Yards per passing attempt: A statistic that may be critical to championship success

Marc Serota

Some statistics appear to be more important than others. One of those statistics that isn't in the spotlight very often but may be more critical than most in terms of championship success is yards per passing attempt.

Why do some statistics seem to mean more than others in terms of championship success? There are several reasons, which we could spend hours trying to analyze, but if you just look at these stats historically, there is an important relationship between a team doing well in these categories and being a championship contender.

For example, an NFL team that does well in the turnover department is probably going to put itself in great position to at least compete for a Super Bowl--I don't think there's any way to dispute this important statistic.

However, another statistic that doesn't get quite the ink that maybe it should is yards per passing attempt.

One of the criticisms of the Steelers offense in recent years was too much emphasis on deep passing plays during the course of a football game. But maybe former OC Bruce Arians had the right idea. In Pittsburgh's three recent Super Bowl seasons, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger finished in the top three in YPA twice--including the Super Bowl XL season in-which Roethlisberger finished first in the NFL under then OC Ken Whisenhunt.

Obviously, this stat doesn't just pertain to Steelers' success; of the past 11 Super Bowls, 10 had at least one quarterback who finished in the top 10 in YPA. The most recent Super Bowl, XLVII, appears to be the exception of the rule as neither Joe Flacco of the Ravens or Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers finished in the top 10. But if you take a closer look, you'll see that Kaepernick, who took over for Alex Smith late in the 2012 season, failed to qualify for the stat with only 218 attempts, otherwise his 8.32 YPA would have led the league--when Roethlisberger led the NFL in '05, he qualified with only 268 attempts.

You might say it's a no-brainer that teams with great quarterback play would have great Super Bowl success, but the people who place great importance on YPA (like the people in charge of Cold Hard Football Facts) will tell you that it's even more important than the amount of yards a quarterback accumulates and the amount of touchdowns he throws during the course of the season (no team with the top passing quarterback in terms of yardage has won an NFL championship since the '59 Baltimore Colts did it under Johnny Unitas). I'll again reference the Steelers Super Bowl XL season, where Roethlisberger finished 21st in the NFL with 2385 passing yards (Roethlisberger only played in 12 games due to injury, but averaged out over 16 games, a total of 3180 yards would still fall far behind Tom Brady, who led the league in passing yards in '05 with 4110 yards).

Here's a list of the top passing offenses in the Super Bowl Era, courtesy of Cold Hard Football Facts (the list was compiled before the 2007 season), and the teams are ranked in terms of YPA and not passing yards. Of the 28 teams on this list, 17 either won a Super Bowl, played in one or at least made it as far as the conference title game.

Here's an up-to-date list, courtesy of Pro Football Reference, which documents the greatest passers of all-time in terms of YPA. The top 30 quarterbacks have accounted for 36 league titles--including Bart Starr, a five time NFL champion, who appears at No. 11 on the list despite those legendary 60s Packers teams being known more for running the football than passing.

If you'll scroll through that second list, you'll see that Terry Bradshaw doesn't appear until 62nd, which would put a bit of a dent in the YPA stat, considering he directed the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s. However, thanks to the New York Times football blog The Fifth Down, we can see that Bradshaw averaged 11.09 YPA in those four Super Bowls (nearly four yards higher than his career average of 7.2) and threw nine touchdown passes, including strikes of 47, 64, 73 and 75 yards.

While digging further using Pro Football Reference, I discovered that, in the eight playoff games the 70s Steelers teams won to advance to those four Super Bowls, Bradshaw's YPA was a very healthy 8.54. And to break it down even further, in the four playoff games that Pittsburgh won in '78 and '79 after the Mel Blount bump-in-run rule was enacted, Bradshaw averaged a whopping 11.25 YPA.

So why is YPA such an important stat? Maybe one of the reasons has to do with turnovers and opportunistic defenses. How many times do we see offenses go for the jugular and try to hit for a quick passing touchdown immediately after the defense puts it in premium position thanks to a turnover? If an offense has an abundance of such chances during a season--especially one with a talented quarterback at the helm--it doesn't have to pass as many times to reach pay-dirt allowing for a more efficient passing performance.

Maybe another reason has to do with the all-time YPA leaders being blessed with great play-makers. Joe Montana, Roger Staubach and Kurt Warner certainly had their fair share of exceptionally skilled position players to utilize all throughout their careers.

Regardless of the reasons, there is no doubt yards per attempt is a critical statistic, and one worth following more closely.

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