"Football Freakonomics": Is the N.F.L. a Quarterback-Driven League?

We launched the Football Freakonomics series in the spring with an episode called “The Quarterback Quandary.” It examined the difficulty of drafting QB’s since they  tend to be a) vital to a team’s success; and b) relatively expensive; but c) hard to assess coming out of college even if they have a substantial track record.

One thing we can all agree on, however: the NFL today is a quarterback’s league — isn’t it?

That’s the question we ask in our latest Football Freakonomics segment.

The numbers certainly line up in support of the quarterback’s dominance. As you can see in the accompanying graphic, there has been a sea change in the pass/run ratio over the past few decades. In the 1970’s, NFL offenses averaged roughly 26 passes and 35 runs per game. By the 2000’s, those numbers had essentially flip-flopped, with about 32 passes and 28 runs per game.

Things are still trending up. Last season saw the highest average number of passes per game yet (34.3, to just 26.9 rushes), and 2012 looks likely to continue the trend, even when you include Tim Tebow’s numbers.

In this episode, we explore a couple of wrinkles in the NFL passing explosion.

The first is a long-ago rule change that let receivers start to run wild, a rule that was in response to the very physical play of a certain ball-hawking, receiver-crushing cornerback (yes, he played on a very good team).

We also look at the wall of human airbags that protect quarterbacks these days – the offensive linemen – and how statisticians are finally starting to quantify each lineman’s performance, on every snap. This is sure to inform, if not revolutionize, how future linemen are assessed – and, more interestingly to the average fan, how we assess the play of the quarterbacks behind them.

In other words: do today’s gaudy passing numbers really mean that quarterbacks have gotten better, or have a variety of trends conspired to make them look better than they are? Furthermore: is an above-average QB really any better than a below-average QB (consider Ben Roethlisberger vs. Carson Palmer, e.g.), or how much of the former’s success is due to his system, his supporting cast, and his defense?

The quarterback may be the most important single player on the football field but he’s also a figurehead. As with figureheads in other realms – think of CEO’s and U.S. presidents – we tend to give them far more credit (and blame) than they are due. Sure, it’s easy to say the NFL today is a quarterback-driven league – but who’s driving the quarterback?


Marin

There's a special place in this discussion for Tim Tebow, who doesn't pass well (or hardly at all, though more as the season goes on) and whose success seems clearly a product of the coaches re-engineering the offense to support his special set of skills.

On another plane, there is an intangible with Tebow under which the whole team seems to be playing way above their previous levels - an intangible that can be labeled inspiration or leadership, and makes all the difference in the world, but can't be purchased for any price.

Stephen

The Tebow phenomenon is really interesting to me because it serves as a reminder that you can throw out the conventional wisdom and win. The rest of the league laughs and Denver racks up the wins now. I think Tebow's recent success, whether or not it continues, is a proof-of-concept: you can win football games in more than one way if your talent matches your approach and you execute well. I would not recommend my Cleveland Browns have Colt McCoy running the read-option every play, but with the right players there is no reason to only use the "pro-style" offense in different flavors.

Denver has had success with an offense whose primary feature is using the QB as part of the running attack, not just an accidental participant on failed pass plays. In a league that mostly wants QB's who are excellent passers and athletic enough to run if needed, Denver has a QB who is an excellent runner and a good-enough passer to do so if needed.

I'm loving the chance to see different styles succeed. We have some of this (Say, Green Bay compared to Baltimore), but the range of acceptable offensive approaches appears narrower in the NFL than in college. We'll know we have arrived at true offensive diversity when an NFL team goes with the triple-option! (Kidding...please don't)

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JB

Defensive rule changes help. Offensive line quality helps very much. I wonder if QB success is often correlation, not causation, but would suggest Indianapolis this year points to dramatic value of a very good to great QB vs. replacement level player.

ben w.

I would also bet that the Colts offensive line would score better last year because of their high quality quarterback (it'd be interesting to check the numbers). The best quarterbacks can surely reduce the pressure on an offensive line by excelling at a quick release, reading a defensive coverage before the snap or making intelligent decisions during the play. It's just hard to evaluate the quarterback or the offensive line independently as their work is so intertwined - in play calling, at the line, and during the play.

Mike B

It's a shame the NFL doesn't operate more like MLB in that it uses slightly different rules in the two conferences. I'd like to be able to compare the effects of a rule change side by side instead of having to look back at historical information that might be clouded by other variables. The best we can do today is Canadian and College football, which at best are imperfect substitutes for the NFL.

Brad

I would really be interested to see a post including depth statistical breakdown of the Broncos recent success since QB Tim Tebow took over, and an even more in depth analysis of "The Tebow Effect" as a whole. I have continually had the argument with my friends that his style of play is not sustainable in the NFL, because Broncos team is too reliant on their defense on their run game. If one of those aspects begins to slip I don't see him being successful as a passer.

Peter

1995 had 34.8 passes attempted per game. 2011 was not a record (close though)