Skip to main content
Menu
The 49ers Are The Best In Football’s Most Important Stat

For decades, the battle to win football games has pivoted on the battle to win the passing game. The connection between winning and net passing yards per pass play — that is, outgaining your opponent on passing yards minus sack yards lost per pass play — has been well known in football circles since the 1960s, when it was introduced to the world by the late Bud Goode, a TV executive with a passion for math and statistics who shared his work with a number of teams and coaches. The statistic, along with turnover differential, is one of the most predictive of success in football.

By net passing yards per pass play alone, the San Francisco 49ers, not the New England Patriots, are the best team in football. After their 20-7 demolition of Jared Goff and the Rams on Sunday in Los Angeles, their performance, according to the metric, is at a level of excellence rarely seen in the NFL over a full season.

Behind Jimmy Garoppolo’s passing and a stout defense, the 49ers are 3.1 yards per pass play in the black, well ahead of the second-place Patriots and more than twice as dominant as 27 other teams. They held the Rams and Goff to 48 net passing yards on 28 pass plays, or 1.7 yards per pass play, while gaining 6.6 yards, for a difference of 4.9. The 49ers, by the way, lost the turnover battle 2-to-1.

The 49ers are winning the passing game

Net passing yards per pass play* gained on offense and allowed on defense for all NFL teams through Week 6 of the 2019 season

Yards per dropback
Rank Team Record Offense Defense DIFF.
1 San Francisco 5-0 7.5 4.4 3.1
2 New England 6-0 7.0 4.1 2.9
3 Dallas 3-3 8.4 6.1 2.3
4 Minnesota 4-2 7.7 5.4 2.3
5 Kansas City 4-2 8.5 6.4 2.1
6 Buffalo 4-1 6.0 4.8 1.2
7 Seattle 5-1 7.9 6.7 1.2
8 Carolina 4-2 5.9 5.1 0.8
9 Denver 2-4 6.3 5.6 0.7
10 Detroit 2-2-1 7.2 6.5 0.7
11 Houston 4-2 7.0 6.4 0.6
12 Green Bay 5-1 6.5 6.3 0.2
13 Jacksonville 2-4 6.6 6.4 0.2
14 Cleveland 2-4 6.4 6.3 0.1
15 New Orleans 5-1 6.6 6.6 0.0
16 Pittsburgh 2-4 6.2 6.3 -0.1
17 Tennessee 2-4 5.5 5.7 -0.2
18 Chicago 3-2 5.2 5.5 -0.3
19 L.A. Chargers 2-4 6.9 7.2 -0.3
20 L.A. Rams 3-3 6.3 6.6 -0.3
21 Tampa Bay 2-4 6.6 6.9 -0.3
22 Baltimore 4-2 6.8 7.3 -0.5
23 Philadelphia 3-3 6.2 7.0 -0.8
24 Washington 1-5 5.6 6.5 -0.9
25 Indianapolis 3-2 5.8 6.8 -1.0
26 Oakland 3-2 6.3 7.3 -1.0
27 Atlanta 1-5 7.0 8.3 -1.3
28 Arizona 2-3-1 5.9 7.5 -1.6
29 Cincinnati 0-6 5.7 7.8 -2.1
30 N.Y. Giants 2-4 5.8 8.1 -2.3
31 N.Y. Jets 1-4 4.4 6.8 -2.4
32 Miami 0-5 4.4 9.2 -4.8

Passing yards minus yards lost in sacks divided by total number of dropbacks.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Teams with a positive differential of at least 2.0 are 22-7 this season. Even the two teams with a positive differential between 1.0 and 2.0 have been successful: Buffalo and Seattle are a combined 9-2 through Week 6. The teams with a negative differential of 1.0 or worse, on the other hand, are a combined 12-31-1.

To get a sense of how rare the Niners’ feat is, only one team has approached their current mark for a full season since at least 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group: the 2001 St. Louis Rams, who went 14-2 and lost the Super Bowl to the Patriots. And only 13 teams out of 575 from 2001 to 2018 have finished a positive differential of least 2.0 net yards per pass play for a full season. That’s 2.3 percent of teams. The combined record of these 13 teams elite at winning the passing battle? 164-44 (.788).

This edition of the 49ers is the first to go 5-0 since 1990. But the franchise is a storied one, having won five Super Bowls. So how does this year’s team stack up against those previous champions?

San Francisco 49ers teams that won the Super Bowl, by net passing yards per pass play

Yards per dropback
Season Offense Defense Diff.
1994 7.6 5.6 2.0
1989 8.1 5.3 2.8
1988 6.2 5.2 1.0
1984 7.5 5.7 1.8
1981 6.5 5.2 1.3

Source: PRO-FOOTBALL-REFERENCE.COM

Can the 49ers sustain this level of dominance? Ideally, a team’s passing differential would be built more on a foundation of offense than defense, since defense is less reliable. While the 49ers rank second in limiting yards per pass play (4.4), they are no slouches in gaining these yards, either, ranking fifth (7.5). So both units would have to regress a fair amount to push the team below a level of 2.0 net yards — a mark that, on average, results in a 12-to-13-win season.

Looking Ahead: Week 7

Best matchup:1 No. 4 Houston at No. 14 Indianapolis (-0.5), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday

The biggest toss-up of the week involves the surging Texans and the surprising Colts, in a game that could have big repercussions for the AFC South. Houston has the advantage under center with Deshaun Watson playing like a superstar,2 and we currently give the Texans a 63 percent chance to win the division (compared with 29 percent for Jacoby Brissett and Indy). But if the Colts win at home on Sunday — and we give them a razor-thin edge — Indianapolis would suddenly become AFC South favorites, with a 47 percent chance (compared with 44 percent for Houston). It’s not outside the realm of possibility: Brissett has played surprisingly well this season in relief of the retired Andrew Luck, rising to No. 18 in our Elo QB rankings, and the Colts last knocked off the Kansas City Chiefs before a bye last week. Either way, the time for Indianapolis to make its move is now. The Texans could effectively put the South away with a win here, grabbing an 84 percent division win probability and knocking the Colts’ playoff odds down to about 1-in-3.

What to watch for in the NFL’s Week 7

NFL matchups for Week 7, ranked according to various factors

Matchup Rankings
Favorite Underdog Favorite’s Win prob Quality Evenness Importance QBs
14 Colts vs 4 Texans 51.1% 4 1 2 4
12 Cowboys vs 9 Eagles 55.4 5 5 1 2
6 Seahawks vs 10 Ravens 64.6 1 10 4 1
5 Vikings at 16 Lions 56.8 6 6 3 7
23 Bears vs 8 Saints 57.9 3 7 5 10
11 Rams at 19 Falcons 53.9 9 2 8 3
2 Chiefs at 20 Broncos 63.5 7 9 7 6
7 Packers vs 21 Raiders 71.8 8 11 6 5
24 Titans vs 17 Chargers 55.1 10 4 9 12
1 Patriots at 22 Jets 75.4 2 13 11 8
26 Jaguars at 31 Bengals 54.0 14 3 10 14
3 49ers at 30 Redskins 75.1 11 12 12 9
29 Giants vs 28 Cardinals 58.4 13 8 14 11
13 Bills vs 32 Dolphins 85.0 12 14 13 13

Game Quality is based on the Elo Ratings of both teams. Evenness is based on how close the game is to 50-50 pregame odds. A game’s importance is based on how much it swings the playoff odds of the teams involved. A game’s Quarterbacks are judged on the QB Elo ratings of the two starters.

Biggest playoff implications: No. 9 Philadelphia at No. 12 Dallas (-1.5), 8:20 p.m. ET Sunday

Potential shift in playoff odds: 41.2 total percentage points

Whenever the Eagles and the Cowboys face off, things are sure to get testy. That could especially be the case in this week’s hugely important prime-time game, featuring a pair of 3-3 teams desperately trying to make sense of their respective seasons. After a 3-0 start, Dallas looked like the class of the NFC, but a three-game skid has sent the team’s Super Bowl odds tumbling from 8 percent to 2 percent. QB Dak Prescott is still playing pretty well, but the Cowboys need to fix their defensive problems before it’s too late. Meanwhile, the Eagles have their own issues to sort out on D — specifically against the pass — after being exposed by Stefon Diggs and the Vikings last week. Philly still ranks highly in our Elo ratings (No. 9 after including Carson Wentz’s QB adjustment), but the Eagles’ inconsistency this season has been maddening. Now, the two teams meet at the crossroads, and it’s not hyperbole to say this game could determine the fate of the NFC East, especially with their division-mates in New York and Washington posing little threat. If the Cowboys win, they’ll have a 58 percent chance of taking the division, with Philly at only 37 percent; if the Eagles win, their division odds would soar to 81 percent, dropping Dallas down to just 15 percent.

Best QB duels: No. 3 Russell Wilson (SEA) vs. No. 9 Lamar Jackson (BAL); No. 6 Dak Prescott (DAL) vs. No. 8 Carson Wentz (PHI); No. 1 Matt Ryan (ATL) vs. No. 16 Jared Goff (LAR)

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here. I am currently in 1,059th place!) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 6

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 6 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
LAC 80% LAC 72% PIT 24, LAC 17 +9.6
LAR 62 LAR 53 SF 20, LAR 7 +7.7
SEA 56 SEA 62 SEA 32, CLE 28 +3.3
KC 70 KC 67 HOU 31, KC 24 +1.6
TB 51 CAR 51 CAR 37, TB 26 +0.7
ATL 57 ATL 55 ARI 34, ATL 33 +0.4
NE 90 NE 92 NE 35, NYG 14 -0.9
BAL 82 BAL 83 BAL 23, CIN 17 -1.3
NO 62 NO 62 NO 13, JAX 6 -2.2
DEN 50 TEN 51 DEN 16, TEN 0 -2.7
WSH 56 WSH 54 WSH 17, MIA 16 -3.0
GB 69 GB 66 GB 23, DET 22 -4.3
MIN 55 PHI 52 MIN 38, PHI 20 -8.4
DAL 58 DAL 75 NYJ 24, DAL 22 -25.1

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

The readers had a great week … aside from one very bad game. They were right to be bearish about the Chargers (who lost to the Steelers at home) and the Rams (who lost to the 49ers at home), and they were more confident than the algorithm that the Seahawks would beat the Browns (which worked out well in the end). But the prognosticators were undone by their faith that the Cowboys would beat the Jets. Although Elo expected the same outcome, it gave Dallas only a 58 percent chance of winning; the readers gave the Cowboys an average win probability of 75 percent, which cost them a massive 25.1 points, on average, in the contest. That was enough to put Elo over the top, giving the system the win by a margin of 24.6 points over the average reader.

Still, congratulations to Christopher Moehle, who led all (identified) readers in Week 6 with 122.0 points, and to Jamie Porter, whose total of 416.8 points once again leads the full-season contest. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo, even if you missed Week 6.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Based on a combination of matchup evenness — how close to 50-50 odds the game has — and matchup quality — in terms of the harmonic mean of both teams’ QB-adjusted Elo ratings, relative to that figure for all regular-season NFL games this year.

  2. Elo considers him the league’s fourth-best starting QB right now.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Comments