In NFL, Passing Pays Off

Longtime writer Bob Oates shares his commentary on the NFL.

Known as the dean of American pro football writers, Bob Oates has been long known as a strong advocate of pass offense, the subject of this two-part series. The first part follows.

The emergence of pass offense as the decisive way to win championships and Super Bowls is the most radical NFL change of the most recent two decades of American football. The present passing era has arrived so gradually and incrementally that many football fans, players and even coaches haven’t noticed that the day of the running back as a dominant force has passed.

As 32 teams head out this month toward Super Bowl XL, the three best teams — the AFC’s New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts and the NFC’s Philadelphia Eagles — are all passing teams of great distinction.

Why does passing win? Why is it that in a league still dominated by coaches who favor the run, passing teams win most of the Super Bowls?

Two Key Stats

Much of the answer can be found in two illuminating statistics:

1. The average NFL pass (even counting incompletes) outgains the average run by 50-100%.

2. NFL teams that score first win most games. And for reasons outlined below, passing teams are more certain than running teams to score early.

The newest of these game-deciding statistics is the second one. According to an Elias Sports Bureau analysis of the last five years, statistics show:

Lead Pct. Games Won
3-0 59%
7-0 71%
10-0 82%
14-0 87%

These are startling findings. If a team simply scores the opening touchdown, the averages indicate it will win seven out of 10 times (which translates conservatively to an 11-5 record for a season). Score the first two touchdowns and it’s nearly nine out of 10 (almost exactly 14-2).

It is true, of course, that the better team is likely to score first and eventually win. But this is a league overwhelmingly devoted to the promotion of parity. In NFL games these days, there is usually no “better” team. The advantage thus goes to whichever team can strike first for an early lead.

These are statistics that enforce a new understanding of football: The first quarter of any game must be considered a race for the lead. From the opening kickoff, as the teams vie for the game-influencing advantage on the scoreboard, every offensive series — every play — is precious.

Passing for the Lead

What’s the best way to strike for the lead? The simplest answer, ignored for years by those who fancy running plays, is implicit in the yardage-per-play advantage of the pass. Last year, again according to Elias Sports Bureau statistics, the average NFL offense gained 4.1 yards per run and 6.1 yards per pass (even factoring in incompletes) — roughly a 50% advantage for pass plays.

For good passing teams like New England and St. Louis, the average gain was about 7 yards per pass — a 75% advantage over an average running play. For a transcendent passing team, Peyton Manning’s Colts, the average gain was 8.5 yards per pass — double the 4.3 yards averaged by Edgerrin James and other Indianapolis runners.

If you tell someone in Las Vegas that red is going to pay 50-100% more than black, there is no doubt where the money will go down. It is an oddity of the psychological makeup of NFL coaches that the stark statistical advantage of passing over running convinces relatively few of them to pass for a living.

Race to Nowhere

It need hardly be said that running teams don’t think of the first quarter as a race for the lead. To a running team, the goal at the start of every game is to “establish the run.” This means running on nearly every first down as well as most second and third downs. Their intent, often stated, is not to score quickly, but rather to soften up an opponent for scores that will come later.

Instead of aiming for a lead, the running team aims for eventual physical and emotional dominance — against defensive players who are, at the start of a game, fresh, motivated, and focused on the run. The result in the first two or three offensive series, even for the best running teams, is often three-and-out and an appearance by the punter.

Passing teams, by contrast, and particularly “attack passing” teams — those throwing aggressively on first down — open typical games looking to score in the fewest plays possible. Moreover, the yards-per-play advantage gives passing teams the lead in big plays — those of 20 yards and more that pump up an offense and generate momentum. As a result, a proficient passing team can frequently drive to a touchdown in a handful of plays, while the typical running team labors slowly down the field. Attack passing teams are, literally, racing for the lead.

The Eagles, as one example, throw aggressively at the start of most games. The Patriots can — and do when they feel threatened. But the great example of attack passing was the turn-of-the-century St. Louis Rams. Inexplicably, after two Super Bowl appearances and one title win, the Rams have since engaged in unilateral disarmament, running off-tackle plays in the first quarter until they fall behind.

In the years when, however, the Ram offense was in full cry, Coach Mike Martz showed how easy it is for attack passing teams to move and score.

The only time it makes sense for football teams to emphasize the run is when there’s a need to take time off the clock to hold an adequate second-half lead. At that point, even good passing teams run it. Thus the winning premise over the years has remained unchanged: A good offensive team is a passing team that integrates a significant running threat.

Coming from Behind

If a passing team does fall behind, it still has an advantage over running teams. A running team that loses the lead must abandon the offense it has taken so much time perfecting, and adopt a passing approach that it does not believe in, and has not mastered. The result is, first, that the team loses confidence in its ability, and, second, that it does not display the proficiency required.

A passing team, on the other hand, plays the same way when coming from behind that it does when striking for the lead. It has only one offense, a pass-first offense that integrates a significant running threat, and it can display confidence and competence in every situation.

That leaves a question for running-play coaches and football commentators. How soon will they wake up?

Tomorrow: The Philosophy of Passing.