7 drives, 24 completions in 35 attempts, 68.5% completion rate, 261 yards, 4 touchdowns, 1 interception, 1 sack, 3rd in completion percentage, 8th in yards, 1st in touchdowns, 3rd in first downs, 4th in first down percentage, 2nd in passer rating. After just two preseason games, there are quite a number of people (and not all of them simply here at MHR) who are standing up and taking notice of Denver's starting quarterback: Kyle Orton.
I have seen comments about how this will be a break out year. How Orton will dazzle the fans, silence the critics, and earn the respect he deserves. I have had conversations with fans who are gleefully anticipating a daunting aerial attack, filled with passes rocketing down the field. I have heard people saying they've heard Coach McDaniels talk about an aggressive vertical attack. I have even heard some say, often in whispers, how this new long ball attack is going to carry us -- dare I repeat it? -- into the post season.
But before we put the long bomb in front of the quick out, it might be helpful for us to take a quick look back at where the passes fell in 2009, so that we might temper our enthusiasm just a bit, in order that we might not become discouraged when the Broncos do not start slinging the ball downfield like college students in a food fight.
The question I asked when approaching this story was: "How many times did the quarterbacks throw the ball different distances in 2009?" This is an easy question to answer since espn.com includes a "Pass thrown (distance)" split in their stats page for each quarterback. I wasn't worried about how many completions each quarterback made at a given distance. I wanted to know how many times did the quarterback throw the ball behind the line, 1-10 yards downfield, 11-20 yards downfield, 21-30 yards downfield, 31-40 yards downfield, and 41 or more yards downfield. To qualify for espn's list, a quarterback had to have thrown at least 14 passes per game. The table below shows the number of pass attempts for each quarterback for each of the distances. Please note, the distances reflect the distance the ball traveled in the air, and does not reflect a short pass that was then broken for a big gain.
Pass Attempts for Passes Thrown (Distance)
One of the things I was curious about in connection with this was the perception that Kyle Orton cannot, or will not, or is not allowed to throw the ball more than 10 yards down the field. Orton has often been criticized for not throwing the ball more than 10 yards down the field. I wondered "Is this merely a characteristic of Orton, or are there other quarterbacks who do the same thing?"
The table above shows very clearly that the single largest category of distance for passes for every one of the 32 starting quarterbacks in 2009 was the 1-10 yard range. The second largest distance was the 11-20 yard range, the third were passes behind the line. The number of attempts went down as the distance increased for every single quarterback. So, where did Orton fit in all of this?
The table above shows us that Orton was above the league average in attempts throw from behind the line to 30 yards down the field. He was nearly at the top of the number of attempts in both behind the line passes and passes thrown 21-30 yards. He was above average, though well behind the top number of attempts in the 1-20 yard range. He was well below the top and slightly below average in the number of attempts thrown 31+ yards. So, while it is safe to conclude that it was not a case of Denver choosing to not have Orton throw the ball down the field, it would still be nice to see the Broncos stretch the field a bit in the 21-30 yard range, and to see them have Orton take a larger number of shots in the 31-40 and the 41+ yard ranges.
Now, if we're going to see the Broncos pursue a stronger emphasis on the vertical passing game, then it might be nice to have some confidence that those passes will be effective. In regards to that, I took a look back at 2009 to see what percentage of the pass attempts in the top table resulted in a completion. The table below lists the completion percentage for each quarterback at each distance.
Completion Percentage for Passes Thrown (Distance)
This was an interesting set of data. I would have expected, that for the most part, the farther the quarterback had to throw the ball, the smaller the completion percentage would be. In some cases, such as Jake Delhomme, this was true. We can see how Delhomme's completion percentage dropped steadily from 66.7% on passes thrown behind the line to 23.1% on passes thrown 31-40 yards. In other cases, such as Ben Roethlisberger, this was not true. We can see how Roethlisberger's completion percentage dropped from 85.7% on behind the line throws to 36.4% on 31-40 yard throws, but rose back up to 46.2% on throws that traveled 41 yards or more. So, how did Orton compare to the other 31 quarterbacks?
We can see from this table that Orton was below the highest percentage in every category. He was above the league average in completion percentage on behind the line throws, throws that traveled 1-10 yards, throws that traveled 21-30 yards, and throws that traveled 31-40 yards. He was, on the other hand, below the league average on throws that traveled 11-20 yards and 41 or more yards.
What occurred to me as I looked at these numbers was that rather than see lots more throws down the field, I would prefer to see Orton concentrate on significantly improving his completion percentage on throws that travel between 11 and 20 yards. Actually, I'd like to see his completion percentage improve on all of his throws, but given the fact that last year the overwhelming majority of his throws traveled between 1 and 20 yards in the air, I would like to see him connect on more of these passes first. I would think that if he can become extremely efficient and effective on the short throws, that this would open up the longer throws somewhat.
Finally, while I believe we will see a greater emphasis on the longer throws, we will continue to see the kind of distribution shown in the first table, with perhaps, a few more throws that go over 31 yards. I'm not particularly convinced at this point that we will see a sudden, dramatic increase in shots down the field, but rather, we will see the long ball used very selectively and effectively and that that will, in turn, open up both the shorter passing routes, and the running game.