Ryan Tannehill leads the list of the top 10 most effective play-action passers

As data and analytics continue to help us evolve our thinking and deepen our understanding about football, one of the continued revelations is that play-action passing is a golden ticket to unlocking an efficient offense. Continued research by Steven Ruiz shows us that not only is play-action extremely effective, but it’s also likely underutilized by NFL coaches. Furthermore, while the run game and the subsequent fake are married to a certain degree, you don’t have to establish the run to boast a strong play-action game.

Translation: Play-action is good and the reasons teams should use it more are innumerable.

With the data provided by Sports Info Solutions, we can quantify quarterback performance in the play-action game. Using a composite score of several play-action passing stats ...

  • Completion rate on play-action throws.

  • Passer rating on play-action throws.

  • Adjusted yards per attempt on play-action throws.

... we'll examine the top-10 players at the position when making such throws.

Adjusted yards per attempt is an efficiency metric that takes the traditional yards-per-attempt model a step further by rewarding the passer for touchdowns and heavily penalizing for interceptions. It also correlates with wins on the team level.

An example of what we mean by composite score: A player who ranked second in completion rate, fifth in passer rating and first in adjusted yards per attempt would have a composite score of 8, with a lower score indicating better performance.

It's impossible for any stat to completely negate the influence of a quarterback's surrounding cast and measure his pure ability, but using a composite score helps alleviate those issues to a manageable degree.

Qualifier: Only quarterbacks to start eight-plus games (28) were considered.

Ryan Tannehill is not just the most effective play-action passer in the playoffs, but the entire NFL this season. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Ryan Tannehill is not just the most effective play-action passer in the playoffs, but the entire NFL this season. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

1. Ryan Tannehill

Completion pct.: 75.6 (third). Passer rating: 143.6 (first). Adjusted YPA: 14.1 (first).

Score: 5.

The Titans turned their season, and perhaps the course of the entire franchise, around by finally throwing in the towel on Marcus Mariota midway through 2019. It’s highly unlikely they knew the league’s most efficient passer would be waiting behind door No. 2 when they made Ryan Tannehill their starter. And yet, that’s exactly what the Dolphins’ draft bust would give them.

Play-action was key in Tannehill’s absurd production since taking over. Tannehill executed a play fake on 26.6 percent of his 2019 dropbacks, the ninth-highest rate among qualified quarterbacks. As the season wound down, it was a weekly occurrence to see a deep bomb unfurl from Tannehill’s hand deep to rookie star A.J. Brown after he ripped the faux handoff from Derrick Henry’s path.

2. Drew Brees

Completion pct.: 76.1 (first). Passer rating: 143.2 (second). Adjusted YPA: 11.97 (third).

Score: 6.

Drew Brees is one of the best statistical passers in league history, so it’s no surprise he should end up here. Despite missing over a month of regular-season action, Brees finished 2019 on an outrageously high note.

With the weapons placed around Brees in the passing game, there’s an abundance of options to consider once the play fake has been executed. We know a completion to Michael Thomas is near-automatic, but even a player like Jared Cook rounding into form to become one of the league’s best at his position is a huge boost when Brees looks down the middle of the field. If Alvin Kamara returns to the healthy form he showed in September to go along with this fantastic play-action passing game, NFC teams will get swept away by the Saints in the postseason.

3. Gardner Minshew

Completion pct.: 76.1 (second). Passer rating: 133.4 (third). Adjusted YPA: 11.81 (fourth).

Score: 9.

Let this serve as a reminder to just what a fine season Gardner Minshew had as a rookie. The sixth-round quarterback limited mistakes and displayed calmness in the eye of the storm like we usually see from long-time veterans. It remains one of the great mysteries of 2019 why the Jaguars sent Minshew back to the bench after he displayed such promise.

That’s not the only strange decision the Jaguars made. Minshew was particularly effective on play-action throws, which notably sky-rocketed his completion percentage, but he executed the play fake on just 13 percent of his dropbacks. That was dead last among qualified quarterbacks. This reality is even more confusing when you consider the Jaguars are meant to be a run-based team that should allow for more play-action chances. Confidence in John DeFilippo as a play-caller continues to wane.

4. Russell Wilson

Completion pct.: 72.6 (fifth). Passer rating: 127 (third). Adjusted YPA: 11.0 (fourth).

Score: 12.

Russell Wilson had one of the best seasons of his career and was the presumptive league MVP before Lamar Jackson took the race over. Everything about Wilson’s skill set would tell you he’s an ideal candidate for a play-action-based offense, and the numbers bear that out. The way he can operate on the move and rifle the ball deep are key attributes to taking advantage of the windows play-action afford as a quarterback.

Seahawks fans and those fond of Wilson have long asserted that he’s never truly been put in a position to succeed, thanks to his overall team construct. You could make the argument that in this instance, Brian Schottenheimer and the Seahawks don’t use enough play-action, considering how well Wilson performs when using it. Wilson executed a play fake on 25.1 percent of his dropbacks, 13th most among qualified quarterbacks.

Russell Wilson's play-action capabilities are probably being underutilized. (Shane Roper-USA TODAY Sports)
Russell Wilson's play-action capabilities are probably being underutilized. (Shane Roper-USA TODAY Sports)

5. Kirk Cousins

Completion pct.: 71.5 (seventh). Passer rating: 126.3 (fifth). Adjusted YPA: 10.6 (fourth).

Score: 16.

When the Kubiak Contingent and Kevin Stefanski joined forces to fix the Vikings’ passing offense this season, play-action was going to be a focus. Kirk Cousins has gone into great detail on the record explaining his affinity for the art of deception on these plays. Stefanski has said, “It needs to look like, taste like, smell like the run,” emphasizing how important it is to integrate the fake seamlessly with your run formations.

The results for Cousins have been extremely impressive. He leads the league with 13 play-action touchdowns and boasts a top-five passer rating and adjusted yards per attempt. Cousins has his flaws and we’re all well aware of them. However, he’s perfectly capable of being the point guard for a system that integrates this concept as a key cog in its attack.

6. Jameis Winston

Completion pct.: 68.2 (11th). Passer rating: 125.1 (sixth). Adjusted YPA: 12.5 (second).

Score: 19.

At the end of the season, Jameis Winston declared for all to hear that if “you look at my numbers, I'm ballin’.” It was certainly a weird thing for the Bucs quarterback to assert after clinching a nine-interception lead in picks this season.

Perhaps Winston only meant for us to look at his play-action numbers. Just two of his 30 picks came off play-action throws. It’s not really in Bruce Arians’ offensive DNA, and Tampa Bay hardly boasts an intimidating rushing attack, but perhaps the veteran coach should add more run fakes in for Winston next year. Like it or not, he’s probably stuck with him again in 2020.

7. Philip Rivers

Completion pct.: 72.4 (sixth). Passer rating: 113.0 (10th). Adjusted YPA: 9.6 (eighth).

Score: 24.

The second half of 2019 was far from kind to Philip Rivers. He threw over 20 interceptions for the third time in his career, had his starting status questioned and ended the year with an emotional press conference. It’s hard to see him back with the Chargers in 2020, and several chapters of his play leave his NFL future in doubt.

However, his effectiveness as a play-action passer does leave some hope. If he lands in a play-action heavy scheme like the Vikings designed for Kirk Cousins, complete with average-or-better pass protection, Rivers may be able to serve as a bridge quarterback.

8. Derek Carr

Completion pct.: 72.4 (fourth). Passer rating: 113.0 (eighth). Adjusted YPA: 9.6 (14th).

Score: 26.

In conjunction with an outstanding effort from rookie running back Josh Jacobs, Derek Carr ran an efficient play-action passing game. That is a strong complement to what Jon Gruden wants to be the focal point of his scoring unit.

In typical Carr fashion, however, the emphasis was more on safety than sizzle. Carr accumulated just 347 air yards on his play-action throws, ranking 25th among qualified quarterbacks.

9. Jimmy Garoppolo

Completion pct.: 68.2 (12th). Passer rating: 106.8 (14th). Adjusted YPA: 10.1 (seventh).

Score: 33.

Few offensive minds go to the lengths of Kyle Shanahan to make life easier on their quarterbacks. It shows in the 49ers’ use of play-action. Jimmy Garoppolo executed a play fake on 30.7 percent of his dropbacks, and was one of just two quarterbacks to clear 30 percent.

There were questions early in 2019 as to whether Garoppolo was truly a franchise quarterback. He finished the year with several strong outings and overall proved to be an ideal pivot man at the helm of this pristine offensive system.

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan (right) has put Jimmy Garoppolo in a position to succeed with high volumes of play-action. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan (right) has put Jimmy Garoppolo in a position to succeed with high volumes of play-action. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

10. Lamar Jackson

Completion pct.: 64.9 (18th). Passer rating: 117.6 (seventh). Adjusted YPA: 9.4 (10th).

Score: 35.

It would be wild if the presumptive league MVP didn’t make a list celebrating passing proficiency. Part of the Ravens’ plans to design an offense around the skills of Lamar Jackson was to make play-action a focal point when they elected to throw.

No quarterback used it at a higher rate (31 percent) than Jackson. Along with his own ability as a designed runner, layering a faux handoff to a back only to pull the ball and deliver a strike to Marquise Brown down the field or over the middle to Mark Andrews presents an impossible equation for defenses to crack. Part of Baltimore’s success is the number of decisions they force a defense to make in a split second before Jackson torches them. Too often, there isn’t even a correct choice.

Bonus Notes

Josh Allen was bottom-five in play-action frequency (19.7 percent) but top-12 in passer rating and adjusted yards per attempt. Adding more layup throws off the play fake would help Allen continue to develop after positive signals this year. Use the Ravens as a baseline model.

Despite an overall strong rookie year, Kyler Murray would rank 25th on this list. That’s disappointing when you consider how well the Cardinals ran the ball this year and that play fakes were aplenty in the offense. This is an area Murray can improve on to take a leap in 2020.

While there isn’t much good to take out of his 2019 season, Baker Mayfield would rank 12th among play-action passers. The Browns dialed up a fake on 26.6 percent of his dropbacks, but you might see the next head coach crank that up into the aggressive 30 percent range to iron out some of those turnovers. Definitely look for that to happen if Kevin Stefanski is hired as Cleveland’s next head coach.

The play-action game was still key for the Rams in 2019, as Jared Goff used it at the fourth-highest rate (29.7 percent) among qualified quarterbacks. He was still a problem, ranking 28th in passer rating (81.8).

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