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How Important is the Deep Ball in the NFL?

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There is no position in the game of football that is held in elite status like that of quarterback. They are automatically considered leaders on the field and in the locker room and are the faces of the offense -- hence the nickname field general. There is no player on the team that gets rewarded as much as when a quarterback succeeds or cast aside as quickly when they fail. No player is rewarded or burdened as much.

One of the things that quarterbacks are judged on is their ability to throw the deep ball. The long passes are some of the most exciting plays in the NFL and nobody throws the deep ball more often than who many consider to be the best active quarterback in the league: Peyton Manning.

In numbers on their own (and this includes the playoffs) nobody threw downfield more often than Peyton Manning. His 95 throws of more than 20 yards trumped Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers (both with 86), while Matt Hasselbeck and Drew Brees (both 76) rounded out the top five. Most interesting is the fact that only one of these guys finished with a completion percentage of over 40% when going deep. We’ll get to that guy in a bit.

While Manning and Flacco chuck the ball deep more often than most other quarterbacks, their completion percentage on those deep passes isn't very good. In fact, they're in the bottom 10 in the NFL. The quarterbacks with the best deep pass completion percentage might actually surprise you.

Nobody had a higher deep pass completion percentage than Vince Young (45.71 percent) and no, that's not a typo. Then David Garrard, Matt Schaub, Phillip Rivers, Drew Brees, Michael Vick, Eli Manning, Kerry Collins, Derek Anderson and Aaron Rodgers rounded out the top 10. What's amazing about that fact is that that only three of the top 10 made the playoffs in 2011 and that doesn't include any of the quarterbacks with the four highest completion percentages on long passes. Here's the complete list:

Rank Player Team Deep Attempts Deep Completions Deep Comp %
1 Vince Young TEN 35 16 45.71%
2 David Garrard JAX 51 23 45.10%
3 Matt Schaub HST 48 21 43.75%
4 Philip Rivers SD 68 29 42.65%
5 Drew Brees NO 76 32 42.11%
6 Michael Vick PHI 65 27 41.54%
7 Eli Manning NYG 73 30 41.10%
8 Kerry Collins TEN 44 18 40.91%
9 Derek Anderson ARZ 47 19 40.43%
10 Aaron Rodgers GB 86 33 38.37%
11 Kyle Orton DEN 73 27 36.99%
12 Tom Brady NE 49 18 36.73%
13 Ben Roethlisberger PIT 69 25 36.23%
14 Matt Hasselbeck SEA 76 26 34.21%
15 Donovan McNabb WAS 60 20 33.33%
16 Brett Favre MIN 46 15 32.61%
17 Sam Bradford SL 40 13 32.50%
18 Josh Freeman TB 72 23 31.94%
19 Shaun Hill DET 47 15 31.91%
20 Matt Ryan ATL 51 16 31.37%
21 Colt McCoy CLV 32 10 31.25%
22 Peyton Manning IND 95 29 30.53%
23 Joe Flacco BLT 86 26 30.23%
24 Carson Palmer CIN 54 16 29.63%
25 Ryan Fitzpatrick BUF 69 20 28.99%
26 Mark Sanchez NYJ 74 21 28.38%
27 Jason Campbell OAK 51 14 27.45%
28 Jay Cutler CHI 64 17 26.56%
29 Chad Henne MIA 40 10 25.00%
30 Alex D. Smith SF 36 9 25.00%
31 Matt Cassel KC 57 14 24.56%

Notice that most of the playoff quarterbacks are near the bottom of the list, including Matt Cassel who has the worst long pass completion percentage. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is actually in good company on this list, right behind Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco.

What about the teams that air it out long more often than others? Are those the teams that make it to the playoffs?

Nope. Again, Vince Young tops this list, airing it out long on 22.44 percent of his passes. The rest of the top 10 includes Michael Vick, Kerry Collins, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Joe Flacco, Jason Campbell, Josh Freeman, Kyle Orton, Matt Hasselbeck and Colt McCoy. This time, only two quarterbacks who liked to throw the ball deep often led their teams to the playoffs in 2011: Vick and Flacco.

Rank Player Team Total Attempts Deep Attempts Deep Attempt %
1 Vince Young TEN 156 35 22.44%
2 Michael Vick PHI 408 65 15.93%
3 Kerry Collins TEN 278 44 15.83%
4 Ryan Fitzpatrick BUF 441 69 15.65%
5 Joe Flacco BLT 553 86 15.55%
6 Jason Campbell OAK 329 51 15.50%
7 Josh Freeman TB 474 72 15.19%
8 Kyle Orton DEN 498 73 14.66%
9 Matt Hasselbeck SEA 525 76 14.48%
10 Colt McCoy CLV 222 32 14.41%
11 Ben Roethlisberger PIT 480 69 14.38%
12 Derek Anderson ARZ 327 47 14.37%
13 Aaron Rodgers GB 607 86 14.17%
14 David Garrard JAX 366 51 13.93%
15 Eli Manning NYG 539 73 13.54%
16 Jay Cutler CHI 474 64 13.50%
17 Peyton Manning IND 706 95 13.46%
18 Brett Favre MIN 358 46 12.85%
19 Donovan McNabb WAS 472 60 12.71%
20 Philip Rivers SD 541 68 12.57%
21 Mark Sanchez NYJ 596 74 12.42%
22 Matt Cassel KC 468 57 12.18%
23 Shaun Hill DET 416 47 11.30%
24 Drew Brees NO 718 76 10.58%
25 Alex D. Smith SF 342 36 10.53%
26 Carson Palmer CIN 585 54 9.23%
27 Tom Brady NE 537 49 9.12%
28 Matt Ryan ATL 600 51 8.50%
29 Matt Schaub HST 574 48 8.36%
30 Chad Henne MIA 491 40 8.15%
31 Sam Bradford SL 590 40 6.78%

The guys at the bottom of the list throw the deep ball less and somehow still seem to make the playoffs. Five of the bottom 10 guys made the playoffs (Ryan, Brady, Brees, Cassel and Sanchez), and once again, Carson Palmer finds himself in some decent company.

It's beginning to look like the deep ball isn't that important when it comes to winning.

How about interception percentages on those deep throws, how does that factor into all of this mess? Let's take a look.

The quarterback with the least amount of interceptions on deep throws was Kyle Orton, only throwing interceptions 2.74 percent of the time he threw passes over 20 yards. The rest of the top 10 includes Josh Freeman, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Cassel, Mark Sanchez, Carson Palmer, Vince Young, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan. Five of the top 10 guys led their teams to the playoffs in 2011: Roethlisberger, Cassel, Sanchez, Flacco and Ryan. Then, coming in at No. 11 was Tom Brady.

Rank Player Team Deep Attempts Deep INT Deep INT %
1 Colt McCoy CLV 32 7 21.88%
2 Jay Cutler CHI 64 8 12.50%
3 Jason Campbell OAK 51 6 11.76%
4 Philip Rivers SD 68 8 11.76%
5 David Garrard JAX 51 6 11.76%
6 Kerry Collins TEN 44 5 11.36%
7 Shaun Hill DET 47 5 10.64%
8 Drew Brees NO 76 8 10.53%
9 Donovan McNabb WAS 60 6 10.00%
10 Ryan Fitzpatrick BUF 69 6 8.70%
11 Alex D. Smith SF 36 3 8.33%
12 Michael Vick PHI 65 5 7.69%
13 Sam Bradford SL 40 3 7.50%
14 Chad Henne MIA 40 3 7.50%
15 Peyton Manning IND 95 7 7.37%
16 Aaron Rodgers GB 86 6 6.98%
17 Eli Manning NYG 73 5 6.85%
18 Matt Hasselbeck SEA 76 5 6.58%
19 Derek Anderson ARZ 47 3 6.38%
20 Matt Schaub HST 48 3 6.25%
21 Tom Brady NE 49 3 6.12%
22 Matt Ryan ATL 51 3 5.88%
23 Joe Flacco BLT 86 5 5.81%
24 Vince Young TEN 35 2 5.71%
25 Carson Palmer CIN 54 3 5.56%
26 Mark Sanchez NYJ 74 4 5.41%
27 Matt Cassel KC 57 3 5.26%
28 Ben Roethlisberger PIT 69 3 4.35%
29 Brett Favre MIN 46 2 4.35%
30 Josh Freeman TB 72 2 2.78%
31 Kyle Orton DEN 73 2 2.74%

Ahhh, now I see. It isn't necessarily the amount of deep passes you throw or what your completion percentage is on those deep passes, but how often, or more importantly how little, you get picked off on those passes. Only two quarterbacks that had the highest interception percentage on deep passes made the playoffs in 2011: Drew Brees and Jay Cutler.

So, even though the NFL is obviously a passing league, it seems that the deep passes aren't what's important, but when the ball is thrown deep, it's important that it's thrown to the right guy.

For all of you who have concerns about young Andy Dalton's arm strength and about the effectiveness of a west coast offense in the NFL (Bengals fans), hopefully this makes you feel a little better about the Bengals' chances in 2011 and beyond.