WP: Hidden Value of the Deep Vertical Pass

This week at the Post I took a look at how deep vertical passes are a vital part of an offensive scheme. This is another bit of research that applies league-wide, but uses the Redskins win over the Seahawks last Sunday as an example.

Here's an excerpt:

A risk-averse mindset is echoed in an old football saying attributed to Texas coach Darrell Royal and still often repeated: “Three things can happen when you throw the football, and two of them are bad.” Coaches tend to classify outcomes as good things and bad things, and then count them up. I’m sure coaches obviously know that interceptions are a lot worse than an incompletion or a one-yard stuff. But they don’t accurately account for the payoff and frequency of each possible outcome, and this is reflected in how infrequently they call for deep bombs.

There are a few more than three things that can happen when you throw the football deep, and most of them are good. To the obvious three outcomes of complete, incomplete, and interception, we should add pass interference, defensive holding, and illegal contact. Coach Royal wasn’t coaching in the flag-happy NFL of 2011.

Since 2006, deep passes in the NFL (classified as deeper than 15 yards through the air) drew defensive pass interference calls at a 2.8 percent rate. Defensive holding was called on slightly under 1 percent and illegal contact was called on slightly over another 1 percent. One of the three penalties were called almost 5 percent of the time. The NFL doesn’t classify passes any deeper than 15 yds, but I would expect those rates to be even higher for very deep pass attempts.

On the other hand, there’s offensive pass interference. But that’s has been called on only 0.7 percent of deep attempts since 2006. Defensive pass interference is four times more common than its offensive counterpart, and defensive passing penalties are seven times more common. The consequences are asymmetric, as well. Defensive interference is a spot foul, while offensive interference is a 10-yard penalty and a replay of the down.

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12 Responses to “WP: Hidden Value of the Deep Vertical Pass”

  1. Anonymous says:

    As a steeler fan and a numbers nerd I was very curious to read the article. Afterward very disappointed. To discuss this subject and not work in the impact of big ben and mike wallace leaves the story severely lacking.....I have no numbers in front of me but I am highly confident that they are (by far) the most efficient and best examples of the deep ball in the last few seasons.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Love the site by the way and not trying to be a jerk. Just pointing out something that seems obvious particularly in the context of a team that was know for run-first over its history

  3. TheLegend says:

    Not to mention the strategic advantage that a defensive coordinator will have to give you when he as much as thinks "they might go deep". Players with the skill sets of Mike Wallace, DeSean Jackson or Torrey Smith make their offenses better simply by entering the huddle.

  4. Anonymous says:


    I don't think anyone doubts that Roethlisberger-Wallace is one of the best deep combos in the league. But this is a short article written for Redskins Insider, so it's not surprising that they only mention players and plays from the Redskins game.

  5. Anonymous says:

    yep, fair point.

  6. Jeff Fogle says:

    Would point out again that, if you factor in injury potential on these plays...and the negatives that come from injuries...then the math would probably slide back to a place that suggests coaches are approximating risk properly rather than playing too conservatively.

    Time in the pocket increases the chance of a sack, which BB mentioned in his article. But, also increases the chances for a QB injury on non-sacks (broken pinkies when a hand hits a helmet on a long follow through, shots to the sternum/collarbone at the time of release, scrambling and getting hurt on the tackle).

    Then, you also have the potential for injuries to the reciever. There are headhunters at the safety position that will take shots if they can on passes that are way downfield. One reason for the decline in the number of deep passes is that coaches didn't like seeing their recievers carted off the field with concussions.

    The game has trended AWAY from long downfield passing since the AFC days for many compelling reasons. The damage done by injuries to QB's and recievers has to be in the equation I think before you can say coaches "don’t accurately account for the payoff and frequency of each possible outcome."

    YOU'RE not accounting for a meaningful influence.

    Big Completion
    Defensive Pass Interference
    Defensive Holding or Illegal Contact

    Incomplete pass
    Holding by a lineman or RB shielding a blitz
    Sack and an injury to the QB
    Injury to the QB with no sack
    Injury to an exposed receiver

    We could all probably come up with more for each list. But, losing a QB or receiver for multiple games has a negative impact that IS part of the real world math that coaches are dealing with. This is why teams run more than it seems like they should based on in-game percentages...and why teams pass downfield less often than they should based on in-game percentages. A team better have a good reason to repeatedly put its quarterback in maximum danger.

    You can earn yardage a variety of ways. Quarterbacks are scarce.

  7. SportsGuy says:

    Within the last week to 10 days I read an interesting study that looked at offensive personality (run vs pass) when corrected for margin and time remaining. After all the corrections the Packers came out on top as the most pass happy.

    I can't remember where in the NFL blogosphere I read this. I follow maybe 8-9 stat blogs and I can't find it. Anyone remember?

  8. Pete says:

    Maybe the way to think about this is success rates of drives. A run and short pass ball control team that gets a first down on 80% of a given set of downs is only 50% likely to get three first downs consecutively on a drive. (80% x 80% x 80% = 51%) So I definitely agree, the f___it and chuck it strategy should be used a lot more. Plus, as a fan, it's just more fun to watch. I am also a Steelers fan, but I'm not going to complain if you don't work The Greatest Team In NFL History into every post. Much.

  9. Tom says:

    I think the Packers get enough coverage Pete, though the Dolphins....

  10. Anonymous says:

    I think there could some selection bias at play here as well. Let's take for an example a play where the QBs first read is a deep route. However, that receiver is double-covered and he has to dump it off to an RB for little/no gain. While this unsuccessful play goes as a short pass in the stats, the offense was trying to go deep and it just wasn't there. Then you have cases where there is an obvious busted coverage that the QB exploits, even if a deep route wasn't his first read.

  11. Brian Burke says:

    Yes. Exactly. But QBs are too gun shy according to the numbers.

    Injury rates are higher? So coaches are actually at the optimum? That's a joke, right?

  12. Jeff Fogle says:

    Obviously not a joke. Ask me a real question and we can work toward a solution.

    If a coach is focused on maximizing his chances to make the playoffs with 10-11 wins over a 16-game schedule by keeping his quarterback healthy, what's considered optimal for that may be different than what's considered optimal for raw production.

    When kids learn chess, they go crazy with their queens because it seems optimal to attack with such a potent piece. But, they gradually learn they need to protect that potency because their win percentage goes way down if they lose their queen because of reckless play. (And, the glum look on the face of a kid who just lost his queen is the same as the look on the face of a coach who just lost his quarterback for the season, lol).

    Football has been trending for decades toward reducing time in the pocket for quarterbacks (which lines up on the timeline with the evolution toward increased and more creative blitz packages). Offenses are trying to find a balance that mixes production...and a QB who can play all 16 games. Studies that don't account for that real world element may draw false conclusions.

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