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Drew Brees Almost Never Throws Deep Anymore. Is That A Problem For The Saints?

Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints is having one of the most interesting quarterback seasons in recent memory. Criticized harshly for a weak arm, the 41-year-old almost never throws the ball deep anymore, instead tossing short passes to running back Alvin Kamara and various receivers not named Michael Thomas. (The All-Pro has been injured since Week 1.)

Because they pose minimal danger over the top to keep defenses honest, you might think that Brees and the Saints would be struggling. And yet, New Orleans has started the season with at least four wins in its first six games for a fourth consecutive year, and Brees is seventh in the NFL in Total QBR.1 Brees has been trending in this direction for a while, but he is now pushing the absolute limits of how much a quarterback can accomplish without having the arm to back it up.

Going back to 2006, the earliest season for which ESPN has data on air yards, only one QB threw a shorter average pass than Brees’s 5.80 mark this year: Alex Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014, whose average pass traveled just 5.58 yards through the air. And no QB in the entire sample had a season in which he threw a smaller share of passes 20 or more yards downfield than Brees’s 3.3 percent rate so far in 2020. (Even for Smith in 2014, 5.4 percent of his passes traveled at least 20 yards.)

Few QBs sling it shorter than Drew Brees

Fewest air yards per pass attempt and smallest share of attempts that went 20+ yards in the air for qualified NFL passers, 2006-2020

Fewest air yards/att. Fewest 20+ Air yd att.
Player Year Team AY/ATT Player Year Team 20+ Att. %
Smith 2014 KC 5.58 Brees 2020 NO 3.3%
Brees 2020 NO 5.80 Smith 2014 KC 5.4
Da. Carr 2006 HOU 5.86 Tannehill 2020 TEN 5.9
Bradford 2016 MIN 6.24 Jones 2020 NYG 6.1
De. Carr 2019 OAK 6.24 Garoppolo 2019 SF 6.1
Jones 2020 NYG 6.26 Da. Carr 2006 HOU 6.1
Flacco 2019 DEN 6.28 Ryan 2013 ATL 6.1
Garoppolo 2020 SF 6.31 Fitzpatrick 2020 MIA 6.6
Smith 2015 KC 6.32 Bradford 2010 STL 6.9
Brees 2017 NO 6.36 Newton 2018 CAR 7.0

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The success levels for other short-tossing quarterbacks have varied. Ryan Tannehill of the Titans, for instance, doesn’t go deep much more often than Brees, and he is also having a very good season. (Tannehill’s average pass travels nearly 2 yards farther than Brees’s, though, because he seldom targets receivers behind the line of scrimmage.) But Smith was mediocre in 2014 — and that’s more often been the case for the QBs who rank highly on both lists above. Excluding Brees’s 2020, the average QBR for passers with both an average air yards per attempt below 7.00 and fewer than 8 percent of passes traveling at least 20 air yards was 51.1, which is well below the overall league average of 60.4 since 2006.

Brees is a lot better than the typical short passer

Highest total QBR in a season among passers with fewer than 7.0 air yards per attempt and fewer than 8 percent of passes traveling at 20+ air yards, 2006-2020

Player Year Team Air Yds/Att. 20+ AY Att. % Total QBR
Drew Brees 2020 NO 5.80 3.3% 80.7
Drew Brees 2019 NO 6.42 7.4 73.3
Matt Ryan 2013 ATL 6.61 6.1 67.5
Derek Carr 2019 OAK 6.24 7.6 64.1
Alex Smith 2015 KC 6.32 7.7 61.1
Jimmy Garoppolo 2019 SF 6.39 6.1 60.8
Daniel Jones 2020 NYG 6.26 6.1 60.6
Jason Campbell 2008 WSH 6.76 7.7 58.5
Jon Kitna 2010 DAL 6.53 7.5 52.9
Christian Ponder 2012 MIN 6.43 7.2 52.6
Alex Smith 2014 KC 5.58 5.4 52.0
Sam Bradford 2010 STL 6.39 6.9 46.9
Joe Flacco 2017 BAL 6.37 7.3 46.7
David Carr 2006 HOU 5.86 6.1 45.8
Alex Smith 2013 KC 6.54 7.9 45.0
Cam Newton 2020 NE 6.68 7.6 42.5
Sam Darnold 2020 NYJ 6.97 7.5 41.1
Chad Henne 2013 JAC 6.46 7.4 34.9
Jimmy Clausen 2010 CAR 6.52 7.7 13.8
NFL average 2006-2020 8.23 11.6 60.4

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

By QBR, Brees is doing better this year than in 2019 — another very short-passing season by historical standards — despite throwing deep even less (and despite not having Thomas, who set the all-time NFL record for receptions in a season last year). New Orleans’s leading receiver this season — by no small margin — has been Kamara, who’s tracking to be one of only five primary running backs to lead a team in receiving yards since 2006, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

RB-led receiving corps are rare — and usually bad

Primary running backs to lead an NFL team in receiving yards in a season since 2006, with team ranks in expected points added (EPA)

Team EPA Ranks
Player Year Team Rec. YPG All Offense Pass Offense
Alvin Kamara 2020 NO 76.7 7 8
Christian McCaffrey 2018 CAR 54.2 14 17
Duke Johnson 2017 CLE 43.3 29 32
Danny Woodhead 2015 SD 47.2 14 6
Jamaal Charles 2013 KC 46.2 18 20

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Similar to how most extreme short passers struggle to post efficient numbers, the other offenses whose receiving corps were led by running backs tended to grade as mediocre, according to schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA). This is consistent with research that shows passes to running backs as being less valuable than those directed to other positions. Simply put, it’s difficult to build an effective offense around short throws that disproportionately target players coming out of the backfield.

And yet, the Saints are defying all that this season, with Brees passing well and the New Orleans offense once again ranking among the top 10 in EPA, as it has every season since Brees arrived in 2006. Some of it comes down to Kamara’s unique talent as a receiver; no other running back is even close to being as valuable a pass catcher, according to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement metric. A lot of it has to do with coach Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael engineering efficient throws: According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, 51 percent of Brees’s passes this season have been characterized as “open” or “wide-open,” meaning no defender was within 3 yards of the pass target when it arrived; only three qualified passers (Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Jimmy Garoppolo) made more of their throws to receivers so lightly covered.2

And, of course, that figure is also aided by Brees’s own vast knowledge of the Saints’ offensive system. Although Next Gen Stats estimates that Brees and Garoppolo have made the “easiest” throws of any QB this season — each has an expected completion percentage of about 71 percent based on the depth (and other characteristics) of their throws — Brees has somehow managed to exceed that expectation, completing his passes at a rate 1.9 percentage points higher than we’d expect of an average QB with the same set of throws. Despite his lack of arm strength and disinclination to throw any deeper than 20 yards downfield, Brees has added value through sheer accuracy and ability to read defenses. It has been a magic act worth appreciating.

The real question, however, will be if Brees can keep it up over the rest of the season. That’s an especially pressing issue now, with Thomas still struggling to return and leading wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders on the COVID-19 reserve list. The Chicago Bears, New Orleans’s Week 8 opponent, have the NFL’s sixth-ranked defense by EPA (and are fourth-best against the pass), so they’ll surely be a tough opponent for Brees and the Saints’ short-passing scheme. They’ll also serve as a test for whether New Orleans can live up to its solid Super Bowl odds, despite deploying such a limited passing attack.

FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo ratings

How each team ranks through Week 7 of the 2020 season, according to our quarterback-adjusted predictions

Chance To …
Rk Team Starting QB QB Rk* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win SB
1 Chiefs Mahomes 2 1712 13-3 >99% 93% 20%
2 Ravens Jackson 5 1659 12-4 94 40 10
3 Buccaneers Brady 10 1652 11-5 87 64 12
4 Steelers Roethlisberger 13 1646 13-3 98 54 10
5 Seahawks Wilson 3 1625 11-5 82 43 8
6 Packers Rodgers 11 1618 11-5 88 67 8
7 Titans Tannehill 7 1617 11-5 90 75 6
8 Saints Brees 1 1603 10-6 67 34 5
9 49ers Garoppolo 26 1600 9-7 47 11 3
10 Rams Goff 14 1598 10-6 68 23 4
11 Bills Allen 9 1573 10-6 84 79 3
12 Cardinals Murray 4 1563 10-6 65 23 3
13 Colts Rivers 18 1556 9-7 52 24 2
14 Browns Mayfield 21 1553 10-6 79 6 2
15 Bears Foles 25 1541 10-6 68 30 2
16 Raiders Carr 8 1513 8-8 36 5 <1
17 Patriots Newton 22 1495 7-9 22 14 <1
18 Broncos Lock 30 1486 7-9 13 <1 <1
19 Eagles Wentz 19 1484 7-8-1 64 64 <1
20 Chargers Herbert 15 1475 7-9 15 <1 <1
21 Falcons Ryan 12 1462 4-12 <1 <1 <1
22 Panthers Bridgewater 16 1455 7-9 8 2 <1
23 Vikings Cousins 27 1455 5-11 4 <1 <1
24 Lions Stafford 17 1452 7-9 15 2 <1
25 Texans Watson 6 1445 5-11 2 <1 <1
26 Dolphins Tagovailoa 28 1418 7-9 15 7 <1
27 Bengals Burrow 20 1383 4-11-1 <1 <1 <1
28 Washington Allen 29 1380 5-11 21 20 <1
29 Giants Jones 24 1356 4-12 5 5 <1
30 Jets Darnold✚ 31 1314 2-14 <1 <1 <1
31 Jaguars Minshew† 23 1301 3-13 <1 <1 <1
32 Cowboys Dalton✚ 32 1274 5-11 11 11 <1

*Ranking among Week 8 starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

✚ Starter is currently injured and may not play.

†Starter could be replaced for performance reasons.

Simulations as of Oct. 28, 2020.

Source: ESPN

Looking ahead: Among Week 8’s slate of games, we’ve got our eye on Sunday afternoon’s clash between the Steelers and Ravens. Both teams have strong playoff odds — each sits in excess of 94 percent — but the contest could have huge implications on not just the AFC North derby but also the all-important race for the AFC’s top overall seed. Pittsburgh is undefeated and has dominated with its defense, though Ben Roethlisberger (Elo’s 13th-ranked QB) may be starting to show his age after below-average games in three of his past four starts. On Baltimore’s side, it has recovered from a 14-point loss to Kansas City in Week 3 to win three straight, with QB Lamar Jackson playing more like himself in the recent win over Philadelphia — though the Eagles’ late comeback against what is (on paper) one of the NFL’s top defenses was concerning. Elo likes the Ravens at home here, giving them a 60 percent chance at the victory, but the teams are pretty evenly matched, and it should be an excellent defensive battle. Elo’s spread: Baltimore -3

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. He actually carries the No. 1 rolling rating in our QB Elo metric, which I suspect is overstating things a bit — but it does speak to his expectation-defying performance so far this season.

  2. Kyler Murray is tied with Brees at 51 percent.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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