Football NFL

NFL Use of Passing

Teams are running "high-powered" offenses with young quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes or Jared Goff who pass the ball a lot.

If you watch any NFL broadcast it doesn’t take long before one of the the commentators mentions how the game is changing towards a more pass heavy game. Teams are running “high-powered” offenses with young quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes or Jared Goff who pass the ball a lot.

Are all teams moving towards this type of offense, or are some being left behind? How quickly has the league shifted towards passing? This post looks into the numbers to see if this is indeed the case.

The first image shows teams’ pass attempt percentage – that is what percent of their total plays are passing. The first graph I took the average by each conference and the second I took the average by each division, both since 2002, which was the first season with the current divisional makeup. Linear trend lines were added in both graphs.

As you can see above, pass attempts increase on average in both conferences. The highest was in 2015 when teams in the AFC attempted to pass the ball 59% of the time. Since then, the NFC has led the AFC in pass attempt percentage; in fact the NFC has led the AFC 14 of the last 17 years.

The second graph provides more details on the first. Obviously we see the trend of pass attempts increasing, but some of the numbers are even more impressive. The highest was in 2016 when the NFC North attempted to pass the ball 61% of the time. The lowest was the AFC North in 2004 where only 48% of the plays were passing.

It’s clear from the first image that passing is becoming a bigger part of the game, but as I mentioned above, I want to know if certain teams/divisions are driving this change, or are all teams moving towards this.

A good way to do this would be to look at two measures:
1) What is the range of pass attempt percentage per division (highest pass attempt minus lowest pass attempt)
2) What is the percent change from the previous season in pass attempts for each team

Because pass attempts are increasing overall, if the range of pass attempts decreases by conference/division then we know most teams are passing more. The opposite would be true if the range increases; that would mean some teams are passing more than in the past and the others are passing less.

The image below is showing the range of pass attempt percentage by division. You can see the trend line is decreasing, albeit not dramatically, but this does indicate all teams are driving the trend. In 2002 the average range was about 11% and in 2018 it was about 10%.

Last season, the AFC West had the smallest range in pass attempts at only 4%. In other words, the difference between the Kansas City Chiefs who were first in the division (with 60.1% passing plays) and the Philip Rivers led LA Chargers who were last in the division (with 56.2% passing plays) was only 4%.

The since 2002, the largest difference was 20% in 2012 with the NFC West. That year the Arizona Cardinals passed the ball 63.3% of the time and the Seattle Seahawks passed the ball only 43% of the time. What is interesting about this is Arizona had four different quarterbacks start games for them: John Skelton (6 starts), Kevin Kolb (5 starts), Ryan Lindy (4 starts), and Brian Hoyer (1 start). Seattle, of course, had Russell Wilson starting all 16 games for them.

The final image looks at the percent change in passing attempts from the previous season per team.

The largest increase last season was the Indianapolis Colts at 32.24% since 2017. This of course has a lot to do with Andrew Luck returning from injury in 2018 and Jacoby Brissett starting 15 games in 2017.

The largest decrease was the Miami Dolphins at -24.42%. They were closely followed by the Seattle Seahawks at 23.06%. Pass attempt percentage increased for 19 teams last season, but what is interesting is that in the prior season only 9 teams increased this.

From everything above clearly we have seen the trend moving towards passing. We saw on average teams have been passing more as the seasons have progressed. We also saw the range decrease, meaning all teams are contributing to this. However, the decrease in range was not very large, just 1% over 16 years.

Last season 19 of the 32 teams increased their pass attempt percentage, but the season prior only 9 teams did. While the numbers certainly show the league is moving towards more pass heavy offenses, it is slow going and (like most changes) ebbs and flows in terms of magnitude.



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