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Bombs Away, Take 2! Washington’s offense appears poised for explosion in 2022

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NFL: NOV 11 Cowboys at Eagles Photo by Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In advance of the 2021 season, I looked at the addition of Ryan Fitzpatrick, his growing complement of WRs, and Scott Turner’s schematic preferences, and wrote a version of the article below. Unfortunately, Ryan Fitzpatrick went down in the first game of the season, and we never had the chance to see it play out.

And, while Taylor Heinicke played just about as well as he could under the circumstances, his arm strength and deep ball accuracy limitations were about as antithetical to this brand of football as one could possibly imagine.

All that having been said, with the trade for Carson Wentz - assuming he can stay healthy - we’re likely to get an even better look at this deep ball-style offense in 2022 than we would have with Fitz in 2021.

In early 2021, Washington’s Offensive Coordinator, Scott Turner, made it clear how much he’s looking forward to a transformed offensive attack.

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 2021, Washington’s “big play passing (>25 yds)” standing declined even further, falling to 24th in the league.

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.

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 three years, the team’s wide receiving corps was constrained by the quarterback play, but even with Washington’s quarterback carousel, third year WR, Terry McLaurin was a lone bright spot, leading the entire league in dominating his team’s percentage of explosive pass plays for his first couple of seasons.

With the additions to Washington’s WR group the past two offseasons, 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.

Of course, Samuel spent most of 2021 on the sidelines with an injured groin, so 2022 will be the first opportunity to really see him in action in Washington.

Samuel, like McLaurin, is capable of doing real damage after the catch because of his incredible speed, which is one of the reasons his 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 of the 2021 draft. 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 provided the quick, outside Z threat that Washington was missing in 2020 AND thus provides the opportunity for Samuel to be deployed largely out of the slot again this year, where he was so successful with the Panthers, 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.

Jahan Dotson

The addition of Penn State’s Jahan Dotson in the first round of the 2022 draft adds yet another top deep ball threat to Washington’s receiving arsenal.

Dotson possesses low 4.4 speed and was consistently described as having “the best hands in the draft.” At 5’10”, he’s on the smaller side of the WR spectrum, but his catch radius is expansive and impressive.

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.

Carson Wentz

Last year, it appeared that Ryan Fitzpatrick was going to be well-situated to take command of Scott Turner’s Air Coryell offense, but that experiment was cut dramatically short. This year, Carson Wentz gets his opportunity, and according to at least one expert, that should be a good situation for both parties involved.

In 2021, Wentz showed a strange pattern of passing success, pretty poor in short range, middling on intermediate passes, and top of the league on deep passes, according to his IQR. IQR is “Sports Info Solutions’ proprietary quarterback metric that builds on the traditional Passer Rating formula by considering the value of a quarterback independent of results outside of his control such as dropped passes, dropped interceptions, throwaways, etc.”

It should be no surprise, given his reputation and Turner’s intentions, that Wentz is a nearly perfect match for an explosive, deep-strike offense. Last year, for instance, Wentz was the league leader in DVOA on deep passes. What’s DVOA?

DVOA measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.

Wentz will need to continue to improve in his passing game, particularly his short passing game, but his competency in the deep game seems to be consistent with Cosell’s take above. It’s also consistent with the notion that Wentz is best on the move, when he’s using his legs to create opportunities for his arm.

Poll

Where do you think Washington’s offense will rank in terms of "explosive play rate" in 2022?

  • 42%
    Top quarter of the league.
    (381 votes)
  • 48%
    Top half of the league.
    (434 votes)
  • 5%
    Bottom half of the league.
    (52 votes)
  • 2%
    One of the worst in the league.
    (22 votes)
889 votes total Vote Now