The Fading Art of the Deep Ball
By Robert Mays, The Ringer
With dink-and-dunk offenses proving more effective than ever, NFL teams are widely shying away from chucking it long. But a few groups still live and die by the deep ball — and swear by it.
Welcome to Inefficiency Week. Over the next five days, we’re going to take a look at what we lose when we get lost in the chase for efficiency. We’ll explore the ways it’s changing the games we love to watch. We’ll remember its failures across the pop culture spectrum. And we’ll report on what it’s doing to our lives — romantic, physical, and otherwise.
The most exciting plays in football begin long before the ball is snapped. After spending two seasons in Tampa Bay alongside quarterback Jameis Winston, Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans can sense when one such play is coming solely from a knowing glance. The offense gets to the line of scrimmage, the defense’s coverage becomes clear, and Winston looks deliberately in the direction of his go-to target. That’s all Evans needs to see to know that it’s time to go deep.
“You can’t really tell on TV or film,” Evans tells The Ringer, “but if he’s looking at me, we got the look we wanted and we’re going to give it a go.”
Winston and Evans hooked up on 31 completions of 15 yards or longer last season, establishing themselves as one of the game’s premier deep-ball duos. Yet their type of big-play brilliance is becoming a lost art. While deep passes continue to produce some of football’s most thrilling moments, their prevalence has given way in recent years to a more reliable style of offense. Passing in the NFL is another area in which efficiency has become king: With the proliferation of spread offenses, the implementation of stricter contact rules for defenders, and the arrival of smaller, speedier sub-package pass rushers, it’s now more appealing than ever for NFL offenses to make short throws the foundation of their approach. “I think within spread offenses, you find a lot more [quarterbacks] getting the ball out of their hand quickly,” Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken says.
During the 2007 NFL season, only three quarterbacks completed at least two-thirds of their passing attempts. Last season, eight guys reached that mark. Over the past decade, completion percentage leaguewide has jumped nearly 2 full percentage points (from 61.2 to 63.0), and in 2016 Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford and his BB gun of an arm managed to break the single-season completion percentage record by connecting on 71.6 percent of his throws. It’s no coincidence that he also finished dead last among qualified passers in air yards per attempt — at a downright shameful 6.37.
Bradford’s Vikings are the furthest extension of football’s dink-and-dunk reality to date, but they’re far from alone in their methodology. Many of the league’s leading offenses, from the Saints to the Patriots to the Cowboys, rely heavily on easy throws designed to keep the chains moving. Even as the NFL’s most efficient offenses become its most effective, though, the groups that routinely heave the ball downfield and tap into the sport’s visceral appeal are worth celebrating. And to hear deep-ball aficionados tell it, there’s still a major place for them in the modern game.
Over the past few seasons, no other offense has consistently offered tightrope act–caliber entertainment quite like the Cardinals. In his past 10 years as a play-caller — first as the coordinator in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis and now as the head coach in Arizona — Bruce Arians has led units that have thrown the ball 15-plus yards on 21.9 percent of their pass attempts, comfortably the highest rate of any coach in the league. Arians has built an offensive brand around his “No risk it, no biscuit” philosophy, and at its best the results are exhilarating.
Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin has coached at Arians’s side since 2007. As Arians has groomed Goodwin to become a full-time play-caller, that aggressive nature hasn’t just seeped into the way he sees the game; it’s also allowed Goodwin to develop a sort of ESP as to when a shot is going to connect. “It’s a thing you’ve got to do,” Goodwin says of chucking it deep. “You can’t let the defense dictate what’s going on.”
The beauty of designed deep balls is that they develop slowly, creating an inherent tension. As a quarterback takes an extended drop or turns to deliver a play-action fake, the rest of the movement on the field seems to freeze. The ability to read that moment before a passer heaves it long is what has allowed Lane Kiffin to celebrate backbreaking touchdowns before they happen. “The fun thing to watch as a coach is that everyone sees it’s taking a little bit longer for the ball to come out because it’s a play-action pass or a deep throw,” Goodwin says. “Everybody starts to stand up in the stands, and they go crazy.”
Deep-ball-heavy offenses aren’t decreasing in popularity because they lack excitement, though. They’re dropping off because they’re not reliable. Many teams are deterred from constructing systems around deep shots because of how “choppy” they can make an offense, as Monken puts it. For example, while Bradford and Drew Brees topped the 70 percent completion mark in the 2016 season, Carson Palmer sat at 61. Part of this explains why the Cardinals had a down year on the heels of their lights-out 2015 campaign, but part of it is a simple consequence of deep-passing philosophy.
The success of field-stretching offenses can’t be calibrated by completion rate. Palmer hit on 63.7 percent of his throws in 2015, just a notch above league average, and Arizona’s aerial attack still finished third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. That same season, Carolina’s Cam Newton (whose 2015 average pass length of 10.36 yards trailed that of only Palmer and Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor) completed 59.8 percent of his passes; he was named MVP and helmed the highest-scoring offense in football. Passing attempts may hit the ground more often for Newton’s Panthers and Palmer’s Cardinals, but both can torch their competition all the same. There’s a reason both teams managed to make that season’s NFC title game.
“When we come to the deep ball, we understand that we’re going to take so many shots,” Goodwin says. “If we take 10 of them and we can hit four or five, we’re feeling pretty good.”
Which brings us to the psychological effect of this approach. When a deep-passing offense is firing on all cylinders, it can be more devastating to a defense than a group that’s methodically piling up first downs. Rather than slowly chipping away at yardage, Arians would prefer that his offense does its best impression of Denzel Washington in Man on Fire — blow shit up and then walk away in slow motion. “If you can take a drive from eight to 10 plays and make it three to four plays,” Goodwin says, “hell, let’s do it.”
Coaches also know that it’s easy to stoke the excitement of skill-position players in schemes reliant on deep throws, a notion that can galvanize the rest of a roster. “That’s why it’s one of my favorite parts of the game, getting the deep ball,” Evans says. “It breaks the defense’s back.”
The love that coaches like Arians, Tampa Bay’s Dirk Koetter, and Carolina’s Mike Shula have shown for deep throws isn’t limited to shaping mind-sets and producing flash. There are practical benefits to stretching the field, too, such as opening lanes in the running game and creating space to facilitate underneath and intermediate routes. But dialing up a deep ball means doing a risk-reward calculation that isn’t necessary with the dink-and-dunk plan. Winston (10.19) trailed only Newton (10.27) in average pass length among qualified passers last year; he also threw 18 interceptions, the second most in the league. “We’ll take the next step when we’re still an explosive team but we’re not making as many turnovers,” Monken says. “I think everybody is looking for that kind of balance.”
That balance has shifted more and more toward shorter throws as teams look for ways to manufacture consistent — rather than explosive — offense. The same strategy that once made teams like the Randy Moss–era Vikings so beloved isn’t exactly a football relic, but it’s growing increasingly rare. Perhaps that’s why even the men tasked with viewing football as a science romanticize the feeling that comes with letting it rip. Monken is aware of the statistical relationship between explosive passes (defined as plays of 20 yards or more) and completion percentage; he also swears by their power to electrify a team and stadium. “I do think the best way to get the crowd into a game is by making those plays,” Monken says. “Everyone says, ‘The crowd is dead.’ Well, it’s dead because we’re not doing a damn thing.”
Goodwin often feels the same energy in Arizona. His challenge is containing himself when a deep shot is on the horizon. Goodwin inherited play-calling duties from Arians during the 2016 preseason, and beyond leading to more than one instance of Arians yapping in his coordinator’s headset to take more shots, it also gave Goodwin a glimpse of what it’s like to be the maestro of a high-octane orchestra.
As Goodwin describes the sensation, he sounds like he’s reliving the climb up the first hill of a roller coaster. The buildup happens slowly. At a certain point, there’s no going back. And no matter how many times you ride, your stomach always drops. “You called it, you know it’s coming,” Goodwin says. “You try not to give away any body posture on the sideline to say that you’re going to take a shot. But deep down, you’re still a little anxious.”