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The Value of Things: The Value of the Passing Game

How related is a great passing game to winning?

Los Angeles Rams v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Value of Things series in general is a statistical study in the relationship between certain aspects of football and success. So, all of these are interrelated, but in particular the article on the running game is particularly telling in comparison with the passing game. In particular, we want to know which one has a stronger correlation with winning.

The use of the term correlation is both deliberate and intentional. Fans and pundits like to interchange both of those terms to their own detriment. Only one thing causes teams to win games. That’s when they score more points than their opponent. From there, we want to see what individual factors are more closely correlated with that outcome. So, we are testing the passing game today. We will look at the leaders in total passing yards, receivers that led the league in receiving yards, and the teams that finished in the final four between 2000 and 2021.

Since we have already looked at the running game we will provide the natural comparison with the running game equivalent. For instance, are you more likely to win with the number one running back or the number one receiver? We will do the same with the number one ranked offenses in running and passes individually. Obviously, we will do the same with the final four teams.

Leading Receiver

Just like with the running backs, we noticed several receivers that led the league in receiving yards in multiple seasons. That includes our very own Andre Johnson. That also included Torry Holt, Calvin Johnson. Antonio Brown, and Julio Jones. Just like with the running backs we have 17 different receivers lead the league in receiving yards since 2000.

Leading Receivers: 1 Super Bowl, 2 conference title games, 3 divisional rounds, 5 wild card rounds

Leading Runners: 1 Super Bowl, 2 conference title games, 5 divisional rounds, 6 wild card rounds

So, it would appear that having the leading rusher is actually a better predictor of success than having the leading receiver. Again, we are talking correlations and in both cases we would have to acknowledge that missing the playoffs is almost as likely as making the playoffs. In the case of receivers, we are talking a 50/50 split.

Leading Passing Yards

Just like with running backs, we could assert that teams that spread the rock around have more success than teams that focus on one primary receiver. We saw with running backs that some teams lead the league in rushing without having the best running back. It would make perfect sense to expect the same in the passing game. It’s also important to remember we are talking about passing yards and not anything else. We aren’t talking about the efficiency of the passing game or the running game.

Passing Yards Leader: 5 Super Bowls, 3 conference title games, 2 divisional rounds, 2 wild card rounds

Rushing Yards Leader: 1 Super Bowls, 5 conference title games, 3 divisional rounds, 5 wild card rounds

So, teams that lead the league in rushing are more likely to make the playoffs than teams that lead in passing yards. However, teams that lead in passing are more likely to advance in the playoffs than those rushing yards. So, ultimately are results are probably inconclusive. We saw more with the final four teams in rushing (at least in terms of results we could interpret) and I’d assume the same will be true with passing yards.

The Final Four

With the running game we broke this down by looking at the Super Bowl champion, then the runner up, and then the conference title game losers. The expectation would be that if passing yards were important then there would be a stronger correlation the more successful a team was. Just as a reminder, we found the inverse to be true with rushing yards. I will put the collective rank next to the passing yards just as a comparison.

Super Bowl Champion: 1 top finish, 8 top five finishes, 11 top ten finishes, 16 top half finishes

Composite Rank: 11.72 (15.1)

Runner Up: 5 top finishes, 11 top five finishes, 12 top ten finishes, 17 top half finishes

Composite Rank: 9.00 (12.2)

Conference Title Losers: 4 top finishes, 11 top five finishes, 19 top ten finishes, 24 top half finishes

Composite Rank: 13.80 (11.50)

Again, the results are only somewhat conclusive in comparison with the running results. It would appear the most successful teams are better at passing than running. It would also appear that the correlation seems to be moving in the right direction overall, but again it’s not perfect. These things rarely ever are.

Localize It

How do we interpret these numbers as Texans fans? Well, the general idea is that if you are rebuilding a team which way is the quickest path to success? It would appear that focusing on the passing game is a little more effective than focusing on the running game. However, that isn’t overwhelmingly true. We also will look at preventing the run and the pass in addition to looking at overall offense and defense. Stay tuned.