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Thrown for a Loop: Passing Attempts are Up, Interceptions Aren’t

Even to the common fan, it seems clear that NFL offenses are increasingly relying on the pass to rack up yards and points. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees set one record or another each year — or even each week. What’s more, recent rule changes1 have resulted in a greater emphasis on calling defensive illegal contact and holding, two penalties that affect defensive backs’2 ability to cover pass plays. 

With all of this in mind, we wanted to know: Have teams actually been passing more? If so, how might this affect passing statistics like average pass attempts per game, average passing yards per game, and average interceptions per game?

More Passing Attempts? More Yards?

We first looked at all passing attempts per team, per game in the last 10 years. Not surprisingly, passing attempts have steadily increased since 2008.

More passing attempts means more of an opportunity to accumulate passing yards. Thus, the average number of passing yards per team, per game has also increased steadily over the last 10 seasons.
The four seasons with the highest average passing yards per team, per game happen to be 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010 in that order. After 8 weeks the young 2014 season appears to be following suit. Thus far, it has the 2nd highest passing attempts per team per game, and the most amount of passing yards per team per game.

More Passing Attempts = More Interceptions?

More pass attempts means more opportunity for interceptions, right? Although passing attempts have increased in the past 10 years, interceptions per team per game have hardly moved. In fact, the 2012 and 2008 seasons saw the fewest interceptions per team per game since the NFL merged with the AFL in 19703.

For years, the number of pass attempts per interception remained relatively stable; In the 1970’s, teams averaged about 19 passes per interception. In the 2000’s that number jumped to 32 passes per interception. Strikingly, in the past four seasons, teams are averaging about 35 passes per interception — the highest ever. In other words, teams are throwing more passes between interceptions than ever before.

Where’d All the Picks Go?

Decreasing yards per pass attempt. Over the past 10 full seasons (2004-2013), the average yards per pass attempt dropped to 11.55 from 11.64 during the previous decade (1994-2003). This decrease is not huge, but it does highlight a downward trend seen in the two decades prior, 1984-1993 (12.43 YPC) and 1974-1983 (12.63 YPC). 

Increasing completion percentage. As one might suspect, as yards per attempt have fallen, teams’ completion percentage has improved. Shorter passes are often easier to catch than long throws. More short passes should lead to more completed passes and fewer interceptions.  

The Take-Home Message 

As many observers4 have noted, the NFL game is constantly evolving. The trends discussed here suggest that teams are passing more often and completing more of the passes they attempt, but that these passes are going for shorter distance. Not only do we see evidence of this in quarterback statistics, but also in the increasing prominence of slot receivers5 and the greater value placed on pass catching running backs6.

1 http://www.ibtimes.com/new-nfl-rules-2014-illegal-contact-defensive-holding-other-changes-fans-should-know-week-1-1680856

2 http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/sports/wp/2014/08/13/nfl-crackdown-on-illegal-contact-may-spur-epic-stat-surge-for-qbs-like-tom-brady-peyton-manning/

3 Excluding the 1982 strike-shortened season

4 http://www.nfl.com/news/story/09000d5d82a44e69/article/passing-league-explaining-the-nfls-aerial-evolution

5 http://www.si.com/nfl/audibles/2013/12/04/all-22-slot-recievers-brandon-marshall-jordy-nelson

6 http://www.foxnews.com/sports/2014/08/16/last-great-running-back-perhaps-adrian-peterson-as-nfl-keeps-trending-toward/

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