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Answers in Search of a Question: The Myth of the Long Ball

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"We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself." -- Lloyd Alexander.

    You leap to your feet, your foam Broncos horse head hat flying off behind you as you pump your fist in the air screaming "Yes! Yes! Yes!"  Your cats bolts away from the patch of sun where they'd been napping in abject fright, your dogs lazily look at you as though you had just grown another head, and your wife and daughters silently agree to never be seen with you in public again.

    Exciting isn't?  NFL fans across the nation have fallen in love with big pass plays.  The NFL has changed many rules to promote the passing game.  It's exciting, it's fun to watch, it gets the old adrenaline going.  Fans want their team to throw the long ball.  Yet . . .are NFL teams as enamored of the deep pass as the fans?  Answers in Search of a Question, after the fold.

    I had intended to have my second "Answers . . ."  to be a sort of continuation of my first post.  Then, my ADD kicked in while perusing some of the threads.  I noticed a resurgence of a line of thinking that has arisen numerous times since Kyle Orton became our starting quarterback.  It is the on-going debate about whether or not Orton can stretch the field vertically.  He's shown that he can physically throw the ball for 65 yards.  He's even demonstrated that he can, on occasion, complete a long pass.  His supporters argue that issues with the o-line, the running game, the play-calling have all contributed to him not throwing the ball down the field.  His detractors suggest that his consistent inaccuracy in the long throw led to McDaniels not calling for deep throws.  Perhaps, it is best understood as being a little bit of each.  What I'd like to do here is expand the field beyond simply a discussion of Kyle Orton.

    This article is going to take  a look at the end results of the passing game for teams in 2009.  While fans love to see the longer pass, do the teams really utilize them all that much?

    For the sake of argument within this article, I am arbitrarily defining three passing zones:

    (1)The short zone -- pass plays that went for 1-19 yards
    (2)The medium zone -- plays that went for 20-39 yards
    (3)The deep zone -- plays that went for 40+ yards.

Please note: I am making no attempt to determine how many times any given team actually threw the ball into any of those zones.  As far as I've been able to discover, there is not any place one may go to find a statistic on how many passes were targeted for say 0-19 yards.  All I have been able to find are after-the-fact statistics on completions, yards and the break down of 20+ and 40+ yard plays. has these statistics posted beginning with the 1991 season.

A Brief Aside About History

    The fans' love of the long ball seems to have begun with the advent of what is now called the "Air Coryell Offense."  This offense was a combination of power running and deep passing.  The approach was to get five receivers out into patterns that would stretch the field vertically.  The typical patterns run were two deep ins, a skinny post, a comeback, and a speed out or a shallow cross.   It was a timing offense designed to get the ball to a receiver at a certain spot at a certain time.  The receiver would catch the ball and turn upfield.  Pass protection was vital in this offense.  Norv Turner and Mike Martz are advocates of this approach.  Turner tends to run it as a sound, quarterback friendly scheme designed to take controlled chances, utilizing plays like a medium zone post pass off of a play action fake.  Turner uses a more limited collection of plays than most Coryell disciples and stresses precise execution.  Turner led offenses are consistently near the top of the league statistically behind a strong running game, a #1 receiver who can stretch the field and catch jump balls, a good receiving TE to attack spaces opened up in the middle of the field, and a FB to be a lead blocker and final option for checking down on the pass.  The downside to Turner's variation is that it is often seen as being too predictable. 
    Martz's variation of the Air Coryell features a much more complex playbook.  It is more aggressive in the passing game to the point that the running game often appears to have been forgotten.  There is less play action.  Instead, the Martz variation features a RB who is elusive and can catch the ball.    His approach tends to use 3 WR sets, and uses the third receiver and a HB to fill the roles of the TE and FB in the Turner variation.  Martz' offense works best when the team has two elite WRs with top speed.  Martz' variation, due to the complexity of the playbook, usually requires a more intelligent QB who can intuit what Martz wants done, over the elite athlete that the personnel manager for a team might want to draft with a high draft pick.  The Martz variation has traditionally struggled when an opponent has been able to shut down the run and force the offense to become one-dimensional.  Also, QB's in Martz' offense often take a lot of hits while waiting for the routes to be run.

    The West Coast Offense grew out of the Air Coryell Offense.  It is a passing, ball control offense.  It focuses on short, high percentage routes, with the quarterback releasing the ball quickly.  The short, quick passes mean that fewer blockers are needed, allowing for more players to be released into passing routes.  It tries to create mismatches between a RB or TE and a LB.  By spreading the ball among all of the available receivers, it tries to pull the safeties up towards the line of scrimmage without depending the RB to do so, and thus opens up a deeper strike or the opportunity for a WR to break a tackle and make a long gain.  It has been described as "annoying a defense into foolishness" (author unknown).  Bill Walsh is often viewed as the premier example of a West Coast coach.  The primary goal of the West Coast Offense was to stretch the field horizontally, drawing the DBs in closer to the line and thus open up running lanes and deeper pass routes. 

    The West Coast Offense is viewed by many as being an unpredictable offense since down and distance is rarely factored into the coach's play-calling.  3-step and 5-step drops by the QB often replace a running attack and most of the pass routes are run within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage.  It requires a unique connect between the QB and the WRs -- a WR may be given as many as 3 different options depending on what the defense is showing.  The QB must be able to recognize the defense and his receiver's reaction to it.  The West Coast offense requires a quarterback with a quick release and an accurate arm and sure-handed receivers who are comfortable catching in heavy traffic. It tends to favor running quarterbacks.  Mike Shanahan ran a variation of the West Coast Offense while serving as Head Coach of the Broncos.

    The Denver Broncos are currently running the McDaniels' variation on the Belichick/Weis version of the Erhardt-Perkins Offense.  What does that mouthful mean?  Though it has been perceived as a run-first offense. it is best summed up by Erhardt's adage: "Pass to score, run to win."  Despite it's reputation, the offense is not always a run-first offense.  This offense is often run out of a spread formation with multiple receivers and an empty backfield.  Multiple sets are often used to run a core set of plays, as opposed to some systems that run multiple plays out of the same set.  The fullback sees very limited use in this variation.  As an aside, the limited use of the fullback when added to Hiilis' designation as a fullback and Larsen's winning of the starting fullback spot, could go a long way to explaining why Hillis did not see more snaps in 2009.  For a more in-depth summary, check out this MHR article by Emmett and Doug:

    These three offenses marked the beginning of the NFL's move away from a philosophy of using the run to set up the pass, and towards a philosophy of using the pass to set up the run.  This philosophy for the offense, in one form or another, has become a basic tenet in the the NFL today.  With the Air Coryell's emphasis on quick down field strikes, and the West Coast's ability to spread the field horizontally opening down field plays, NFL fans saw numerous long passing plays.  Given the excitement they generate, it's easy to understand why fans would want to see lots of deep throws.

Throwing the Long Ball

    Now the question at hand: Are NFL teams, demonstrated by the number of deep passes they complete in the medium to deep zones, particularly inclined to invest a lot of passing to the long ball?

    The following table will take a look at several items from last season: completions, < 20 pass plays, 20+ pass plays, 40+ pass plays and the percentages of completions that the longer plays make up.  The Super Bowl teams are highlighted in green.  The rest of the playoff field in yellow, and Denver in Orange.

Team Comp 1 to 19 % 20+ % 40+ %
Phi 267 195 73% 55 21% 17 6%
GB 350 278 79% 55 16% 17 5%
Dal 347 269 78% 61 18% 17 5%
Hou 396 319 81% 62 16% 15 4%
Pit 337 262 78% 61 18% 14 4%
Min 363 298 82% 52 14% 13 4%
NE 371 316 85% 43 12% 12 3%
NYG 317 245 77% 60 19% 12 4%
SD 317 241 76% 64 20% 12 4%
NO 363 294 81% 58 16% 11 3%
Den 336 284 85% 43 13% 9 3%
Was 327 279 85% 40 12% 8 2%
KC 271 226 83% 37 14% 8 3%
Bal 315 263 83% 44 14% 8 3%
Ind 393 326 83% 59 15% 8 2%
NYJ 196 154 79% 34 17% 8 4%
Chi 336 274 82% 56 17% 6 2%
Jac 314 264 84% 44 14% 6 2%
Det 201 169 84% 26 13% 6 3%
Sea 293 256 87% 32 11% 5 2%
Cin 282 241 85% 36 13% 5 2%
SF 225 187 83% 33 15% 5 2%
Car 178 149 84% 25 14% 4 2%
Buf 127 108 85% 15 12% 4 3%
Mia 274 247 90% 23 8% 4 1%
Atl 263 228 87% 31 12% 4 2%
Ten 152 127 84% 21 14% 4 3%
Cle 136 121 89% 12 9% 3 2%
Ari 339 294 87% 42 12% 3 1%
SL 140 122 87% 16 11% 2 1%
TB 158 131 83% 25 16% 2 1%
Oak 120 108 90% 10 8% 2 2%


    When we look at the chart from 2009, we see a couple of unexpected things.  First the most completions for a 40+ yard pass play was 17 -- or about 1 per game.  The league average for 40+ yard pass plays was 7.9, or about 1 every other game.  This means that a league average of only about 3% of all of the pass completions went for 40+ yards. 

    Now I'm sure someone will want to argue that this only represents the completions, and it's probable that the quarterbacks threw more deep passes than were caught.  While I'm willing to concede that that may be true, it is hard to take the position that a significant number of deep passes were dropped.  Take for example, Peyton Manning.  Manning attempted 571 passes with a completion rate of 68.8%.  Yet, he only had 8 plays (or about 1% of his pass plays) go for 40+ yards.  Which conclusion makes more logical sense: that Manning, the league's second most accurate passer in 2009, missed on a large number of deep throws, or that Manning simply did not throw all that many deep balls?  His numbers in the chart show that he threw right about the league average for 20+ and 40+ throws.

    The data for 20+ yard completions was 64, or about 4 per game.  The league average at this range is 39.8, or over 2 per game.  The league averaged 14% of all completions went for 20+ yards.

    There was no surge among the playoff teams.  They averaged 3% on completions in the 40+ range, and 15% in the 20+.  This means that the playoff teams were hovering right around the league average.  The Super Bowl teams posted the same numbers.

    While I may not be the most gifted at statistical analysis, it does not appear to me that having 3% of the completions go for 40+ yards suggests that the teams are not particularly concerned with a lot of deep throws.  Even the mid-range completions (15%)  did not command a overly large portion of the teams' efforts. 

    I had originally planned to post charts detailing the numbers from each of the last ten years, until I realized that the numbers from each of the years were virtually identical.  Each season the teams averaged completing 3-4% of their passes for 40+ yards, with the range being 1-6%.  They also were averaging right around 15% for completions of 20+ yards. 

    So where on earth does this fascination/demand that we have a quarterback who routinely throws the ball deep come from?  My suspicion is that it comes from four basic sources:

1)Highlight reels.  When news agencies show game highlights and recaps, what plays do they include?  Two of the most prominent highlights are the scoring plays and the long passes. 

2)The NFL's constantly evolving rules that emphasize the passing game.

3)Fantasy football with its emphasis on lots of yards and points.

4)A large segment of the NFL fan base that wants to see lots of highlight reel plays within a game, rather than taking the time to learn and appreciate how their team's offense is supposed to function.

    When added together, these four things combine to create an expectation/anticipation/desire for a highlight reel performance on every pass play.  The fact that the overwhelming majority of pass plays go for 1-19 yards is overlooked by most people.  The argument will often be advanced that the long throw is needed to set up both the run and the shorter game.  This is not necessarily true in the McDaniels offense.  His offense runs closer to the adage of "pass to score, run to win." 

    In conlcusion, I took the liberty of including a couple of quotes from Emmett & Doug's article, referenced above:

In kenjutsu, the Japanese art of sword fighting, there is a principle - attack the center! It involves using your hara, your own energetic center, and dominating your opponent to the point that anything he does will fail. This principle is related to something called aiki - it is said that when a general who has mastered aiki mounts his horse, the opposing army will surrender. For the Broncos to apply this principle and break the will of the opposing defense, they need to be able to attack the center of that defense, combining a talented O-Line with effective inside running. It's a common principle in attacking the 3-4, which San Diego runs very well and Kansas City is changing to. The Broncos need to be able to run the ball well up the middle.

Since the Patriots' version of the spread formation tried to expand the field horizontally as well as vertically, look for increased use of routes that employ unusual angles, as New England did with Welker, bringing him across the field to that low crossing-route. Expect to see the tight end to drop into a halfback slot, multiple tight-end sets that will often look familiar and a lot of motion from the tight ends. Anticipate more receivers on the field: wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. Unless there is a major reason, look for the fullback (whoever it is), to have a limited, but essential role - keeping the blitzers off the quarterback.

    We saw the beginnings of the transition to the McDaniels offense in 2009.  That transition showed a number of areas where the Broncos need to improve to be fully competitive in every game.  Contrary to popular belief, we do not need a quarterback who can "throw the long ball" as it is popularly conceived -- we are already right at the league average in that regard, and at virtually the same level as the teams that made the playoffs in 2009.  The challenge for McDaniels and the offense, IMHO, is not to throw the ball longer, but rather to translate the throws (and runs) that are made into points.