Here Is A Play That I Hate
11:26 AM EDT on September 27, 2021
If you've watched a lot of NFL over the past few years, you have perhaps noticed a trend that has taken hold of the league's offenses: The passes are getting pretty dang short. While quarterbacks are more accurate than ever before—the top three seasons all-time for completion percentage are 2020, 2018, and 2019—keeping the ball from hitting the ground has come at the expense of exciting deep bombs and yardage gained. This past season was the NFL's lowest ever for yards per completion, continuing a trend that has the four seasons before that one all in the bottom 10 in that category.
One glaring reason for this may be on the other side of the line of scrimmage. As Kevin Clark laid out a few years back, NFL pass rushes have gotten really frickin' good, allowing QBs less time than ever to sit in the pocket and air it out. Even the league's absolute worst defensive lines give a passer no more than two and a half seconds to get rid of the ball, and that tiny window has led to a quickening of the passing game where receivers simply have to catch the ball long before they're able to get downfield.
That's all logical and strategic, but it can also lead to what I consider aesthetically ugly football. For example, in a winning effort on Sunday, Matt Ryan completed nine passes that didn't even get up to the line of scrimmage while refusing to even attempt a throw that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. The former MVP hasn't completed a pass that deep all season, and has seen his yards per completion drop from 13.3 in 2016 all the way to 8.5 so far in 2021.
There's no question that the WR screen and the swing pass and the flat route are monumentally safer than other options, particularly for the many young and unproven quarterbacks currently starting in the NFL. A 2015 AP article says that not only are screen passes completed more than 84 percent of the time, but also get intercepted over five times less often than your average throw. But they are certainly not risk-free, and in fact they can make an offense look pretty silly when they don't run the way they're supposed to—like at the end of Bengals-Steelers on Sunday when Ben Roethlisberger completed a pass for negative yardage on fourth-and-10.
Which all brings me to one of the worst play-calls I've ever seen, from the first quarter of the Raiders' comeback overtime win over the Dolphins. Jacoby Brissett, starting in place of the injured Tua Tagovailoa, was a perfect example of this new short-pass style, as he completed 32 throws but somehow only managed 215 passing yards on the day. I guess that's what happens when your two (two!) offensive coordinators are calling plays like this.
What we have here is, apparently, an attempt to outsmart the Raiders defense as they presumably geared up to sack the QB for a safety. In this play, Brissett catches the snap and almost immediately hurls a near-lateral pass to a completely unscreened Jaylen Waddle, still in the end zone. I count at least five Raiders defenders who are closer to the ball than any Dolphins blockers, and the result is probably what you expect. It was the first completed pass in the Pro-Football Reference database to end up a safety without a fumble or a penalty, and it kickstarted the Raiders into 25 straight points. It was also, hilariously, the first reception of the season credited against Vegas DB Casey Hayward.
"I'm OK with that being the first reception," Hayward deadpanned afterwards.
All this is to say, I do not like the constant wave of dinks and dunks all over my television on Sundays. I do not necessarily have a solution to this problem, short of perhaps forcing pass rushers to count out "two Mississippi" before moving toward the ball. But I am officially registering my displeasure with this month's lack of high, looping, rafter-kissing throws whose targets are impossible to see until the camera does you a solid and pans 40 yards downfield. I don't care what color uniforms are at the end of the rainbow, or even if the ball hits the ground harmlessly. Just gimme my fix of cannon shots to ooh and aah at instead of burying me under five-yard dump-offs all day. This blog is over.