Vince Lombardi

No Monday Morning Quarterbacks

The 6th Commandment

The success of the combination of play design and play-making is measured by reference to a 10-yard gain.

To improve its position on a football field, a team must make first downs. First downs require a 10-yard gain. As a result, the most absolute performance standard in football is a 10-yard gain.

Otto Graham and his Browns' needed to make 10 yards to make a first down in the 1950s. Bart Starr and his Packers needed to do so in the '60s. Terry Bradshaw and his Steelers needed to do so in the '70s. Joe Montana and his 49ers needed to do so in the '80s. Troy Aikman and his Cowboys needed to do so in the '90s. And Tom Brady and his Patriots need to do so in the '00s. For this reason, YPA is a better statistic for comparing quarterback performance across eras than the NFL's passer rating formula.

In designing the West Coast System that changed professional football design forever, Walsh clearly appreciated that a 10-yard gain is the standard by which productivity should be measured. "The best possible way to compete would be to make as many first downs as possible in a contest and control the football," Walsh said. "Our objective was to make 25 first downs a game and control the ball with short passing and selective running. Our argument was that a chance of a completion drops dramatically over 12 yards. So, we would throw a 10-yard pass. Our formula was that we should get at least half our passing yardage from the run after the catch. [However,] even if our receiver was tackled immediately, we had gained at least 10 yards."

Walsh implictly recognized that the relationship between the offense and the defense is binary: Either the defense wins and the offense loses (defense takes a down), or the offense wins and the defense loses (the offense makes a first down). Walsh implictly recognized that as the offense's YPA approaches 10, the offense approaches making a first down.

The NFL's passer rating formula, however, does not recognize the preeminence of the 10-yard gain. Don Smith of the Pro Football Hall of Fame is credited with creating the NFL's current passer rating model. According to Smith, his goal was to "build a system where each quarterbacking performance could get a fixed rating that wouldn't depend on how other quarterbacks did." Thus, it would seem somewhat obvious that the most objective standard for YPA comparison would be 10 yards.

But Smith inexplicably did not pick 10 yards as the YPA standard. Rather, in order attain an exceptional YPA rating under Smith's system, a passer must attain 11 YPA, which is based on the NFL record 11.17 YPA by Cleveland's Tommy O'Connell. In other words, in direct contradiction of his stated goal, Smith's YPA rating standard depends on how just one, relatively undistinguished, part-time quarterback, Tommy O'Connell, did in 1957. Smith's YPA standard does not take into account a very important circumstantial fact: 1957 was the rookie year of Jim Brown, who according to Cold Hard Football Facts is the greatest player of all-time. To confront Brown's unique combination of power and speed, NFL defenses undoubtedly committed virtually all of their resources to stopping the run. (During the 1957 season, Cleveland ran the ball 501 times and passed only 195 times. O'Connell attempted 110 of those passes. Thus, Cleveland ran almost 5 times as often as O'Connell passed the ball, a ratio that far exceeds a typical NFL play mix.) Under these unusual circumstances, it is not surprising that O'Connell, who split time at QB with Milt Plum in 1957, posted such an outstanding YPA.

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