The Mike Wallace Effect, Deep Ball Accuracy and Ryan Tannehill
When Mike Wallace signed with the Baltimore Ravens last week, he was quick to shift blame for his failures in Minnesota onto former teammate Teddy Bridgewater. According to Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun, Wallace said:
“When this process started, I knew I wasn’t going back to Minnesota. I was like, ‘I need a good quarterback. I need a quarterback who I know is proven, who can get things done,’ and Flacco, he’s always been that guy. I always loved his deep ball, always, ever since, like I said, I was in Pittsburgh watching Torrey catching them. I was like, ‘Man, this guy gets like eight of them in a row.’ I need some of that. …
Wallace never really had a chance in Minnesota. He is a receiver who is reliant on vertical routes downfield to be productive and Bridgewater isn’t built to make those throws consistently. Bridgewater was good at everything that Wallace wasn’t, had Wallace been able to run crisp short and intermediate routes while consistently catching the ball, he could have been productive with the Vikings. He can’t though so the fit was bad from the very start.
Blaming the quarterback has been common for Wallace since he left Pittsburgh. He himself hasn’t done it as emphatically in public before, but it was a constant storyline for the media in Miami when he played for the Dolphins.
Ryan Tannehill is a quarterback who is widely considered a poor deep passer. It’s a reputation he earned working with Wallace and his former teammate Brian Hartline. When Tannehill misses vertical routes, he tends to miss them badly, so like when Jay Cutler turns the ball over, they stick in the minds of those who are only casually following each game. The best deep throwers in the league will expect to miss as often as they hit. That’s the trade-off that comes with being aggressive.
Because the league is moving towards shorter passing schemes, few teams are extremely aggressive in their attempts to push the ball downfield. If you throw the ball further than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage 70 times in a season it’s a lot.
Quarterbacks are judged on these small samples, typically by their statistical output. This is massively problematic because not only are the samples small, but each play is hugely volatile because of the yardage that is lost. If you have one accurate pass that is dropped by a receiver 50 yards downfield and another quarterback has one inaccurate pass where the receiver bails the quarterback out 50 yards downfield, it’s a 100 yard swing.
To truly gauge the deep passing accuracy of any quarterback, you can’t focus on his statistical output on those throws or his physical arm strength, you have to factor in the play of his receivers. Tannehill is the most fascinating example to use when explaining this.
It’s hard to find anyone who will defend the 27-year old’s ability to throw the ball deep downfield. It’s something I wrote about before last season, when I expected the Dolphins’ new pieces outside to significantly improve his statistical output. Tannehill had been a good deep passer up until that point of his career, but Wallace’s inability to track or catch the ball and Hartline’s inability to get open downfield prevented people from realizing that.
Because we light a fuse on quarterbacks and expect them to prove themselves to us immediately, last season was treated as a make-or-break season for Tannehill’s deep ball. Wallace and Hartline were gone, replaced by players who had proven themselves to be quality deep receivers.
The problem was that those additions didn’t live up to their bloated expectations.
In the below chart, every quarterback who attempted at least 250 attempts plus Colin Kaepernick are featured. The chart has been created from the Quarterback Catalogue charting and it tallies numbers for throws from each quarterback where the ball traveled at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. Ryan Tannehill ranks fifth.
Not only is Tannehill not a bad deep thrower, he’s one of the best deep passers in the league when you set the threshold at 20 yards. Mike Wallace’s new passer, the tall, strong-armed Joe Flacco, ranks in the bottom third and is almost exactly 16 percent behind the Dolphins quarterback. Even Bridgewater ranks higher up than Flacco, though Flacco is likely still a better fit for Wallace since Bridgewater is better throwing deep to the middle of the field than outside the numbers.
So why didn’t we see this improvement in Tannehill’s deep passing? The same reason we presumed he was a bad deep thrower before last year.
For all of Tannehill’s 586 attempts last season, he had an Accuracy Percentage of 80.8 percent. Only five quarterbacks had a higher percentage than him and he was one of only six to cross 80 percent for the full season (You can find Accuracy Percentages for all quarterbacks in the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue). Despite being accurate on over 80 percent of his pass attempts, Tannehill completed just 61.9 percent of his passes. This was because his receivers failed at the catch point 63 times.
Only Aaron Rodgers had more Failed Receptions tied to him last year, he had 64, and Cam Newton, the only other quarterback to reach 63, was the only quarterback to lose more yards (not including YAC) than him. Newton lost an incredible 836 yards to his receivers while Tannehill lost 717. No other quarterback lost more than 635 yards on Failed Receptions.
Newton was so far ahead of everyone because he was extremely accurate and his receivers were terrible in one of the most aggressive offenses in the league. His 90 attempts that traveled at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage led the league. Tannehill only had 68 20+ yard throws, eight quarterbacks had more, but he had 11 Failed Receptions on 20+ yard throws.
That means he had at least 11 accurate passes where the ball travelled 20 or more yards and his receivers turned the play into an incompletion/interception. The exact numbers Tannehill lost are 11 completions for 295 yards and two touchdowns. Those are minimums because we can’t project YAC, but even discounting YAC, adding those numbers to Tannehill’s actual production would have been huge.
Destroying the statistical production is one thing, but having those passes fall incomplete also erases them from the memory of the casual onlooker. Your reaction to a perfect pass that doesn’t gain anything is rarely “That was an incredible throw.” Your attention instead shifts to the receiver or simply moves on to the following play.
Unless you are specifically focusing on the quarterback, you are unlikely to mark off these play as notable. But they are notable. They’re also impressive.
Kenny Stills was supposed to be the anti-Mike Wallace. Stills isn’t as fast as Wallace but had proven to be a more technically refined and consistent deep threat in New Orleans. Stills was still showing off his ability to get open and his ball skills were mostly impressive in Miami, even not as consistent as they were with the Saints, but he simply couldn’t hold onto the ball. In the above play, Tannehill drops the ball over the trailing defender for Stills to cleanly catch the ball.
The defensive back recovers to try and disrupt him but Stills should have clamped the ball into his possession long before the defender could impact the play. Tannehill’s pass was slightly underthrown but still accurate because of the arriving safety from the middle of the field. He had to try and protect Stills instead of leading him into a hit from the safety, or worse put the ball at risk of being intercepted.
On this play, Tannehill is able to find Stills in stride on a vertical route down the left sideline. Stills is tightly covered but he uses his ball skills to manipulate the defensive back and create a clean passage for the ball into his chest. Stills slows down and leans back into the defender as the ball is arriving before attempting to run through it. He does everything perfectly on this play except establish control of the ball.
It was a perfect throw from the quarterback regardless.
The margin for error your receivers give you is very important when pushing the ball downfield. It’s very difficult to be perfectly precise on downfield throws for any quarterback because of the distance and the speed of his targets. Tannehill’s receivers couldn’t consistently create separation downfield or make adjustments at the catch point that most starting receivers in the league would make with relative ease.
On this play, Tannehill reads the field from right to left during his dropback. He has quickly located running back Damien Williams running down the left sideline against a linebacker. Tannehill releases the ball just before his pocket collapses around him. Williams watches the ball arrive over his shoulder and attempts to pull it in with both hands extended in front of him. He can’t hold the ball as it slides right through his hands for the incompletion.
Rarely do quarterbacks throw the ball to the perfect spot on deep throws. The ball is in the air for a long time so how the receivers track it and react to it will often determine the outcome of the play.
Let’s compare two plays to examine this.
The first comes from Tannehill once again and goes in the direction of Jarvis Landry. Landry is a receiver whose reputation has vastly overstated his actual quality. He is schemed open on this play as the Dolphins create a natural pick with the route combinations coming out of a tight bunch. Tannehill doesn’t lead him downfield but puts enough on his pass for Landry to catch it cleanly.
Landry could work back through the defensive back and assure himself of a pass interference penalty, but he should be able to make the reception from this favorable position because of where the ball is thrown. Instead, Landry is weak at the catch point. The ball gets to his hands and he tries to body catch it but can’t control it as he falls to the ground.
The former LSU receiver is generally considered the Dolphins’ best receiver, yet this is the type of play he can’t consistently make.
Staying in the AFC East, the second play comes from the Week 16 matchup between the New England Patriots and New York Jets last season. Brandon Marshall runs a double move from the left side of the field. He is bracketed in coverage. The deep safety picks up his route downfield but Marshall’s momentum should allow him to pull away from him if the ball is throw deep, into the endzone and outside of his left shoulder.
Fitzpatrick doesn’t slightly miss the throw, he completely misses it. At the time, some tried to sell this as Fitzpatrick being intelligent and throwing Marshall open. That might be believable if Fitzpatrick had made precise, intelligent throws throughout the whole season, but he didn’t. That’s why the Jets don’t want to give him a big contract. Fitzpatrick’s pass is way off target, too far infield and severely underthrown. It doesn’t matter though.
Marshall had some drop issues last year, but they were washed away by the sheer quantity of exceptional play she made on the ball in the air. This was one of those plays. He recognized the flight of the ball early, working back through the safety so he could pull it out of the air.
It’s not always about the physical act of catching the ball, it’s often about how the receiver reads the ball in the air or sets himself up at the catch point. You can’t compare a receiver such as Jarvis Landry to Brandon Marshall or even Eric Decker in terms of helping quarterbacks at the catch point. He simply doesn’t offer that skill set.
Size is the obvious difference but that’s not the issue. There are plenty of quality receivers in the league who aren’t huge. Furthermore, the Dolphins offense didn’t lack size last year.
On this play, Tannehill fits the ball over a linebacker and between two safeties while his left guard is rapidly pushed back into his lap. His pass is slightly high but arrives in a spot and at a time when his tight end should catch the ball. Dion Sims drops the ball long before either defender arrives. He never possessed it, watching it bounce off of his hands instantly.
Sims and Jordan Cameron were the Dolphins’ two big-bodied tight ends last year. Cameron is the more natural receiver but he didn’t know what routes to run for much of the year and struggled to catch the ball cleanly when he did. Davante Parker offered Tannehill the most help in the air but he didn’t play over the first half of the year and struggled at the catch point also when he did get on the field.
How we evaluate deep accuracy is concerning. It fits the QB Winz culture where we only chose to look at the surface of each player and discount any nuance or context. Quarterbacks with big arms aren’t better deep passers, look where Matthew Stafford, Joe Flacco and Brock Osweiler are on the chart above. Just because one player outproduces another it doesn’t mean he is executing at a higher level, that is true for every aspect of performance but especially so on deep throws.
Even when we are patient with players surpassed one season, we default back to simple logic instead of focusing on what is actually happening on the field. “Wallace is gone and Tannehill’s numbers are still bad so Tannehill is obviously the problem.” We need to be more vigilant so overwhelming evidence such as what we have from Tannehill’s receivers isn’t lost in the rush to be decisive and conclusive.