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The Manipulation of Passing Statistics, West Virginia Edition

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Sometimes, nothing can be more misleading than the typical box score. As I recently prepared to chart last season’s match up between West Virginia and Cincinnati, I decided to take a quick look at the box score ahead of time. What I learned was that West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith had simply lit up the Bobcats: 29 of 43, 372 yards, and one touchdown. After learning of Smith’s big day, I was extremely eager for the aerial assault I was about to witness. Sadly though, my excitement quickly wore off once the game tape started to roll.

Upon watching the game in its entirety, I was left with just one question: Was that it? There was little on the recording that led me to believe I had just witnessed the type of performance that has made Smith a 2012 Heisman contender. A shovel pass here, a shovel pass there. A screen pass here, a screen pass there. Maybe even a shallow crossing pattern was mixed in every once in awhile for a decent gain. But to my recollection, there was only one big passing play by West Virginia throughout the entire game.

How could Smith have possibly thrown for 372 yards? I knew I needed to take a deeper look at the numbers.

Due to the fact ESPNU skips ahead at times (due to time constraints), only 31 of Smith’s 43 pass attempts were shown on the recording. Of those 31 attempts, Smith completed 22 of them for 252 yards and a touchdown. At first glance, that’s a very solid game by Smith. Throughout the nation, almost every coach would gladly take a 70% completion rate at 11.5 yards per completion. But despite the strong numbers, something still felt off, almost manipulated. I then looked further at the underlying numbers…

Attempt Distance Of
Yards After
1 10 INC
2 -12 INC
3 -4 11 7
4 29 30 59
5 2 0 2
6 10 0 10
7 -2 23 21
8 4 4 8
9 -1 9 8
10 19 INC
11 11 INC
12 -6 14 8
13 4 INC
14 0 3 3
15 12 3 15
16 12 INC
17 -3 0 -3
18 10 0 10
19 11 1 12
20 13 0 13
21 -5 5 0
22 0 24 24
23 14 INC
24 13 0 13
25 3 INC
26 -1 24 23
27 -3 6 3
28 -6 14 8
29 12 INC
30 -2 4 2
31 0 6 6
passes only)
181 252

After charting Smith’s passing numbers, I decided to put them into three categories focused around PYD (The yardage of the pass from the line of scrimmage to where it is caught or supposed to be caught).

Distance Of Pass
Completions Attempts Yards TD
<3 Yards 14 15 112 0
3 to 13 Yards 7 13 81 0
13+ Yards 1 3 59 1

In breaking down the numbers, several key things were revealed:

  1. Smith accumulated 44% of his charted passing yards without ever throwing the ball more than two yards downfield.
  2. Smith’s completion percentage dropped from 93% to 53% to 33% as his PYD increased throughout the categories.
  3. Of the 31 passing plays charted, Smith threw the ball further than 13 yards downfield just three times.

So how are such gaudy passing numbers accumulated while rarely taking shots downfield? I’m glad you asked.

The video below is just one example of how West Virginia can rack up a high completion percentages and easy passing yards without throwing the ball vertically.

When simply looking at the box score, the above play would read: Smith - 1-for-1, 38 yards. What the box score doesn’t tell is how Smith did little more than ‘shovel/touch pass’ the ball to his talented wide receiver, Tavon Austin, and then simply watches Austin rack up some gaudy stats.

This isn’t a post meant to condemn the way passing statistics are viewed, but simply meant to show that not all passing yards are created equal. Throughout much of the West Virginia/Cincinnati game, Smith was simply getting the ball to his fellow playmakers as quickly as possible and became a bystander who racked up passing statistics. I understand that getting the ball to your playmakers is the point of a coaching. But statistically speaking, the way that is done can be misleading to the casual box score-reading fan.

When inflated stats can be the tiny difference needed to earn an All-American honor or even the Heisman Trophy, the way certain players accumulate stats should enter the equation. Obviously, West Virginia isn’t the only team to rack up passing stats off these ‘glorified handoffs’, they just happened to be the one I was recently charting. To sum it up, this West Virginia example simply demonstrates that there is a lot more to the overall statistical story of a game than what is generally portrayed in a simple box score.