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"Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics": Don't Trust the Deep Ball Passing Attack

Aug 23, 2012; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) passes the ball to during the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE
Aug 23, 2012; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) passes the ball to during the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE

I know the narrative that is believed by most Redskins is that the Redskins are going to be utilizing the deep passing game as a significant part of their offense. And why not considering they drafted Robert Griffin III, who was very proficient in college, and signed speedster Pierre Garcon. The narrative would have you believe that this deep passing element was what has been missing from the Redskins of late, and why their passing attacks haven't been more effective.

Though that story sounds good, and makes you think it could be the missing link, there is one central problem with that story. It's simply not true. The reason why quarterbacks have seen their efficiency ratings skyrocket over the years, is the relying less and less on deep ball passing. A quarterback is far more likely to hit a 10 yard pass (in the air) and watch the receiver pick up 30+ more yards on his own, than connect on a 40+ yard pass in the air.

Now deep ball passing is traditionally thought of as 40-60 yard bombs, but a more standard definition is anything over 20 yards in the air. Of passes traveling 21 or more yards in the air a typical NFL team may throw a grand total of 50-75 throughout the course of the season. Typically they represent between 10-15% of all passes thrown. That is of course includes passing between 21-30 yards, which isn't the true "deep passing attack". If you look at passes thrown over 30 yards, you are talking between 3-5 percent of all balls thrown during the year.

Now defenders of the big pass will say, that it isn't wholly fair to look at it solely by number of attempts, because deep passes equal more yards and touchdowns than a bunch of short passes put together. But what they fail to mention is that deep passes also carry more risk. The completion percentage on them will plummet for some QB's into the 20% range, and interceptions can go up as well. Which is why teams no longer rely on hem as a staple of a passing offense.

Let's look at some numbers from top QB's to show how little overall impact deep passing can have, all numbers are from ESPN's split stats

Tom Brady: Brady threw for 5,232 yards completing 65.5% of his passes, of those 5,232 yards, just 522 came on passes thrown longer than 20 yards (or roughly 10%). Brady also despite having a strong arm and very good accuracy, was just 15-57 on those passes, or 26% completion rate.Of those passes Brady was just 1-15 on balls thrown 31 yards or more.

Drew Brees: Brees threw for 5,477 yards, at 71.2%. Of his 647 attempts, just 61 were attempted longer than 21 yards, (9%). Brees is perhaps the high-watermark for deep ball passing, since he managed over 1,000 yards from it, but he still only completed 50.8% of his deep throws, and had a higher interception rate (nearly 5%) than on the rest of his throws combined. Brees also did most of his damage in the 21-30 yard range, where he was 21-40 for 600+ yards.

Matt Stafford: Stafford was another member of the 5,000 yards club, but like Brees attempted under 10% of his throws 21 or more yards (9.5%). Of Stafford's 63 attempts he completed just 22 passes. 14 of those 22 completions and six of his eight touchdowns went to Calvin Johnson. Stafford, despite having the best receiver in the league in Johnson, was not able to utilize deep passing as a significant part of his game. His over 31 yards numbers were 11 for 34.

Aaron Rodgers: Rodgers like Brees is among the best deep ball throwers, but attempted just 57 passes of 21+ last season (11%). Again of those 57, just 20 were attempted longer than 31 yards. Now Rodgers is far more efficient than most 52.6% among all his deep throws, but that is still well off his 70.9% mark for balls thrown 20 yards or less.

Now these quarterbacks aren't thought of as elite, but have some of the strongest arms in the NFL:

Joe Flacco: Flacco attempted 78 passes longer than 21 yards, which was 14% of all of his attempts. Unfortunately it didn't pan out too well, as he managed to complete just 23% (18 total) of those passes. Though his completion percentage was lower across the board, 23% is pretty bad.

Michael Vick: Vick has a cannon for an arm, and some of the best deep threats in the NFL, but his numbers weren't that impressive. He attempted 50 passes in this group (or 11.8% of all his attempts), but completed just 16 of them (32%). To make matters worse he shows how interceptions can spike as he threw 5 interceptions. That means 10% of his deep ball throws ended up in the other team's hands.

Cam Newton: Newton has an insanely strong arm and a great deep threat in Steve Smith. He attempted 80 passes longer than 21 yards, which was good for over 15% of his total attempts. Of those 80 attempts he connected just 29 times (and he was just 7 of 25 beyond 30 yards), or 36%.

Those are four of the best quarterbacks in the league, plus an additional three quarterbacks who are highly thought of with strong arms. All of them had more weapons than the Redskins have and better protection, yet none of them really significantly utilized deep passing. Especially when you look at their numbers 31 yards or more in the air. For the Redskins to have us believe that they will be utilizing the deep ball significantly, is really an empty threat. In fact some of the best QB numbers were those who utilized the deep ball the least. It's nice to think that the Redskins deep passing can be more effective this year, but the reality is Griffin and the Redskins passing attack, success or failure will be determined by what happens between behind the line of scrimmage out to 20 yards.

Update: there was some call to see Rex's numbers

Rex Grossman: Grossman attempted 47 passes 21 yards or more out of 458 total attempts (10.2%). Of those 12 were completed (or 25.5%) Grossman saw his interception numbers go up (not surprising). As you can see throwing deep was futile for the Redskins and costly.

Check out, for Steve Shoup's additional Redskins coverage. Also check out his 2012 NFL Preview Guide