Advice

The Changing NFL Landscape, Part 1: Historical Trends

If you’ve played around with pace stats or looked at league trends lately, you’re probably well aware the number of plays teams run in a season has been steadily rising over the past decade, with pass attempts rising at an even greater rate and rush attempts falling.

While the number of plays an average team ran in a season peaked in 2013 before dropping back a bit in 2014 and 2015, the overall trend is quite clear. I decided to take a longer look at the fantasy football implications of these league-wide trends now that the 2015 regular season is in the books.

Number of Plays

The first thing I wanted to check out was how many more plays the average team runs than teams of old. In other words, while the average team ran 1,030.5 offensive plays in 2015, I was curious how much more that was than, say, the 2000 season, or even 1990. As I looked back, I realized my assumption that plays have been steadily rising over time was baseless. I wound up going all the way back to 1978, the season the NFL moved to a 16-game schedule.

The following is a chart of the number of total plays run in every 16-game season in NFL history. Note that I removed the strike-shortened 1982 season (in which only nine games were played) as well as the strike-shortened 1987 season (in which 15 games were played, but four featured replacement players).

TotalPlaysPerSeason

Interestingly, the season with the highest average offensive plays per team was 1981. That said, while I learned average offensive plays used to be higher than present day, a separate hypothesis that passing has also increased steadily (while rushing has declined) was confirmed.

PassRushPlaysPerSeason

As an aside, I tried to nail down a reason why teams who ran significantly more rushing plays also ran so many plays overall in the late-70s and through most of the ‘80s. The best I could come up with was the NFL used a 30-second play clock until 1988, when they extended it to 45 seconds (they obviously later settled on 40 seconds). The fluctuations don’t perfectly match up with this, but it seems to have been a factor.1

With respect to the charts themselves, first note sacks are not included in the second chart, which explains why the rush and pass totals don’t move perfectly counter to each other. Beyond that, a lot of interesting things can be said about these graphs. For one, 2015 featured fewer rushing plays than any 16-game season in NFL history, as did 2014 before it. It may not look like much in the graph, but we’re talking an average of 30 fewer rush attempts per team over the past decade (i.e. comparing 2015 to that four-year plateau you see between 2003 and 2006).

Likewise, 2015 represented new league heights for pass attempts. But, as you can see, pass attempts had spiked before. It was interesting to see the rise over the last decade actually started with relatively suppressed numbers, as passing from about 1994 to 2002 was more frequent than from 2003 to 2008 or so. In fact, when the league went over 550 pass attempts for the average team in 2012, it wasn’t the first time in NFL history – that had already happened back in 1995.

Completions

These historical trends are interesting, but they don’t say much in terms of actionable information. These trends are well known, and the fantasy football world has already started to adjust to them. In fact, at this point it doesn’t seem like there is much we can apply.

That is, until we start considering completion percentage.

CompletionPercentagePerSeason

League-wide completion percentage has steadily risen over time, and surpassed 62 percent the last two seasons. That number is drastically higher than where it was in, say, the aforementioned pass-heavy 1995 season.2 When we pair the upswing in pass attempts with the increased efficiency of those attempts, the results become extremely noteworthy.

CompletionsPerSeason

Over the last decade, the average team has added more than 50 completions to their season total. More to the point, from just 2014 to 2015 there was an average of 10.2 more completions per team in the NFL.

It’s hard to know whether this is a trend destined to regress at some point. Interestingly, over the last five seasons those average completion numbers are 327, 338.5, 346.9, 350, and 360.2. That steady, 33.2-completion increase comes out to over 1,000 more receptions that were made in the NFL in 2015 compared to 2011.

That, of course, is actionable in point-per-reception fantasy football leagues. I’m not saying that trend will continue to rise, but according to Pro Football Focus’s average depth of target data, the league-wide aDOT has fallen each season since 2011. Considering these are samples of over 16,000 targeted pass attempts per year, a five-season trend that moves the league average depth of target from 9.02 down to 8.73 is very noticeable.

Discussion

The simplest narrative to explain all of this is teams shifting some percentage of their carries to the short passing game. That is oft-discussed, but the numbers do seem to bear it out. As I mentioned, the trend can’t continue forever. I can’t imagine in 10 years we’ll be at 650 pass attempts for the average team and a 70 percent league-wide completion percentage. But, considering we can point to an actual philosophical change,3 it would be erroneous to expect any kind of major regression in the immediate future. Even a conservative estimate for the 2016 season would have to be somewhere around 350 receptions per team.

I’ve been seeing a lot of discussions about an overcorrection coming this off-season after Zero RB was such a successful draft strategy in 2015. Many have hypothesized that this plus the influx of great WRs will cause the market to overemphasize the position, and the right move for 2016 drafts will be to go RB heavy. I’ll discuss this more in part two.

Here is the full table of data from the charts above, courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

YearPass CompPass AttRush AttTotal (includes sacks)comp%
1978224.2422.5574.110330.531
1979250.8463.5542.31043.50.541
1980275489.5513.710400.562
1981276.6506.4518.110610.546
1983285.5501.7507.51052.60.569
1984288.4511.6493.31051.80.564
1985282.5515.14871048.80.548
1986286.2516.8482.510420.554
1988273.9504.74851026.70.543
1989285.7512.1466.71018.30.558
1990270.4482.7444.4965.20.560
1991285.8498.2438.5972.20.574
1992275.2478.9439958.50.575
1993298.3514.84531005.50.579
1994312.1537.7448.21019.40.580
1995323.9556.64401032.50.582
1996306.6532.2453.11022.20.576
1997294.8524.3454.61020.70.562
1998292.2516.3452.31008.80.566
1999308.6540.643710180.571
2000306.4526.5441.21007.50.582
2001307.8522440.81001.40.590
2002322.3540.4440.71017.80.596
2003303515.4453.41002.90.588
2004305.4511.1450.9999.30.598
2005305.9514.5449.21000.70.595
2006306.1512.2451.510000.598
2007325.8532.7437.11004.20.612
2008315516.4441.29900.610
2009324.1532.3440.31006.90.609
2010327.8539.743510100.607
2011327544.1436.61017.80.601
2012338.5555.9435.21027.60.609
2013346.9566.8433.51040.70.612
2014350558.7427.81024.30.626
2015360.2571.9421.51030.50.630

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  1. Maybe you NFL history and trivia fans out there can provide some additional insight in the comments.  (back)
  2. 58.2 percent in 1995.  (back)
  3. More on this in part two.  (back)
By Ben Gretch | @YardsPerGretch | Archive

Comments   Add comment

  1. An interesting note I just came across that would have fit well in this piece.

    Number of teams with >600 pass attempts, by season, over the last decade:
    2006 - 1
    2007 - 1
    2008 - 4
    2009 - 2
    2010 - 4
    2011 - 3
    2012 - 9
    2013 - 9
    2014 - 11
    2015 - 15

    It would be hard to argue the top teams in the league will be throwing 800 passes a decade from now, but I think the mean continues to rise due to more and more teams becoming more and more pass heavy.

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