Fri Apr 08 03:38pm EDT
Semi-regular views from 10,000 feet.
One of my favorite quotes of the last year came from Arizona coach Mike Stoops, offering his unique professional insight in an article on the history and mystery of the NCAA's pass efficiency rating:
Just because the statistic is widely available doesn't mean it is used, though.
"I don't even know what that is," said Arizona coach Mike Stoops, who was a defensive coordinator before becoming a head coach. "[Instead] you look at touchdown passes, points, passing percentages, what are we giving up as pass completions. I don't put a lot of stock in a lot of statistics."
I hear you, coach. If only there were some magical statistical animal that managed to combine all of Stoops' favorite individual criteria:
• Touchdown-to-Interception Ratio
• Completion Percentage
• Yards Per Pass
OK, enough, you get the point. The NCAA's pass efficiency rating has been feeding precisely these factors into an inscrutable algorithm to produce a number even arithmephobes like myself and coach Stoops can grasp for more than 20 years. And for more than 20 years, it's consistently served as a better reflection and predictor of success than hoarier but more popular measure like passing yards. (The rating was introduced, in fact, in response to Kansas State's No. 1 pass defense en route to an 0-11 season in 1989, because no one ever had any reason to put the ball in the air against the Wildcats after halftime, if they had any reason to in the first place.) And after last season, I would argue that pass efficiency was the single best reflection of success anywhere in your average box score, short of the scoreboard itself. Consider:
• The top-eight teams in the nation in terms of pass efficiency started arguably the the eight best quarterbacks, and (with the notable exception of Oregon) were arguably the eight best teams, period:
1. Auburn (Cam Newton). 14-0, SEC champion, BCS Championship, No. 1 in final AP poll.
2. Boise State (Kellen Moore). 12-1, WAC co-champion, No. 10 in final AP poll.
3. Stanford (Andrew Luck). 12-1, Orange Bowl, No. 3 in final AP poll.
4. Wisconsin (Scott Tolzien). 11-2, Big Ten co-champion, Rose Bowl, No. 7 in final AP poll.
5. Alabama (Greg McElroy). 10-3, No. 9 in final AP poll.
6. TCU (Andy Dalton). 13-0, Mountain West champion, Rose Bowl, No. 2 in final AP poll.
7. Arkansas (Ryan Mallett). 10-3, Sugar Bowl, No. 12 in final AP poll.
8. Ohio State (Terrelle Pryor). 12-1, Big Ten co-champion, Sugar Bowl, No. 5 in final AP poll.
Six of those eight led their teams to BCS bowls. The two that didn't — Kellen Moore and Greg McElroy — led Boise State and Alabama to top-10 finishes in the polls, a year after leading the Broncos and Crimson Tide to BCS triumphs that capped perfect seasons in 2009.
Of the 11 losses on that list, six came at the hands of one of the other seven teams on it. They were 88-5 against everyone else.
• Among other BCS teams, Oregon (14th), Virginia Tech (19th) and Oklahoma (25th) all finished among the top 25 in pass efficiency. Only UConn (112th) was off the map, and even the Huskies had a higher efficiency rating than their opponent in six of their eight wins.
• Altogether, seven of the top-10 teams/quarterbacks in terms of pass efficiency rating finished in the top 10 of the final AP poll, and eight in the top 12.
• Sixteen of the top 20 teams in terms of pass efficiency rating finished with at least 10 wins, significantly more than any in any other major stat category. Only one of the top-20 pass efficiency teams (Georgia, at 6-7) finished worse than three games over .500.
• In those bowl games, the team with the higher pass efficiency rating in the game finished 25-10. In all games between teams that finished in the top 25, the team with the higher rating in the game was 33-7 over the entire season.
• That number probably bears repeating: In 40 games between teams that finished in the AP's top 25 at the end of the year, the team with the higher pass efficiency rating in the game won 33 of them, or 82.5 percent.
The case studies for the flip side are Florida and Texas, which lost two of the most efficient quarterbacks in NCAA history in Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy, and instantly collapsed when their replacements delivered two of the most inefficient campaigns in America last year, just as Oklahoma struggled through the unexpected absence of über-efficient Sam Bradford in 2009. But as anyone who watched those transitions — or a transition in the opposite direction, a la Stanford's rise on the arm of Andrew Luck — knows, efficiency is as much an effect of success as it is a cause. Teams that are unusually efficient in the passing game tend to be teams that run the ball well, especially if the quarterback himself can run: Before Cam Newton, Tebow, Vince Young, Pat White and Michael Vick all delivered sky-high efficiency rating while having their arm strength, accuracy and mechanics trashed by the pro scouts at every turn, simply because defenses were too busy worrying about them taking off to bother covering anybody.
The quarterbacks in the triple-option attacks at Air Force, Navy and Georgia Tech certainly don't scare anyone with their arms, either, but consistently rank among the most effective passing offenses when they do throw because defenses are usually caught out of position in anticipation of yet another run. (Compare Georgia Tech's outstanding efficiency rating in 2009, when Tech won the ACC title, to its rock-bottom rating in 2010, the only major statistic that plummeted as sharply as the Jackets' record.) Burly cro-mag attacks like Wisconsin and Virginia Tech are always at their best (as both were last year) when the bruising running game has left the defense vulnerable for big plays off play-action. It's no coincidence that every 2010 conference champion except UConn and Michigan State finished first or second in their league in pass efficiency and yards per carry.
In other words, pass efficiency is the statistic that may best reflect not only a good quarterback but a good offense that keeps in position to succeed as a result of its overall balance. Somewhere in that idea is the secret sweet spot in the age of the postmodern offense: Yes, you have to be able to throw, but it's still a matter of quality over quantity.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.