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

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Dec 22, 2013; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (25) and Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas (29) celebrate after Sherman intercepted a pass thrown by Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) (not pictured) during the second half at CenturyLink Field. Arizona defeated Seattle 17-10. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The Armchair Quarterback’s Take Of The Week

To Pass Or Stop The Pass? That Is The Question…..

This week’s column is part two of a two-week look into the value of being able to pass the football in today’s NFL. If you didn’t read last week’s part one, please go back and do so or you may feel lost reading this week’s second part. Basically, in part one I compared teams that were great at passing with teams that were great rushing the passer and compared their results. This week I’ll do the same thing with teams that were great in pass coverage and then finally look at the results of teams that were great at both rushing the passer AND pass coverage.

Let’s get right into it……

To start off this week I’m going to take a look at the results of teams between 2011-2013 that were amongst the best and worst in the league at stopping the pass and compare those teams results with teams during that same time span that were amongst the best and worst at throwing the football. Just like last week, I’m going to use a combination of statistical ranking and grades from Pro Football Focus. In order to make the best pass coverage team list for a certain year a team must finish in the top ten for passing yards allowed AND in the top ten of team pass coverage grades by PFF. The idea here is that we are looking for teams that put up good numbers AND were graded highly by those that watched them on tape. Hopefully, by using the best of both worlds we get the teams that truly are the best. Then the worst pass coverage teams were done the same way with teams finishing in both the bottom ten for passing yards allowed AND the bottom ten for team pass coverage grades by PFF.

Before we look at the results, let’s review the numbers for the best and worst offensive passing teams for that same time span from last week.

Between 2011-2013 there were 21 teams that finished the season ranked in the top ten in passing yards and PFF passing grades. Those teams were:

222-113-1 (66.3% winning percentage)
Averaged 10.6 wins/season

There were 17 teams that finished ranked in the bottom ten in passing yards and PFF passing grades. Those teams were:

99-172-1 (36.5% winning percentage)
Averaged 5.8 wins/season

Surprise, surprise, teams that pass the ball well win and teams that don’t lose. I think most of us already knew that. The real purpose here is to see if in today’s pass happy NFL teams can be equally successful if they are good at stopping the pass. So here are the same statistics for the teams that were the best and worst at stopping the pass.

Between 2011-2013 there were 18 teams that finished the year ranked in the top ten for passing yards allowed and amongst PFF’s top ten pass coverage graded teams. Those teams were:

170-117-1 (59.2% winning percentage)
Averaged 9.5 wins/season

There were only 13 teams between 2011-2013 that finished ranked in the bottom ten for both passing yards allowed AND the pass coverage grades by PFF. My thinking is that some of the teams that graded out horribly in pass coverage didn’t make the bottom ten in passing yards allowed because teams built a lead against them early and then ran the ball to run the time out so that the overall passing numbers weren’t huge. Regardless, the 13 teams that did finish at the bottom of the league in both were:

101-106-1 (48.8% winning percentage)
Averaged 7.8 wins/season

There are a few things that stand out to me as I look at those results. First off, the teams that throw the ball really well still reign supreme. The average wins per season for the best teams in each category of this study in order are:

Best Passing: 10.6 wins
Best Pass Coverage: 9.5 wins
Best Pass Rush: 9.3 wins

When looking at the average wins per season for the worst teams in each category of this study we get:

Worst Pass Coverage: 7.8 wins
Worst Pass Rush: 6.2 wins
Worst Passing: 5.8 wins

So if there is one of the three areas I looked at that teams seem to be able to survive and still win a respectable amount of games it appears to be pass coverage where the worst teams in the NFL over a three-year span were still almost .500. Another guess on my part, the reason for the not all that horrible record amongst these teams is because several of them had good offenses, thus they scored a lot of points and caused their opponents to keep throwing to keep pace. These teams, while terrible at times on defense, still win some games strictly off their ability to put up points. Moving on…..

In terms of looking at pass rush vs. pass coverage there isn’t a big difference with the best pass coverage teams only averaging 0.2 more wins per season.

Next, I wanted to see if there were teams that finished on the best pass rush list from last week AND the best pass coverage list from this week and see how their records compared to the other teams we’ve looked at. Over this three-year span there were six teams that finished the season on the “best” list for both categories: the 2013 Seattle Seahawks (13-3), the 2013 Buffalo Bills (6-10), the 2012 Cincinnati Bengals (10-6), the 2012 Chicago Bears (10-6), the 2011 Houston Texans (10-6), and the 2011 Baltimore Ravens (12-4). The overall numbers for these six teams are:

61-35 (63.5% winning percentage)
Averaged 10.2 wins/season

Now we’ve got something! It stands to reason that the teams that are good in coverage AND rushing the QB would be the absolute best teams at stopping opposing quarterbacks. In a quarterback driven league these teams make life miserable for the opposing QB and consequently they are winning a lot of games. These teams that excel in both areas only averaged 0.4 games per season less than the best passing teams in the NFL. In other words, according to this admittedly small sample size, stopping opposing QBs wins you almost as many games as having an elite QB does. I should also point out that NONE of those six teams finished on the best passing teams list for that same season. Also, an impressive 83% of those teams finished with 10+ wins. Last season’s Buffalo team was the only team to fail to do so (not a coincidence that they finished on the worst passing team list that same season). That 83% of teams winning 10+ games is even a higher percentage than those that finished on the best passing list where only 13 of the 21 teams (62%) finished with 10 or more wins.

Finally, how about the teams that finished on the “worst” list for both pass coverage and pass rush in the same season? Would their results be as poor as the worst passing teams? Well, there isn’t much data to go off of because during that three-year span only two teams finished at the bottom in both areas: the 2013 San Diego Chargers (9-7) and the 2012 New Orleans Saints (7-9). So these two teams finished with a combined .500 record. That’s actually a better win percentage than either the worst pass coverage teams (48.8%) or the worst pass rushing teams (39%). One would think if they made both lists that their records would be even worse, right? However, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these two teams also finished on the best passing teams list for those same seasons. This proves once again that a great QB truly is the best thing a team can have.

So what, if anything, can we take away from all of this? Here are my final conclusions:

1. As expected, having a great QB/passing attack is the best thing a team can have.

2. If your favorite team doesn’t have an elite QB the best thing they can do is build a team that both rushes the passer and is good in coverage. If a team can become good in both of those areas they can win almost as many games as the best passing teams (as long as their passing game isn’t one of the league’s worst). Even if they just become good in one area they still have a solid chance at a winning record.

3. If your favorite team has to be bad at one of the three (passing, pass rush, coverage) its best to be bad in coverage where the worst teams were still almost .500.

I hope that some of you out there found this as interesting as I did. As the fan of a team with a mid-level QB (Alex Smith) and multiple talented pass rushers (Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, and now Dee Ford) I found it encouraging. The Seattle Seahawks showed last season that if you can make life hell for the opposing QB you can win it all. They admittedly have a good QB in Russell Wilson, but he is not even close to the elite level of someone like Aaron Rodgers. He could get there eventually, but Seattle didn’t have to wait for that day to come because in a passing league they made sure other teams couldn’t pass against them. The results of this little study back that strategy up as a viable one for other teams to follow.

Please feel free to hit me up with any questions or thoughts in the comments below. Also, don’t forget to check out my “Rant of the Week” and my “Beer Review of the Week” on the following pages.

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  • SmartThinking

    Give me a great big mean spirited offensive front line, a power running back and an offense that says, ” This is what I’m going to do today. Try and stop it!” I’ll take that over a passing game any day!

    • Lyle Graversen

      You better have a good defense to go with it because trying to get in a back and forth shoot out with a run oriented offense is usually a recipe for disaster. Now, a great defense, a great run game, and an average QB…..sign me up.

  • Old Frog

    Brady is never a fair comparison. His wife is rich.

  • AC

    You lost me at the 2013 Buffalo Bills. They stunk.

    • Lyle Graversen

      They only won one less game than the 2012 Saints (7-9) and the 2013 Lions (7-9) that both finished on the best passing list. So by that logic teams shouldn’t try to build a good passing game because they weren’t good those years. There will always be outliers and exceptions to the rule, but 5 of the 6 teams still finished with 10+ wins.

      • AC

        Both the 2012 Saints and the 2013 Lions had horrible defenses, especially the Saints. These are only 16 game data samples. If you look at the last two Super Bowl winners, both teams had a solid passing game, running game and defense. You need the whole package to win it all. The Broncos had the most prolific passing game in history last year and they were crushed by a far superior defense in that game. A high flying passing game can get you to the playoffs, solid defense and a beastly running game wins championships.

  • raider_nation

    Great article, actually a GM could really learn something here with ur analysis work on the defense, great stuff .. p.s. everything was good except the part that ur a Chefs fan, but hey nobody’s…

  • raider_nation

    And doesn’t that mean . THE DEFENSE WINS THE GAME, RIGHT…

  • joe f.

    Sounds like you put a lot into this. It makes a lot of sense to me. The proof is there. Like you said Seattle Seahawks proved it last year. Russel Wilson is a average Q.B. right now but can become a elite Q.B. some day. They kept the pressure on the BEST Q.B. in the league last year and they ended up SUPERBOWL CHAMPS.