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Why the Pass First Offense Isn't New

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Why the Pass First Offense Isn't New

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PHILADELPHIA - DECEMBER 27: Donovan McNabb #5 of the Philadelphia Eagles throws a pass against the Denver Broncos on December 27, 2009 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles defeated the Broncos 30-27. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Eagles fans are always concerned about the ratio of passes to rushes. The commonly repeated refrain is that Andy Reid doesn't run the ball enough.

But the NFL today is a pass-first league. 28 out of the 32 teams in the league last year threw the ball more than they ran. And there are a million theories as to why.

Most of these theories, however, refer to some sort of recent phenomenon. Perhaps we're in a golden age of quarterbacks, or the recent rule changes allow receivers more space, or coaches finally discovered statistics, or even the lineman are "too big." That last one is an actual theory.

But what if the truth is much simpler than that? What if it's not some big new change at all? What if the NFL isn't actually any more pass-happy than it was five, ten, or fifteen years ago? That's what the numbers say:

NFL Pass vs. Rush Percentage Comparison Graph 1980-2009

The simple truth of the matter is that the NFL hasn't been a run-first league for 30 years. And not only that, but the ratio of runs to passes has stayed essentially constant for the last 15.

When people say that you have to run before you can pass, they're speaking to you from the time of bell-bottoms and tie-dye. It's not true now and it hasn't been for a long time.

The real story is not the rise of the pass-first offense: it's the rise of the less risky pass-first offense. And that's where the following two graphs come into the picture:

NFL Completion Percentage Comparison Graph 1980-2009
NFL Interception Rate Graph 1980-2009

The big change in passing hasn't been that teams have suddently started passing more — it's that they've improved at it.

The average NFL completion percentage has increased five points over the last two decades. For those of you keeping score at home, that's the career difference between Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb. In other words, it's huge.

Additionally, the more accurate passing has decreased inteceptions by about a third. That's the difference between Jay Cutler and Drew Brees last year. Another way to think about it is, when your favorite team is throwing the ball upwards of 30 times a game, they avoid about eight more interceptions over the course of a season than they did before.

I'll be back later with other interesting figures on the historical question of passes v. rushes in the NFL. But until then, remember: Andy Reid's pass-happy offense isn't some newfangled creation.

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