NY Times: NFL Vertical Game Has Gone Flat
In the N.F.L., the Vertical Game Has Gone Flat
By JUDY BATTISTA
From the start of the season, N.F.L. scoreboards have looked more like pinball machines. The San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos combined for 77 points in Week 2, and that total was promptly eclipsed when the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles scored 78 the next night.
The next week, the Jets lost a game in which 77 points were scored, but the week after that, they won in a 91-pointer, the highest single-game point total this season. And in a season that has delighted fans and given defensive coordinators ulcers, all pretense of competitive balance gave way last weekend to a deluge of points — 837, the highest-scoring week in league history.
Scoring is not merely up in the N.F.L. this season; it is at a historic level. With five weeks left in the regular season, teams are scoring an average of 45 points a game — the highest scoring average since the modern N.F.L. was formed after the merger with the American Football League in 1970, and nearly a full point higher than the previous high through 11 games, 44.1, in 1987.
The N.F.L.’s head of officiating, Mike Pereira, said that touchdowns had held steady, increasing from 486 to 494 this season, but field goals had risen to an average of 3.44 a game from 3.11. That is an average increase of a third of a field goal, or 1 point, a game.
Defense may win championships, but, fittingly, the team that relied heavily on defense to win the championship last season — the Giants — was the highest-scoring team through the first 11 games this season.
“I was not aware of that fact,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said when asked about the league’s torrid scoring pace. “I don’t have an answer.”
Neither, apparently, do defenses, although a closer look at the numbers reveals that at least they are forcing offenses to take the long way on all those scoring drives. The deep pass has given way to the dink-and-dunk, showing that the Tom Brady-to-Randy Moss tandem circa 2007 in New England, and the game plan of Al Davis’s dreams, are now an aberration.
According to Stats L.L.C., the average yardage at the point a receiver catches the ball is 6.2, the lowest since the figure was first tracked in 1992. But the average yards a receiver gains after catching the ball is 5.2, the most since 1992.
That is the premise of the West Coast offense — using high-percentage, risk-averse horizontal passes like the quick slant and the bubble screen in place of runs, and counting on receivers like Wes Welker and Anquan Boldin to break tackles for additional yardage. Running backs are also relied on to be receivers.
The approach has worked. Interception percentage is at 2.8, the lowest since 1970, and completion percentage is at 61.3, the highest. But even teams that do not run a form of Bill Walsh’s brainchild as their base offense have gone to shorter passes in part because of how defenses play.
For example, the Cover 2, which propelled Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy to success, is intent on taking away the deep pass in favor of forcing offenses to mount long drives. Arizona’s offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, said he was seeing more defensive schemes that pressure the quarterback with five players, while playing four secondary players across the deep part of the field. That leaves only two players for the middle, opening wide swaths of turf for galloping receivers, particularly on the ubiquitous crossing route.
Even the Patriots, who featured highlight-reel passes to Moss last season, get just as much mileage from underneath passes, to Welker. And in the San Diego-Denver game in Week 2, quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler combined for 727 passing yards. But only a handful of them are described in the official game book as deep passes. The rest, including the longest pass plays of the game — a 67-yarder from Rivers to Mike Tolbert and a 66-yarder to Darren Sproles — began as short passes.
“It’s almost to the point now, when you talk to defensive coordinators, they want you to throw the 5-yard pass, they’re giving them that,” said Cris Collinsworth, the former receiver who is now an analyst for the NFL Network. “They have to go 10 or 12 plays without throwing an interception or fumbling on offense. That’s the strategy now.”
Still, there are plenty of other theories about why scoring has soared while the vertical game has gone flat. Could the absence of Brady, who was hurt for the season in Week 1, and the slow start of the Colts’ Peyton Manning — the two best practitioners of the deep pass today — account for the dip in the long ball? Not likely. But Collinsworth figures that it has taken a few years for offenses to exploit the advantage they gained when officials began cracking down on contact with receivers after 5 yards.
Of course, defensive players complain that penalties — particularly the ones for hitting the quarterback — restrict them, too, and open up the passing game for more scoring. Offensive holding calls have fallen to 412 from 447, giving offenses a split second longer to execute their plays and save the quarterback from being hit.
“It seems like they take another part of him out every year,” Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck said. “Obviously, you don’t want to hit the guy in the head, but we can’t hit below the knees and we can’t fall on him. You’re not necessarily making us back off him. You’re making us hate the quarterback more.”
Tennessee Titans Coach Jeff Fisher, a member of the competition committee, senses that offenses might be speeding up to keep defenses — which this season have the use of headsets in helmets to facilitate late adjustments — off balance. Speedy offenses encourage shorter plays because deeper plays take time to unfold.
Nothing, though, promotes the short passing game more than the premium placed on keeping quarterbacks upright. Shorter passes require shallower drop-backs, which shortens the time pass rushers have to get to the quarterback. Deep routes simply take too long to develop. The short game frustrates pass rushers.
Tuck complains that it is difficult for a pass rusher to get into a rhythm when quarterbacks consistently take short drops — and said nothing would be better for him than the return of the seven-step drop. Defenses have always focused on pressuring the quarterback, but faster, more athletic pass rushers up the ante and shorten the window for a quarterback to get rid of the ball.
“A lot has to do with the way we played in the Super Bowl,” the Giants’ Barry Cofield said of the waves of pressure that unraveled the Patriots’ offense. “To throw down the field — those routes take time — that exposes your quarterback. Losing a guy like Tom Brady puts teams on alert. Defensive linemen salivate when teams throw down the field.”
Which is why the N.F.L. is likely to see less and less of it, particularly as variations of the spread offense, with its multiple receivers, make further inroads. More college quarterbacks — once steeped on campus in the wishbone and the option — are now arriving N.F.L.-equipped from pass-heavy, points-happy spread attacks, giving them, and the receivers and tight ends who played with them, a greater understanding of the passing game and a shorter N.F.L. learning curve. That makes for a higher quality passing game even from rookie quarterbacks (examples A and B: the surprising success of Matt Ryan of the Falcons and Joe Flacco of the Ravens).
The spread is unlikely to become the dominant offense in the N.F.L. because it does not offer much protection to quarterbacks. But if the quarterback is capable of unleashing a short pass quickly and accurately, it is a bonanza, as it was last week for Matt Cassel and the Patriots, who scored 48 points.
“You’re starting to see more exotic offenses, the Wildcat, more empty, spread-them-out type, what you’re seeing in college more or less,” Jets quarterback Brett Favre said. “Then it becomes a matchup issue. It’s hit or miss in those formations. Up to this point, I guess it’s been more hit.”
And the hits will probably keep coming.
“Who wants to watch 13-10 anymore,” Collinsworth said, “when we can see 65-64?”
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