Breaking Down Miami Dolphins Quarterback Ryan Tannehill's Deep Ball

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Breaking Down Miami Dolphins Quarterback Ryan Tannehill's Deep Ball
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has struggled to develop chemistry with 2013 free-agent acquisition Mike Wallace this season. The two players continually miss on deep throws. Here we will look at the extent of the problem and focus on identifying some of the sources of the disconnect between the two players.

 

The Problem

Before we can begin speculating on the nature of the lack of chemistry between the two players, we really need to isolate the extent of the actual problem.

Pro Football Focus (subscription required) tracks passes thrown 20-plus yards beyond the line of scrimmage. They track catches as well as drops and relate them to total attempts in order to come up with an accuracy percentage for quarterbacks across the league.

Using data from the 2012 season as well as the 2013 season, we find that among the 31 passers that have attempted at least 50 deep passes during those years, Tannehill’s accuracy percentage (40.0 percent) ranks 17th in a tie with Robert Griffin III.

For example, Tom Brady and Tony Romo’s accuracy percentages over the same time period rank 14th and 15th, respectively. Joe Flacco’s accuracy percentage (33.8 percent) ranks 27th among the group of 31 quarterbacks.

The issue is also commonly raised that even on catchable passes, Tannehill often fails to hit his receivers in stride. The question is, how common is this?

If Tannehill is underthrowing his receivers more commonly than the other quarterbacks, this would tend to minimize the average yards gained on actual catches. After all, the other quarterbacks supposedly complete passes to their players in stride, which means deeper gains due to yardage picked up after the catch.

Using the data above from the 31 qualified passers, we find that the average yards per completion of passes thrown 20-plus yards beyond the line of scrimmage is about 34.1 yards per catch. Tannehill’s average yards per completion over the period is 34.0 yards per catch.

This all seems the very definition of mediocre.

 

The Players

Now that we have a grasp on where Tannehill’s deep passing ranks among NFL quarterbacks, we can begin isolating the source of the problem. The first place we can start is by looking at the production of the individual players.

Below you will find a table showing data gathered from different places on the Pro Football Focus website (subscription required). We will focus on the two individual players who took the significant share of the deep passing targets over the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

Ryan Tannehill Accuracy on 20-Plus Yard Throws 2012-13
RECEIVER CATCHES DROPS ATTEMPTS ACCURACY %
Mike Wallace 3 1 17 23.5
Brian Hartline 15 1 33 48.5
Everyone Else 11 3 35 40.0

Pro Football Focus

As you can see from the above data, Tannehill seems to be much more accurate when throwing deep to Brian Hartline as opposed to Wallace. He is also much more accurate with his deep passes thrown toward the likes of Davone Bess, Charles Clay, Rishard Matthews, Brandon Gibson, etc.

In fact, going back to the group of passers isolated above, if one were to tally only Tannehill’s accuracy statistics from players not named Wallace, the resulting percentage (44.1 percent) would rank sixth in the group of 31 quarterbacks.

 

The Mike Wallace Connection

So what is it about Wallace that would induce such inaccuracy from the quarterback? This is where film study must kick in. Watching the film of every deep ball thrown toward Wallace during the 2013 season, we find several points to note about the data.

Several of the balls thrown at Wallace may have been 20-plus yards beyond the line of scrimmage, but were not necessarily plays that the fans would remember as being deep passes.

For example, in the Atlanta Falcons game, Wallace ran a deep post-corner pattern against zone coverage. Tannehill threw the ball with anticipation before Wallace broke to the outside, trusting Wallace to come back to the football. Wallace did not do so, and safety William Moore was able to break up the pass. This pass had deeper depth but was not necessarily a deep ball.

Another example came in the Week 11 game against the San Diego Chargers.

Tannehill rolled to his right by play design. Wallace rolled with him at a deep depth. Tannehill wanted to hit Wallace deep down the sideline but Wallace’s single coverage was too tight. The window was too small, and so Tannehill was forced to place the football in a spot where either Wallace would get it or nobody would. This is essentially a throwaway.

The film shows 15 plays in which Tannehill attempted to hit Wallace on a true deep vertical.

Right away, we are forced to toss two of these plays out. The reason? They were “Hail Mary” attempts during hopeless situations in the football game.

A “Hail Mary” is exactly as the name implies, a ball the quarterback throws up on a prayer as opposed to a ball that is aimed properly. It is an unselfish play because the quarterback knows that it will result in an interception on his stats sheet a very high percentage of the time. Both of the “Hail Mary” pass attempts to Wallace were picked off.

The accuracy of two more of the 15 plays becomes impossible to evaluate due to the fact Mike Wallace was held or interfered with during the play. Both plays resulted in a penalty and went down as a “no play” in the official game logs.

On a deep ball into the end zone against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5, corner Jimmy Smith was flagged for holding Wallace early in the route which prevented him from speeding through to the football. It is impossible to tell whether the ball would have fallen in the right place or not.

Then we have the deep ball to Wallace in overtime during the Week 9 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Wallace beat Terrance Newman so bad on the play that Newman decided it was better to intentionally get flagged for interference than to let Wallace speed through a well-thrown ball and score during the sudden death portion of the game. The ball seemed accurately thrown, but it is impossible to truly tell because Wallace was tripped.

Finally, there was a throw to Wallace on a deep post route against the New Orleans Saints in Week 4 the accuracy of which is similarly impossible to judge. The reason is because Tannehill’s shoulder and arm were hit as he threw the football, resulting in a wildly inaccurate floating duck that did not even come close to its intended target. This ball was also picked off by the defense.

This leaves us with 10 gradable deep vertical throws to Wallace. Of them, three were caught, one was dropped and another was caught unnecessarily out-of-bounds. Two more were bad decisions as opposed to bad throws, two were underthrown and one was overthrown.

10 Gradable Deep Vertical Throws to Mike Wallace
RESULT OPPONENT NOTES
49-yd rec. Ravens Fake WR Screen, slight underthrow
46-yd rec. Bills 50-yd throw, hit as threw, caught in stride
34-yd rec. Colts Slight underthrow, down at 1-yd line
Dropped Saints Ball thrown in stride, dropped
OOB Bucs Wallace fails to adjust to ball, out-of-bounds
Incomplete Browns 55-yd throw, overthrown by one yd
Incomplete Ravens 45-yd throw, severely underthrown
Incomplete Browns Poor decision, Wallace stumbled on route
Incomplete Chargers 50-yd throw, poor play design
Intercepted Patriots Poor decision, didn't look off safety

Chris Kouffman

The reason we isolate the individual plays in this way is because we are trying to get a sense of how sample size and the law of small numbers might be affecting the data.

With only 13 official plays to go on, even one or two unusual circumstances (such as the “Hail Mary” pass attempts) can skew the trend considerably. One ball thrown accurately enough to be caught inbounds but unnecessarily caught out-of-bounds can turn an “OK” percentage into a poor one.

We are just trying to get a sense of how often these deep vertical strikes to Wallace are thrown in a catchable manner, and the answer seems to be about half of the time.

 

Week 10: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

During the Week 10 matchup between the Miami Dolphins and Buccaneers, Tannehill threw a deep ball to Wallace along the right sidelines. Wallace ended up catching the football out-of-bounds. This play is referenced several times above as being catchable.

On the play, Tannehill was under a little bit of pressure in the pocket and was forced to move to his right as his eyes and head turned to his right to find Wallace, who was streaking vertically up the field after a double-move.

Wallace beat Darrelle Revis, who was expecting more safety help over top. Part of the reason he didn't get that help is because Tannehill made sure not to check over to Wallace too early in the play, which would have given away his intentions.

Tannehill threw the ball about 50 yards through the air (measured in a straight line). Wallace looked up for the football a little late on the route. This delayed his locating the football, which hindered his ability to adjust to it.

Unlike a play we will review later, Wallace was not able to adjust his speed smoothly in order to keep his balance and make a clean play on the ball. The ball came down perfectly catchable, but Wallace did not truly begin slowing down for it until just as the ball arrived. At that point, he became off balance by his sudden adjustment, and this led to his catching the football with one foot out-of-bounds.

NFL.com

Though announcer Jon Gruden blasted Tannehill for supposedly throwing the football out-of-bounds, implying that it was not catchable, the pictures of the play reveal that the ball could have been easily caught inbounds.

 

Week 11: San Diego Chargers

 

It is ironic that the most recent play against the San Diego Chargers in Week 11 that has brought the deep ball issue with Tannehill to a boiling point among the fan base was only partially Tannehill’s fault.

NFL.com

On a first viewing, fans saw a streaking Mike Wallace create a number of steps of separation on Chargers corner Shareece Wright.

Then they see Wallace having to slow down considerably for an underthrown football, to the point that Wright was able to close the separation and interfere with the catch. If only Tannehill had thrown the football to Wallace in stride, the play would have gone for a long touchdown.

The question to ask is: Could he have?

The physics of the game are important. Plays are designed with timing built into them. The timing is based on the abilities of the players within the system.

If you have players with unusual abilities playing in your system, it only makes sense that you must make adjustments to opportunistically capitalize on those abilities. At the very least, you don’t want design features in your system interfering with the ability of the players to excel.

While most people are caught up watching the end of the incomplete pass against the Chargers, the beginning of the play had much more effect on the outcome. The points to note are the backfield timing of the quarterback’s drop and how it marries with Wallace’s route design.

Ryan Tannehill lined up in a shotgun formation on the play. The play call called for him to execute a play-fake before his drop. The drop itself was three steps with a hitch.

A play-fake adds about a half-second to the timing of a play. It can be useful for exactly this reason, as sometimes the route designs require that extra time for the receiver to get into his break.

Most people think of play-fakes as intended to bring safeties and linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage. This can be true of some fakes; however, on a lot of plays, the fake is merely a timing tool which keeps defenders from reading the quarterback’s intentions for half-a-second, while allowing receivers that extra half-second to get into their breaks.

A hitch step is an extra step forward after the quarterback is finished with his drop. It is often referred to as a “gather step” because the quarterback seems like he is gathering himself out of his drop so that he can get more power into his throw. The timing of some plays will involve, for example, a five-step drop with a hitch, while others will involve five-step drops without a hitch.

 

Most three-step drops will not use a hitch step. A lot of five-step drops will. A three-step drop from a shotgun formation is the timing equivalent of a five-step drop from under center, which means you will often see a gather step at the end of the drop.

Wallace ran a go route on the play in question. The route did not involve a double move. This meant Wallace, with his 4.28 speed, per NFL Draft Scout, was destined to get vertical on the play very quickly.

Once Wallace gets vertical, he can cover a lot of ground in a very short span of time. This is key to note because Wallace's speed can work against a quarterback due to the functional constraints of his arm, if the play is not timed correctly.

To put it simply, if it takes too long to throw the ball, Wallace is going to have to slow down and wait for it.

Given the fact that Wallace ran a simple "go" route, it is curious why the play being run called for a play-fake in order to delay the timing. It is also curious why the drop involved such a pronounced hitch step at the end. Tannehill appeared to get the football out of his hands in rhythm during the play, yet the ball still did not leave his hands until a full 3.00 seconds after the snap.

At that point, Wallace was already 13 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, running in full stride. A ball traveling the 50-yard distance Tannehill threw it on the play is going to take about 2.5 seconds to reach that distance, which means Wallace was destined to have an additional 2.5 seconds at full speed.

The ball arrived to Wallace a full 5.5 seconds after the play began. Unfortunately, given his progress on the route, Wallace could have been a full four yards further down the field at the 5.5-second mark. This meant he had to slow down considerably, and this gave the defensive back the chance to close the separation.

Does this mean Tannehill could have avoided the underthrow simply by throwing the ball four yards farther? The answer to this question is a firm "no."

Throwing the ball a longer distance adds more time to the play. The ball cannot magically travel a farther distance in the exact same amount of time. MWallace already had too much time on the play. Adding more time to the play would have just allowed him to run longer at his impressive top speed.

Since the football speeds through the air faster than Wallace is capable of covering ground, there is a point at which the throw and the receiver could intersect that would have allowed Wallace to stay in stride. Unfortunately, due to the delayed timing in the backfield, that intersection would have involved a little better than a 60-yard throw from Ryan Tannehill.

Speaking from experience having tracked hundreds of throwing distances and speeds in college and the NFL using video software, a 60-yard throw (measured in a straight line) is rare. There are only two in my records. Some quarterbacks can reach distances of 60 yards in distance throw competitions, however game conditions are significantly different.

No play in the playbook should be designed to require the quarterback to throw the football 60 yards through the air. If a quarterback were to attempt such a pass during the game, it would have to be because the play went off-schedule due to a mistake or a scramble. However, the play in the Chargers game proceeded exactly on schedule. It was a poor design.

Here we can catch a glimpse of what the play should have looked like. The following pass was thrown by Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas during the Denver Broncos' Week 11 matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs.

NFL.com

As you can see, whereas Tannehill's throw against the Chargers was delayed by a play-fake and a hitch step, Peyton Manning had no play-fake to delay him. He also shortened his hitch step. As a result, the ball came out of his hands in 2.00 seconds. He was able to hit Thomas in stride about 26 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

All of this is an example of how a coaching staff can fail to help its players get on the same page with one another.

It does not relieve Tannehill of responsibility for throwing the football about 50 yards instead of 55 yards, which would have still necessitated that Wallace slow down for the football but may have given him enough of an edge to catch it more cleanly.

It does not relieve Wallace of responsibility for making a poor effort on the play to come back and fight for the football in the air.

However, it does show that the coaching staff's play design is working against the players at times.

 

Conclusion

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill does not have the most accurate deep ball in the league. His deep ball accuracy in his short career has been mediocre. The same can be said for a surprising number of the best quarterbacks in the league. Worse can be said of several accomplished quarterbacks, such as Super Bowl winner Joe Flacco.

Heading into the 2013 season, Tannehill's deep-ball accuracy (as measured by Pro Football Focus, cited above) was statistically among the best in the league. Those numbers have come down considerably as Tannehill attempts to gain chemistry with an unfamiliar player. At times, the coaching staff and play design have worked against the two players as they attempt to get on the same page.

However, film study shows that when you strip away extraneous noise such as "Hail Mary" plays, defensive penalties and plays severely influenced by pressure in the backfield, Tannehill is throwing catchable deep passes to Mike Wallace at an acceptable rate.

This should give Dolphins fans hope that, in the long run, the noise of a small sample pool will give way to longer-term results that reflect the film.

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