Water Cooler Quarterbacks: Peyton Manning and the Long Ball

Peter Aiken

A look at the place of deep throws in Peyton's game.

This week's topic was drawn from several of the members hearing once again the speculation that Peyton is not the Peyton of old, that his neck surgeries have impaired his arm strength and he is no longer able to push the ball down the field. That is to say, Peyton can no longer throw the long ball effectively.

The feeling of the Water Cooler Quarterbacks that such a picture of Peyton misses two very crucial factors: the nature of Peyton's passing game in general and the general use of the long pass in the NFL.

We looked first at Peyton's history. ESPN has a great tool on their website. You can look up a given quarterback's passing statistics in a variety of situations. Starting with the 2002 season, ESPN started charting quarterbacks' performances based on the distance the ball was thrown in the air. Their categories are: Behind the Line of Scrimmage (BLS), 1-10 yards, 11-20 yards, 21-30 yards, 31-40 yards and 41+ yards. We charted Peyton's performance in these categories.

The format is simple:

Completions-Attempts-Yards-Touchdowns-Interceptions (Percentage of Total pass attempts)

20+ and 40+ represent the number of pass plays that went for 20 or more yards and 40 or more yards.

Peyton's Passing Pre-Surgery (2002-10)

Distance 2002 2003 2004
BLS 88-111-423-0 (19) 86-102-528-3-2 (18) 45-55-371-1-0 (11)
1-10 199-277-1533-8-9 (46) 192-271-1498-2-4 (47) 161-215-1336-17-2 (43)
11-20 77-133-1326-8-5 (23) 73-129-1290-11-2 (23) 100-159-1790-15-5 (32)
21-30 20-40-596-8-1 (7) 17-33-502-7-2 (6) 19-46-660-8-2 (9)
31-40 8-24-322-3-4 (4) 9-26-340-5-0 (5) 11-21-400-8-1 (4)
41+ 0-6-0-0-0 (1) 2-5-109-1-0 (1) 0-1-0-0-0 (1)
Total Attempts 591 566 497
20+ Pass Plays 51 45 69
40+ Pass Plays 11 9 14

Distance 2005 2006 2007
BLS 46-54-263-2-0 (12) 42-58-224-0-0 (10) 45-55-202-4-1 (11)
1-10 165-215-1505-9-1 (48) 193-272-1623-12-6 (49) 200-274-1780-10-2 (53)
11-20 75-131-1268-8-4 (29) 99-155-1546-13-1 (28) 66-119-1110-7-5 (23)
21-30 10-27-306-2-3 (6) 15-41-444-3-2 (7) 16-40-496-4-4 (7)
31-40 7-18-277-6-0 (4) 10-22-412-1-0 (4) 10-25-452-6-0 (5)
41+ 2-8-128-1-2 (1) 3-9-148-2-0 (2) 0-2-0-0-0 (1)
Total Attempts 453 557 515
20+ Pass Plays 49 53 53
40+ Pass Plays 7 7 9

Distance 2008 2009 2010
BLS 51-63-317-2-0 (11) 81-90-467-3-0 (16) 87-96-471-4-0 (14)
1-10 229-316-1849-11-5 (57) 210-280-1813-12-4 (49) 261-351-2149-11-2 (52)
11-20 70-108-1088-9-2 (19) 82-135-1539-10-8 (24) 79-153-1282-8-9 (22)
21-30 14-40-385-2-1 (7) 13-36-354-5-1 (6) 15-53-451-7-4 (8)
31-40 7-26-363-3-2 (5) 6-24-262-2-2 (4) 8-24-347-3-1 (3)
41+ 0-2-0-0-0 (1) 1-3-65-1-0 (1) 0-1-0-0-0 (1)
Total Attempts 555 568 678
20+ Pass Plays 42 62 43
40+ Pass Plays 7 8 9

Peyton's Passing Post-Surgery (2012-13)

Distance 2012 2013*
BLS 59-79-476-2-0 (13) 49-59-386-5-0 (13)
1-10 232-296-1926-16-2 (53) 191-259-1830-20-2 (58)
11-20 79-131-1341-10-3 (23) 48-83-895-8-1 (18)
21-30 19-43-554-6-4 (7) 12-35-386-2-4 (8)
31-40 7-18-289-3-1 (3) 4-8-173-1-0 (2)
41+ 0-1-0-0-0 (1) 1-1-52-0-0 (1)
Total Attempts 568 445
20+ Pass Plays 64 54
40+ Pass Plays 7 12

*2013 are the stats through Week 13

One thing that stands out here is that Peyton has never been a predominately deep ball passer. In his pre-surgery seasons (2002-10) he averaged 12% of his passes traveling over 20 yards in the air. That average is exactly the same in his post-surgery seasons (2012-13). It's not a case of Manning not being able to throw the deep ball, it is more a case of that is simply not his tendency. Consider:

5993 attempts
266 completions out of 709 attempts on throws longer than 20 yards, yet Peyton has 585 pass plays that have gone for 20 or more yards
9 completions out of 39 attempts thrown 41 or more yards, yet Peyton has 100 pass plays that have gone for 40 or more yards

Once again, when we consider Peyton's average percentages of pass distribution by distance, both pre- and post-surgery:

Distance Pre-surgery Post-surgery
BLS 13.6 13.0
1-10 49.3 55.5
11-20 24.8 20.5
21-30 7.0 7.5
31-40 4.2 2.5
41+ 1.1 1.0


Peyton's numbers are eerily consistent when it comes to how much he throws any given distance. He knows what he can do and he does it year in and year out with remarkably little variation.

Likewise, his completion percentages at each distance have been remarkably consistent pre- and post-surgery.

Distance Pre-surgery Post-surgery
BLS 82.9 78.9
1-10 73.2 76.5
11-20 59.0 59.0
21-30 39.5 39.3
31-40 36.7 44.5
41+ 14.6 50.-

Here is a season-by-season breakdown:

Pre-Surgery 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 High Low Ave
BLS 79.3 84.3 81.8 85.2 72.4 81.8 80.9 90.0 90.6 90.7 72.4 82.9
1-10 71.8 70.8 74.8 75.3 70.9 73.0 72.5 75.0 74.4 75.3 70.8 73.2
11-20 57.9 56.6 62.9 57.2 63.9 55.5 64.8 60.7 51.6 64.8 51.6 59.0
21-30 50.0 51.5 41.3 37.0 36.6 40.0 35.0 36.1 28.3 51.5 28.3 39.5
31-40 33.3 34.6 52.4 38.9 45.5 40.0 26.9 25.0 33.3 52.4 25.0 36.7
41+ 0.0 40.0 0.0 25.0 33.3 0.0 0.0 33.3 0.0 40.0 0.0 14.6

Post-Surgery 2012 2013 High Low Ave
BLS 74.7 83.1 83.1 74.7 78.9
1-10 78.4 73.7 78.4 73.7 76.5
11-20 60.3 57.8 60.3 57.8 59.0
21-30 44.2 34.3 44.2 34.3 39.3
31-40 38.9 50.0 50.0 38.9 44.5
41+ 0.0 1.00 1.00 0.0 50.0


One final thought about Peyton and the long ball. The Water Cooler Quarterbacks believe that part of the reason that Peyton has not thrown the long ball very much is the fact that he hasn't had to. He has had receivers who were able to take the ball long distances once they had it. Consider the stats regarding pass plays that went for twenty or more yards and forty or more yards when compared to the number of completions that travelled over twenty yards or forty yards in the air:

Year 20+ Plays 21+ Completions 40+ Plays 41+ Completions
2002 51 28 11 0
2003 45 28 9 2
2004 69 30 14 0
2005 49 19 7 2
2006 53 28 7 3
2007 53 26 9 0
2008 42 21 7 0
2009 62 20 8 1
2010 43 23 9 0
2012 64 26 7 0
2013 54 17 12 1

The Long Ball in the NFL

Our discussion then moved to the rather skewed image that the average fan has of the "long ball" in the NFL. It is a perception that is largely filtered through and created by game highlight reels. When you think of passing highlights from games, what is the first thing that usually springs to mind? Isn't it that perfectly thrown spiral that goes fifty yards down the field, drops into the hands of the receiver who does not have to break stride as he completes the play for a touchdown?

Typically, the pass thrown down the field has occurred for one of two primary reasons: (1)The quarterback sees that a defender has "blown" his coverage and one of his receivers is now open behind the defense and (2)The deep ball is often used to "loosen up" the defense for the shorter, underneath routes. Certainly there are more reasons that a quarterback will launch a deep pass but we felt that those were the two most common ones.

More to the point, the question we considered was "What role does the deep pass play in the passing attack of some of the top quarterbacks?" The way we arrived at a list of "top" quarterbacks was simple. I asked each member of the group to name the five quarterbacks whom they would consider to be effective passers. Interestingly enough, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees were all named immediately by each member. The remaining two brought out a variety of names. Please note: I did not ask anyone to justify their choices. Nor do I ask you to necessarily agree with the list. That is not the point. What I was looking for was a cross-section of NFL quarterbacks which could be used for comparison's sake. The final list was fourteen quarterbacks -- or roughly 44% of the NFL's teams. We looked at the 2012 splits for each quarterback (except Alex Smith. We used his 2011 splits as that was the last full season of data we had for him).

Here is the data we found regarding pass attempts by this group of quarterbacks:

QB BLS % 1-10 % 11-20 % 21-30 % 31-40 % 41+ %
P Manning 79 13 296 53 131 23 43 7 18 3 1 1
D Brees 125 19 324 49 146 21 38 6 26 4 7 1
T Brady 96 15 345 55 124 20 47 7 15 2 6 1
A Rodgers 101 18 277 50 118 22 38 7 9 2 7 1
M Stafford 99 14 369 52 174 24 45 6 15 2 11 2
T Romo 76 12 367 57 133 20 35 5 17 3 12 2
A Smith 75 17 250 57 81 17 21 5 8 2 7 2
P Rivers 130 25 221 42 118 23 32 6 16 3 5 1
A Luck 86 14 279 45 162 26 59 10 20 3 12 2
E Manning 56 11 270 51 142 27 34 6 23 4 4 1
R Wilson 62 16 183 47 88 23 27 7 17 4 12 3
M Ryan 108 18 300 49 146 24 23 4 19 3 11 2
A Dalton 92 18 275 52 103 20 32 6 14 3 8 1
J Flacco 92 18 250 48 99 19 40 7 26 5 16 3

We found it very interesting just how uniform these stats are. There is not a particularly wide variation between the quarterbacks, for the most part. The percentage of total pass attempts can be summarized in this way:

Distance High Low Average P Manning
BLS 25 11 16 13
1-10 57 42 51 53
11-20 27 17 22 23
21-30 10 4 6 7
31-40 5 2 3 3
41+ 3 1 2 1


What we believe this illustrates is that while quarterbacks and their teams will, on occasion, push the ball down the field with the long throw, the long ball is not a primary staple of most passing attacks. Deep passes are most likely used for specific effects or in specific circumstances. When we look at Manning in relation to the other quarterbacks, we can see the same tendencies in his passing game as anyone else's.

When all is said and done, we came to two conclusions:

(1)Peyton's perceived lack of deep balls has less to do with an inability to throw the deep ball than his style of getting the ball to his receivers quickly over a shorter distance and then letting them make the big gains after the catch.

(2)The fascination with and desire for the deep throw (or the "cannon-armed" quarterback) is more a product of the highlight reels than a reflection of the way most quarterbacks play the game in today's NFL.

The Water Cooler Quarterbacks wish you a great week of football.

Go Broncos!!!!!

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