Has The NFL Really Become A “Passing League”?

The NFL has seen plenty of different evolutionary effects across its lifetime. The invention of different positions and playing styles has drastically changed the game from how it used to be, even in the past decade or so. While all of these changes have occurred, many believe that the NFL is now a “passing league.” Up until the 1940s, the leagues didn’t even have a player throwing passes. Now, the quarterback position can be considered the most important out of all 22 players on the field. Teams win and lose based on how well their quarterback plays, and defenses shape their schemes differently each week to defend the better passers.

While many have talked about the league being a passing league, we can’t say for sure it’s true until we look at how teams collect their yards. We also cannot tell if the league has become more prone to passing unless we look at historical trends over time. For now, we can start with the 1970s, when football started to come into its own and become one of the top sports in America. We can compare the percentages of yards and touchdowns that came from passing and rushing from the average of all the top offenses in each decade (top offenses being the ones who scored the most points, NOT the most yards). Without further ado, let’s take a look.

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The data that comes from this is pretty interesting. The total yard numbers trended upward quickly twice, with either a fall or short gain in between (70s to 80s, 00s to 10s). The number of pass yards decreased just once, from the 80s to the 90s, which could be tied to the talent at subsequent positions at times. From 2000 on, passing offenses haven’t looked back, and rushing numbers have consistently decreased. It’s clear that most teams keep around a 65-35 balance of passing and rushing, even as numbers changed in both touchdowns and yards. While the numbers may average there, it has become increasingly clear since the 70s that the league is now a passing league, jumping from 51.14% in the 70s to almost 70% in the current decade. This is a large difference that easily shows the stark contrasts in era. This also shows how it can complicate the comparisons between different quarterbacks. When Terry Bradshaw was winning his rings, teams were almost perfectly balanced, with 51-49 and 52-48 pass-run ratios in yards and touchdowns, respectively. Now, when guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are winning, teams are increasingly relying on their quarterbacks, with 68-32 and 60-40 pass-run splits in the 2000s, and 70-30 splits in the 2010s. It is clear that the league is trending toward the passing game, and the real question should be when the next evolution and trend back towards balancing the offense begins.

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