Cardinal Numbers: "Less" Than A Passing Fancy

For those of us obsessed with the collection, analysis, interpretation and presentation of data, The Bootleg's Contributing Columnist and resident statistician Terry Johnson examines the current sorry state of the Stanford passing game, which has become "LESS Than A Passing Fancy" for those of you into vintage Cardinal marketing slogans.

Stanford has a long history of high quality, productive passing offenses. This season, despite some good moments and some bright spots, the Cardinal passing offense has not been as productive as we would like it to be. This week, I'm taking a statistical look at several different aspects of Stanford's passing game this year.

Yards Per Attempt

Stanford's passing offense hit a low point against Washington. Stanford passed for a season-low of just 137 yards. The Cardinal completed 55% of its pass attempts (17 for 31), but gained a mere 4.4 yards per pass attempt.

Early in the season, I suggested that a good yardstick for judging the effectiveness of the passing game would be yards per attempt, rather than total passing yards. (Link) The statistics show a good correlation between winning and yards per pass attempt. I also suggested that a reasonable goal would be 7.0 yards per pass attempt. There's no magic to that figure, but over the last 40 seasons, 7.0 yards per attempt has been roughly the median figure for Stanford teams. Exceeding that level generally has been a sign of an effective passing game.

This season, Stanford has fallen well short of 7.0 yards per attempt. In fact, Stanford has reached that level in just one game, the San Jose State game:

Yards per Pass Attempt
San Jose St.7.7
Arizona St.6.8
Oregon St.5.9

Overall, Stanford is averaging just 6.1 yards per pass attempt for the season. That's ninth in the Pac 10 and 100th in the nation. An average of 6.1 yards per attempt, if it were to continue for the rest of the season, would be among Stanford's worst single-season yards per attempt figures in the last 40 seasons:

Fewest Yards per Attempt
(since 1968)
2007 (9 games)6.1

One way to think about the yards per attempt statistic is that it depends on two factors: the completion percentage, and the average yards per completion. Multiplying those two factors produces yards per attempt. Stanford currently has a 53.1% completion rate and is averaging 11.4 yards per completion. Multiplying those two figures produces Stanford's average of 6.1 yards per attempt.

Both Stanford's 53.1% completion percentage and its 11.4 yards per completion are sub-par. Since 1968, Stanford's median completion percentage has been about 57%, and its median yards per completion have been about 12.3. When those two median figures are multiplied, they produce the long-term median of 7.0 yards per attempt. This season, Stanford is falling well short of both the median 57% completion percentage and the median 12.3 yards per completion.

Stanford also is falling short of the passing statistics posted by the competition. So far this year, the rest of the Pac 10 has a combined 59.5% completion percentage and a combined average of 11.7 yards per completion, producing a combined average of 6.94 yards per attempt.

There are various ways to reach the suggested goal of 7.0 yards per attempt. It's possible to get there by completing a high percentage of relatively short passes, or by completing a lower percentage of longer passes.

For example, Stanford's passing offense in 1980 was characterized by high completion percentages and relatively fewer yards per completion. John Elway, who was an All American that year, completed 65.4% of his passes, one of the best percentages in school history. Elway completed a lot of shorter passes to his backs (Darrin Nelson and Vincent White). Elway therefore averaged a relatively low 11.6 yards per completion, well below Stanford's long term median of 12.3 yards per completion. But due to his high completion percentage, Elway was able to average a strong 7.6 yards per attempt.

On the other hand, Stanford's offense in the Jim Plunkett era was toward the other end of the spectrum. The Plunkett era offenses were "vertical" downfield passing offenses (somewhat similar to the Husak/Fasani offenses more recently). The Plunkett era offenses did not produce high completion percentages, but they did produce high yards per completion. In 1970, Plunkett's Heisman Trophy season, Plunkett completed 53.2% of his passes, not a particularly high figure. But he averaged an excellent 14.2 yards per completion. That allowed him to average 7.6 yards per pass attempt – the same as Elway's average in 1980:

Yards per
Yards per
Plunkett, 197053.2%14.27.6
Elway, 198065.4%11.67.6

The two quarterbacks ended up at the same yards per attempt figure, but they got there by very different paths. Both ways were effective. So, it's possible to produce a good yards per attempt figure by having a high completion percentage, or by having high yards per completion, or by some mix of both.

This season, Stanford has a 53.1% completion percentage. That's not too low to be successful – quarterbacks such as Plunkett and Fasani were successful with completion percentages in that range. But with a relatively low completion percentage, one would hope to have high yards per completion. With a 53.1% completion percentage, Stanford would need to average 13.2 yards per completion to end up at 7.0 yards per attempt. Stanford is well below that level, averaging only 11.4 yards per completion.

Looking at it the other way, with a relatively low average of 11.4 yards per completion, one would hope to have a high completion percentage. Stanford would need a completion percentage of 61.4% to produce 7.0 yards per attempt. Stanford is well short of that percentage. If the passing game is going to be successful, Stanford needs to improve either the completion percentage or the yards per completion, preferably both.

Passing Offense Against Washington

As was mentioned above, the Cardinal offense gained an anemic 4.4 yards per pass attempt against Washington. As bad as that 4.4 yards per attempt figure was, it actually understates the futility of Stanford's passing offense against Washington. Stanford also took six sacks while attempting to pass, losing 42 yards. Yardage lost on sacks shows up in a team's rushing yardage. But sacks really are failed pass plays, rather than running plays. Thus, in the NFL, yardage lost on sacks is deducted from a team's passing yardage, rather than from its rushing yardage as is the case in college.

If the NFL system were used in college, Stanford's passing yardage against Washington would have been reduced due to sacks from 137 yards to just 95 yards. That arguably gives a better picture of the success of the Cardinal passing game (or more accurately, the lack of success).

We could adjust Stanford's yards per pass attempt by counting sacks as failed pass plays. Stanford had 31 pass attempts against Washington, but the six sacks also were failed pass plays. If we were to adjust the statistics to count the sacks as the equivalent of pass attempts, Stanford would have had 95 passing yards on 37 pass plays, or just 2.6 yards per pass play.

On the other hand, if we were to adjust Stanford's rushing yardage against Washington to exclude the impact of sacks, Stanford would have had 158 rushing yards on 20 rushing attempts, or 7.9 yards per rushing attempt.

So, Stanford gained 7.9 yards per running play and only 2.6 yards per pass play. That gives a better picture of the ineffectiveness of the Cardinal passing offense. Stanford attempted 37 pass plays and 20 running plays in the game. One might wonder whether it would have made sense for Stanford to keep the ball on the ground more often against Washington.

For the season, Stanford officially is averaging 6.1 yards per pass attempt and 2.9 yards per rushing attempt. But if we were to adjust those figures to count sacks as failed pass attempts and sack yardage as a deduction from passing yardage, then for the season to date, Stanford would be averaging 4.6 yards per pass play and 4.4 yards per running play. The adjusted average of 4.4 yards per running play is good – Stanford's best figure since 2001. The adjusted average of 4.6 yards per pass play, however, is not good. I would hope to see an average of over 6 yards per pass play (net of sacks).

Quarterback Comparison

Neither Stanford quarterback is close to 7.0 yards per attempt this season. Some of the statistics for the two quarterbacks:

Completion percentage55.3%49.6%
Pass attempts/sack8.68.1
Rushing yards-16312

Overall, Ostrander has an advantage in most statistical categories, with the notable exception of rushing yards. However, Pritchard had a steep learning curve earlier this season, having been thrown into action at USC with virtually no experience. Pritchard had a slow start, which perhaps could have been the result of his inexperience. Ostrander, on the other hand, came into the season with considerable experience – 22 previous games, including seven starts. I thought it might be interesting to see whether Pritchard's performance improved once he had a chance to come up the learning curve a little bit.

It turns out that much of the statistical difference between the two quarterbacks is due to Pritchard's slow start in the USC game. In the first two-thirds of the USC game, Pritchard completed just 3 of 14 passes for 29 yards, with 4 sacks. After that, Pritchard's performance picked up. If we were to look only at what Pritchard has done since that point, the numbers would look like this:

Completion percentage55.3%53.3%
Pass attempts/sack8.69.5
Rushing yards-163-12

So, if we look at what Pritchard has done since his slow start in his first game, the two quarterbacks have had similar statistics, with the exception of rushing yards and interception percentage. But neither of the two quarterbacks has managed to be effective enough in the passing offense. Whichever quarterback plays in the next three games needs to find some way to step up his performance.

Total Passing Yards

Although total passing yards is a less meaningful statistic than yards per attempt, it's worth noting that Stanford's total passing yards have declined over the last several games. In the first four games of the season, Stanford averaged about 269 passing yards per game. In the last five games, Stanford has averaged 170 passing yards per game.

Most of the decline in total passing yards is attributable to a reduction in the number of pass attempts:

 Pass Attempts/Game
(pct. of total plays)
Rushing Attempts/Game
(pct. of total plays)
First four games42
Last five games30

In the last five games, Stanford has run more and has passed less. The reduction in pass attempts from 42 attempts per game to 30 attempts per game explains most of the decline in total passing yards.

In addition, there has been a decline in Stanford's average yards per pass attempt from 6.4 yards/attempt in the first four games to 5.7 yards/attempt in the last five games.

Random Numbers

Tyrone McGraw led the team in rushing yards in the Washington game, making him the fifth different Stanford running back to lead the team in rushing yards in a game this season...

Tyrone McGraw is now Stanford's second leading rusher for the season, with 180 rushing yards (4.9 yards per carry)...

The six running backs who have carried the ball (Kimble, Gerhart, Stewart, Evans, McGraw, Gatewood) have had a pretty good season among them – 230 carries for 1,082 yards (4.7 yards per carry)...

In the first half of the Oregon game, Stanford gave up a 64 yard punt return. Up to that point of the season, Stanford had allowed an average of 22.4 yards per punt return (112 yards on five returns). Since then, Stanford has allowed an average of 2.2 yards per punt return (46 yards on 21 returns)...

Likewise, in the first half of the Oregon game, Stanford gave up a 64 yard kickoff return. Up to that point in the season, Stanford had allowed an average of 25.9 yards per kickoff return, with just one touchback. Since then, Stanford has allowed an average of 16.3 yards per kickoff return, with six touchbacks...

Three Stanford players are in the top eight in the conference in tackles: Bo McNally is fourth (9.33 tackles per game), Clinton Snyder is seventh (8.78 tackles per game), and Pat Maynor is eighth (8.75 tackles per game)...

Last year, Tim Sims and Pannel Egboh led the team in tackles for loss with 5.5 each. Through nine games this year, six players already have 5.5 or more tackles for loss: Pat Maynor 10.0, Clinton Snyder 9.0, Pannel Egboh 9.0, Chike Amajoyi 6.5, Erik Lorig 6.0, and Udeme Udofia 5.5...

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