The Most Important Stat in Football
Bud Goode (pronounced "goody"), the father of pro football analysis, was a mathematician at heart who spent almost half a century collecting and analyzing football statistics. One sportswriter called him "a Hollywood press agent loose in a Twilight Zone of numbers."
In 1973, he predicted the winners in 75 percent of the NFL games played. He often said he wanted the inscription on his headstone to read: "Here lies Goode. He told the world about average yards per pass attempt." He died in 2010.
He may not have gotten his tombstone wish, but yards per pass attempt — today known as net yards per pass attempt, or NY/A — remains the most important stat in pro football.
Here’s everything you need to know about the metric to be an expert. Or at least impress your friends, family and coworkers.
12 Super Bowl Winners
From 1985 through 2010, Goode did research for 26 NFL franchises, including 12 Super Bowl winners.
Among his most devoted followers were his first, George Allen (with both the Redskins and the Rams), Dick Vermeil, Bill Parcells and Bill Walsh.
All four took teams to the Super Bowl, and the last three coaches won.
Against the Odds
The football establishment first took notice of Goode when Sports Illustrated’s Joe Marshall profiled him before the 1974 Super Bowl between Minnesota and Miami.
Many analysts favored the Vikings by three points, but Goode’s algorithm was emphatic: Miami was better than Minnesota and would win by at least nine.
The Dolphins won handily, 24-7.
A Simple Stat
Goode used several yardsticks in his evaluation, but the most important, the one he found that best correlated with winning, was net yards per pass attempt, or NY/A, simply the net yards a team passes for divided by the number of attempts.
(Passing Yards – Sack Yards) divided by (Passes Attempted + Times Sacked)
Peyton Manning used to be the NFL career leader in net yards per pass attempt at 7.23. Now, it's Patrick Mahomes at 7.48.
How It Works
Simply put, if Team A threw 30 passes for 250 yards and suffered three sacks for losses of 30 yards, they have a net gain of 220 yards on 33 attempts, for a 6.66 yards per attempt.
If Team B averaged, say, 5.6 yards an attempt (or NY/A), then Team A probably won the game.
How Often Does This Hold True?
What’s the probability of yards per pass attempt determining final results?
If you want to impress your football friends, try this trick. Next Monday morning, ask someone to look at the NFL box scores. For each game, tell them not to tell you the teams or any other information except the number of net yards each team passed for, number of sacks and sack yardage, and the number of pass attempts.
With that alone, you can tell them who won the game four out of five times, or around 80 percent.
The Second Most Important Stat
The second most important stat that correlates with winning is interception percentage.
The lower the interception percentage, of course, the better.
NY/A Over the Years
In the 1990s, my colleague, statistician and economist George Ignatin, tested Goode’s theory all the way back to 1958, the year which many regard as the birth of the modern NFL, when Johnny Unitas led his Baltimore Colts to a thrilling sudden-death victory over the New York Giants in the championship game.
The NFL started keeping better and more comprehensive stats that year, so football was easier to study.
Since then, diligent stats gurus have poured over thousands of box scores and updated NFL stats back to 1932.
History Backs Goode Up
Goode was absolutely correct: Pro football essentially was a game of passing and pass defense, and the best stat for measuring the effectiveness of the passing game was yards per pass attempt. In our study, the team that had the highest NY/A for that game won 83 percent of the time.
In 2008 we updated, and the margin had dropped slightly to 81.5 percent, which a statistician would call an acceptable statistical variation.
We did it again in 2015, and the wins rate was 81.8 percent.
Best NY/As Dominate the Super Bowl
In the last 10 Super Bowls, 12 of the 20 teams who made it to the big one were in the NFL’s top five in NY/A and 15 of the 20 were in the top eight.
Football Is a Game of Passing
Why was the success rate so steady?
With all the possible variations in football — including running, punting, placekicking and kick returns — why was a simple passing stat by far the most important?
Because pro football, at least since the time of Unitas, has been a game of passing and pass defense.
Average Yards Per Rush Is No Measure of Success
It’s not that NFL running backs aren’t good. They are very good, and in fact, they’re all very good.
In the NFL, the average yards per rush is almost always between 4.0 and 4.2, but there is little correlation between winning and losing and being above or below that average.
In the 2018 season, so far, it’s 4.4.
Take the 1958-1959 Colts
For example, in 1958, the Colts, with their great running backs Alan "The Horse" Ameche and Lenny Moore, averaged 4.7 yards per rush while the league as a whole averaged 4.2.
But in 1959, the Colts also won the NFL championship, and at 3.9, they were below the league average of 4.2.
The Packers Also Won on Passing
Vince Lombardi’s best Green Bay Packers team won the title in 1962. Led by their Hall of Fame running backs Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung, the Pack averaged 4.7 yards per rush to the league’s 4.1.
But in 1966, the Packers won the title again and were tied for dead last in the league in yards per rush at 3.4, while the league averaged 3.9.
That’s the way it’s been over at least 60 years.
Establishing the Run Not the Key
Pro football as we know it has always been a passing game, or at least a game of passing efficiency.
During broadcasts, commentators often insist, "You have to establish the run."
They should be saying, "Establish the pass and then, when you get a lead, use the run to eat up the clock."
Unitas Was Efficient
Johnny Unitas was not only the most prolific passer of his era. He also was one of the two most efficient, leading the league in yards per attempt, or Y/A, three times.
This is a slightly different stat than the NY/A teams are measured by. Quarterbacks shouldn’t be penalized for getting sacked, so Y/A , simple yards gained passing divided by throws, is a fairer way to evaluate them.
Otto Graham is the career leader in yards per attempt at 9.0.
Bart Starr Led the NFL Twice
The other efficient passer of the Unitas era was his great rival, Bart Starr, who led in Y/A twice.
In the 1966 campaign, Starr took his Packers to the NFL championship and victory (over the Kansas City Chiefs) in the first Super Bowl by throwing just 14 touchdown passes during the regular season. But he led the NFL with an average of 9.0 Y/A.
The Underrated Stat Is Yards/Attempt
Net Yards Per Pass Attempt (NY/A) is one of the most underrated stats in pro football.
Nowadays, most football websites include yards per attempt, but you can watch entire games without hearing them mentioned.