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.)
|Fewest air yards/att.||Fewest 20+ Air yd att.|
|Player||Year||Team||AY/ATT||Player||Year||Team||20+ Att. %|
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.
|Player||Year||Team||Air Yds/Att.||20+ AY Att. %||Total QBR|
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.
|Team EPA Ranks|
|Player||Year||Team||Rec. YPG||All Offense||Pass Offense|
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.
|Chance To …|
|Rk||Team||Starting QB||QB Rk*||Elo Rating||Proj. Record||Make Playoffs||Win Division||Win SB|
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
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