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Football by the Numbers: Passing fancy

Michael Salfino
Yahoo Sports

Our very special guest in this week's Football by the Numbers is someone uniquely qualified to guide us on our quest to find meaning in about 12 percent of a season's worth of stats – Paul Bessire of PredictionMachine.com, a website that projects fantasy statistics based on 50,000 simulations of each game.

We start with the passing game explosion. In 2010, passing yards increased about six percent from 2000-2009 average. That seemed remarkable. Until this year – 246 yards per game thus far on average and a 11 percent increase from just last year and a 18 percent increase from the 2000-2009 average. Can it continue?

No, says Bessire. He projects passing to hold steady at 57 percent of plays for the balance of the year (it was 55 percent in 2010, up from 52 percent in 1990 and 49 percent in 1980). But the yards per pass that is currently 7.6 is expected to decline to 6.69 for the balance of the year, much closer to the 6.57 2010 average.

However, he still has 11 QBs throwing for 4,000+ yards – Tom Brady(notes), Drew Brees(notes), Aaron Rodgers(notes), Cam Newton, Matt Ryan(notes), Philip Rivers(notes), Jay Cutler(notes), Ben Roethlisberger(notes), Chad Henne(notes), Sam Bradford(notes) and Kevin Kolb(notes). Plus, Tony Romo(notes) and Matt Stafford throw at a 4,000-yard pace but are not expected to play full seasons.

What about Brady? Well, if you drafted him (and even if you didn't), hold on to your seatbelts. "We project Tom Brady to throw for 5,750 yards, 55 TDs and 13 INTs as Patriots go 12.5 - 3.5 en route to being Super Bowl favorites."

Cam Newton throws for 30 TDs (with 23 INTS) to go with those yards. He's the fifth overall scoring QB the rest of the season, behind Brady, Brees, Rodgers and Vick. "Newton is close to a must start," says Bessire. So if he's on your bench get him in your lineup and if you have one of those other top QBs, too, trade whoever gets you the most in return.

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Newton has also made Steve Smith a must-start fantasy star again. Smith is Bessire's leading yardage receiver the rest of the way, one of 20 to gain at least 1,000 yards receiving for the season. The others: Andre Johnson(notes), Mike Wallace(notes), Larry Fitzgerald(notes), Roddy White(notes), Calvin Johnson(notes), Reggie Wayne(notes), Dez Bryant(notes), Brandon Marshall(notes), Kenny Britt(notes), Deion Branch(notes), Jason Witten(notes), Wes Welker(notes), Rob Gronkowski(notes), Vincent Jackson(notes), Greg Jennings(notes), the Tampa Bay Mike Williams, Brandon Lloyd(notes), Hakeem Nicks(notes), Jeremy Maclin(notes) and Stevie Johnson(notes). Note just 17 players did this last year.

In mining the first two weeks for keys to the balance of 2011, Bessire notes the dearth of elite pass defenses. "Philadelphia, Chicago, the Jets and Pittsburgh are the top four in order and they have already given up big fantasy days to quarterbacks. So playing matchups means something a little different than it used to. Instead of picking on bad defenses and avoiding elite defenses, finding quarterbacks that are most likely to be in shootouts is the key to finding the top QB matchups each week."

Running backs are increasingly becoming specialists, killing fantasy value. This was a trend Bessire anticipated in having two quarterbacks – Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady – in his top five overall this preseason. That's the first time even one quarterback has ever been in his top five.

"That's as much commentary on the expectations on the passing game as it is the evolution of the RB getting away from feature back sets," Bessire says. "The only RBs I would consider 'feature backs' right now are (assuming they are healthy): Adrian Peterson, Darren McFadden(notes), Frank Gore(notes), Peyton Hillis(notes), Cedric Benson(notes), LeSean McCoy(notes) and Ray Rice(notes)."

As for the rest, "running backs who do not factor much in the passing game are almost irrelevant in standard scoring leagues. They are irrelevant in PPR leagues. Michael Turner(notes), who actually already has four receptions despite catching six balls or less in all but one season in his career, is the lone exception. In standard leagues, LeGarrette Blount(notes) ranks 25th at RB for the remainder of the season. Part-time runners Darren Sproles(notes), Mike Tolbert(notes) and Reggie Bush(notes) are ahead of him. In PPR leagues, Blount ranks 33rd at RB."

Finally, in this week's Scouting Notebook, a commenter said that the 400-yard passing game is the new 300-yard game.

There have been 79 400-yard passing games since 2000. In 2010 alone, there were 12. Thus far in 2011, six. There were 42 in the 1990s. But 64 in the 1980s, so it hasn't been a straight line up. In the 1970s there were five, two by Joe Namath and one 496-yard game on just 15 completions – the most explosive single-game passing exhibition in NFL history.)

What about 300-yard games? There were but 149 in the 1970s. That increased to 586 in the '80s, leveling off to 541 in the 1990s. In the '00s, 747 (of course, more teams as the decades go by, too).

Looking at the data, the passing game explosion is old news. It actually happened about 30 years ago.

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