots of scrambling and taking sacks rather than forcing some throws. Not saying there's anything wrong with that, but I think that helps explain their low INTs.

Points: 0

#25 by Aaron Brooks G… // Oct 03, 2016 - 11:48am

Isn't your bete noir, Mr. A. Smith, also in that category?

Incidentally -- it's easy to forget that Alex Smith was an Urban Meyer QB. Just because he looks gangly and white doesn't mean he wasn't a running QB.

Smith's running profile was more like that or Josh Harris, Tim Tebow, Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones than it was like John Brantley, or even Chris Leak.

Points: 0

#22 by bobrulz // Oct 03, 2016 - 1:19am

Rodgers was forced to play with receivers who simply couldn't get separation down the field, forcing him to dump off more often than normal, even after holding the ball for a while.

Points: 0

#19 by ClavisRa // Oct 01, 2016 - 10:21pm

Air yards is never going to be a very meaningful measure of a QB, ever. At best it can be the basis for further investigation as to why the number is particularly high or low.

Ten yards gets a first down. That's the fundamental driver of all offensive schemes. The goal is to get first downs with consistency. The so-called short passing game should be the primary threat of any good offense. Once the defense has to commit to stopping that, the challenge is on the offense to take advantage of the opportunities that will provide, either in the running game, or with deeper passes. Runs should be more consistent than passes.

Therefore the best QBs running the best offenses will be throwing lots of quick passes that can or nearly can pick up first downs, with a mix of longer passes and runs that will primarily depend, not on the quality of the QB, but on the ability of the offensive line to run block, or receivers to get open 'deep'.

Points: 0

#26 by Scott Kacsmar // Oct 03, 2016 - 2:47pm

For reference, or a little addendum, I just wanted to share this list of the QB seasons with the lowest air yards (all under 7.5 on 200+ attempts) from 2006-2015. Sorry for the ID tags instead of names, but I think you guys can figure them out.

SmithAle05-QB 5.97 2014
CarrDav02 6.10 2006
BradfordSam10 6.75 2010
HarringtonJoe02 6.75 2007
StaffordMat09 6.77 2015
ClausenJim10 6.79 2010
HenneCha08 6.79 2013
SmithAle05-QB 6.81 2013
KitnaJon96 6.86 2010
SmithAle05-QB 6.87 2015
PonderChr11 6.88 2012
RyanMat08 6.90 2013
BradfordSam10 6.92 2013
CampbellJas05 6.97 2009
BortlesBla14 7.00 2014
CampbellJas05 7.00 2008
GabbertBla11 7.13 2015
BrunellMar93 7.13 2006
BradfordSam10 7.14 2015
BreesDre01 7.15 2007
HasselbeckMat98 7.23 2009
HillSha02 7.23 2010
FreemanJos09 7.25 2011
PenningtonCha00 7.25 2007
OrtonKyl05 7.27 2009
OrtonKyl05 7.34 2014
BridgewaterTed14 7.35 2015
RiversPhi04 7.38 2015
FlaccoJoe08 7.39 2015
HasselbeckMat98 7.43 2015
EdwardsTre07 7.43 2008
EdwardsTre07 7.45 2007
SmithAle05-QB 7.46 2009
CutlerJay06 7.47 2014
McNairSte95 7.49 2006

There is very little quality QB play and/or passing success there. Here are the highest seasons, all above 10.0

TebowTim10 12.86 2011
VickMic01 12.52 2006
StantonDre07 11.22 2014
PalmerCar03 11.05 2015
NewtonCam11 10.83 2015
RomoTon03 10.79 2006
PalmerCar03 10.70 2011
TaylorTyr11 10.69 2015
HoyerBri09 10.55 2014
McCownJos02 10.46 2014
HasselbeckMat98 10.45 2006
CollinsKer95 10.41 2010
FreemanJos09 10.41 2012
CutlerJay06 10.40 2012
YoungVin06 10.36 2006
LuckAnd12 10.34 2012
RoethlisbergerBen04 10.32 2015
OrlovskyDan05 10.31 2008
MooreMat07 10.24 2011
AndersonDer05 10.20 2010
FlaccoJoe08 10.15 2012
WinstonJam15 10.13 2015
DelhommeJak98 10.11 2008
PalmerCar03 10.10 2006
RiversPhi04 10.09 2009
WalterAnd05 10.07 2006
LuckAnd12 10.05 2015
RussellJaM07 10.05 2008
RoethlisbergerBen04 10.02 2007
RussellJaM07 10.01 2009
NewtonCam11 10.01 2014
GrossmanRex03 10.00 2006

Still some shaky seasons, but a lot more quality when you look at some of the best years from Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, Cam Newton, Tony Romo, Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck, etc.

Points: 0

#27 by Aaron Brooks G… // Oct 03, 2016 - 3:50pm

Both lists are such a weird collection of names (amusing, a bunch of names occur on both lists-- Cutler, Hasselbeck, Rivers) that I'm not sure it really passes the sanity check for a useful metric. It's interesting, but I'm not sure it's a good/bad filter of an efficacy.

Points: 0

#28 by Raiderfan // Oct 03, 2016 - 4:46pm

I agree. How useful can a metric for quality or competence be that puts Eli and Cutler in the top third, PM and Rodgers in the middle, and Brady and Brees at the bottom?

Points: 0

#29 by eagle97a // Oct 05, 2016 - 9:13am

I have always maintained that air yards isn't very useful as a qb metric but is much more useful as a qualitative look on how qbs are performing on their particular offensive passing philosophy. And even a qualitative look isn't very useful from a career perspective for qbs who played on a variety of offensive systems. It will have a lot of value if we combine air yards with playcall percentages for each qb with opponent adjustments and opponent playcalls as well with a good dose of film study for good measure. Then and only then will air yards gain some value as a quantitative measure IMO.

Points: 0

#30 by thebamoor // Oct 05, 2016 - 11:26pm

A couple of thoughts:

1) Interesting that air yards per pass haven't changed in recent seasons. Since QBs throw more screen passes nowadays, for the average to stay constant, we can deduce that they also throw more longer passes. Perhaps a study on standard deviations (or better, 25th/75th percentiles or along those points) of QBs' AY/P would be also interesting?

2) AY/P probably explains a QB/offense's style more than quality. To make the statistic more useful for evaluating performance, you can use it to adjust QBs' completion percentages. Obviously, everything being equal, QBs throwing longer passes are going to have lower comp. pct.

Points: 0

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