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Bombs Away! Washington’s offense appears poised for explosion in 2021

Washington Football Team Off-Season Workout Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Washington’s Offensive Coordinator, Scott Turner, made it clear how much he’s looking forward to a transformed offensive attack in 2021.

Suffice it to say, Washington’s was not a “big play” offense in 2020, helmed largely by Dwayne Haskins and Alex Smith, two of the most poorly rated passers in the league last season.

In terms of actual “big plays,” Washington was tied for 19th in the league with only 27 passes over 25 yards last season, and tied for 20th, with 46 rush plays over 10 yards. Sharp Football Stats has a similar metric, called “explosive plays,” and Washington was even worse there, with an 8% overall “explosive play rate,” 27th in the league in 2020.

In his comments above, Turner seems to be strongly echoing his father’s offensive philosophy:

“To score points consistently, you have to find a way to create big plays,” said then–Chargers head coach Norv Turner in 2010. “With all the things defenses do now like zone blitzes, multiple looks, multiple personnel, it’s harder to put together those 10-, 12-, 14-play drives.”

Why Big Plays Matter

It turns out there’s something of a statistical cottage industry, in both the NFL and college, digging into what, if any, connection “big plays”/”explosive plays” have to on-the-field success.

One of the earliest coaches to recognize the analytics-based importance of explosive plays was actually a defensive mind, Pete Carroll. In his time at USC, before coming to the Seahawks, Carroll outlined “three principles of secondary play,” with the first being “ELIMINATE THE BIG PLAY,” informed by research like the following:

A recent unpublished NFL Study conducted in recent years again concluded that giving up explosive plays (+16 in the passing game, and +12 in the running game) has a major effect on determining the outcome.

Give up either an explosive run or pass play in any given drive and the opposition will score over 75% of the time for the period studied. Conversely, if the defense limits the opposition to 3 big plays in the game or less, the offense will only generate 8.6 points per game on average.

Not surprisingly, Carroll made it an early priority in Seattle to draft Earl Thomas and Cam Chancellor - two safeties - to defend the deep middle of the field and help take away explosive plays. That a very successful, defensive-minded head coach would structure his college and pro teams to take this approach, speaks to the importance of offenses being able pursue big plays. (the good news for Washington on this front is that its 2020 defense was already one of the best in the league at limiting explosive plays).

Another innovator on the topic has been Green Bay’s Director of Research, Mike Eayers.

Earys found explosive plays dramatically increased the odds that a drive would end in a score. A single explosive play increased an offense’s chance at points to 40%. Two bumped the odds to a near-certain 80%. In short, when offenses produce explosive plays, they tend to score more points.

Offenses possess the ball about ten times in an average NFL game. Using Eayrs’ odds, the four teams who averaged at least nine explosive plays per game on offense in 2018 had nearly a 50/50 shot at scoring every time they touched the ball.

Teams that produced the most explosive plays in 2018 tended to be very successful. Three of the four most explosive teams made the playoffs, and the Rams and Chiefs advanced to their respective conference championship games.

On the one hand, there’s an intuitive “obviousness” to these findings - teams who get more big plays generally score more points and win more (assuming their defense is good at stopping big plays) - but as defenses do more to shrink QB throwing time and tighten up against short passes, the threat of big gains (and the defensive loosening they help create) is a critical tool in the toolbox for successful football teams.

“It is extremely difficult to dink and dunk all the way down the field,” LaFleur said. “The defenses are just too good. If you look at it, statistically the teams that are getting the chunk plays, the explosive (plays), those are the teams that are going to produce more yards, more points.

Washington, finally, appears to have the pieces in place to pursue a “big play” offense.

Terry McLaurin

For the past two years, the team’s wide receiving corps was constrained by the quarterback play, but even with Washington’s quarterback carousel, second year WR, Terry McLaurin was a lone bright spot, leading the entire league in dominating his team’s percentage of explosive pass plays.

With the significant additions to Washington’s WR group this offseason, it seems unlikely that McLaurin will be so singularly targeted in the next couple of years, but I still expect him to be a key cog in Turner’s expanded offense, and to continue to rack up big plays.

His ability to collect yards after the catch should be enhanced by the addition of competent targets opening up the secondary for Terry after he snags passed underneath coverage as well.

McLaurin’s ability to retain his explosiveness among receiving talent has precedent as well. Even in the very crowded WR room at Ohio State, he was an “explosive play” leader his senior season in college.

Curtis Samuel

Curtis Samuel had a breakout season in 2020, but in 2019, he suffered from “Washington-caliber QB play” as Kyle Allen helmed the ship for most of the season. Even so, when he was thrown deep balls that were catchable, he had tremendous success. Unfortunately for him, that was a rare occurrence.

Samuel’s QB play improved a bit with Teddy Bridgewater leading the team last year. That QB change was compounded by the way he was used by Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady.

In 2019, under Turner, Samuel was only used in the slot 28% of snaps. Brady kept him there for 71% of his routes, and it paid off big time, with Samuel having the best season of his career by a wide margin. A substantial component of that success was based on catching (well thrown) deep balls, where Samuel had the best reception rate in the league last year.

Samuel, like McLaurin, is capable of doing real damage after the catch because of his incredible speed, which is one of the reasons the team’s most recent receiving addition is so important.

Dyami Brown

When Samuel was initially picked up in free agency, the thought seemed to be that he would be largely lined up outside - opposite McLaurin - to help stretch the field, perhaps with the recently acquired Adam Humphries lined up in the slot to round out the starting WR group.

Just as it had on the defensive side of the ball with Benjamin St. Juste, the third round of the 2021 draft appears have opened up a whole new set of possibilities on the offensive side.

Many expected that UNC’s Dyami Brown would be gone by Washington’s second pick in the third round. But, he wasn’t, and when he was selected there, he was declared by several talking heads to be one of the best values in the draft.

Brown’s wide receiving talent could certainly end up earning him the title of “steal” in its own right, but for Washington, it was even better than that. Truly, I think that Rivera may have even surprised himself at what good fortune the team had picking up WR talent this offseason.

“For me, it is see ball, get ball,” Brown said. “A 50/50 ball is never a 50/50 ball to me; it is 100% to me.”

Brown’s addition actually provides the quick, outside Z threat that Washington was missing last year AND thus provides the opportunity for Samuel to be deployed largely out of the slot again this year, where he was so successful in 2020, simultaneously upgrading talent at two WR positions.

To top it off, Washington was able to grab another top three college deep receiving threat by the end of the draft.

But the reality is, none of these wide receiver capabilities mean much if the team lacks the capacity behind center to get them the ball.

Ryan Fitzpatrick

Washington’s anemic quarterback play is something we’ve, unfortunately, grown used to over the past three years. The addition of Ryan Fitzpatrick, storied as a carefree “gunslinger” in the league for over a decade and a half, promises to reverse that trend emphatically this year.

You’d hardly know it from the group of fans who still thinks of Fitzpatrick as the boom/bust phenom who languished on terrible teams for much of his early career, but he’s actually been playing the best football of his life over the course of the last couple years.

It should be no surprise, given his reputation and Turner’s intentions, that Fitzpatrick is a nearly perfect match for an explosive, deep-strike offense. Last year, for instance, Fitz was the second most accurate (to Cam Newton) deep ball passer in the NFL hitting the mark on 65% of his bombs (and last year’s deep accuracy wasn’t unique).

He was also the best performing QB in the league under pressure:

A smaller sample size likely benefitted him in the areas we’re evaluating here, but we should not and will not discount Fitzpatrick’s performance under pressure, especially when considering how improved he was in this department from the previous season. Fitzpatrick went from a 49 passer rating and 2:8 TD-INT ratio under pressure in 2019 to a 98.6 rating and 4:2 ratio in 2020. Fitzpatrick was very much a clutch player last season, posting the highest passer rating and completion percentage under pressure among all qualified passers. He tended to let it fly more often when under pressure, averaging 1.7 more air yards per attempt than he did on unpressured throws. He was even better in crunch time, finishing with a league-best 112.9 passer rating when under pressure in the second half or in overtime of games.

Yes, Fitzpatrick is 38. Yes, he probably won’t be Washington’s QB four years out. Regardless, wizened by experience, and protected by a good - and improved - offensive line, with an array of weapons tailored to his strength, Fitzpatrick’s talents are incredibly well-suited to both Turner’s offensive approach and the players who will be surrounding him on the 2021 Washington Football Team.


Where do you think Washington’s offense will rank in terms of "explosive play rate" in 2021?

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  • 46%
    Top quarter of the league
    (595 votes)
  • 47%
    Top half of the league
    (601 votes)
  • 4%
    Top 75% of the league
    (56 votes)
  • 1%
    Bottom 25% of the league
    (19 votes)
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