By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
The NFL’s 2012 season concluded with the Baltimore Ravens beating the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, which will help with the traditionalist view of having to play great defense and run the ball to succeed in the NFL.
True or not, the means by which NFL teams won or lost in 2012 could not have been any clearer, and that is with efficiency in the passing game.
League-wide records were set in what became the most pass-happy season in NFL history.
But in addition to passing, the league just arguably experienced what was collectively the most efficient season ever in terms of rushing, kicking and punting as well.
Teams averaged 364.1 points on the season, which is another record. However, that is inflated by having 32 teams and 16 games. The scoring average was 22.76 points per game, which is the highest since 1965.
All of this offensive scoring efficiency made for a nightmare of a year for defenses. Even those Super Bowl champion Ravens had to become the first team to ever win multiple playoff games when allowing at least 28 points.
The standard continues to change in the NFL.
New records for passer rating and interception percentage
If you thought the 2011 season was a passing onslaught, then the 2012 season took things a step further. There may not have been as many quarterbacks to throw for 5,000 yards or 40 touchdowns this season, but the overall passing numbers were better.
The league-wide passer rating in 2012 was 85.6, which is a new NFL record. Last year set the mark with 84.3. It was 86.2 through Week 13, but the passing stats did decline in that final quarter. Notice the top five seasons are the last five seasons.
Highest Passer Rating, NFL History
Note that the Arizona Cardinals led the league in Defensive Passer Rating, but it was just a mark of 71.2. That replaces the 2007 San Diego Chargers (70.0) as the highest rating in NFL history for a team that led the league in defensive passer rating.
A big reason for this was 2012 being the toughest season ever for defenders to come away with interceptions. Sure, there were more picks returned for touchdowns (71) than any season in NFL history, but that is not a good takeaway of the full picture.
The league’s interception percentage was an all-time low 2.63 percent. The previous record belonged to the 2008 season with a 2.81 interception percentage. Interceptions were one of the few stats to improve in the final four weeks of the season, as the rate through Week 13 was 2.66 percent.
The sack percentage was low (6.17 percent) in 2012, but that is still the seventh-highest rate in NFL history. Throwing quicker, shorter passes of course correlates with the lack of interceptions.
For the sixth-straight season the league’s completion percentage was over 60.0 percent. Looking to smash the record with a mark of 61.46 percent through Week 13, the success did drop enough in the last quarter of the season to fall short. But it was still the third-highest percentage (60.90 percent) in NFL history.
Highest Completion Percentage in NFL History
Perhaps making these numbers even more amazing is the fact five teams started a rookie quarterback in Week 1 and kept that player as the starter (barring injury) for the entire season. Of course it helps when we are talking about the best rookie class ever, and three real standout players included.
But old or young, the 2012 season was off the charts for passing efficiency. Oh and it had its share of volume as well.
Most pass-happy season in NFL history
Before the season started we looked at the evolution of the NFL’s pass-run ratio as it has continued to favor the pass more and more. This season set a new record with 57.65 percent of plays being a pass. It replaces 1995 (57.39 percent) as the most pass-happy season in NFL history.
Highest pass ratio, NFL history
No one threw the ball more than the 2012 Lions, setting a league record with 740 pass attempts. Matthew Stafford also set single-season records with 727 pass attempts and 791 drop backs. The pass-happy Lions crack the top 10 for most pass-happy teams for the fourth time since 2006.
Pass-Happiest Teams in NFL History
Of course in typical Detroit fashion it meant nothing but a losing record and a great season for its top skill player. The record amount of passing resulted in a 4-12 record with the only bright spot being Calvin Johnson setting the NFL record with 1,964 receiving yards.
It still pays to have at least a little bit of balance.
Rushing was effective beyond just Adrian Peterson
On the other side of the NFC North, it would become known as the rushing season for Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, but league-wide the numbers were very effective as well, ranking second to just the 2011 season in yards per carry. Each of the last five seasons all make the top 10.
Highest Rushing Yards per Carry in NFL History
Yards per carry
As for Peterson, he certainly had an impact. Without his 348 carries for 2,097 yards, the league average would have been 4.22 yards per carry, ranking No. 6 on the list instead of second.
2012: A Kicking Odyssey
Before you laugh at the kickers again, consider how good they were to start this season. After Week 6, kickers were 326 out of 372 (87.63 percent) on field goals. This was going to shatter the record, but historically field goal rates do decline later in the season, likely because of inclement weather.
But 2012 was shaping up to be the year of the kicker. Then they came up short late in the season, as seemingly most kickers do when the pressure is on.
The final tally for 2012 was a field goal percentage of 83.9 percent, which is second to the record 84.5 percent made in the 2008 season. Still, it continues the trend where the nine greatest seasons in NFL history in terms of field goal percentage are the last nine seasons in NFL history (2004-12).
At least the long-distance kicks were record-setting in 2012, with 92 successful field goals of 50-plus yards. That breaks the mark of 90 made a year ago, though it did take 11 more attempts this season. It was just two seasons ago this record was 66, so we have seen a dramatic increase in long field goals the last two years. There was also a record amount of made field goals between 40-49 yards with 259 of them in 2012, according to Pro-Football-Reference.
Overall, 852 field goals and 1,229 extra points were made in 2012, which are both league records for a season.
St. Louis’ rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein grabbed the early headlines, but it was Minnesota’s rookie Blair Walsh who went an incredible 10-for-10 on field goals of 50-plus yards this season. Baltimore rookie Justin Tucker was also very good this season (34/37 including postseason), helping the Ravens win a Super Bowl.
Though we hate to admit it, but punters are people too in the NFL. In 2012, punters averaged 45.5 yards per punt, which is another single-season record. It is also another record that was set just one year ago when punters averaged 45.0 yards per punt.
Highest Punting Average, NFL History
Yards per punt
Jacksonville’s rookie punter Bryan Anger, who was infamously chosen with a third-round pick, did average 47.8 yards per punt, which is good for the 24th-highest season in NFL history. That is still not as good as former seventh-round pick Brandon Fields, who averaged 50.2 yards per punt (No. 5 all time) for Miami this year.
Much like with the field goals, seven of the last eight seasons are the greatest ever in terms of best punting average. This is a golden era for strong-legged kickers. You fill in the PED/baseball jokes yourself.
Numbers will continue to rise
No matter which way you slice it, 2012 was a monster season for offense once again. It even broke the barely-fresh records from 2011 for most yards per game (347.2) and most first downs per game (19.8).
With a record-tying seven active quarterbacks who have won a Super Bowl and the expected improvement of sophomore quarterbacks, expect more passing efficiency in 2013 and beyond.
The passing numbers continue to get better, and the same can be said for rushing effectiveness (but not usage rate), along with record numbers from even the likes of kickers and punters.
This may very well be the impact of “bigger, faster, stronger” as we are seeing record-setting (or close to) performances all across the board in the NFL. With more rule changes expected in the future to deal with safety, the game will likely continue to hamstring defenses, producing video game-like stats.
The only question is: can you dig it?
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at email@example.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.