Pass Play Percentages 1970-2011
Traditionally, bad teams throw the ball more than good teams. It might seem a bit odd considering the success that pass-heavy teams have had in the last decade, but good teams with pass-oriented offenses tend to build big leads and thus run the ball more in the 2nd half to chew up clock. Conversely, bad teams might be run-oriented but end up throwing a lot more than they run since they are playing from behind so frequently. The 2007 Patriots are a great example of this. Tom Brady, Randy Moss and company are remembered for a high-octane passing attack. However, you might be surprised to know that they threw the ball less than 1% more than league average. Over the course of the year, the Patriots called a pass play 57.4% of the time. League average in 2007 was 56.5%.
Furthermore, since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, there has never been a season in which the playoff teams average pass play percentage has greater than league average. Take a look:
2011 could have been that year, it had the 2nd smallest difference between playoff team pass % and league average – despite the 3 most run heavy teams in the league all making the playoffs. In fact, those three teams (San Francisco, Houston, Denver) are the only three teams who ran more than they passed.
It looks like 2012 could be the first year in NFL history where playoff teams pass more frequently than non-playoff teams. Although, as you’ll notice in that graph, every time it gets close to happening, the playoff teams start to a bit more towards the run for a few years.