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Helping the Chiefs chances of winning a Super Bowl: The passing game

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Hail the all mighty, glorified quarterback position. Without amazing quarterbacks no team would ever win the Super Bowl -- er, wait... didn't Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson both win a Super Bowl?

Welcome to Part II of the multi-part journey where we are examining what the Chiefs should do in order to optimize their chances of winning a Super Bowl. This part will look at the statistical performances of team's quarterbacks who have won the Super Bowl. We'll use this information to give an idea for what the Chiefs will need from their quarterback position to win a Super Bowl.

Evaluating Some Team Passing Rankings....

Before we dig deeply into the actual passing numbers and how the quarterback position has evolved, let's look at Super Bowl winning team rankings among a few different passing statistics. The statistics used were team ranks for passing yards, touchdowns, attempts, and interceptions.

Super Bowl Winning Passing Rank Percentages
Rank Yards TDs Attempts INTs
Greater than 25 0.02 0.02 0.13 0.02
21 - 25 0.15 0.04 0.24 0.04
16 - 20 0.11 0.09 0.20 0.11
11 - 15 0.17 0.24 0.24 0.17
6 - 10 0.17 0.15 0.17 0.22
1 - 5 0.37 0.46 0.02 0.43

This table may be a little tricky to interpret. For starters, let's talk about what each cell represents. We'll use the 0.37 value for the Yards column on the Rank row 1-5. Since the merger there have been 46 Super Bowls, of which 17 of them have been won by teams with passing yard rankings between 1 and 5 inclusive. When you divide 17 by 46 you have 37 percent of Super Bowl winning teams having a top five NFL passing yards rank.

So what does this table mean?  I would say there is very strong evidence teams have a very poor chance to win a Super Bowl with an anemic passing game. Only one in 46 teams with a bottom of the league passing yards game have won a Super Bowl.

Unfortunately for the Chiefs, the reality is that they have been near the bottom of the league in passing yards ever since the Andy Reid/Alex Smith era has begun.

According to history, your best bet for winning a Super Bowl is to have a great passing game that doesn't throw many interceptions. If you look at the numbers above, it would be fair to rank the importance of each stat in terms of winning a Super Bowl as such:

  1. Passing TDs
  2. Interceptions
  3. Passing Yards
  4. Attempts
Passing attempts are somewhat a function of how an NFL game is progressing. This is why there isn't a dominant region where passing attempts affect Super Bowl winning teams.

All of this ranking information is good and well, but I really wanted to look deeper into the actual team passing numbers to get a better idea of what the Chiefs realistically need from their QB position to optimize their chances for winning a Super Bowl.

We'll start with a brief history lesson on the quarterback position over time.

The Evolution of the Quarterback Position

The data used in this article is from the post-merger era of the NFL (1970 and onward.) The data was also drawn meticulously from Pro-Football-Reference. Now, interesting enough, the quarterback position in the NFL has evolved over time. Don't believe me? Here are four graphs showing how quarterback stats have changed over time.

Note: All season stats were normalized to 16 game seasons, and these numbers are the average outputs of all teams for each season from 1970 to 2015. For instance in 2015, the average NFL team passed for 3902 yards.

Holy crap, the quarterbacks in today's NFL are crazy. Not only are the quarterbacks throwing for more yards and more touchdowns, but they're also throwing fewer interceptions than ever. It's almost as if the rules have been modified slightly to give them an advantage .... Oh wait.

If you look at the graphs, there is an ENORMOUS jump in production in the late 1970s. This is a direct result of  a rule change. In 1978 the illegal contact penalty was born, and defensive backs were no longer able to mug wide receivers who were more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage.

I am short of a reason for the jump in quarterback production after 2008. Perhaps it is the growing concern the NFL has had in regards to concussions and protecting the quarterbacks as well as other offensive players.

Inflation

To be able to do any sort of honest comparison between team quarterback stats over the course of time I needed to account for the fact that a team from 1970 would have very different passing stats than a team who played in 2015. All of this is shown in the graphs above, but here is a table anyways.

Average Team Passing Production 1970 vs 2015
Year Avg Attempts Avg Yards Avg TDs
1970 431 2582 19
2015 572 3902 26

So to be able to compare any quarterback from the past, we need to adjust for inflation. The way we will adjust for inflation is by simply dividing the average 2015 statistics by average older seasons statistics. The math behind it isn't all that important, what is important is we can fairly compare quarterbacks from the past with quarterbacks from the present.

Player Attempts Yards TDs
1970 Fran Tarkenton 389 2777 19
2015 Fran Tarkenton 517 4196 27
2015 Alex Smith 470 3486 20

2015 Fran Tarkenton isn't too bad of a player! For those of you who aren't familiar with Fran Tarkenton, he played for the Vikings and the Giants during the 60s and 70s. He made it to three Super Bowls and lost all of them. He has self-claimed that he is the greatest quarterback to ever. I don't necessarily agree with this, but he was a very good QB. His 1970 numbers adjusted for inflation certainly look better than Alex Smith's.

So What Kind of Team Passing Stats Win the Most Super Bowl Games?

Using the numbers adjusted for inflation from every Super Bowl since the merger, we can hopefully see some trends. Let's start with passing yards. Keep in mind this information is based on team numbers and not singular quarterbacks. The reason choosing team QB performance is due to injury, as well as other reasons I'll be glad to talk about in the comments.

Passing Yards

Yards SB Wins Percentage
Less than 3500 4 0.09
3500 - 4000 13 0.28
4000 - 4500 14 0.30
4500+ 15 0.33

As you can see, teams who pass the ball for less than 3500 yards are at a significant bind for winning a Super Bowl.

To have the best chances for winning a Super Bowl a team needs to pass for more than 3500 yards.

Below are the Chiefs passing numbers since the Andy Reid era.

Chiefs Passing Yards Since 2013
Year Yards
2013 3340
2014 3182
2015 3255

The Chiefs need to find a way to boost their passing yards if they want to have the best chance of winning a Super Bowl.  We'll look at these same numbers for touchdowns, attempts, and interceptions and see if there are any other trends.

Team Touchdown Passes
TDs SBWins Percentage
Less than 20 1 0.02
20-24 5 0.11
25-29 13 0.28
30-34 10 0.22
35-39 10 0.22
40+ 9 0.20

It looks like the magic number for passing touchdowns that are needed to give the Chiefs the best chance of winning the Super Bowl is somewhere above 25.

Chiefs Passing TDs Since 2013
Year TDs
2013 24
2014 18
2015 20

The Chiefs have fallen short over the past few seasons in touchdown passes needed to give them their best chance of winning a Super Bowl.

Attempts
Attempts SBWins Percentage
Less than 450 4 0.09
450 - 500 2 0.04
500 - 550 14 0.30
550 - 600 18 0.39
600+ 8 0.17

From this table it looks like roughly 550 attempts are the number of attempts the Chiefs should strive for their passing game. As mentioned above, I don't like using attempts as a measure for success because so many factors can alter how many passing attempts a team will take every game. That said, it is fairly interesting there were such large percentages of Super Bowl winners who threw between 500-600 passes. This could be due to nearly anything so I honestly am unsure about using attempts as a metric....

Chiefs Passing Attempts Since 2013
Year Attempts
2013 546
2014 493
2015 473

The Chiefs have only been between 500-600 pass attempts during Andy Reid's first year in KC.

Interceptions
INTs SB Wins Percentage
Less than 10 18 0.39
10 - 14 20 0.43
15 - 19 7 0.15
20+ 1 0.02

The magic number for interceptions is less than 14. This is interesting to me because I once had this notion that gunslingers who were risky generally won more big games. So not only do teams need a quarterback who can throw for a lot of yards and touchdowns, but they need them to be stingy with the ball. No wonder it's so hard for teams to find these Super Bowl rich quarterbacks.

Chiefs Interceptions Since 2013
Year INTs
2013 8
2014 6
2015 7

I don't care whether you like Alex Smith or not, these are amazing interception numbers. He is in the right zone for helping the Chiefs win a Super Bowl when it comes to interceptions.

Finding the Sweet Spot, Can Alex Get There?

From all the information above we can somewhat estimate a Super Bowl likelihood sweet spot that the Chiefs QB should strive for. Since Alex Smith is the current Chiefs quarterback we all need to be asking the question whether or not he can reach the following numbers:

3,800 Yards, 27 TDs, 550 Attempts, 11 INTs

This is a realistic target for what the Chiefs would need from Alex Smith in the regular season to have the best shot of winning a Super Bowl. I could have asked for 4,500 yards passing, but come on .... really?

The question is, can Alex Smith do this? I'm not here to start a dumpster fire debate but it would take a very good year for Smith to achieve these numbers. Is it possible ... yes. But everything in Smith's history says it probably won't happen consistently -- if at all.

Remember Part I of this series where I said if the Chiefs were serious about winning a Super Bowl, then they would draft a quarterback in the first round soon? This is part of the reason. I love Alex Smith, but for him to win the Super Bowl with his recent numbers would be a statistical anomaly. I don't like leaving my chances to statistical anomalies.

All things equal, I will finish with this since I am an optimist. I believe Alex Smith's best years are coming. A lot of quarterbacks in their early/mid 30s see surges in production and I personally believe Smith can have one of these surges. Everything needs to fall in place though.

Next: Part III - Running Game

In the next part of the series we'll discuss what would help the Chiefs chances the most in terms of run game production.

Oh, and one last note. I compiled a lot of stats for this article, and if anyone would like to use them for other work I would be happy to share  You can reach me at my email found in my profile on this site.