Forget punt returns and two-point conversions. The Hail Mary is the most exciting play in football. It epitomizes the game’s sheer power. Line battles line in brute force. A receiver sprints at full speed to shake the defense. And the quarterback has to throw the ball as hard as decades of practice have enabled him to in just the right spot.
But as this amazing heat map from Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry teaches us, the Hail Mary doesn’t work very often. Passes 40 yards and beyond rarely succeed. In a game that really only gives you three shots to make your way 10 yards, it’s no wonder that quarterbacks opt to pass beyond the 10-yard mark just 31% of the time and leave the big plays for the big prayers.
Over at Grantland, you can see a whole series of NFL pass infographics analyzing the 19,000 passes from the 2012 season. The one embedded here was our favorite, combining pass completion (hotter equals higher) with pass frequency (bigger equals more often). What you learn is that NFL quarterbacks pass relatively short distances quite frequently.
But I encourage you to head over to their story and examine the entire collection of images. Because through different presentations of the same core data set, you’ll see other trends, like that the sidelines—although those show relatively small completion percentages here—are still vital to the NFL. (The numbers in this graph may be skewed by out-of-bounds throwaways that hurt completion statistics, but another graphic shows that QBs toss to one sideline or the other 40% of the time.)
Whether you’re interested in the nuance data visualization or just the stats driving good old football, it's worth the click.