NFL Teams Take to the Skies

NFL Teams Take to the Skies

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick #14 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers throws to DeSean Jackson #11.

SourceComposite, Sean Culligan/OZY; Image, Getty

Why you should care

The NFL is turning to unprecedented levels of deep passing as the latest offensive strategy. 

On their first play from scrimmage in Week 2 of the NFL season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided to show off. At its own 25-yard line, the team dialed up one of the aggressive vertical plays it so favors. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick used play-action to fake a handoff and then unleashed a bomb to wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Jackson and the ball found one another 35 yards past the line of scrimmage, and the shifty wideout escorted it the remaining 40 yards to the end zone.

“I can’t say I was expecting that, Kenny!” Ronde Barber, part of FOX’s broadcast team, told his partner, Kenny Albert. Neither was Tampa Bay’s opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles.

Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter and his offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, who actually calls the team’s plays, champion an aggressive vertical passing attack that isn’t the norm among NFL coaches in 2018. But the strategy is catching on, with the Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Chargers all incorporating a more aggressive downfield attack than other teams, and in the process reshaping the league.

For more than three decades, the NFL, sort of like that fratty guy who lives in the apartment above yours and throws parties four nights a week, has been stuck in college. Teams overwhelmingly favor the efficient quick-strike, spread-style offenses rooted in former San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh’s West Coast strategy born in the 1980s. The bread and butter of spread schemes is quick, horizontal passing in lieu of downfield vertical attempts. But while effective, such systems limit quarterbacks, pass-catchers and playcallers alike – and over the past four decades, defenses have become adept at covering them. What’s more, the last 15 years have seen NFL rules change dramatically to favor offenses, with the direct intent of creating a higher-octane passing league.

It’s come full circle now … teams are directly responding to the conservative mentality of the conventional wisdom of the past.

Johnny Kinsley, NFL analyst

Now, teams with the personnel to pursue long, deep-field attacks are increasingly deciding that if they’ve got it, they’re going to flaunt it. That, coupled with shifting coaching strategies by teams – like the Buccaneers – and the altered rules, means that passing is rising to unprecedented levels. In 2003, NFL teams averaged 200.4 passing yards per game. Through three-quarters of the 2018 season, the average is 245.2 — an all-time high.

And it’s not just the volume of passing that’s changing; it’s the very nature of it. Five years ago, no single team averaged more than 7.5 yards per attempt (YPA), and the league average was 7.2. In 2018, eight teams are averaging at least 8.0 YPA — three at least 9.0. The league as a whole is at 7.5.

“It’s come full circle now, because teams are directly responding to the conservative mentality of the conventional wisdom of the past thanks to the change in rules against defense,” says NFL analyst Johnny Kinsley, who annually charts NFL quarterbacks on deep passing for his Deep Ball Project.

It’s hard to ignore the role of the NFL’s rule changes to facilitate passing. In 2004, the NFL directed officials to strictly enforce the pass interference rule and the rule prohibiting illegal contact beyond five yards. The interference rule, which exists for both offensive and defensive players, prohibits “contact by a player who is not playing the ball that restricts the opponent’s opportunity to make the catch.” If a defender makes such contact, the penalty is called at the spot of the foul — even if it’s 50 yards downfield. One such penalty can swing an entire game. And, in 2004, the Competition Committee confirmed this directive was in response to the league’s overall low passing yardage. Passing yards per game went up to 210.5 in 2004, compared to 200.4 the year before.

But that’s only one piece of the puzzle. Coaching developments and the league’s current personnel are both critical factors in bringing deep passing back into vogue, say experts. “Truth be told, quarterbacks with an emphasis on vertical passing have never truly gone away,” says Kinsley. “They’ve just either been injured, been suffocated by poorly coached offenses or have been featured in shorter passing schemes.”

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, to be sure. But we do know very few coaches would try to force a vertical passing scheme on players who weren’t capable of running it. According to Pro Football Focus analyst Nathan Jahnke, quarterbacks have actually been attempting about the same number of deep passes (defined as 20-plus yards downfield) this year as the last two years – hovering around 11 percent of attempts. What’s different this year is the staggering accuracy of players. Quarterbacks and receivers are completing record levels of deep attempts. According to Jahnke, this season is the first to see deep completion percentage top 40 percent — at 40.1 percent, compared to 35.5 percent in 2017.

In fact, adjusted completion percentage (a stat accounting for drops, throwaways, spikes, batted passes and passes where the QB was hit while throwing) is way up overall – 78.7 percent among all quarterbacks in 2018. From 2014 to 2017, it hovered between 76 and 77 percent each year, and from 2007 to 2013 between 74 and 76 percent. It’s not just the young gun quarterbacks’ doing, either. “Quarterbacks like Drew Brees [New Orleans Saints], Kirk Cousins [Minnesota Vikings] and Philip Rivers [Los Angeles Chargers] are having their best years so far with adjusted completion percentage, so it isn’t just new quarterbacks improving the league averages,” says Jahnke. They’re all older than 30.

If coaches have the personnel at their disposal to make these numbers possible — think Fitzpatrick or Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay, Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City and Deshaun Watson in Houston — the playbooks will reflect that. And even offensive systems that aren’t technically predicated on downfield passing, like the Los Angeles Rams’, are mixing in air raid elements because they have the players (in the Rams’ case, quarterback Jared Goff and wideouts Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks) to pull it off. In fact, Cooks, who is the most productive receiver in the NFL over the last three seasons on passes of 20-plus yards, is almost single-handedly creating more of these kinds of plays in Rams coach Sean McVay’s game plans.

“The efficiency short passing games have inherent limitations,” says NFL analyst Ian Wharton. “The recent quarterback classes have mostly brought guys who can threaten defenses vertically, as well, as with quick decisions from spread formations.”

NFL trends swing like a pendulum as the league constantly reinvents itself. Will air raid systems ever completely dethrone the spread offenses that have become so popular since Walsh installed his West Coast scheme in the 1980s? Of course not. But if vertical attacks continue gaining in efficiency and accuracy, as we’re seeing — and get teams into the end zone in fewer plays — we can expect to see them populating more playbooks across the league.

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