Going Deep

| May 10, 2011

There was a lot of talk up to, during and after the draft about the quarterbacks selected. Each man dissected as analysts tried to project who’ll be the next Peyton Manning, and who’ll be the next Ryan Leaf.

One of the things you hear often is about a player’s ability to throw the deep ball. Who has it in them to go long and find the vertical threat. It’s an essential skill in most offenses, but one that is rarely truly analyzed in terms of productivity.

So here goes.

We broke down every pass from the 2010 season, and dropped them into numerous categories and sub categories. One of these was passes thrown longer than 20 yards. Which brings us to the point of this article. A look at who threw downfield the most and who did it most efficiently. 30 deep attempts was the qualifying mark to be considered.

Asking A Lot

In numbers on their own nobody threw downfield more often than Peyton Manning. His 95 throws of more than 20 yards trumped Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers (both with 86), while Matt Hasselbeck and Drew Brees (both 76) rounded out the top five. Most interesting is the fact that only one of these guys finished with a completion percentage of over 40% when going deep. We’ll get to that guy in a bit.

You might guess that those five would have accumulated more yardage than the rest while throwing downfield. Well, not quite. While Rodgers and Brees made it onto both lists as each topped the 1,000 yard mark for deep throws, and Hasselbeck also appeared again, they were joined in the yardage Top 5 by Philip Rivers and Michael Vick.

So what of Manning and Flacco? They threw downfield more than any other quarterbacks in the league, yet only finished sixth (Manning) and eighth (Flacco). Quite simply, their accuracy (or inaccuracy, rather) held them down.

Of all quarterbacks who attempted 30 or more deep passes (and there were 31 quarterbacks who did so), Manning and Flacco finished in the bottom ten in completion percentage. Still it could be worse for both of them. They could be Matt Cassel.

The limited Chief struggled big time on his deep balls, completing just 14 of 57 for the worst percentage in the league. That beat out players like Alex Smith (25%), Chad Henne (25%) and Jay Cutler (26.56%). That wasn’t Cutler’s biggest problem, though. Along with the former Charger duo, Brees and Rivers, Cutler threw the most deep ball interceptions with eight.

AFC South Going Deep

At least Brees and Rivers were completing a high percentage of their longer passes. Both men snuck into a surprising Top 5 with percentages over the 42% mark –  just ahead of “throwing it deep connoisseur” Michael Vick (41.54%). Instead, Brees (No. 5) and Rivers (No. 4) shared the top with a guy soon to be discarded by his team, another guy who could see the exit shortly, and Matt Schaub.  Nothing real creative to say about Schaub there.

Nope, the top three is an AFC South struggle for supremacy that looks down on the great Peyton Manning and his 30.53% completion percentage with disgust. At number three, the non-descript Schaub (43.75%) yields to David Garrard (No. 2 at 45.1%), and Vince Young.

Hang on a second, Vince Young? It’s what the numbers say – Young completed 16 of 35 balls he attempted of over 20 yards. A small sample size but for a team prepared to take on some baggage, it shows Young does in fact have something to offer.

Completion Percentage on Deep Throws

Rank
Player
Team
Deep Attempts
Deep Completions
Deep Comp %
1Vince YoungTEN351645.71%
2David GarrardJAX512345.10%
3Matt SchaubHST482143.75%
4Philip RiversSD682942.65%
5Drew BreesNO763242.11%
6Michael VickPHI652741.54%
7Eli ManningNYG733041.10%
8Kerry CollinsTEN441840.91%
9Derek AndersonARZ471940.43%
10Aaron RodgersGB863338.37%
11Kyle OrtonDEN732736.99%
12Tom BradyNE491836.73%
13Ben RoethlisbergerPIT692536.23%
14Matt HasselbeckSEA762634.21%
15Donovan McNabbWAS602033.33%
16Brett FavreMIN461532.61%
17Sam BradfordSL401332.50%
18Josh FreemanTB722331.94%
19Shaun HillDET471531.91%
20Matt RyanATL511631.37%
21Colt McCoyCLV321031.25%
22Peyton ManningIND952930.53%
23Joe FlaccoBLT862630.23%
24Carson PalmerCIN541629.63%
25Ryan FitzpatrickBUF692028.99%
26Mark SanchezNYJ742128.38%
27Jason CampbellOAK511427.45%
28Jay CutlerCHI641726.56%
29Chad HenneMIA401025.00%
30Alex D. SmithSF36925.00%
31Matt CasselKC571424.56%

Moving swiftly on, we’ll next look into how reliant these quarterbacks are on the deep ball. So as a percentage of balls they threw, who went deep most often?

Vertical Titans

Once again it’s “Vertical” Vince Young topping the list with a massive 22.44% of all throws being aimed 20+ yards downfield. Again, you have to factor in the small sample size, but it should let you know a little something about the Tennessee Titans’ offense that Kerry Collins finished third, throwing 15.83% of his passes deep. Others in the top five include Michael Vick who was extremely impressive with his deep ball, and both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Joe Flacco who were less so.

Let’s focus on Fitzpatrick and Flacco briefly; both men had some issues. The above table shows both to be in the bottom ten when it comes to their long range accuracy, but yet their teams kept calling on them to heave it deep. With Buffalo you feel like they over compensated a tad too much for the start of the season with Trent Edwards. The man who moved onto the Jaguars only went deep on 4.95% of passes he attempted (for both clubs). Lower than anyone who dropped back from center at least 100 times.

The problem with Fitzpatrick is that he walked the fine line between being aggressive and being reckless, often ending up on the wrong side. If you’re completing that little a percentage of deep balls, then you really need to look at what else is on offer instead of forcing it and taking an incompletion.

The same can be said of Flacco who never really had that deep threat to take advantage of with the Ravens rarely using Donte Stallworth. Yet they continued going deep and the end result was just 30.23% of those balls being completed. Now Flacco did lead the league (along with Rivers and Brees) in deep touchdowns with twelve, but the Ravens’ barrage of long balls really put the spotlight on the problems with their deep passing attack.

One Man’s Cowardice Another Man’s Contemplation

At the other end of the scale, there are stories to be told about players for whom going deep was the smallest part of their repertoire. One that will frustrate Miami fans is that Chad Henne finished with the second lowest percentage of his passes thrown deep, just 8.15%. For a team that gives its quarterback as much time as Miami, this adds fuel to the fire suggesting Henne was a bit gun shy when it came to attacking vertically (perhaps with good reason, given only one in four of his deep balls end up as receptions). Still, Miami seems to have faith in him and opted not to target a rookie in this year’s draft.

Speaking of rookies (nice segue), if any of the teams who took one are thinking about playing them straight away, they could learn from the Rams. They only had Sam Bradford going deep on 6.78% of plays, keeping things simpler and safer for their franchise quarterback.

Other notable names at the bottom of the list include Ryan (8.93%), Schaub (8.36%) and Tom Brady (9.96%) who all went to work over shorter and intermediate distances, but in differing ways.

While Henne get’s criticism for his low percentage (on all fronts) you have to respect the work of the Texans, Falcons and Patriots in making the deep ball a smaller part of their offense. For Atlanta, they ran a ball control offense that worked on methodically moving the chains that got them the number one seed in the playoffs. New England didn’t need to attack vertically because they had players running free over the middle and a phenomenal decision-maker distributing the ball on their way to a 14-2 record. Houston found the offensive balance they were searching for, but their season was ultimately let down by their defense.

Deep Throw Percentage of Attempts

Rank
Player
Team
Total Attempts
Deep Attempts
Deep Attempt %
1Vince YoungTEN1563522.44%
2Aaron RodgersGB6078618.11%
3Ben RoethlisbergerPIT4806917.74%
4Joe FlaccoBLT5538617.59%
5Michael VickPHI4086517.47%
6Matt HasselbeckSEA5257617.12%
7Kerry CollinsTEN2784415.83%
8Ryan FitzpatrickBUF4416915.65%
9Jason CampbellOAK3295115.50%
10Josh FreemanTB4747215.19%
11Jay CutlerCHI4746414.81%
12Kyle OrtonDEN4987314.66%
13Mark SanchezNYJ5967414.60%
14Colt McCoyCLV2223214.41%
15Derek AndersonARZ3274714.37%
16Peyton ManningIND7069513.97%
17David GarrardJAX3665113.93%
18Eli ManningNYG5397313.54%
19Brett FavreMIN3584612.85%
20Donovan McNabbWAS4726012.71%
21Matt CasselKC4685712.67%
22Philip RiversSD5416812.57%
23Drew BreesNO7187611.55%
24Shaun HillDET4164711.30%
25Alex D. SmithSF3423610.53%
26Tom BradyNE537499.96%
27Carson PalmerCIN585549.23%
28Matt RyanATL600518.93%
29Matt SchaubHST574488.36%
30Chad HenneMIA491408.15%
31Sam BradfordSL590406.78%

The above shows that you can win in the NFL without attacking vertically all that much, but if you don’t have the right personnel throwing and catching, forcing it can hurt.

Take Colt McCoy for example. A revelation for the Browns in year one, he was also guilty of making some bad downfield decisions. An incredible 21.88% of his passes longer than 20 yards ended up as interceptions, far higher than Cutler (12.5%) who finished second, and Rivers, Garrard, and Jason Campbell who together finished third with 11.76%.

Meanwhile, Kyle Orton made the most of 2010’s break-out player, Brandon Lloyd. Only 2.74% of his long balls were intercepted, just besting Josh Freeman (2.78%) while Brett Favre finished a respectable third but will probably go away thinking he would have finished higher if he could have chucked a few to Sidney Rice.

Interceptions on Deep Throws

Rank
Player
Team
Deep Attempts
Deep INT
Deep INT %
1Colt McCoyCLV32721.88%
2Jay CutlerCHI64812.50%
3Jason CampbellOAK51611.76%
4Philip RiversSD68811.76%
5David GarrardJAX51611.76%
6Kerry CollinsTEN44511.36%
7Shaun HillDET47510.64%
8Drew BreesNO76810.53%
9Donovan McNabbWAS60610.00%
10Ryan FitzpatrickBUF6968.70%
11Alex D. SmithSF3638.33%
12Michael VickPHI6557.69%
13Sam BradfordSL4037.50%
14Chad HenneMIA4037.50%
15Peyton ManningIND9577.37%
16Aaron RodgersGB8666.98%
17Eli ManningNYG7356.85%
18Matt HasselbeckSEA7656.58%
19Derek AndersonARZ4736.38%
20Matt SchaubHST4836.25%
21Tom BradyNE4936.12%
22Matt RyanATL5135.88%
23Joe FlaccoBLT8655.81%
24Vince YoungTEN3525.71%
25Carson PalmerCIN5435.56%
26Mark SanchezNYJ7445.41%
27Matt CasselKC5735.26%
28Ben RoethlisbergerPIT6934.35%
29Brett FavreMIN4624.35%
30Josh FreemanTB7222.78%
31Kyle OrtonDEN7322.74%

There you have it. A somewhat comprehensive look at the quarterbacks when they took aim downfield. It’s not a gospel indication of who the best are because of the numerous other factors that statistics can’t delve into. Namely, bits likes the type of throw, conditions, type of player throwing to and against, and variables such as tipped passes resulting in completions or interceptions. For that, I’d suggest purchasing a premium membership to see our deep ball grades … but then, of course I would.

For now, I’ll leave you safe in the knowledge that Vince Young is more accurate (in one area) than you thought possible, while even Peyton Manning has his struggles at times.

Sometimes you have to admire the audacity of numbers.

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