The Quality of the NFL Game Is Actually Better Than Ever

What do the numbers tell us about the validity of concerns that the quality of NFL football is on the decline?

In articles and across my Twitter timeline, I'm seeing many talking about how bad the quality of NFL football has been this year. And it's not hard to find anecdotes to back the claim that  football quality is at an all-time low: Peyton Manning has taken an early retirement without telling anybody, Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel are redefining (not in a good way) the below-replacement-level quarterback, and Andrew Luck has switched bodies -- and possibly beards -- with Ryan Fitzpatrick

But rather than focus on a few examples and assume the NFL is inexorably on a downward slide, we are lucky enough to have data to determine if football quality has actually worsened. Though every NFL fan defines quality in different ways, I'm going to assume that most fans aren't hungry for better defense, or particularly focused on special teams. The key to determining football quality is offensive productivity, and passing defines today's offenses.

When you look through the aggregate passing stats for  2015 versus 2014, you can't find much evidence that passing has gotten worse. Passing yards per game are up (248.6 vs. 236.8), the touchdown rate has increased (4.6 percent of attempts vs. 4.5 percent), and the interception rate hasn't moved (2.5 percent). The most predictive passing stat, yards-per-attempt (Y/A), has also improved to 7.30 from 7.18, continuing it's steady ascent from 7.07 in 2012. By every objective measure, passing offenses -- and therefore offenses overall -- are getting more efficient, so fans should be talking about how football just keeps getting better, not worse.

So why is there the general impression that football quality has declined, when the stats seem to say the opposite? The first key is to realize that we're not watching all NFL teams equally. The reason that everyone is well acquainted with Peyton Manning's struggles, but wouldn't know that Derek Carr has historically improved his passing efficiency by nearly 40 percent to 7.6 Y/A from only 5.5, is that Manning's Broncos are one of the most televised teams in the country, and you rarely see Carr's Raiders outside of the Bay Area.

In an article on FiveThirtyEight, Kirk Goldsberry found the most and least televised teams over the past five years. When you focus on the course of Y/A over the years for the most televised and least televised teams separate from the league average, everything starts to make sense.

Well, if this NFL season feels to you like it's been upside-down, that's because it has been. You can see the passing efficiency (Y/A) of the most televised teams (top-10 in green, including the Broncos, Cowboys, Colts and Steelers) has been substantially higher than the league average in each year since 2006, but it has fallen to the league average this year. In fact, the most televised teams' passing efficiency is roughly the same that it was eight years ago, giving fans the feel that football quality generally is on the decline. On the other hand, the passing efficiency of the least televised teams (bottom-10 in blue, including the Jaguars, Raiders, Titans, and Buccaneers) increased dramatically over the past year. The least televised teams' passing efficiency has now surpassed that of the most televised teams, after being well below the league average for the last decade. 

Now that Tony Romo is returning for the Cowboys (the most televised team), Manning is possibly done in Denver, and Ben Roethlisberger is back in the mix, we might begin to see fans talking less about the poor quality of NFL football, and more about the matchups they can't wait to see this postseason. Even if that is the case, we shouldn't discount the vast improvement from the offenses at the bottom of the television pecking order. Perhaps we're at an inflection point for NFL team popularity, with the classic battles between Manning and Tom Brady, or Aaron Rodgers and Romo, soon to be replaced on your television screens by Carr against Blake Bortles, or Marcus Mariota versus Jameis Winston.