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NFL Quarterbacks Are Leaning On The Short Pass — And It’s Not Working

Picture this common scene on a Sunday afternoon. Your team could really use a scoring drive to turn the tide. On a 3rd-and-10, before the quarterback is even pressured, he quickly throws a 2-yard pass, and the receiver is tackled a few yards later to bring up fourth down. The crowd grumbles, the offense casually jogs off the field and the punting unit comes on. Better luck next time.

Sure, once in a blue moon the offense may throw a bubble screen on 3rd-and-33 and end up with a 52-yard touchdown, like the Rams did with Robert Woods against the Giants in Week 9 this season. But that is the rarest of exceptions.

Generally, safe passes like that don’t accomplish much, and we have the data to back that up. How does that 2-yard pass on 3rd-and-10 work out? According to the ESPN Stats & Information Group, quarterback passes thrown no more than 2 yards beyond the line of scrimmage on third down with at least 10 yards to go have been converted only 10.9 percent of the time this season. On throws that travel at least 10 yards, quarterbacks have converted 38.6 percent of the time. So an offense can more than triple its conversion rate just by doing the most obvious thing when trying to move the chains: throwing the ball past the imaginary yellow line on your TV screen.

And yet despite this, NFL teams are leaning on the short pass more than ever. The same league that transformed into a passing league over the past 10 years is slowing morphing into something else: the dump-off league.

There are some risks with throwing deeper, of course, such as a higher interception rate. And in some special situations, getting a first down isn’t the primary goal of a drive, especially when facing third-and-long. Sometimes teams are just trying to get enough yards to make a field-goal attempt shorter. Or with a big lead in the second half, they’re hoping for an easy completion that will run some clock and gain field position.

But when an offense really needs to score points, playing it safe and throwing short of the sticks on third down is often the inferior strategy. We looked at the data from ESPN Stats & Info for passes on 3rd-and-10 or longer for Weeks 1 to 13. We divided the passes between those thrown short of the sticks and those thrown at or beyond the sticks:1

Short passes become punts

Key outcomes for passes on 3rd-and-10 or longer, Weeks 1-13

PASS THROWN ATTEMPTS COMP% YPA TD% INT% CONV. RATE
Short of the sticks 672 73.2% 6.6 1.2% 2.4% 12.5%
At or beyond the sticks 390 42.8 9.6 4.4 3.8 42.6

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The completion rate for short throws is more than 30 percentage points higher than the rate for longer passes and yet the conversation rate is more than 30 points lower. This is not surprising because defenses are playing to prevent the first down and are willing to concede a fraction of the yardage. However, this positioning make it very difficult for a team to throw short and run after the catch to convert.

So far we have only talked about third downs, the crucial down for maintaining offensive success. However, analyzing aggressive and conservative passing on first and second down is also important. A bubble screen that loses a few yards to bring up 2nd-and-13 is also putting the offense in a position to fail.

Football Outsiders’ key efficiency metrics, including Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (explained here), are built around the concept of successful plays and are adjusted for factors like the down and distance. For instance, a 5-yard pass on 3rd-and-3 is more valuable than a 5-yard pass on 2nd-and-17. For a pass to be considered a successful play, it must gain at least 45 percent of the needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth. A completion that does not meet those standards is considered a failed completion. Joe Flacco of the Ravens set the failed completion record last season, with 144, and he leads all quarterbacks in 2017 with 95 through Week 13.

It’s not just Flacco. The ineffective dump-off is happening across the NFL. Leaguewide, 26.1 percent of all completions this season qualify as failed completions. That’s the highest rate for a season in the Football Outsiders database, which goes back to 1989, and if the 2017 rate stays at that level, it will break the current high bar set in 2015 (25.1 percent).

This is not to say that the short pass doesn’t have value in the NFL playbook or that every quarterback should begin slinging the ball 25 yards downfield each time he takes a snap. There is no one right way to run an NFL offense, and some teams have been able to use the short pass to devastating effect. To get a better sense of this, let’s look at which quarterbacks throw short most often using air yards stats.2

Football Outsiders has a stat called “Short%” to denote the percentage of attempts that a quarterback threw short of the minimum yards needed for a successful play, as defined above. So if 45 percent of needed yards are required on first downs, then anything shorter than a 5-yard throw on first-and-10 would be considered a short pass here. The league average for Short% in 2017 is 41.6 percent on first down, 45.5 percent on second down, and 42.5 percent on third down. It’s not until fourth down that most quarterbacks realize the importance of needing to convert with a big throw. Short% on fourth down is 26.2 percent (although that is only on a sample of 214 plays).

We looked at Short% on first, second and third downs for quarterbacks who have had a minimum of 200 dropbacks this season. For the 35 quarterbacks, we took the z-score (standard deviations above or below average) of each percentage and added them up, to make sure we were accurately capturing quarterbacks who threw short on all of their downs relative to the league. The quarterback with the largest summed z-score in the table below is the most conservative, as a higher percentage of his passes were short of being a successful play.

Which quarterbacks are the most conservative passers?

Which quarterbacks throw short of a “successful” pass distance the most relative to their peers (as measured by the z-scores — the standard deviations above/below the mean — of the Short%* for each down added together), minimum 200 dropbacks through Week 13 of the 2017 season

FIRST DOWN SECOND DOWN THIRD DOWN
SHORT% Z-SCORE SHORT% Z-SCORE SHORT% Z-SCORE TOT.
D. Brees (NO) 52% 1.38 54% 1.10 53% 1.39 3.87
J. Flacco (BAL) 48 0.79 55 1.28 51 1.12 3.19
C. Beathard (SF) 50 1.07 47 0.19 55 1.65 2.91
A. Smith (KC) 48 0.82 55 1.32 46 0.54 2.68
B. Hoyer (SF/NE) 45 0.42 55 1.27 49 0.90 2.59
J. Cutler (MIA) 42 0.02 51 0.66 56 1.77 2.45
B. Bortles (JAC) 50 1.12 48 0.35 48 0.70 2.17
B. Hundley (GB) 51 1.24 48 0.25 47 0.56 2.05
K. Cousins (WAS) 47 0.70 46 0.03 50 1.05 1.78
J. McCown (NYJ) 49 0.97 47 0.20 46 0.52 1.69
C. Keenum (MIN) 50 1.07 46 0.02 46 0.50 1.59
J. Brissett (IND) 46 0.48 53 1.03 42 -0.06 1.45
P. Rivers (LAC) 44 0.30 51 0.67 45 0.32 1.29
E. Manning (NYG) 43 0.12 55 1.34 40 -0.22 1.25
A. Rodgers (GB) 60 2.38 52 0.89 24 -2.28 0.99
A. Dalton (CIN) 39 -0.43 58 1.66 36 -0.76 0.46
D. Carr (OAK) 43 0.11 45 -0.12 45 0.33 0.32
M. Trubisky (CHI) 29 -1.64 53 1.01 49 0.90 0.28
T. Taylor (BUF) 38 -0.55 44 -0.23 45 0.42 -0.37
M. Stafford (DET) 40 -0.22 50 0.54 37 -0.70 -0.38
C. Newton (CAR) 50 1.07 38 -1.10 39 -0.37 -0.40
J. Goff (LAR) 40 -0.18 41 -0.69 44 0.26 -0.60
D. Kizer (CLE) 37 -0.68 42 -0.52 44 0.28 -0.91
T. Siemian (DEN) 34 -0.97 42 -0.59 46 0.50 -1.05
M. Ryan (ATL) 34 -0.97 45 -0.10 41 -0.09 -1.17
B. Roethlisberger (PIT) 47 0.68 38 -1.11 36 -0.75 -1.19
M. Mariota (TEN) 37 -0.64 46 0.04 33 -1.10 -1.70
C. Palmer (ARI) 29 -1.63 46 -0.03 40 -0.33 -1.98
T. Brady (NE) 36 -0.79 42 -0.54 34 -1.06 -2.40
R. Wilson (SEA) 36 -0.73 37 -1.27 38 -0.52 -2.52
T. Savage (HOU) 38 -0.47 42 -0.55 30 -1.57 -2.59
D. Prescott (DAL) 36 -0.81 32 -1.96 42 -0.05 -2.82
C. Wentz (PHI) 35 -0.92 39 -0.95 34 -1.06 -2.93
D. Watson (HOU) 30 -1.53 31 -2.13 40 -0.26 -3.92
J. Winston (TB) 30 -1.62 32 -1.95 22 -2.54 -6.10

Higher z-scores mean a quarterback throws short more often.
*Short% is the share of passes that fall short of a successful play’s distance (at least 45 percent of the needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third)

Source: Football Outsiders

Some of the names at the top of the list are predictable, including Flacco and infamous short pass maestro Alex Smith. Jay Cutler has been very dink-and-dunk oriented with Adam Gase in Miami this season, while San Francisco’s first two quarterbacks this season (Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard) made the top five.

The real surprise here is the name at the very top: Drew Brees. Not only does he rank as the most conservative passer, but he has consistently stuck to this strategy no matter what the down is. To his credit, Brees has made it work — the Saints rank No. 1 in offensive DVOA and No. 6 in passing. Perhaps more accurately, the running backs are making this offense work. Through Week 13, rookie Alvin Kamara ranked as the best receiving running back while teammate Mark Ingram ranks as Football Outsiders’ top rusher. With two RBs capable of big gains on any play, it’s no surprise that Brees is throwing short early and often. We’ll see if this strategy can sustain itself — the Saints have failed to score 21 points in all four of their losses this season (each was to a playoff contender, including last night’s loss to Atlanta).

At the bottom, seven quarterbacks had a combined z-score below 2.0 standard deviations. That includes the trio of favorites for the MVP race in Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Carson Wentz, whose aggressive styles this year have been a positive for their offenses. Similar things could have been said about Deshaun Watson before Houston’s standout rookie tore his ACL.

But being aggressive is not a magic formula for success as the list plainly shows. Watson’s backup, Tom Savage, has tried to emulate Watson’s aggressive style, but without anywhere near the same success. Likewise, Jameis Winston of the Buccaneers is routinely one of the leaders in air yards per attempt, but his lack of consistency remains a problem for Tampa Bay. In Dallas, Dak Prescott is throwing aggressively, but his receivers are getting the fewest yards per carry after the catch in the league.

Like with any stat, Short% is only one piece of the puzzle, and every quarterback has his own set of circumstances. As we see with Brees, a quarterback can get away with passive play if he’s extremely efficient and the team is still winning.

Few quarterbacks have this type of arsenal or this type of ability, so they would be better served trusting the numbers and resisting the easy dump-off.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. For reference, a 12-yard pass on 3rd-and-13 would be considered short of the sticks.

  2. This includes passes that drew a defensive pass interference flag but excludes passes that were intentionally thrown away or became intentional grounding penalties.

Scott Kacsmar is an assistant editor for Football Outsiders and contributor to ESPN Insider.

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