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'It's a passing league': Myth and reality

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

During another spirited Arrowhead Pride discussion, the subject of how much more efficient it is for a team to pass the ball than run the ball came up.

It's very, very, very common knowledge among today's NFL fans that passing the ball works better than running the ball. "It's a passing league" has been said so many times that the words barely sound like words at this point. The best offenses are the ones who air it out and chuck the ball all over the field (horizontally or vertically).

After all, the common narrative goes, even the most average of quarterbacks gets over six yards a passing attempt, while even the best of running backs don't come close to that figure. It's simple math; if you pass the ball, you're likely to get more yards than if you run the ball.

As I sat there and recited what I'd learned over the last couple years (how much higher yards per pass attempt are for every team than yards per rush) I realized I was repeating very limited information.

Because, you see, an attempted pass is only ONE thing that happens when a quarterback drops back. There are also sacks and scrambles. Whereas when a running back takes a handoff, there's only one thing that happens; a rush.

What this means is that "negative" passing plays (sacks) and less productive passing plays (short scrambles) are being swept under the rug when citing "yards per passing attempt."

If you want a REAL picture of whether it's more "efficient" to call a pass play or a run play, you need to take into account every single drop back by a quarterback. You also need to factor in the likelihood of a turnover on a pass play vs. a run play.

Once I started thinking about this, I had to take a look at the numbers. Let's start with the Chiefs. For the record, "Turnovers" on passing plays are both INTs and QB fumbles, as I couldn't think of a scenario in which a QB would have a fumble outside of a sack or a scramble. Well, other than designed QB runs, but I'm not re-watching 16 games to find five lays and make sure a fumble didn't occur on one of them. Sorry, guys.

Additionally, in order to keep QB runs from infiltrating the "rushing" stats, all rushing stats will be team rushing stats MINUS quarterback rushing stats. This is complicated if you want to get it close to right.

Finally, remember that "total yards" in drop backs will be passing plus QB rushing yards minus sack yards.

Chiefs Passing Play Numbers

Dropbacks Total Yards on Dropbacks Yards/Dropback Turnovers Turnover Percentage
578 3,464 5.99 6 1.04%

Chiefs Rushing Play Numbers

Rushes Total Yards on Rushes Yards/Rush Turnovers Turnover Percentage
367 1,649 4.49 4 1.09%

So we've got some interesting results. When you take into account how many times the team drops back without an attempted pass, you end up with yardage numbers that are a whole lot closer than the narrative that is passed around regarding passing vs. running the ball.

Another interesting thing is that when it comes to the Chiefs, you're (very slightly) MORE likely to turn the ball over via a lost fumble than you are to have an interception or lost fumble on a drop back.

Does this mean anything? I have absolutely no idea. It's worth noting the Chiefs have one of the best running games in the league and a quarterback who is ... controversial. What do the numbers look like on a different team? For the sake of keeping it "fair," we need a team without an elite quarterback (as it's obvious passing is better than running when you've got Aaron Rodgers).

So what about a "decent" passing team? An "average" one, if you will. Well, The Cowboys are smack-dab in the middle of the league in total passing yards at 16th, but since they have one of the best running games in the NFL it seemed like an unfair fight. So instead I went with the next team up, the Miami Dolphins

Dolphins Passing Play Numbers

Dropbacks Total Yards on Dropbacks Yards/Dropback Turnovers Turnover Percentage
649 3,729 5.74 16 2.46%

Dolphins Rushing Play Numbers

Rushes Total Yards on Rushes Yards/Rush Turnovers Turnover Percentage
343 1,561 4.55 3 0.87%

Hmmm ... things are getting kind of interesting now. We see that for the Dolphins, passing the ball leads to (on average) a little over a yard per play more than running the ball BUT also creates three times the likelihood of a turnover occurring.

One thing to note with turnovers on rushing plays; we're tracking fumbles LOST, not actual fumbles. The reason for this is a pretty obvious one; a fumble that isn't lost is not a turnover. It's inherently less risky to fumble the football than throw an interception because an interception is a turnover 100 percent of the time while a fumble is a turnover roughly half the time.

Well, now we've committed to going down this rabbit hole. What about the world champion New England Patriots?

Patriots Passing Play Numbers

Dropbacks Total Yards on Dropbacks Yards/Dropback Turnovers Turnover Percentage
647 4,178 6.46 9 1.39%

Patriots Rushing Play Numbers

Rushes Total Yards on Rushes Yards/Rush Turnovers Turnover Percentage
402 1,561 4.15 0 0.00%

The Patriots were known to be a poor rushing team for most of the year and are known to have a solid passing attack. These numbers would seem to reflect both, as for the first time we see a more than 2 yard-per-play advantage in the passing game.

On the other hand, the Patriots managed to not turn the ball over even once on the ground (an obviously unsustainable number), which lead to a "hey, there's no risk on running plays!" statistical anomaly. Interesting.

Well, we've come this far examining just how much better it is to pass than run. Might as well string it out with a few more teams. One advantage to looking at multiple teams? It gives us a chance to see just how "efficient" the Chiefs offense is on a per-drop back basis when compared to other NFL offenses. We'll use top 10 scoring offenses for the sake of fun.

(Side note; I'm having way, way too much fun with this. It's almost enough to convince me that math isn't evil. Almost)

Broncos Passing Play Numbers

Dropbacks Total Yards on Dropbacks Yards/Dropback Turnovers Turnover Percentage
626 4,637 7.41 16 2.55%

Broncos Rushing Play Numbers

Rushes Total Yards on Rushes Yards/Rush Turnovers Turnover Percentage
419 1,809 4.32 2 0.48%

Eagles Passing Play Numbers

Dropbacks Total Yards on Dropbacks Yards/Dropback Turnovers Turnover Percentage
671 4,511 6.72 24 3.58%

Eagles Rushing Play Numbers

Rushes Total Yards on Rushes Yards/Rush Turnovers Turnover Percentage
424 1,837 4.33 6 1.42%


Cowboys Passing Play Numbers

Dropbacks Total Yards on Dropbacks Yards/Dropback Turnovers Turnover Percentage
518 3,844 7.42 12 2.32%

Cowboys Rushing Play Numbers

Rushes Total Yards on Rushes Yards/Rush Turnovers Turnover Percentage
476 2,294 4.81 6 1.26%

Ravens Passing Play Numbers

Dropbacks Total Yards on Dropbacks Yards/Dropback Turnovers Turnover Percentage
583 3,889 6.67 12 2.06%

Ravens Rushing Play Numbers

Rushes Total Yards on Rushes Yards/Rush Turnovers Turnover Percentage
409 2,294 4.76 2 0.49%

Takeaways

Well, there's absolutely no denying it; calling a passing play is on average going to net you about a yard and a half more than calling a rushing play. It varies from team to team depending on how good the rushing offense is and how good the quarterback is, but across the board this was found to be the case.

No surprise to any of us, the Chiefs lag behind teams like the Patriots and Broncos in yards per drop back. What WAS surprising is that the lag isn't as far as I'd feared considering the struggles of the Chiefs passing game this season. One simple explanation for that is Alex Smith's mobility, which leads to positive rushing plays as opposed to just 1 or 2 yard runs.

However, it's worth noting that the gap between an "average" rushing play gain and an "average" passing play gain isn't as far as one would imagine. I've continuously been told that passing gains you three extra yards a play but that simply isn't true.

Additionally, and here we MIGHT see the reason the run offense will never go away, passing the ball is much, much, much more likely to result in a turnover than running the ball. Taking that factor into consideration closes the gap between a good running game and a good passing game further, with the level of significance depending on your risk aversion.

What does this tell us about the Chiefs? Nothing we didn't really know; they need to get their "yards per pass play" up a little higher while maintaining a phenomenal (for passing) turnover percentage rate, and the running game wasn't quite as good as it should be with a guy like Jamaal Charles in the backfield. Both ought to be helped with improved offensive line play, but that's a hope and dream for another column.

Ultimately, it's worth knowing that while passing the ball IS a better option than running the ball, the gap isn't nearly as wide as the common narrative would indicate, especially if you're on a team without a Peyton Manning or Tony Romo, and ESPECIALLY if you're one who believes turnovers win and lose games.

I'm sure Marty would be thrilled by the news.