Yards Per Attempt - Leaders Having Huge ATS Success
by Trevor Whenham - 09/10/2008
If I had to pick one favorite stat when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of a football offense it would be easy - yards per passing attempt. Passing is obviously just one component of an offense, and not a particularly key one at that for many teams. Still, no single stat does a better job in my mind of assessing the quality of an offense. To have a solid yards-per-attempt number, a team has to not only be good at passing, but it also has to have a good offensive line to protect the passer, good receivers to catch the passes, ad at least a decent running game to provide the space for the passing game to operate. It also needs a decent quarterback capable of making solid decisions. All of those things are reflected in the single, readily available number. There is simply no better shortcut to assess an offense or to compare two.
In general, the standard for a solid offense is accepted to be seven yards per attempt. Above that and a team is offensively competent. Significantly below that and they likely have problems. I find that that number holds well for the NFL and major college conferences, but I typically lower it to 6.5 when I am looking at mid-majors or at a game between two teams from the bottom half of a major conference.
Though I have used this stat enthusiastically for a long time, it was just this weekend that I spent some time looking at the potential of the stat as an indicator of which side of the spread to be on. The results were eye-opening, though obviously not conclusive - this isn't the key to getting rich. It is certainly interesting, though. In the second week of the college season, the team that led the game in yards per attempt and had at least seven yards per attempt was 23-11 ATS. That a winning percentage of 67.6 percent against the spread - way more than acceptable for any bettor. Thing were even brighter in the NFL - the YPA leading team went 13-3 ATS.
That obviously doesn't do much for us by itself when it comes to handicapping - there are lots of ways you could make good picks after a game has been played. What this does do, though, is to validate the effectiveness of the YPA stat as a measure of offensive effectiveness - clearly if a team leads in this category there is a very good chance that they will cover the spread.
When a stat appears to be that powerful, it is obviously tempting to see if it can be predictive. I'll be watching this closely through the year, and will check back in later in the season, but the first results are promising. I took a look at all of the games played by teams in the top 25 in Week 2 of college action. The teams that had the higher YPA in the previous game were 11-6 ATS in their games this week. That's a 64.7 percent winning rate. With the obvious proviso that this is a small sample size and therefore meaningless, it's nonetheless clearly worthy of further exploration. It will be interesting to see both if the YPA in the previous game and the average YPA over the season will be meaningful.
Even if the YPA doesn't prove to be a useful tool in handicapping, it certainly can be predictive. Half of the offenses in the NFL, give or take, will have a YPA of over seven by the end of the year. Just one game into the season I would say with confidence that both of the teams in the Super Bowl will be over that mark. The four teams in the conference championships as well, for that matter. The stat can be particularly useful when the playoffs come around, then - helping you separate the contenders from the pretenders. The stat is also very useful to help determine how a quarterback is progressing. Improvement can be very subtle and hard to spot for a new quarterback, but by comparing the YPA from game to game you can quickly spot when a quarterback is getting comfortable and might be ready to be trusted.
The last, and perhaps best, thing about this stat is that it doesn't favor one type of offense over another. Because it is an average it doesn't reward a team that throws 45 times a game, or punish one that only throws 15. A team that goes for longer, higher risk passes regularly can be compared to a team that completes a high number of safe, short passes. No one kind of offense is necessarily favorable to any other as long as it is capable of getting first downs and scoring points. YPA lets you assess that capability while eliminating any biases you might have about a particular offense.