It's 3rd-and-10. Is your quarterback throwing a five-yard pass? And are you happy about it?
If so, there's a chance you may be Adam Gase.
Gase has been making a lot of news in recent weeks, but let's set aside the new Jets head coach's penchant for Shakespearean boardroom power plays or the passive-aggressive negging of Le'Veon Bell, which already appears to be underway. Gase's primary objective is to develop Sam Darnold into a Pro Bowl-caliber franchise quarterback. If he does that, no one will care about what happened this offseason. If he doesn't, being Mr. Congeniality to his co-workers won't save him in the long run.
A deep dive into Gase's record in three seasons as the Dolphins head coach and offensive architect revealed he may not be the right coach to develop Darnold—or any young quarterback.
The problem is easy to summarize: Gase's system threatens to choke out Darnold's potential by ordering him to throw too many too-short passes.
Gaming the ratings
It doesn't take a degree in mathematics to figure out just how mediocre the Dolphins offense was in three years under Gase.
The Dolphins ranked 24th in the NFL in yards and 17th in points during their 2016 wild-card season. They then dipped to 25th in yards and 28th in points in 2017 (when Jay Cutler was coaxed out of the broadcast booth to replace the injured Ryan Tannehill) and 31st and 26th last year (when Brock Osweiler replaced the injured Tannehill for a handful of midseason games).
But while the Dolphins' seasonwide offensive totals were generally bad, the individual passing results of Miami quarterbacks were usually acceptable. Tannehill ranked 12th in the NFL in passer rating (93.5) in 2016 and 20th (92.7) last year; Cutler ranked 23rd (80.8) in 2017.
Those figures aren't great, but they don't point to passing efficiency as a major problem for Gase's offenses. Tannehill had a higher passer rating last year than Eli Manning, Marcus Mariota, Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Case Keenum and others; his rating was 15.1 points higher than Darnold's rating of 77.6.
If you have read this far into a statistical article about Adam Gase, you don't need to be told passer rating is an outdated, poorly designed measure of quarterback performance. Tannehill drops all the way to 32nd in the NFL in 2018, between Lamar Jackson and Josh Rosen, when we switch to ESPN's QBR. Tannehill also drops to 32nd last year when we use Football Outsiders' DVOA, or defense-adjusted value over average. Even when Tannehill led the Dolphins to the playoffs in 2016, he ranked 25th in DVOA and 24th in QBR.
The discrepancy between advanced metrics like DVOA and QBR and basic stats is telling. Something made the raw passing stats for Dolphins quarterbacks look half decent for the last three years, even when those quarterbacks were playing poorly and limiting the offense.
That "something" was Gase's love of the short pass in long-yardage situations.
Let's use the Football Outsiders premium database to drill deeper into Gase's play-calling tendencies. Specifically, we'll focus on two very important game situations: 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long. "Long" means seven-plus yards in both situations:
- 2016: The Dolphins offense ranked 26th on 2nd-and-long and 14th on 3rd-and-long.
- 2017: The Dolphins offense ranked 32nd in 2nd-and-long and 26th on 3rd-and-long.
- 2018: The Dolphins offense ranked 31st on 2nd-and-long and 28th on 3rd-and-long.
Three years, only one ranking (barely) above league average in long-yardage situations, the rest well below average and an overall downward trend. That's not a good look for Gase's situational play calling.
Those rankings are based on Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, which assigns a weight to every single play executed in a given situation, based on how much (or little) the result of that play increases (or decreases) a team's chance of winning.
One thing DVOA excels at is removing the fluff from raw statistics. The system rewards, say, two-yard runs on 3rd-and-1 but provides only tiny rewards for 10-yard passes on 3rd-and-15. Passer rating and final stat totals can be fooled by dump-offs that lead directly to punts, but DVOA cannot. That's an important point to keep in mind considering the somewhat rosy picture traditional numbers can paint.
According to Pro Football Reference, Tannehill completed 36 of 55 passes on 2nd-and-long (65.5 percent) for 375 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in 2018. Superficially, those are solid numbers. On 3rd-and-long, he was 24-of-45 (53.3 percent) with 287 yards, 3 touchdowns and 3 interceptions: weak but not terrible in situations wherein leaguewide completion rates dip and interception rates increase.
Cutler's raw numbers in 2017 long-yardage situations are slightly better than Tannehill's in 2018: a 69.7 percent completion rate (62-of-89) on 2nd-and-long and a 56.3 percent rate (36-of-64) on 3rd-and-long.
Even Osweiler's long-yardage raw stats look good. Suspiciously good. Osweiler completed 63.6 percent (21-of-33) of his 2nd-and-long passes and a whopping 77.3 percent (17-of-22) of his 3rd-and-long passes last year.
Instead, Osweiler did what Cutler and Tannehill did in high-leverage situations in Gase's offense: He padded his stats with lots of failed completions.
The folks at Football Outsiders have been tracking "failed completions" for years. You can read the precise definition at the top of Bryan Knowles' article, but most fans know a failed completion when they see one: It's the two-yard pass in the flat on first down, the four-yarder on 2nd-and-10 and even the 14-yarder on 3rd-and-15.
Under Gase's watch, Dolphins quarterbacks threw lots and lots of failed completions:
- 29.5 percent of Tannehill's completions last year were failed completions, ranking him 32nd among qualifying quarterbacks. Failed completions accounted for 16.7 percent of his total pass attempts, which ranked 29th.
- 28.1 percent of Cutler's completions and 17.4 percent of his attempts in 2017 were failed completions. Both figures ranked 25th among eligible quarterbacks.
- 29.9 percent of Tannehill's completions (31st) and 20.2 percent of his attempts (31st) were failed completions during the Dolphins' triumphant wild-card season.
For comparison's sake, successful quarterbacks usually throw failed completions on about 20-23 percent of completions and 10-15 percent of attempts. The bottom of the failed completion list is historically the hangout of notorious check-down artists like Manning and Flacco, caretaker veterans like Brian Hoyer and rookies in survival mode throwing screens on 3rd-and-20. (Darnold was not among those rookies last year; more on that in a moment.)
Football Outsiders also keeps track of the distances of both complete and incomplete passes on all third downs. The following results include short- and medium-yardage situations as well as 3rd-and-long, so when Tannehill threw a screen or swing pass on 3rd-and-4—which happened several times last year—that's also in the data:
- Tannehill threw short of the first-down marker on 52.8 percent of all third-down attempts last year, ranking 35th.
- Cutler threw short of the sticks on 54.5 percent of third downs in 2017, ranking 37th. His average throw on 3rd-and-longs that year was 3.7 yards short of the first-down marker, which is remarkable when you try to visualize it (on 3rd-and-10, Cutler was going out of his way to throw six- or seven-yard passes).
- Tannehill ranked 17th by throwing 41.9 percent of his passes in front of the sticks in 2016, his good season.
Three seasons of data doesn't lie. Gase's Dolphins were terrible in long-yardage situations, and short passes on 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long both contributed to the problem and masked it by making the raw passing stats look better.
Quarterbacks themselves have a lot to do with whether deep receivers or the guys running the shallow drags get targeted on any given pass, of course. But four different veteran quarterbacks (Tannehill, Cutler, Osweiler and Matt Moore) contributed to these numbers. And Gase himself frequently emphasizes and defends his dink-and-dunk philosophy. Here he is justifying his love of the short pass in 2016, August and November, for example.
Gase pointed out in 2016 that short passes lower sack totals, which is typically true. But Dolphins quarterbacks were sacked 13 times in 2nd-and-long situations last year. When defenses know what's coming and don't have to respect the downfield threat, it's easier for them to get to the quarterback.
Gase has also noted, accurately, that the NFL gets more short pass-oriented every year. But Gase's teams have now been on the extreme, counterproductive vanguard of that trend for three seasons, producing below-average results.
That could pose a huge problem for Darnold, whose encouraging rookie season was based partly on not doing the things Tannehill and Cutler did.
Darnold threw failed completions on only 21.8 percent of his completions (ninth in the NFL) and 11.7 percent of his attempts (a remarkable fourth). Uniquely among rookie quarterbacks, Darnold took his share of downfield shots last season, and they were starting to pay off. The Jets finished just 30th in DVOA on 2nd-and-long (still better than Gase's Dolphins, despite fewer weapons and reps split between the rookie Darnold and undead zombie Josh McCown) but a respectable 15th on 3rd-and-long.
A four-year study by Nate Weller of Sports Info Solutions proved rather conclusively that it's better to throw past the sticks on third down than dump the ball off: The slightly increased turnover risk on a downfield shot is more than offset by the potential reward. The Jets finally found a young quarterback who is both willing and able to be aggressive in long-yardage situations. But they have yoked him to a head coach who doesn't even want to take deep shots on second downs.
By replacing a few big plays with lots of ineffective screens and drag routes, Gase could turn Darnold into an ineffective quarterback with decent-looking numbers—Tannehill, in other words.
Worst Gase scenario (sorry)
Before we wrap up, we should address some extenuating circumstances in Gase's favor to satisfy desperate Jets hopefuls, statistical sticklers and perhaps any Peyton Manning burner accounts.
- Gase's Dolphins had injury issues. The Dolphins ranked 30th in offensive adjusted games lost last year; Tannehill, receiver Albert Wilson, guard Josh Sitton and others missed significant time in 2018. Cutler himself was an injury replacement in 2017, and numerous starting linemen missed time that year.
- Tannehill and Cutler aren't exactly Steve Young and Joe Montana, and both tended to check down and rely too much on short passes before they worked with Gase. Tannehill cracked the all-time failed completion list in 2015, the year before Gase became the Dolphins head coach. Cutler made the same list in 2014, one season before Gase became his offensive coordinator for the Bears.
The caveats come with a built-in worry: If Gase downshifts his offense into check-down mode at the slightest excuse—some guys are hurt, the quarterback isn't phenomenal—then he's more likely than ever to roll out the shallow crosses on second-and-15 for a team with a second-year passer, a weak offensive line and a thin skill-position corps.
The numbers indicate Gase's offenses look great when Peyton Manning is in the huddle (as he was in 2013 and 2014) but weak-to-terrible given ordinary talent and somewhat typical NFL adversity. The same could be said of you or me, and no one is offering us complete control over Darnold's future.
The best-case scenario for Darnold would be to develop into a daring downfield passer who makes the most of every completion.
That's the exact opposite of a Gase quarterback. Which is why Gase looks like the wrong guy for the job.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.
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