The Armchair Quarterback's Guide To The NFL: Pass Or Pass Rush?

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Dec 1, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) passes as he is rushed by Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) during the first half at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

The Armchair Quarterback’s Take Of The Week

Is It Better To Have A Great Passing Attack Or A Great Pass Rush?

In today’s NFL it is seen as a universal truth that it’s a quarterback driven league. If your favorite team doesn’t have a franchise QB, chances are that they aren’t winning very many games. This past week I wrote a piece for Arrowhead Addict that broke down the importance of a good pass rush and why it made sense for KC to draft Dee Ford with their first round draft pick. In the process of writing that piece I began to think a lot about the state of the current NFL. I thought about how many viewed Seattle and San Francisco as the new elite powers in the NFL despite the fact that they have “good” QBs that are not considered amongst the elite QBs like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers.

Obviously, football is and always will be a team game. One player, even at QB, can’t win a game by himself. So is it just that Seattle was the best all around team? Does that mean that the NFL isn’t a QB driven league after all and we’re back to just trying to assemble the best all around roster where the passing game is no more important than other aspects of the game?

I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far. I still believe that the passing game has a higher level of importance than most other aspects of the game. That led me to this question: Could it be that Seattle was the clear best team last season, not because they were the best all around team (which they were) but because they were the best team in the NFL at stopping opposing passing attacks?

Think about it, if it’s a QB driven league and you are the best in the NFL at shutting down QBs you’re going to win a lot of games. This got me thinking about how I could go about looking at passing vs. stopping the pass in a non-subjective way. What I decided to do is break this down into two parts. Part one (this week’s column) will look at if it’s better to have a good passing game (and with it a good QB) or to have one of the best pass rushes in the league. Next week I’ll compare the best passing games with the best pass coverage teams and between the two weeks we’ll see if we can come to some conclusion about what has the biggest impact on teams winning games in today’s NFL.

So here’s what I did for this week. I looked at the last three NFL seasons (2011-2013) and I wanted to find the best and worst in the NFL at both passing the football and rushing the passer. I decided that to do this I wanted to use a combination of stats and evaluation. So in order to qualify for the best passing list a team had to finish in the top ten in the NFL in passing yards AND finish as one of Pro Football Focus’s top ten graded passing offenses. (For those that aren’t familiar, Pro Football Focus is the website that grades every single player on every single snap and assigns them points based on how they did.) I did this because I didn’t just want to use teams that piled up a bunch of passing stats while playing from behind but I also didn’t just want to use PFF’s grades and have some “efficient” team that only passed for 180 yards per game make the list. I wanted teams that were both prolific AND efficient. For the worst passing offenses it was the opposite. They had to finish in the bottom ten in the NFL in passing yards AND finish as one of PFF’s 10 lowest graded passing teams.

The same goes for the pass rush lists. I took teams that finished in the top ten in sacks AND finished in PFF’s top ten rated team pass rush grades for the season to make the “best list” and did the same with the teams in the bottom of both to make the “worst list”.

Here’s what I found:

From 2011-2013 there were 21 teams that ended a season rated in the top ten in passing yards and as one of PFF’s ton ten graded passing teams. Those teams had a combined record of 222-113-1. That’s a winning percentage of 66.3% and an average win total of 10.6 wins.

During that same time span there were 17 teams that finished in the bottom ten in passing yards and as one of PFF’s ten worst graded passing teams. Those teams had a combined record of 99-172-1. That’s a winning percentage of 36.5% and an average win total of 5.8 wins.

None of that is very shocking to me. The teams that are both prolific and efficient at passing the football win 10-11 games on average and the ones that are not prolific and not efficient only win 5-6 games. This definitely supports the “QB driven league” theory.

So how do those numbers stack up compared to the best/worst pass rushing teams over that same time span?

From 2011-2013 there were 18 teams that finished the season ranked in the top ten in sacks and in PFF’s top ten graded pass rushes. These teams had a combined record of 167-121. That’s a winning percentage of 60% and an average win total of 9.3 wins.

During that same time span there were 17 teams that finished rated in the bottom ten in sacks and in PFF’s bottom ten graded pass rushes. These teams had a combined record of 106-166. That’s a winning percentage of 39% and an average win total of 6.2 wins.

While these results are not quite as extreme as the passing results, they aren’t as far off as some may have expected. The worst passing teams and the worst pass rushing teams both basically averaged 6 wins per season. The best passing teams did average 1.3 more wins than the best pass rushing teams, and that is significant. However, if you’re a team that doesn’t have a Peyton Manning at QB, it’s a lot easier to build a dominant pass rush than it is to find yourself a Hall of Fame caliber signal caller.

I would also point out that there was very little overlap on these lists. Of the 21 teams that qualified for the “best” passing teams during this time span, only two of them were also on the “best” pass rushing list for the same season. Those teams being the 2011 Detroit Lions (10-6) and the 2011 New York Giants (9-7) who went on to win the Super Bowl that year. Other than that, the best passing teams and the best pass rushing teams were separate.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, of the 17 teams that qualified for the “worst” passing teams during this time span, four of them were also on the “worst” pass rushing team list for the same season. Those teams were the 2012 New York Jets (6-10), the 2012 Kansas City Chiefs (2-14), the 2011 Indianapolis Colts (2-14), and the 2011 Cleveland Browns (4-12). You can see by these four teams combined 14-50 record and average of 3.5 wins/season that in today’s pass happy NFL if you can’t throw and can’t get after the QB, you’re toast.

Finally, what about the teams that finished on the “best” of one list but the “worst” of the other? Could having an elite passing attack outweigh a bad pass rush or vice versa?

During this time span there were four teams that finished on the “best” passing list and the “worst” pass rush list: the 2013 San Diego Chargers (9-7), the 2013 Chicago Bears (8-8), the 2012 New Orleans Saints (7-9), and the 2011 Green Bay Packers (15-1). Obviously, the Packers 15-1 season helps the overall combined record of 39-25, but you can see the other three teams were pretty middle of the road in terms of record.

There were also four teams that finished on the “best” pass rush list and the “worst” passing list during this time span: the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs (11-5), the 2013 Buffalo Bills (6-10), the 2012 Minnesota Vikings (10-6), and the 2012 Chicago Bears (10-6). While their combined record of 37-27 is actually worse than that of the last group, you can see that three of the four teams won at least ten games (compared to just one team on the last list). So recent history shows that if you have a good pass rush you can still win double digit games and go to the playoffs even without a great passing game.

Do these results surprise you at all? While having an elite passing game does still beat having an elite pass rush, the difference is really only about one more win per season. That’s encouraging news for teams that haven’t found their Andrew Luck in the draft yet. Next week I’ll do the same thing but instead of pass rush I’ll compare it to the top pass coverage units. I’ll also then see if there were teams that finished on both the top pass rush AND top coverage lists and see how their records compare with those of the best passing teams.

If you’re dying to know if your favorite team ended up on any of the “best” or “worst” lists for this week, I’ve listed them below. If not, you can skip ahead to the next page for my “Rant of the Week” and then my “Beer Review of the Week”.

“Best” Passing Teams:

2013
Denver 13-3
San Diego 9-7
New Orleans 8-8
Green Bay 8-7-1
New England 12-4
Detroit 7-9

2012
Atlanta 13-3
Denver 13-3
New England 12-4
New Orleans 7-9
Green Bay 11-5

2011
New Orleans 13-3
New England 13=3
New York Giants 9-7
Green Bay 15-1
San Diego 8-8
Detroit 10-6
Pittsburgh 12-4
Atlanta 10-6
Dallas 8-8

“Worst” Passing Teams

2013
Tampa Bay 4-12
Kansas City 11-5
Minnesota 5-10-1
Oakland 4-12
New York Jets 8-8
Buffalo 6-10

2012
Chicago 10-6
Buffalo 6-10
Minnesota 10-6
Kansas City 2-14
New York Jets 6-10
Arizona 5-11

2011
Minnesota 3-13
Indianapolis 2-14
Cleveland 4-12
Denver 8-8
Jacksonville 5-11

“Best” Pass Rushing Teams

2013
Seattle 13-3
St. Louis 7-9
Kansas City 11-5
Buffalo 6-10

2012
Tennessee 6-10
Cincinnati 10-6
Houston 12-4
Minnesota 10-6
Chicago 10-6
Carolina 7-9

2011
Philadelphia 8-8
San Francisco 13-3
Dallas 8-8
Houston 10-6
Washington 5-11
New York Giants 9-7
Baltimore 12-4
Detroit 10-6

“Worst” Pass Rushing Teams

2013
Dallas 8-8
New York Giants 7-9
San Diego 9-7
Chicago 8-8
Atlanta 4-12

2012
Oakland 4-12
Tampa Bay 7-9
New York Jets 6-10
Kansas City 2-14
New Orleans 7-9
Jacksonville 2-14

2011
Buffalo 6-10
Carolina 6-10
Indianapolis 2-14
Cleveland 4-12
Green Bay 15-1
Tennessee 9-7

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