Cold Hard Football Facts: Passing is truly the key to success in the NFL
The need to "establish the run" is so firmly ingrained in football culture that most people don't bother to question it.
But the Cold, Hard Football Facts aren't most people.
After years of studying pro football history, and after pioneering our "Quality Stats" that have a direct correlation to winning football games, two eternal truths emerge:
• Running the ball well is so distantly related to victory that it's legal for them to marry in all 50 states.
• The NFL is all about passing the ball well ... and it always has been.
You can routinely identify winners and losers in almost any NFL game simply by looking at who posted the highest average per pass attempt -- in other words, who fielded the most effective passing game. Week 3 of the 2008 season proved a textbook example: teams that posted a higher average per pass attempt won 12 of 16 games. Teams that ran more effectively (based upon YPA) were just 8-8.
Both results are fairly typical in any given week. The passing game is a very reliable measure of victory. Gauging winners by a team's ability to run the ball is a statistical coin flip.
But don't take last week's game as the final word.
Instead, consider no less an authority than the entire length and breadth of the passing game in pro football history. Consider, in other words, the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
The passing game made its modern evolution with the development of the T-formation in 1940. Since then, the most irrefutable truth in football is the same irrefutable truth in modern military circles: victory is forged through air superiority.
We looked at each of the signature dynasties and greatest teams since the advent of the T formation, and found one constant: dominant teams dominate with great pass offenses and/or great pass defenses. Their ability to run the ball is almost irrelevant.
The Bears ruled the 1940s, with four wins in five title-game appearances and a decade-long record of 81-26-3 (.750).
The Bears were largely bolstered by the innovative T-formation -- the spread formation of its time in that it was pioneered in the college ranks. The T-formation made it one back's job to take snaps from center and gave him the primary duties of calling signals and passing the ball. In other words, it helped the Bears develop the player recognized today as the first modern quarterback,
The primary benefit of the T-formation was not seen in the ground game. The primary benefit of the T-formation was seen in its revolutionary effect upon the passing game.
For an entire decade, the Bears utterly destroyed opponents when they passed. Just look at Luckman's average of 8.42 yards per pass attempt over his 12-year career (1939-50). It's still the second highest average in NFL history, 58 years after he last stepped on the field.
The Bears, in other words, dominated the 1940s because they dominated through the air.
The Browns of 1946 to 1955 stand indisputably as the sport's greatest dynasty: they appeared in 10 straight pro football championship games, winning seven of them. Cleveland dominated the fledgling AAFC during its four seasons (1946-49), winning all four championships and posting a spectacular 52-4-3 (.907) record (including postseason).
The Browns proved to be a big fish in a big pond, too, after moving to the NFL in 1950. They appeared in a record six straight NFL championship games from 1950 to '55, winning three (1950, 1954, 1955).
Pro football's greatest dynasty was built upon pro football's most explosive passing attack. Quarterback
It's no coincidence the most productive passer in pro football history led the greatest dynasty in pro football history. It's a direct cause-and-effect relationship.
The greatest fallacy in pro football wisdom is the need to establish the run. The second greatest fallacy is the belief that
The truth is the Packers were the most effective passing team of the decade and that Starr is one of the most ruthlessly efficient passers the game has ever seen. He led the league in passer rating five times in the 1960s (only
Starr's average is also the best of his era -- better than
Starr also did it with a ground game that's largely overrated. The Packers were a dominant ground team in the early 1960s. But later in the decade, including during their run of three-straight titles of 1965-67, the Packers offense was carried by Starr.
The Packers, in those three straight championship years, ranked 11th, 14th and fourth, respectively, in rushing yards per attempt. They ranked second, first and first, respectively, in yards per pass attempt. By 1967, the Packers had lost Hall of Fame running backs
Combine a consistently great passing game with a consistently great pass defense and you have the only team in history to win five NFL titles in seven years. The Packers grabbed those rings no matter how well or how poorly the ground game performed, and no matter how many Hall of Famers were lugging the rock.
The Dolphins are also a textbook example of the importance of the pass.
No doubt Miami was a run-first team. The 1972 Dolphins ran the ball 613 times that year, to just 259 pass attempts. And they were the first in history to field two 1,000-yard runners in one season.
But the difference for the Dolphins was when they did step back to pass, whether with
The 1972 Dolphins boasted the No. 1 passing attack in football that year, with an average of 8.63 yards per attempt. In fact, it was one of the 20 best passing attacks of the Super Bowl Era (No. 18). In Miami franchise history, only
There have been a lot of teams in NFL history like the 1972 Dolphins: teams that ran the ball often or ran the ball effectively. The difference between those teams and the undefeated 1972 Dolphins was Miami's ability to break the will of its opponents with one of the most deadly passing attacks in history.
Pittsburgh's dynasty, like Green Bay's, is often remembered as a run-first team, thanks to Hall of Famer
But, like others before and after them, the Steelers of the 1970s won because of air superiority.
Few teams adapted better to the Live Ball Era rule changes of 1978 that opened up the passing attack.
Don't forget Bradshaw's dominance in the biggest game of the year, either. The big-armed gunslinger, mistake-prone for much of his career, averaged a stunning 11.1 YPA during his four Super Bowl victories. He broke the back of his Super Bowl opponents, especially the Cowboys, but also the Vikings and Rams, with his long aerial assault.
But no talk about the 1970s Steelers would be complete without a look at their famous Steel Curtain, arguably the most dominant defense in history.
The Steel Curtain built its legend against the pass, routinely making life a living hell for opposing passers. The 1973 Steelers (5.36 yards per pass attempt), the 1974 Steelers (5.52 YPA) and the 1975 Steelers (5.54 YPA) all stand among the 25 best pass defenses of the Super Bowl Era. They include Pittsburgh's first two championship teams of 1974 and 1975.
To put the Steel Curtain's pass-defense dominance into perspective, consider that the 2006 Super Bowl champion Colts allowed 5.33 yards per attempt ... on the ground!
But Walsh might have argued that his was merely a continuation of the offenses he learned as an assistant to
However you define it, the results are all that mattered: the 49ers, like Brown's Browns, dominated the NFL, winning five championships from 1981 to 1994 and winning 10 or more games in an amazing 16 consecutive seasons.
And the 49ers dominated the NFL because they dominated through the air. The 1989 champion 49ers averaged a stunning 9.49 yards per pass attempt, the greatest mark of the Super Bowl Era. The 1992, 1993 and 1994 49ers all rank among the 25 most efficient passing attacks in history.
The most amazing aspect of the San Francisco dynasty is that the 49ers maintained air superiority over two quarterbacking and two coaching administrations.
Brady falls just shy of historically high averages with 7.24 yards per attempt for his career (still above modern averages of about 6.9 YPA). But he's also a high-percentage passer with one of the lowest interception rates in history.
So there's no doubt he's one of the most efficient passers ever, as evidenced by his career passer rating of 92.9. It's the fourth highest mark in NFL history, one spot ahead of Montana on the all-time list.
And when New England dominated the league last year with the first 16-0 season, it was because it dominated through the air. The volume numbers were gaudy: Brady produced 50 TD passes and 4,806 passing yards. But volume passing numbers are irrelevant. Efficiency means everything. And the 2007 Patriots were clearly the most efficient passing team in football last year, as evidenced by Brady's league-leading 8.31 yards per attempt and his miniscule INT rate of 1.4 percent (eight picks in 578 attempts), one of the best single-season marks ever.
The Patriots, like any other team, were a middling organization when they fielded ordinary quarterbacks. When an extraordinary quarterback stepped on the stage, they became an extraordinary team. After all, the rise of the New England dynasty coincided directly with the ascension of Brady to the starting role.
You take a great coach and add to the mix one of the most efficient passers in the history of football, and you suddenly have a dominant power. (The flip-side, of course, is that you remove one of the best passers in history and the team suddenly doesn't look so hot, as Patriots fans will painfully learn this year.)
But none of this is a surprise for those who kick aside conventional wisdom about the need to run and instead look only at history: From Luckman to Starr to Brady, a dominant passing attack has been the single greatest difference between ordinary teams and extraordinary teams.