By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Potentate of Pigskin (@footballfacts)
Yards after catch – the infamous YAC – has been an NFL buzz-stat for many years. Fans and analysts want to know which receivers gain the most yards with the ball in their hands.
Note, we didn’t say which receivers “are the best” with the ball in their hands. Being the best and gaining the most yards are not one and the same in this situation, for reasons you’ll see below.
More interestingly, Cold, Hard Football Facts reader Gerald D’Apice turned YAC upside down this offseason by calculating what he calls YAT – Yards At Touch – and sharing the data with us.
YAT is the point downfield where the receiver actually catches the football. Look at it like this: Yards Per Catch - Yards After Catch = YAT.
The Carolina Panthers led the NFL in YAC in 2012; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers led the NFL in YAT. It’s worth noting both teams were middle of the road in scoring offense, produced losing records (7-9) and missed the playoffs.
D’Apice’s list of YAT leaders (top six below) provides some fairly compelling information.
For example, looking at the list, we quickly learn that Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts threw the ball too far downfield last year:
- The 2012 Colts ranked No. 2 in YAT, with receivers catching the ball on average 8.52 yards down field
- The 2012 Colts ranked No. 32 and dead last in completion percentage (54.0%), nearly seven full points below the league-wide average (60.9%).
Luck is certainly a bona-fide big-time talent. But the reality is that Luck will never materialize into an elite NFL quarterback completing a JaMarcus-esque 54 percent of his passes.
Whether by play design, play calling or decison making on the field, the Colts need to throw shorter, quicker passers in 2013. Shorter throws will certainly help Luck's completion percentage and, more importantly, will help his all-important passing efficiency, which is the single most important statistical barometer of success outside of record.
YAC, YAT and CORRELATION TO VICTORY
Generally speaking, D’Apice’s list of YAT leaders (and the list of YAC leaders that went with it) confirms what the Cold, Hard Football Facts have long known: YAC is largely useless as a Cold, Hard Football Facts “Quality Stat” – that is, as an indicator that correlates highly to team success.
What matters in the NFL, what has always mattered, is passing efficiency: yards per attempt, yards per catch (to a lesser extent), TD-INT ratio, passer rating, etc. Whether a team gets there with a lot of YAC or a little YAC, a high YAT or low YAT, is largely trivial. The result – that a team’s passing attack is highly efficient – is what matters.
YAC is indicative of two larger problems in current world of football analysis:
PROBLEM 1 – YAC attempts to parse individual stats too finely in what is, and always will be, the ultimate team sport.
High YAC might be indicative of a receiver’s capabilities with the ball in his hands; but it might not be, too. Said receiver might benefit from playing with a quarterback who consistently gets the ball into the hands of his receivers when they are at a point to gain additional yards with the ball.
We just don’t know. And the effort to determine credit puts the micro-parsing analysts of today's NFL in a position of making judgment calls on tape about who deserves credit when, in fact, the credit doesn’t matter. Only the results.
That’s the problem with ESPN’s Total QB Rating, for example. It’s based on judgment calls made by some guy watching tape. In other words, Total QB Rating is not really a stat at all, but something akin to the score you might get from a judge in Olympic figure skating.
At least YAC, and YAT, are actual stats that exist in raw, empirical form. A team that averages 8.5 YAC or YAT does so regardless of who ultimately we credit.
PROBLEM 2 – The bigger problem is that, at the end of the day, YAC (and YAT, for that matter), has a very low Correlation to Victory (which we track for dozens of indicators at CHFF Insider). Cold, Hard Football Facts values what we call Quality Stats: indicators which help us separate winners from losers. YAC and YAT do not necessarily help us do so.
Here’s a look at the Top Six YAC leaders in 2012: four of the top six teams had losing records and two of the top four leaders in YAC (Cleveland, Oakland) were two of the worst offenses in football.
How much faith can you put in a stat when so many of the leaders in the indicator otherwise suck?
2012 NFL YAC Top Six (see entire list here)
New England Patriots
San Diego Chargers
D’Apice’s Yards At Touch might is compelling than YAC for multiple reasons. It tells us which teams are the best at connecting with receivers downfield. But, again, the leaderboard doesn’t yield a very high Correlation to Victory.
The 7-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers topped the NFL in average YAT in 2012 and only two of the top six teams boasted winning records. Hell, even the sad-sack Bills were No. 4 league-wide in YAT in 2012.
2012 NFL YAT Top Six (see the entire list here)
New York Giants
We start to see semblance of a higher Correlation to Victory when we look at Yards Per Completion (YPC), which is simply YAT + YAC. But even then, the correlation is not too compelling.
We see some very goood teams on the YPC leaderboard, most notably the Seahawks and NFC champion 49ers. But the YAC and YAT leaders, Carolina and Tampa respectively, chime in at No. 1 and 2. Again, both had losing records and both were middle-of-the-road teams in scoring offense.
2012 Yards Per Catch Top Six
San Francisco 49ers
The general problem with yards per catch, the reason it does not have a particularly compelling Correlation to Victory, is because it's largely detached from team passing efficiency. Look at it this way: if your team connects on 1 of 10 passes for 80 yards, it averages a phenemonal 80 YPC. But it's not a very efficient team, and it's not going to win a lot of games connecting on 1 of 10 passes.
It's only when we get into the passing efficiency indicators, passer rating, TD-INT ratio, yards per attempt, that we begin to see a very high Correlation to Victory: the best teams in football consistently at the top of the list, the worst teams at the bottom of the list.
Simply look at Real Passing Yards Per Attempt, which has long been a CHFF Quality Stat. The list is largely dominated by great teams (Broncos, Falcons), great offenses (Saints) or both (Patriots).
2012 Real Passing YPA Top Six (see entire list here)
New Orleans Saints
New England Patriots
To bring it back to Andrew Luck and the Colts: the team certainly threw the ball downfield aggressively, as noted above. Their receivers were more than 8.5 yards down field on average when they touched the football. But this led to a highly inefficient passing attack.
The Colts were No. 18 in Real Passing YPA; No. 23 in Real Quarterback Rating; No. 27 in Offensive Passer Rating; and, as noted above, No. 32 in completion percentage (you can sort by % on OPR page).
Sure, the Colts went 11-5 and reached the playoffs in a remarkable turnaround from their 2-14 campaign of 2011. It was a sign of great progress. But they largely went 11-5 with statistical mirrors. To win 11 or more games consistently, as they did in the Peyton Manning Era, the Colts need to become a far more efficient passing game.
That effort begins by lowering the YAT and pumping up the passing efficiency.