NFL’s Top Dink-and-Dunk QBs, from Alex Smith to Aaron Rodgers

There are short passes, and then there are “micro passes.” Micro passes are screens, shovel passes, swing passes, and other tosses that don’t extend beyond the line of scrimmage. These dinky dinks and dunks look like little more than glorified handoffs. Yet, they account for a large percentage of every NFL quarterback’s attempts and completions, plus a sizable chunk of their yards and other production. You won’t be surprised to learn that quarterbacks like Alex Smith and Philip Rivers threw lots of passes behind the line of scrimmage last year. However, you may be surprised that Aaron Rodgers did, too!

Let’s take a deep dive into the data to determine which quarterbacks benefited the most — and the least — from passes behind the line of scrimmage during the 2020 season. In some cases, micro passes skewed the numbers and made a few quarterbacks look better than they really were. In a few cases, these “mini” passes (or a shortage thereof) made quarterbacks look worse.

There are plenty of takeaways from the data to predict which young quarterbacks will develop in 2021. We can also look at the ones who won’t and whether a few old-timers have reached the end of the line.

Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers: Micro-passing outliers

Here are the quarterbacks who threw the highest percentage of their passes behind the line of scrimmage in 2020 (based on the air yards data at Sports Info Solutions):

  1. Alex Smith: 35.7%
  2. Aaron Rodgers: 32.9%
  3. Sam Darnold: 26.9%
  4. Teddy Bridgewater: 26.6%
  5. Cam Newton: 26.4%
  6. Kyler Murray: 26.2%
  7. Justin Herbert: 25.2%
  8. Derek Carr: 24.6%
  9. Philip Rivers: 24.5%
  10. Jared Goff: 24.3%

Most NFL QBs throw 20-25% of their passes behind the line of scrimmage

To unpack this list, we have some of the NFL’s most notorious dink-and-dunkers (Smith, Bridgewater, Carr) and some guys trapped in dysfunctional offenses with no weapons (Smith, Darnold, Newton). Some guys play in collegiate-flavored offenses full of funky screen designs (Bridgewater, Murray). We also have a rookie (Herbert), a geezer (Rivers), a system product (Goff), and, um, Aaron Rodgers?

Rodgers threw 39 passes to Aaron Jones, 30 to Davante Adams, and 19 to Jamaal Williams behind the line of scrimmage. Many were screens or swing passes, of course, particularly to the running backs. Sports Info Solutions also categorized 48 of Rodgers’ micro passes as RPOs.

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Watch a Green Bay Packers game, and you are likely to see two or three play fakes followed by sudden tosses to Adams or tight end Robert Tonyan in the flat. Passes behind the line of scrimmage are as much a staple of Matt LaFleur’s system as they are of Kliff Kingsbury’s, and they got the job done for the Packers in 2020.

A close look at the percentages above reveals that micro passes flatten out to just under 25 percent. Most NFL starters and backups throw between 20 and 25 percent of their passes behind the line of scrimmage. Alex Smith is the real outlier in the data above. An NFL team probably cannot sustain a functional offense when over one-third of its pass attempts are glorified handoffs. However, it’s important to note that Aaron Rodgers is not far behind Alex Smith in micro-pass attempts.

The anti-Alex Smiths: QBs with the lowest percentage of micro passes

Now, here are the quarterbacks who threw the lowest percentage of passes behind the line of scrimmage in 2020:

  1. Daniel Jones: 16.1%
  2. Matt Ryan: 17.3%
  3. Ryan Tannehill: 17.3%
  4. Ryan Fitzpatrick: 18.0%
  5. Tua Tagovailoa: 18.3%
  6. Joe Burrow: 18.6%
  7. Drew Lock: 18.7%
  8. Deshaun Watson: 19.1%
  9. Baker Mayfield: 19.8%
  10. Mitchell Trubisky: 20.2%

Young QBs don’t necessarily have the advantage of short, easy throws

You would expect offensive coordinators to protect young quarterbacks with lots of short, easy passes, right? Well, tell that to Jones, Tua, Burrow, and Lock. Unlike Alex Smith, these quarterbacks threw a below-average amount of passes behind the line of scrimmage.

In the cases of Jones, Lock, and Tua, the lack of stat-padding screens and swing passes may be shading our perceptions of them. Just like an extra helping of micro passes may make Herbert look a little better.

The list above is populated by quarterbacks with injury-depleted running back corps (Jones, the Dolphins duo, Burrow, Trubisky) and some quarterbacks whose running backs were not good receivers (Tannehill, Matt Ryan if you account for the fact that Todd Gurley is not who he used to be). Obviously, the majority of passes behind the line of scrimmage are directed at running backs.

And then there’s Watson, of course. Not only did he have to cope with a bad offensive line and dysfunctional organization, but the Texans couldn’t even let him dump the ball off a little more often.

Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers: old QBs, short throws

Here are the quarterbacks with the highest completion percentages on passes behind the line of scrimmage in 2020 (minimum 50 attempts):

  1. Ben Roethlisberger: 82.7%
  2. Philip Rivers: 82.0%
  3. Dwayne Haskins: 80.0%
  4. Mitch Trubisky: 78.7%
  5. Justin Herbert: 76.7%

Roethlisberger drew criticism among those of us who were really paying attention to Pittsburgh Steelers games for relying far too much on dinks and dunks (as opposed to pounding tables and saying things like, “How come the Steelers aren’t getting any respect when they JUST BEAT GARRETT GILBERT’S COWBOYS!?”).

Rivers appears to have been just as reliant on micro passes, but we’ve come to expect that from him. Rivers has also retired, so we don’t have to worry about whether his behind-the-line passing rates are a sign that his arm is overcooked linguini.

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Haskins’ completion rate on passes beyond the line of scrimmage was just 56.4%. That’s not a terrible rate, as Carson Wentz, Lock, and a few others were far lower. Yet, it’s an indication that even Haskins’ unimpressive 2020 numbers were propped up to a degree by a system designed to protect its quarterbacks.

Herbert combined a high rate of throwing micro passes and a high rate of completing them. There’s at least mild cause for concern that he will suffer a sophomore slump if asked to throw downfield more regularly.

Let’s hold off on that Trubisky guy for a moment.

Quarterbacks with short-pass struggles

Here are the quarterbacks with the lowest completion percentage on passes behind the line of scrimmage in 2020:

  1. Ryan Tannehill: 55.4%
  2. Baker Mayfield: 56.3%
  3. Kirk Cousins: 57.8%
  4. Carson Wentz: 59.8%
  5. Matt Ryan: 60.2%

Mayfield stans, take note. Not only did Baker not throw many screens, swings, or shovel passes last season, but he did not complete a high percentage of them, either. That’s a sign that there isn’t much fluff in his 2020 statistics, and that his improvement last season cannot be written off as the result of lots of easy super-short throws.

Per Sports Info Solutions, only 74.0% of Wentz’s passes behind the line of scrimmage were “on target,” the worst figure in the NFL. These are the easiest throws in football, and Carson Wentz misfired on over one-quarter of them last year. Have fun, Frank Reich!

Tannehill was 13 of 22 throwing passes behind the line of scrimmage to Derrick Henry. Henry was not charged with any drops. Opposing defenses were likely wary of screens to Henry, causing Tannehill to bounce some passes at Henry’s feet instead of attempting completions that might lead to five-yard losses.

Quarterbacks with the most and fewest yards per attempt behind the line of scrimmage

Here are the quarterbacks who benefitted from the most yards per attempt on passes behind the line of scrimmage in 2020:

  1. Nick Mullens: 5.6
  2. Philip Rivers: 5.6
  3. Mitch Trubisky: 5.5
  4. Drew Brees: 5.0
  5. Tua Tagovailoa: 4.9
  6. Justin Herbert: 4.9

Before we get to the analysis, here are the quarterbacks with the fewest yards per attempt:

  1. Carson Wentz: 2.5
  2. Nick Foles: 2.5
  3. Matt Ryan: 2.7
  4. Kyler Murray: 2.8
  5. Daniel Jones: 2.8

The official Mitch Trubisky pessimism portion of the article

While Mayfield wasn’t benefiting from micro passes during his late-season hot streak, Trubisky was. Foles, on the other hand, also threw his share of passes behind the line of scrimmage (21.8% of his attempts), but he got little out of them.

The Bears were using Cordarrelle Patterson as a change-up running back with Foles as their starter. Patterson didn’t accomplish much on swings and screens, many of which defenses surely saw coming. Darnell Mooney and David Montgomery got more opportunities as receivers with Trubisky as the starter and had better results.

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Chicago’s offense was also faster-paced with Trubisky starting, which probably resulted in a more successful short-passing game. At any rate, this data accounts for an awful lot of Trubisky’s statistical upswing at the end of 2020. That’s not an encouraging sign for anyone hypothesizing that he turned the corner last year.

Non-Bears notes

Murray’s numbers are also noteworthy. Are you throwing short more but enjoying it less? It may be because the NFL has figured out Kliff Kingsbury’s Big 12-flavored offense!

Statistical breakdowns reveal that Daniel Jones was a pretty effective deep passer. Yet, he got little from his short-passing and micro-passing game. While the blame may lie with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, the Giants’ supporting cast, or Jones himself to a degree, Jones’ long-term prognosis would be far worse if he were excellent at throwing screens but terrible at throwing downfield.

As for Wentz, if you cannot complete ‘em, you ain’t gonna gain much yardage off ‘em. Good luck, Frank Reich!

Final thoughts: Aaron Rodgers does it all

The micro-passing data is good news for Baker Mayfield, bad news for Carson Wentz, and not news at all for Philip Rivers. It provides evidence that teams like the Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants, and Denver Broncos could help their young quarterbacks by getting more bang from their buck on easy throws.

The data suggests that what the Washington Football Team did with Alex Smith last year is probably not sustainable. Derrick Henry could probably use a pass-catching change-up back, and Aaron Rodgers thrives when working within the structure of Matt LaFleur’s offense.

The data also shows how heavily veteran quarterbacks like Rivers, Roethlisberger, Brees, and Rodgers rely on passes behind the line of scrimmage. Additionally, it shows how many younger quarterbacks struggle to get the most out of what should be easy-to-execute play designs.

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On the one hand, screen and swing passes require minimal physical ability. On the other hand, they are often the result of a savvy veteran reading the defense and disguising the micro pass until the last moment. It could also be the result of a veteran coaching staff working in harmony with a QB to catch the defense napping. They could also be part of a finely-tuned offense with excellent blocking, skill-position weapons, and everything else.

Anyone who watched Tom Brady pick apart defenses with flare passes over the last five years or watched Wentz treat routine check-downs like differential calculus last year knows that there is more to micro passing than meets the eye.

The best quarterbacks are the ones who are great at both the hard stuff and the easy stuff, which brings us back around to Aaron Rodgers.

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