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70 years of NFL stats: It's ALL about the passing game

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Aug 22, 2011



We've recently started to call Passer Rating Differential the "mother stat" of NFL analysis. We even called it "the most important stat in football" on Sports Illustrated.

The reason behind our statement of Cold, Hard Football Fact is simple: almost every great team in history was dominant either in Offensive Passer Rating (OPR), Defensive Passer Rating (DPR) or Passer Rating Differential (PRD), and even all three, regardless of how many yards they passed for or allowed on defense, and regardless of well or how poorly they ran the ball.

The chart below, spanning NFL history since the dawn of the T formation in 1940, proves the critical importance of the mother stat of NFL analysis.

The 2010 Packers, by the way, were THE classic example of the importance of the passing game, as represented by rating. Green Bay struggled to run the ball all year, with an average of 3.81 YPA (25th). They also struggled to stop the run, surrendering 4.64 YPA (28th).

Conventional wisdom says they should have struggled. But conventional wisdom is for suckers. The Packers won the Super Bowl. And the statistical source of their success was obvious: Green Bay was No. 3 in Offensive Passer Rating, No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential.

They are not alone. The following chart is an effort to show you the importance of PRD throughout history. It includes 69 champions since 1940 and their ranking in points scored, point allowed, point differential, Offensive Passer Rating, Defensive Passer Rating and Passer Rating Differential.

(There have been 71 champs since 1940. The teams missing from our list are Super Bowl III champion NY Jets and Super Bowl IV champion Kansas City Chiefs. Both competed in the AFL before inter-league play, so we thought the easiest way to make a fair comparison to NFL history was just to leave them off the list. But both were stout within the AFL by these measures. For example, Super Bowl champ Kansas City and NFL champ Minnesota topped their respective leagues in 1969 with matching 42.1 Defensive Passer Ratings.)

With a few very rare exceptions (such as the 2007 Giants), champions were almost always those that dominated the skies over NFL battlefields, and the chart below provides all the proof you need.

At the end of the day, there is really only one stat that matters: scoring. Right? You win 100 percent of the time when you score more points than your opponents. But other statistical studies are merely an effort to provide context: what stats are most important when it comes to scoring points and winning and losing games.

In that respect, OPR, DPR and PRD provide incredible context and correlate incredibly strongly with points.

Consider:
  • The average NFL champion since 1940 ranked 4.6 league-wide in scoring, 4.2 in scoring defense and 2.7 in scoring differential.
  • The average NFL champion since 1940 ranked 5.1 league-wide in OPR, 4.8 in DPR and 3.4 in PRD.

In each case, there was only about a 1/2 a spot league wide in the corresponding offensive, defense and total rankings. The guys who invented passer rating may have just been trying to create a way to measure quarterbacks. But they clearly stumbled upon an incredible measure of team-wide success.

What's interesting is that both measures (points and passer rating) seem to confirm that defense plays a bigger role in winning championships than offense. In each case, champions tend to rank slightly higher in scoring defense and passing defense than they do in scoring offense and passing offense.

Some other highlights of this list:

Three teams topped the NFL in all six measures of success: the 1949 Eagles, 1955 Browns and 1996 Packers.

Teams such as the 1958 Colts, 1962 Packers and 1972 Dolphins fell just shy of that accomplishment, topping the league in five of these six indicators, and just missing on the other.

The 1999 Rams posted  the greatest point differential of any NFL champion (+284), though teams like the 1962 Packers (+267 in 14 games) and 1941 Bears (+249 in 11 games) were actually more dominant.

The top three champions in Offensive Passer Rating were the 1989 49ers (114.8), 1994 49ers (111.4) and 1999 Rams (106.6).

The top three champs in Defensive Passer Rating all played back in the World War II or immediate postwar era, when many teams had to develop modern passing games: 1943 Bears (22.0), 1942 Redskins (25.5) and 1950 Browns (28.7).

The top three champs in DPR in the Super Bowl Era are the 1973 Dolphins (39.9), 1967 Packers (41.5) and 1975 Steelers (42.8).

The top three champs in DPR in the Live Ball Era (1978-present) are the 2002 Buccaneers (48.4), 1985 Bears (51.2) and 1978 Steelers (51.8).

The top three champs in PRD are the 1943 Bears (+73.3), 1941 Bears (+65.0) and 1955 Browns (+57.6).

We don't yet have the ability to upload documents into CHFF Insider, but are working to rectify that situation. When it's all set, we'll provide the base excel doc for this information in the chart below. But you can also just copy and paste.

Year Champ Games Points Rank Points Allowed Rank Point Diff. Rank OPR Rank DPR Rank PRD Rank
1940 Bears 11 238 2 152 4 +86 2 52.3 3 48.1 7 +4.2 5
1941 Bears 11 396 1 147 4 +249 1 95.2 1 30.2 1 +65.0 1
1942 Redskins 11 227 3 102 2 +125 2 65.6 3 25.5 2 +40.1 3
1943 Bears 10 303 1 157 2 +146 1 95.3 1 22 1 +73.3 1
1944 Packers 10 238 3 141 3 +97 3 41.1 7 32.4 3 +8.7 5
1945 Rams 10 244 3 136 3 +108 2 67.8 3 31.1 1 +36.7 2
1946 Bears 11 289 1 193 5 +96 1 67.8 1 41.8 5 +26.0 1
1947 Cardinals 12 306 3 231 3 +75 2 59.9 4 53.9 5 +6.0 4
1948 Eagles 12 376 2 156 2 +220 2 84.9 1 45.9 2 +39.0 1
1949 Eagles 12 364 1 134 1 +230 1 77.6 1 30 1 +47.6 1
1950 Browns 12 310 4 144 2 +166 1 64 4 28.7 1 +35.3 1
1951 Rams 12 392 1 261 6 +131 2 79.8 1 51.9 5 +27.9 2
1952 Lions 12 344 2 192 1 +152 1 60 6 46.4 2 +13.6 3
1953 Lions 12 271 5 205 2 +66 5 53.9 5 37.6 1 +16.3 4
1954 Browns 12 336 2 162 1 +174 1 72.1 6 46.6 4 +25.5 4
1955 Browns 12 349 1 218 1 +131 1 98.3 1 40.7 1 +57.6 1
1956 Giants 12 264 5 197 4 +67 3 66 4 60 6 +6.0 5
1957 Lions 12 251 6 231 7 +20 6 55.9 8 60.4 6 -4.5 8
1958 Colts 12 381 1 203 2 +178 1 85.4 1 35.1 1 +50.3 1
1959 Colts 12 374 1 251 7 +123 1 92.1 1 45.1 1 +47.0 1
1960 Eagles 12 321 3 246 7 +75 3 87.9 2 49.1 2 +38.8 2
1961 Packers 14 391 1 223 2 +168 1 82.2 3 53.7 2 +28.5 1
1962 Packers 14 415 1 148 1 +267 1 84.9 3 43.4 1 +41.5 1
1963 Bears  14 301 10 144 1 +157 3 75.6 5 34.8 1 +40.8 2
1964 Browns 14 415 2 293 5 +122 2 80.8 4 75.6 10 +5.2 6
1965 Packers 14 316 8 224 1 +92 3 83.1 4 48.2 1 +34.9 1
1966 Packers 14 335 4 163 1 +172 2 102.1 1 46.1 1 +56.0 1
1967 Packers 14 332 9 209 3 +123 3 63.7 8 41.5 1 +22.2 3
1970 Colts 14 321 6 234 7 +87 5 73.3 8 60.3 8 +13.0 7
1971 Cowboys 14 406 1 222 7 +184 1 88.8 1 55.9 7 +32.9 1
1972 Dolphins 14 385 1 171 1 +214 1 86.9 1 47.4 2 +39.5 1
1973 Dolphins 14 343 5 150 1 +193 2 75.2 8 39.9 2 +35.3 2
1974 Steelers 14 305 6 189 2 +116 3 48.9 23 44.3 1 +4.6 12
1975 Steelers 14 373 5 162 2 +211 1 86.7 4 42.8 2 +43.9 2
1976 Raiders 14 350 4 237 12 +113 7 102.2 1 68.8 15 +33.4 4
1977 Cowboys 14 345 2 212 8 +133 2 85.3 2 48.2 4 +37.1 1
1978 Steelers 16 356 5 195 1 +161 2 81.5 3 51.8 2 +29.7 1
1979 Steelers 16 416 1 262 5 +154 2 76.6 7 56.4 2 +20.2 2
1980 Raiders 16 364 7 306 10 +58 9 70 18 61.8 4 +8.2 10
1981 49ers 16 357 7 250 2 +107 3 87.7 3 60.2 4 +27.5 2
1982 Redskins 9 190 12 128 1 +62 5 91.8 3 67.7 12 +24.1 2
1983 Raiders 16 442 3 338 13 +104 5 84.8 6 71.8 12 +13.0 5
1984 49ers 16 475 2 227 1 +248 1 101.9 2 65.6 6 +36.3 2
1985 Bears 16 456 2 198 1 +258 1 77.3 9 51.2 1 +26.1 2
1986 Giants 16 371 8 236 2 +135 2 75 12 68.6 8 +6.4 8
1987 Redskins 15 379 4 285 6 +94 4 80.7 7 69.3 7 +11.4 5
1988 49ers 16 369 7 294 8 +75 6 83.5 3 72.2 11 +11.3 6
1989 49ers 16 442 1 253 3 +189 1 114.8 1 68.5 8 +46.3 1
1990 Giants 16 335 15 211 1 +124 2 90.6 5 62.2 3 +28.4 1
1991 Redskins 16 485 1 224 2 +261 1 98 2 58.9 3 +39.1 1
1992 Cowboys 16 409 2 243 5 +166 2 88.8 3 69.9 10 +18.9 3
1993 Cowboys 16 376 2 229 2 +147 2 96.8 2 75.3 14 +21.5 2
1994 49ers 16 505 1 296 6 +209 1 111.4 1 68.1 5 +43.3 1
1995 Cowboys 16 435 3 291 3 +144 2 91.7 5 72.3 8 +19.4 2
1996 Packers 16 456 1 210 1 +246 1 95.7 1 55.4 1 +40.3 1
1997 Broncos 16 472 1 287 7 +185 1 87.4 7 71.5 7 +15.9 4
1998 Broncos 16 501 2 309 8 +192 2 93.5 4 80.5 21 +13..0 6
1999 Rams 16 526 1 242 4 +284 1 106.6 1 64.1 2 +42.5 1
2000 Ravens 16 333 14 165 1 +168 2 72.7 20 62.5 3 +10.2 9
2001 Patriots 16 371 6 272 6 +99 7 85.3 5 68.6 3 +16.7 5
2002 Buccaneers 16 346 18 196 1 +150 2 86.3 6 48.4 1 +37.9 1
2003 Patriots 16 348 12 238 1 +110 6 84.3 10 56.2 1 +28.1 2
2004 Patriots 16 437 4 260 2 +177 1 92.5 8 75.3 7 +17.2 5
2005 Steelers 16 389 9 258 3 +131 5 89.4 7 74 8 +15.4 7
2006 Colts 16 427 2 360 23 +67 9 101 1 80.4 15 +20.6 4
2007 Giants 16 373 14 351 17 +22 13 73 25 83.4 17 -10.4 24
2008 Steelers 16 347 20 223 1 +124 5 81.9 17 63.4 2 +18.5 4
2009 Saints 16 510 1 341 20 +169 1 106 2 68.6 3 +37.4 1
2010 Packers 16 388 10 240 2 +148 2 98.9 3 67.2 1 +31.7 1
  TOTALS:   25293 314 15258 292 +10035 188 5700 349 3804.7 328 1895.3 232
AVERAGE:   366.6 4.55 221.1 4.23 145.43 2.72 82.61 5.06 55.14 4.75 +27.47 3.36

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