The Inflation of Passing Stats

Recently I saw a tweet where someone compared the stats from the first five years of Derek Carr and Ben Roethlisberger’s careers, respectively. Despite not enjoying the same success in the win column, Carr’s numbers are dramatically better. Carr threw for 18,739 passing yards, 122 touchdowns, and only 54 INT’s while Ben threw for 14,974 yards, 101 touchdowns, and 69 interceptions. That means over the same span, Carr threw for 3,765 more yards, 21 more touchdowns, and 15 fewer interceptions. Does that mean Carr’s actually a full season better than Big Ben?

Maybe not. Today I’m going to take a look at the inflation of passing statistics over the last 29 years. As the rules have changed, passing the ball has become easier than ever, and as a result, has seen a dramatic increase in volume. Let me show you just how dramatically passing statistics have inflated.

The Inflation of Passing Stats

1990

Best Passing Season- Warren Moon, 362/584, 62%, 4,689 yards, 33 touchdowns, 13 interceptions.
Average Top Ten Season- 285/489, 58%, 3,594 yards, 23 touchdowns, 15 interceptions.
Average Starter Season (Min. 300 attempts)- 235/412, 57%, 2,938 yards, 17 touchdowns, 13 interceptions.

Warren Moon’s numbers are wild. If he had this season in 2019, it would still be really, really impressive, but back in 1990, it was out of this world. Nobody else broke 4,000 yards passing, and only two other quarterbacks, Randall Cunningham and Joe Montana, had more than 25 touchdowns. But that’s not the point.

Look how horrible the average starter’s season was. That’s only 25 quarterbacks, incidentally. The numbers would be dramatically worse if I included guys like Rodney Peete or Don Majkowski, who started at least eight games but didn’t reach the attempt minimum.

Simply put, quarterbacks weren’t as big of a priority in 1990. The rules hadn’t been bent to make it easier to run a high-octane offense, and putting together a more complete team was en vogue.

1995

Best Passing Season- Brett Favre, 359/570, 63%, 4,413 yards, 38 touchdowns, 13 interceptions.
Average Top Ten Season- 333/552, 60%, 3,994 yards, 28 touchdowns, 14 interceptions.
Average Starter Season (Min. 300 attempts)- 274/468, 59%, 3,224 yards, 19 touchdowns, 13 interceptions.
Yearly Stat Change- +39/+56, +2%, +286 yards, +2 touchdowns.

This is still the era of a big disparity between “the guy” and the other guys. Brett Favre had arguably his best season as a pro, and then guys like Scott Mitchell and Jeff George occupied the top ten. It would still take another decade or so for the next generation of great passers to change the game.

2000

Best Passing Season- Peyton Manning, 357/571, 63%, 4,413 yards, 33 touchdowns, 15 interceptions.
Average Top Ten Season- 323/537, 61%, 3,875 yards, 23 touchdowns, 15 interceptions.
Average Starter Season- 268/451, 59%, 3,136 yards, 19 touchdowns, 14 interceptions.
Yearly Stat Change- (-6)/(-17), (-88) yards, +1 interception.

So this is really interesting because between 1995 and 2000, it doesn’t seem like anything really changes. If anything, passing numbers got slightly worse. The 2000 passing stats are weighed down by some really mediocre quarterback play. Looking at you, Ryan Leaf and Rob Johnson. However, get used to seeing Peyton Manning’s name on this list.

2005

Best Passing Season- Peyton Manning, 305/453, 67%, 3,747 yards, 28 touchdowns, 10 interceptions.
Average Top Ten Season- 319/518, 61%, 3,778 yards, 24 touchdowns, 15 interceptions.
Average Starter Season- 266/436, 61%, 3,086 yards, 18 touchdowns, 13 interceptions.
Yearly Stat Change- (-2)/(-182), +2%, (-50) yards, (-1) touchdown, (-1) interceptions

So check this out. In 2005, the average quarterback attempted nearly 200 fewer passes, but only had two fewer completions as a result and they only lost about 50 yards and a touchdown. What does this mean?

Well, basically it means they weren’t throwing the ball as much, but the passes they did throw were far more effective than five years earlier. Basically, yards per attempt was way, way up. This is a very important year, because you have to remember that at this point, Manning and the Indianapolis Colts haven’t won a Super Bowl yet.

This is around the time that Bill Polian began to push for real changes in the way the pass game was officiated, and it didn’t take long for it to show results.

2010

Best Passing Season- Tom Brady, 324/492, 66%, 3,900 yards, 36 touchdowns, four interceptions.
Average Top Ten Season- 361/561, 63%, 4,155 yards, 29 touchdowns, 14 interceptions.
Average Starter Season- 290/470, 62%, 3,373 yards, 22 touchdowns, 13 interceptions.
Yearly Stat Change +24/+34, +1%, +287 yards, +4 touchdowns.

And boom goes the dynamite. Look how dramatically everything has changed since 2005. The averaged top ten season in 2010 was significantly better than Peyton Manning’s league-leading season five years earlier. Meanwhile, the average quarterback in 2010 would’ve easily been top ten in 1995.

Wide receivers were basically able to get away with murder, quarterbacks couldn’t be touched, and slowly but surely, the league moved away from feature backs. The rushing touchdown record (single season) fell four times between the 1990 and 2010, including three times in four years at the beginning of the millennia. But following LaDainian Tomlinson’s 28 touchdown season in 2006, there was a paradigm shift.

Tom Brady would break Peyton Manning’s record (49) for passing touchdowns (50) in 2007, and then Manning would reclaim it in 2013 (55). 60% of the highest touchdown totals in a single season have occurred since 2010, and only two of the top twenty marks for passing yards in a single season didn’t happen over that span.

And it only gets worse.

2015

Best Passing Season- Tom Brady, 402/624, 64%, 4,770 yards, 36 touchdowns, seven interceptions.
Average Top Ten Season- 390/601, 65%, 4,519 yards, 31 touchdowns, 13 interceptions.
Average Starter Season- 323/508, 64%, 3,762 yards, 25 touchdowns, 11 interceptions.
Yearly Stat Change- +33/+38, +2%, +389 yards, +3 touchdowns, (-2) interceptions.

Like George Carlin says in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, bowling scores are way up, mini-golf scores are way down. In 2015, we saw increases across the board as teams threw the ball more than ever, more efficiently than ever, for more yards and touchdowns than ever. Quarterbacks are consistently taken, if not first overall, then in the top five of every single NFL draft.

The secret is out, it’s a passing league.

Incidentally, his was close to Derek Carr’s rookie season, and if you compare the state of the league to 2005, you can see that the well-intended tweet didn’t quite take the dramatic changes into account.

05/15 Stat Change- +57/+72, +3%, +676 yards, +7 touchdowns, (-2) interceptions.

Pretty dramatic difference there, Raider Nation. I’m sorry.

2018

Best Passing Season- Patrick Mahomes, 383/580, 66%, 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns, 12 interceptions.
Average Top Ten Season- 395/592, 67%, 4,613 yards, 32 touchdowns, 11 interceptions.
Average Starter Season- 320/489, 65%, 3,647 yards, 24 touchdowns, 11 interceptions.
Yearly Stat Change- (-3)/(-19), +1%, (-115) yards, (-1) touchdown.
Overall Stat Change- +85/+77, +8%, +709 yards, +7 touchdowns, -2 interceptions.

What’s really wild about this is that the overall stat change isn’t as high as it should be. In 2018, 49 different quarterbacks started multiple games, with 38 different quarterbacks starting at least four. Aside from your expected injuries, Joe Flacco lost his job to Lamar Jackson, Tyrod Taylor gave way to Baker Mayfield, and Josh Rosen took over for Sam Bradford. Josh Allen filled in for Nathan Peterman, arguably the worst quarterback ever, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers bounced back and forth between Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

When you consider that the average quarterback threw the ball 26 times a game back in 1990, an additional 77 attempts is a big deal. They’re basically adding three games worth of statistics to their total here in 2019. So the next time that say, Andy Dalton moves up the all-time passing list, or Cam Newton passes someone like Joe Montana, remember that they played in a completely different NFL, and that not all eras are created equal.

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