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The NFL’s Dink-and-Dunk Reality

Quarterbacks threw short passes at an astonishing rate in Week 1. Is that an aberration? Or the start of a season-long trend?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For as prepared as we think we are heading into an NFL season, Week 1 is always something of a deep, dark unknown. Surprises — whether in the form of players stepping into different roles or new schemes growing more prevalent — are guaranteed to happen, and this year the shocker was offensive coaches taking an increasingly cautious approach rather than diving in headfirst.

Play callers and quarterbacks across the league were content to dink and dunk their way through opening weekend. During the 2015 season, only three of 34 qualified quarterbacks — Blaine Gabbert, Alex Smith, and Matthew Stafford — averaged less than 7 air yards per target (AYT). In Week 1 of the 2016 campaign, that number jumped up to 16. Half of the QBs in the NFL fell under that AYT benchmark, and seven checked in with an average of less than 6 air yards per throw.

Last year’s deep-passing aficionados, like Arizona’s Carson Palmer (10.2 AYT) and Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston (9.9), resumed their familiar ways, but for the most part, offenses engaged in a leaguewide feeling-out process. It’s likely that as the season goes on and teams find their footing, the numbers will normalize. Getting comfortable with new personnel can take time, and it’s reasonable to expect that more quarterbacks will rip throws down the field over the next few weeks. For some offenses, though, there’s a chance this death-by-1,000-quick-outs approach is here to stay, and those teams have arrived here for a host of different reasons.

Helping the Young Guys

Four quarterbacks made their NFL starting debuts in Week 1, and miraculously, they went 3–1. That’s a testament to the young passers (Carson Wentz made some throws on Sunday, and the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott looked sharp in stretches of a 20–19 loss to the Giants), but also to their coaching staffs. In all three wins, the guys calling the plays did an excellent job of tailoring their game plans to QBs fresh out of their packaging.

That was on display beginning Thursday night, when Trevor Siemian led Denver’s offense against Luke Kuechly and friends. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak loves feigned zone-blocking, play-action passes more than I love anything, and Denver should use a ton of them this season now that Peyton Manning’s skeleton is no longer under center. Conveniently for Kubiak, these also provide a cushy environment for a second-year quarterback who is still using training wheels.

On the Broncos’ very first play from scrimmage, Kubiak showed off the foundation of his offense as well as how he can put Siemian in a position to succeed. On the play above, Siemian barely even sells the fake, but the zone action from his offensive line is more than enough to shift Kuechly and the rest of Carolina’s defense in Siemian’s favor. With the defense moving to his right, the QB makes a simple toss the other way to Demaryius Thomas on a short screen that goes for 11 yards. These types of passes were a constant as the Denver offense did just enough to secure a 21–20 win.

No one in the league averaged fewer air yards per throw than Siemian in Week 1, and it wasn’t even close. At 4.8, he finished a half yard shy of the Lions’ Stafford, the NFL’s reigning dink-and-dunk champion. Siemian was helped by his personnel: Thomas has always been most dangerous as a threat after the catch, and given what he showed against the Panthers, Broncos tailback C.J. Anderson has turned into a solid pass-catching option. Early on, Denver is likely to lean on its receivers turning short throws into long gains as the basis of its passing game.

The Patriots did a bit of that in their 23–21 win over the Cardinals on Sunday night, but for the most part, their plan for Jimmy Garoppolo consisted of allowing the QB to make simple decisions dictated by Arizona’s affinity for man coverage.

The play above came at the 11:02 mark of the first quarter. New England has three receivers — rookie Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola, and Julian Edelman — set off to the left. The Cardinals are in man, and Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has a perfect play dialed up for third-and-10. At the snap, Mitchell sprints downfield and bends his route inside, dragging cornerback Brandon Williams toward the middle of the field. Amendola does the opposite, heading in the direction of the left sideline. As the Cards’ Tyrann Mathieu drifts to the outside with Amendola, it leaves Edelman isolated on Deone Bucannon in the slot. Considering that Edelman often incinerates nickel corners in settings such as this, asking a safety turned linebacker to stick with him in open space is going to end … poorly.

For Garoppolo, there’s barely any thinking involved. He knows he’s going to Edelman from the start. This sort of insta-offense was the norm for the Pats in Week 1, and it’s one reason why Garoppolo finished 24th among QBs (6.4) in air yards per throw.

At 6.7 AYT, the Eagles’ Wentz barely snuck inside the top 20 of NFL QBs, and while his two perfect, down-the-field touchdowns already have Philly fans drawing up plans to put a statue of him next to Rocky, first-year coach Doug Pederson did a lot to ease in his rookie in a 29–10 win over Cleveland.

Play-action, misdirection throws are a staple of the Kansas City offenses directed by Pederson’s mentor, Andy Reid. Before being hired in January, Pederson had worked under Reid since 2009, and that influence is apparent in Pederson’s first go-round as a head coach. Wentz has a rocket launcher attached to his right shoulder, but with the easy throws Pederson is sure to set up for his quarterback, the young passer won’t always have to use it.

Dinking and Dunking Out of Necessity

Even as they transitioned to a more spread-out, quick-strike passing game in the second half of the 2015 season, the Seahawks weren’t afraid to push the ball downfield. Russell Wilson finished 15th in average pass length a year ago (8.5 yards), and his stellar track record as a deep-ball artist is what made Seattle’s offense such an odd sight on Sunday.

Wilson averaged 5.8 yards per throw in a come-from-behind 12–10 victory over the Dolphins, good for 26th in the league. A good chunk of the Seahawks’ passing game, especially early in the contest, was comprised of short, quick throws to the outside, including a screen play with a single receiver blocking that they seem to love. Those are the type of throws that take Seattle’s porous offensive line, which features new starters at four of its five spots, out of the picture. Eventually, though, scenarios arise in which these plays aren’t an option.

At the 5:56 mark in the first quarter, the Seahawks faced a third-and-9, and it spelled trouble. The play above shows the first time in this game that nearly all of Seattle’s receivers ran routes down the field, and not coincidentally, it culminated in the Dolphins’ first sack. What Ndamukong Suh does to right guard J’Marcus Webb here should come with a parental advisory warning, and as soon as Jason Jones (no. 98) makes Wilson hesitate about unloading his throw, it’s over.

Wilson is a fantastic spread-offense point guard, but at a certain point the Seahawks will need to unleash him and second-year wideout Tyler Lockett as a deep-ball tandem if they want to realize their offensive potential. With this line, that isn’t going to be easy.

Of course, things could be worse. All you need to understand about the Rams’ passing efficiency in Week 1 can be summed up by this shot:

That isn’t from some third-and-inches situation. It comes on a first-and-10 in the third quarter, and 10 — count ’em, 10 — 49ers are standing within 6 yards of the line of scrimmage. The reason Case Keenum and Los Angeles don’t stretch the field is because they can’t, and opposing defenses are well aware of that. That image is Todd Gurley’s 2016 reality, and it’s depressing as hell.

Reinforcing Who We Are

There are a few offenses in the NFL for whom dinking and dunking is a product of identity rather than circumstance. And when these groups are rolling, this type of approach can be majestic. San Diego’s Philip Rivers has thrown one of the best deep balls in the league for most of his career, and no one would ever question Stafford’s arm strength. Yet both the Chargers and the Lions build their passing games around short throws, and Sunday was no exception.

Rivers — who finished 30th among qualified QBs in AYT last year at 7.2 — posted a 6.1 AYT in Week 1, good for 25th in the league. San Diego has assembled a set of receivers well suited for coach Mike McCoy’s underneath-heavy scheme, and that was supposed to start with Keenan Allen.

Allen is the treasurer of the Always Open Club, and save for Antonio Brown, there may not be a wideout who’s better at creating initial separation off the line. What he does to the Chiefs’ Marcus Peters on the play above is both cruel and unusual. That second little bounce to put even more room between him and the cornerback — I mean, what is that? That’s the subtlety Allen brings to his route running, and it gave Rivers an instant option on almost any play. Allen was toying with Peters before tearing his ACL in the second quarter. Now lost for the season, the Chargers will miss him dearly.

Without Allen, running back Danny Woodhead will become the focal point of San Diego’s passing game — a distinction that no other back in the league can claim. The connection Rivers and Woodhead share is scary. It’s telepathic shit. Rivers regularly checks out of plays to give Woodhead the most possible space with which to work, and Woodhead has an uncanny knack for knowing exactly when to release from pass protection to provide Rivers with the easiest possible throw. Last year, Allen played eight games and Woodhead still racked up 106 targets. This year, Allen is already gone, and Woodhead is on pace for 112. (If you’re in a PPR fantasy league, stop what you’re doing and trade for him right now.)

For San Diego, looking short is a preference, but for the Lions it’s a way of life. After finishing dead least in AYT in 2015, Stafford picked up right where he left off. Only Siemian recorded a lower AYT in Week 1 than Stafford’s 5.3. Detroit’s offensive resurgence under coordinator Jim Bob Cooter in the second half of 2015 has been well documented, but on Sunday it turned its quick-strike approach into an art form.

The Lions had the most efficient passing game in football last week by a landslide. Stafford shredded a decimated Colts’ defense to the tune of going 31-of-39 — a ridiculous 79.5 completion percentage — for 340 yards with three touchdowns in a 39–35 win.

Detroit isn’t afraid to take a shot here or there (the 32-yard gain to new downfield option Marvin Jones in the second quarter is a perfect example), but ideally, the Lions want to use their receivers’ ability in the open field as the foundation of their passing game. Golden Tate is a yards-after-catch demon who consistently finishes among the league leaders in broken tackles, and Cooter showed on Sunday that screens in Tate’s direction will be a fixture of his offense.

The most lethal element of the Lions’ air attack, though, may be the running backs. Theo Riddick was a terror against the Colts (five catches for 63 yards with a touchdown), and he should get plenty of looks all fall. Detroit does a terrific job of creating chances for Riddick, whether on screens or angle routes against helpless linebackers, but his ability to act as an outlet for Stafford is particularly useful when plays break down. Stafford’s mobility in the pocket has always been underrated, and the way he can change his arm angle and flip passes from impossible positions means that Riddick will remain a threat even when things look like they’re crumbling.

Riddick was a frequent red zone target against Indianapolis, but as a general rule, Cooter loves exploiting the field horizontally and letting his pass catchers do the work once the Lions get close to the goal line. On the play above, Detroit has a second-and-4 from the Colts’ 11-yard line. The Lions line up in an empty set, with receivers traversing almost the entire width of the field. The route design is a thing of beauty. Running back Ameer Abdullah, lined up as the widest receiver to the left, runs a whip route just as the slot receiver rubs his defender past the corner assigned to Abdullah.

This encapsulates Detroit’s offense in one play. Space is Cooter’s currency, and even with 11 yards to the end zone, he’s happy to take a 4-yard throw and hope it turns into more. We’ll see if offenses league-wide open up the throttle as the season progresses, but for the Lions, maintaining their status as the NFL’s dink-and-dunk kings is enough.