As you probably already know, American football is a game of winning, so it’s not surprising that a lot of statistics revolve around the distance travelled by the players. However, it is important to keep in mind that there is not always a causal relationship between covering a large number of yards and winning a game.
For example, in the 2009 regular season, the New York Jets (9 wins and 7 losses, for a playoff spot) travelled roughly the same distance per game on average, about 320 yards, as the Seattle Seahawks (only 5 wins and 11 losses). However, since most official stats rank players and teams according to the number of yards they take or concede, this indicator cannot be missed.
Individual statistics, by positions
Running backs: From a statistical point of view, the ball carriers are of course first of all classified according to the distance they run in a match. We’ll also pay attention to the average distance of their runs and their tendency to lose the ball…Of course, the number of touchdowns scored by the running backs is also counted, although this may not be fair to those who help the runners to get back up the field gradually before one of their colleagues crosses the last two or three yards in force.
We start talking about a good game for a running back when he has more than 100 yards. In a season the threshold of 1000 yards is important, knowing that the best of each NFL regular season are rather around 1500.
Whether they are wide receivers, tight ends or running backs that evolve in a system where the passing game is distributed over a whole range of players, we retain for the receivers especially the following few indicators:
- Number of receptions per game, season
- Distance covered. On a pass, this includes the path of the balloon in the air and the distance travelled by the receiver on the ground once the pass is caught. This second part is called YAC (Yards After Catch).
- As receivers who catch a pass become runners, the fumbles are also monitored for them.
- The number of touchdowns scored on passes
The league’s top receivers surpass the 100 receptions per year mark. This leads them to exceed 1000 yards in distance.
The science of quarterbacks
In a league dominated by passing play, quarterbacks play a key role and their performance is therefore scrutinised. So we’ll be interested in:
- Their percentage of success in passing, but also the number of passes they try (which depends on the system of play in which they play).
- The number of touchdowns they score on the pass…
- The cumulative distance of their passes
- The number of times they are intercepted (in relation to the number of attempted passes but also in relation to the number of touchdowns thrown) or fumble. For some of them, the number of yards they gain by running with the ball can be significant.
To summarize the main criteria for evaluating QBs in the passing game, there is a statistic of their own: the Passer Rating. This is a magical and somewhat obscure number. It is calculated by taking into account the notion of percentage of success and, per attempt, the distance covered, the number of touchdowns and the number of interceptions.
Following the formula used in the NFL (different from the one used at the university level), the best quarterbacks finish the season with a pass rating around 100, the theoretical maximum being 158.3.
As you know, in American football players are highly specialized. In particular, in a defensive squad, one will not ask the same thing of a defensive back (cornerback or safety) and a linebacker. Moreover, the basic system used by a team (for example, defense “3-4” or “4-3”, strong tendency to use the blitz or not…) has an influence on the stats of each one. That said, there are some interesting indicators for any type of defender:
- The number of tackles, whether solo or team tackles (a team tackle counts as a half).
- Interceptions and forced fumbles: the number of balls intercepted or fumbles provoked.
- Sacks: This is one of the most important statistics in defensive play in US football, as it corresponds to the tackle (with loss of ground) of the opposing quarterback behind the attack/defense line. Here again, you can count half a sack if it is made by several players. It should be noted that sacking has only started to be officially counted since 1982. This is why some of the great defenders of the past such as Deacon Jones do not appear in the record books in their rightful place.
The best tacklers (usually linebackers) exceed 150 tackles per season. For interceptions, a total of around 10 in a season is considered remarkable. Sack specialists exceed 15 in one year. Sacks are mainly recorded by defensive ends (in a 4-3 system with 4 linebackers).
Footwork and special teams
Punters and kickers are evaluated on the length and accuracy of their kicks.
In the case of field goals, the percentage of success is counted. The longest field goals in NFL history were scored by 63 yards (by Tom Dempsey in 1970 and Jason Elam in 1998).
The other side of the footwork is the ability of opposing players to get as far up the field as possible on a punt or kickoff to sometimes score a defensive touchdown.
Another important statistic for all players is the number of penalties they cause their team, as these fouls can sometimes turn a game around.
Of course, in this category there are cumulative values of individual statistics (total number of yards in the run and/or pass, total number of points scored or conceded, number of sacks that the offensive line could not prevent). Other team indicators are important in a match because they show how certain matches are changing or explain the reasons for a victory:
- The difference between the number of turnovers suffered and provoked
- The conversion rate of the 3rd and 4th attempts
- The time of possession of the ball
- The behavior of the attack or defense in the red zone (i.e. the last 20 yards): do we have to deal with an attack that scores touchdowns every time it enters the red zone, or on the contrary, must most often be satisfied with three-point kicks?
- The number of first downs obtained
- Cumulative distance lost due to penalties
- The average location of the starting point of the offensive series: this measures the quality of the footwork and also the quality of the special teams who are responsible for getting the ball as far as possible on kickoffs and punts. These yards scraped outside of the attacking sequences act as virtual first downs that can weigh heavily in a match.
That said, at the end of the day and for any team, the number that counts above all else is obviously the win-loss record, which is used to rank the contenders for a place in the playoffs. And of course, in the playoffs, only victory counts. That’s why, even though the 2007 Patriots were 16-0 clear in the regular season, history will remember their final 18-1 record following their defeat in Super Bowl XLII. That’s why the 1972 Dolphins remain the only team to have had a truly perfect season.