What is Simple YAC and Why it Matters
Over the past few weeks I’ve written about what an Interceptable Pass is and what a Non-QB Interception is. Today I’m going to look at a different section of the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue; Simple YAC.
Simple YAC is astoundingly…simple. Simple YAC tracks every single play where the ball doesn’t travel further than two yards past the line of scrimmage. It is designed to account for plays where the quarterback didn’t have to throw into coverage and where the onus is on the receiver to create the yardage gained.
Not every play that qualifies for Simple YAC is a simple play for the quarterback, but an overwhelming majority are. Most are checkdowns or screens, the rare exception is when the quarterback has to adjust against quick pressure or read through a full progression to find the right outlet in the flat or underneath.
For the sake of continuity between different quarterbacks, all of these plays count as the same.
Most of these plays are useless for evaluating the quarterback. They are plays that every single passer in the league should expect to make every single time they are asked to. Yet these plays can still have a huge impact on a quarterback’s production. For example, 37.8 percent of Nick Foles’ yardage came on Simple YAC plays, 33.5 percent of Matthew Stafford’s did. Compare that to Brian Hoyer who had just 13.9 percent of his yards come on those plays or Cam Newton who had 15.5 percent of his.
Those numbers don’t even consider the touchdown disparity between different quarterbacks across the league. For the purposes of exploring Simple YAC plays, we’re going to showcase some of Kirk Cousins’ examples. Cousins is a polarizing player who is relevant at this time because Washington didn’t extend him before free agency, instead extending negotiations by placing the franchise tag on him.
Cousins didn’t lead the league in Simple YAC nor did he lead the league in Simple YAC touchdowns. The percentage of his yards that were gained from Simple YAC was even below average. So what makes Cousins worthwhile? Cousins led the league in 31+ yard plays that qualified as Simple YAC. Those plays came over the second half of the year, the second half of the year that is used to justify his standing as the Washington starter moving forward.
It all began against the New Orleans Saints in Week 10.
Cousins threw the ball 25 times and completed 20 passes in this game. He had 324 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. On the surface, it’s a phenomenal individual performance. Digging a little deeper you find that the Saints defense was simply atrocious that day. Of Cousins’ 324 yards, 202 came as Simple YAC. Of his 20 completions, 12 were Simple YAC. Of his four touchdowns, two were Simple YAC.
These are astronomical numbers for one game.
In the above gif, Jordan Reed caps the very first drive of the game by catching a pass in the flat to run in a 16-yard touchdown. The Saints blow the coverage as they react to the play fake, Cousins is rolled out of the pocket and Reed is his first read. He has a simple throw to make and didn’t have to adjust against pressure or diagnose a coverage downfield. This play results in a touchdown and offers a substantial boost in yardage, but it’s nowhere close to being the longest or even second-longest play of this type from this game.
Half of Cousins’ six 31+ yard Simple YAC plays on the season came from this game. Two of the three came on screen plays to Matt Jones where the Saints showed no awareness or intensity in trying to stop the running back. On both occasions Cousins had to do nothing but execute simple assignments. In the first play Jones catches the ball at the 44-yard line and finishes the play at the 11.
This 30-yard chunk was valuable and almost twice as long as Reed’s touchdown, but again, it was nowhere close to the next big Simple YAC play.
Jones’ second long screen play comes early in the second quarter and the Saints just defend it horribly. Washington uses play action to slow down the pass rush while Cousins takes a deep drop so he is in space. He has time to wait for Jones to uncover so that Cousins doesn’t need to throw a fast ball or lead his receiver to a spot. His pass is actually limp so Jones reaches for it. When Jones catches the ball he is wide open and exactly on his own 20-yard line.
He runs 80 yards to the Saints endzone, essentially untouched.
Before the end of the half, Cousins added another 30+ yard play on a screen to Jamison Crowder. Not only did it gain 30+ yards, it converted a Second-and-21 after a sack and moved the offense into scoring position with less than a minute left. Once again, this was extremely easy for everyone on the offensive side of the ball. Cousins and Crowder reap the statistical rewards even though it was a relatively simple play for each.
Jay Gruden has always been capable of creating easy yardage for his quarterbacks. He doesn’t accentuate the tougher aspects of being a quarterback, instead catering to his passer with misdirection, play action and easier by relying on scheme. Matt Jones was a huge benefactor on screen plays in 2015. On this play against the New York Giants in Week 12, Jones gains 45 yards on a screen play where he is once again given an unopposed route downfield after catching the ball cleanly in space.
Again, this is a simple play for Cousins. One you would expect every quarterback who makes it as far as the NFL to execute. The protagonist for success on this play was the misdirection created by the receiver running across the formation before the snap and Jones’ athleticism to take advantage of the space that misdirection created.
Cousins would have had to do something spectacular to not gain 40+ yards on this play.
Screen plays were a huge part of the Washington offense over the second half of last season. They played a big role in bloating Cousins’ production against bad defenses and warping the perception of his ability as a quarterback. It wasn’t just huge plays either, Cousins had seven 21+ yard Simple YAC plays and four Simple YAC touchdowns over the second half of the year.
Against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17, Cousins threw two Simple YAC touchdowns in the redzone.
Redzone touchdowns are supposed to be tougher to throw because of how the field tightens. That can often be the case but it’s not always. Smarter teams can scheme receivers open in the redzone despite the limited space. On this play, you can see the same concept that was previously highlighted for Jordan Reed’s touchdown against the Saints. Ryan Grant motions behind the line of scrimmage so he is tougher to track for the defenders at the snap.
This schemes Grant open and gives Cousins a simple throw after play action.
Washington also makes use of natural pick plays and route combinations that consistently complement each other to create easier reads for their quarterback. On this play, Crowder catches the ball two yards downfield after running behind a natural pick from the slot. Cousins’ pass is wild, but Crowder, as he often did last year, showed off a natural ability to make difficult adjustments look easy.
The pick play allows Crowder to do this in wide open space. If the separation hadn’t been created, he would have been exposed to a hit or pass disruption by the covering defender.
Finding the plays where the quarterback is only tasked with doing replacement-level assignments and measuring the production that comes from them is important for evaluating any NFL quarterback. Quarterbacks don’t control the receiver’s ability to create YAC or the defense’s pursuit. He can help to set up the receiver for success in the initial stages with his ball placement, but that is a minor input overall.
Surpassed that, the quarterback also doesn’t control the scheme he is put in. There are players who are set up for success by their coaching staffs and then there are players who are set up to fail. Simple YAC is often a good reflection on that, though the overall context still needs to be examined through tape.