Photo: Michael Hursey
It’s the bye week, so this feels like the perfect time to take a closer look at one of the problems everyone keeps complaining about with Ryan Tannehill and the Miami Dolphins—the deep ball!
Earlier this week, Chris Kouffman (one of the few Bleacher Report writers whose opinions I trust) tweeted something that made me stop and think and question everything I thought I knew about Ryan Tannehill.
Not sure why there’s a perception Tannehill has been poor with the deep ball in Miami. PFF has him in top 10 deep ball accuracy 2012 & 2013.
— Chris Kouffman (@ckparrot) October 9, 2013
Now, as accurate as Pro Football Focus is, there are still some things that numbers don’t necessarily tell you. Just because a ball is caught, that doesn’t mean it was an accurately thrown ball. And just because a ball falls incomplete, that doesn’t mean the pass was off the mark, either. There are a handful of other factors (bad route-running and poor line-play, just to name a few) that can affect the outcome of any given play, so while what PFF offers is head and shoulders above almost everything else out there, we can still dig deeper to see if there’s more to the numbers than just the numbers.
With that in mind, I figured I’d take a closer look for myself, to see if our eyes are indeed lying to us, to find out if Ryan Tannehill really is getting a bad rap when it comes to the deep ball.
What follows is a look at every deep (or relatively deep) pass Ryan Tannehill has thrown this season. The screencaps above each should help give you an idea of what I’m talking about in the description below it.
1. Game 1, 3:05 Q1 - On 3rd & 4 from the Browns 45 yard line, Tannehill hits Charles Clay for 20 yards down the right side of the field. Clay is beginning to veer toward the middle of the field, but the ball is thrown slightly behind him, forcing him to reach back across his body and make the grab. There’s no way Clay could’ve recovered from the catch to gain more yardage, as the placement of the pass had him stumbling backwards, but the defender would’ve been there to make the stop regardless. Not a perfect throw, but not a terrible throw either.
2. Game 1, 4:26 Q2 - On 1st & 10 from the Browns 40, Tannehill takes the ball from shotgun and fires what looks like a 17-yard pass across the middle to Brandon Gibson that’s deflected, then intercepted at the 15. While throwing to an area of the field with four defenders isn’t always the safest decision a quarterback can make, Tannehill only misses this throw by inches, as you’ll notice the Browns defender just barely gets his fingertips on it. If Ryan Tannehill just puts a tiny bit more on the pass, then he’s got Gibson for the first down.
3. Game 1, 10:32 Q3 - On 2nd & 11, with the pocket collapsing around him, Tannehill unloads deep to the right side for Mike Wallace. The ball is overthrown, but you’ve got to attribute at least part of that to the collapsing pocket and 300-pound linemen with their hands in Tannehill’s face. I’ve never played football, but I imagine it becomes increasingly difficult to throw an accurate deep ball when you’re about to die.
4. Game 1, 8:19 Q3 - On 2nd & 9 from midfield, Tannehill again goes deep to Mike Wallace, this time on the left side. Wallace stumbles midway through the route, so it’s hard to tell just how far this ball is overthrown. Tannehill gets lucky, as the ball bounces off a defenders hands in the end zone, which is important, considering three plays later…
5. Game 1, 6:52 Q3 - 2nd & 6 from the Browns 34. Tannehill stares Hartline down the entire way, but it doesn’t matter because Hartline makes a quick move toward the sideline, faking his defender out, gaining just the step he needs for Tannehill to hit him with a perfectly thrown ball for the touchdown.
6. Game 2, 3:31 Q1 - On 2nd & 7 from his own 23, Tannehill takes the ball from shotgun and throws a 17-yard strike over the middle to Charles Clay, who turns it into a 67-yard gain. It’s hard to tell if the pass is thrown a little bit behind him or right on target, but the placement is such that Clay, whose route is taking him from the right side toward the center of the field, catches it while spinning and is able to reverse course and sprint back out toward the right sideline. A pretty terrible play by two Colts defenders, the linebacker who loses Clay and the safety who darts right past him, but the pass was finding the tight end, regardless. The only difference would’ve been what happened after the catch.
7. Game 2, 12:19 Q2 - On 3rd & 4 from his own 26, Tannehill fires a 24-yard bullet to the left side for Brian Hartline. This ball is perfectly placed over Hartline’s shoulder.
8. Game 2, 6:38 Q3 - On 2nd & 7, Tannehill uses the play-fake to hit a wide open Brian Hartline over the middle for a gain of 20. Sorry for the lack of photographic evidence, but there’s nothing worth noting about the throw or catch here, because a wide open receiver in the NFL is a wide open receiver in the NFL. I did like how decisive Tannehill was coming out of the play-fake, though. Patted the ball once, but he made a quick decision and got rid of it quickly.
9. Game 2, 5:07 Q3 - 2nd & 10 from the Indianapolis 35, Tannehill completes a 34-yard pass to a wide open Mike Wallace, all the way down to the Indy 1, but the throw is short, causing Wallace to have to stop and wait for it. If Tannehill puts more air under it, Wallace catches the ball in stride for a touchdown. Instead, Charles Clay vultures a touchdown from the guy who drafted Lamar Miller in your fantasy league.
10. Game 3, 0:10 Q2 - With 10 seconds left in the half and Miami on the Atlanta 28, Tannehill takes one last shot at the end zone before the field goal unit comes on. Mike Wallace’s route breaks to the outside kind of late, forcing Tannehill to hold the ball a little longer than he’d like, allowing Falcons’ safety William Moore enough time to get an arm in and deflect the pass out of bounds. A good defensive play, but Tannehill again stares his receiver down the entire play. Less eye-bleeping and a little more air on the ball and the Dolphins might have come away with 7 more points before the half.
11. Game 3, 4:43 Q3 - On 3rd & 10 from the Atlanta 35, Tannehill, under pressure, gets bumped by Lamar Miller (who just gets shoved backward with ease) and floats a pass over the middle to Charles Clay. The ball bounces off of a leaping Clay’s hands and lands in the arms of a Falcons defender for the pick. The pass might’ve been a little behind Clay, causing him to turn completely toward the line of scrimmage to try and make the catch—AGAIN—but ultimately, it’s the pressure on Tannehill that causes the poor throw. A better block by Lamar Miller and the result might be completely different.
12. Game 3, 1:01 Q3 - On 3rd & 9 from the Falcons 18, Ryan Tannehill hits Brian Hartline for a touchdown in the corner of the end zone. Yay, touchdown. However, if we’re being critical of the pass—and, really, that’s the whole point of this post—then there are two things Tannehill does here to make you scratch your head. For starters, he never once takes his eyes off of Brian Hartline. (How the safety drifted toward the middle of the end zone on that play is beyond comprehension.) The other thing Tannehill does here is he throws the ball behind the receiver, forcing Hartline into a more difficult grab, when there was plenty of room to lead him to the front corner of the end zone. There’s no need for the receiver to have to make a falling catch when the closest defender is about six miles away. Considering there was absolutely no pressure whatsoever, that’s a throw that needs to be better.
13. Game 3, 3:07 Q4 - 1st & 10 from their own 43, Ryan Tannehill takes the snap from shotgun and fires a ball way behind and well over the head of Brandon Gibson on the right side.
14. Game 3, 2:00 Q4 - On 2nd & 4 from the Atlanta 33, Tannehill floats a perfect pass down the sideline to Lamar Miller, whose hands were replaced with cinder blocks just before the snap. This isn’t a true “deep pass” but given that Miller had already beaten his man and was being led perfectly, this should have easily been a 33-yard touchdown.
15. Game 3, 1:45 Q4 - On 2nd & 10 from the Falcons 29, Tannehill fires a perfect 21-yard strike to Charles Clay, who beats his man and, for the first time all season, doesn’t have to spin around backwards to make the grab. Tannehill may struggle with accuracy from time to time, but this is certainly not one of those times.
16. Game 4, 14:18 Q2 - On 1st & 10 inside their own 10 yard line, Tannehill goes deep to Mike Wallace, who lets the ball slip right through his arms. There’s coverage and the ball should’ve been thrown deeper, but ultimately, this one’s on Wallace.
17. Game 4, 1:53 Q4 - On 3rd & 14 from their own 43, Ryan Tannehill is looking to throw deep down the right side, but as he’s about to air it out, a Saints defensive lineman gets by Richie Incognito and hits Tannehill’s arm, causing the ball to float right into the middle of the field for an interception.
18. Game 5, 10:24 Q1 - On 1st & 10, Tannehill airs it out down the right sideline for Charles Clay, but (a) doesn’t get nearly enough air on the ball and (b) doesn’t notice the safety. The pass is easily intercepted, though replays would confirm that the Ravens defender came down with the ball out of bounds.
19. Game 5, 3:45 Q1 - On 1st & 10 again, this time at the Ravens 29, Ryan Tannehill overthrows Mike Wallace on a play where the Ravens are called for defensive holding. The ball still looks like it was badly overthrown, regardless of the hold, but it’s tough to really know how that one would’ve played out as Wallace spent the last few steps with his arms outstretched, looking for the penalty flag. Again, no photo of this one, because all you’d be looking at is Mike Wallace nowhere near a football, which seems unnecessary.
20. Game 5, 10:15 Q2 - On 2nd & 9 from the Miami 37, Tannehill takes the ball from shotgun, pumps once to the sideline, then airs the ball 49-yards down the right side of the field for Mike Wallace. Again, though, the ball is badly under thrown, causing the receiver to have to slow down and wait for it, allowing the defender to make a play immediately after the catch.
21. Game 5, 1:22 Q2 - 2nd & 10 from their own 40 and again Tannehill under throws Wallace on a deep ball down the right side. Wallace beats his man 20 yards downfield (which is what you’re looking at in the first picture above), but the short throw gives the defender a chance to catch up and break up the pass, as Wallace has to try and make a leaping catch, instead of hauling it in in stride down the sideline.
22. Game 5, 1:02 Q2 - On 1st & 10 from the Ravens 30, Ryan Tannehill connects with Brian Hartline for 21 yards down to the Baltimore 9-yard line. Tannehill does a nice job of leading Hartline out of bounds, but giving him enough room to make the catch without having to worry about his feet. Again, the only concern is Tannehill’s insistence on undressing the targeted receiver with his eyes as the play develops.
23. Game 5, 10:17 Q3 - On 2nd & 6 from the Dolphins 34, Tannehill again goes to Mike Wallace deep down the right sideline and again winds up not getting enough on the ball. Mike Wallace isn’t the type of receiver who’s going to go up and snatch balls out of the air; on throws like this, Tannehill needs to better utilize Wallace’s speed.
24. Game 5, 2:58 Q3 - 2nd & 2, ball on the Baltimore 46, Tannehill takes the ball from shotgun and this time does an excellent job of purposely throwing the ball short on an 18-yard pass to Mike Wallace. The defender has no chance of stopping in time to make a play on this ball. Wallace’s heel comes down out of bounds, making it an incomplete pass, but it’s worth pointing out a nice throw that won’t show up in the stats.
25. Game 5, 10:59 Q4 - On 3rd & 6, Ryan Tannehill leads Charles Clay with a 26-yard pass that Clay takes for another 19 yards before being run out of bounds. Yards after the catch have a way of skewing a quarterback’s stats—think a 1-yard pass to a running back who turns it into a 15-yard gain—but in this case, these yards are all on Ryan Tannehill. A perfectly thrown pass is what allows Clay to continue with the ball in stride.
26. Game 5, 10:23 Q4 - On 2nd & 10, Tannehill tries to make a similar throw to the one earlier where Mike Wallace stepped out of bounds, only this time to Brian Hartline on the other sideline. The throw is way too far behind the receiver and he has no chance to make a play on it.
27. Game 5, 1:30 Q4 - 4th & 10, down by 3, ball on their own 20. Probably the most impressive throw of Ryan Tannehill’s young career. After escaping the rush and moving outside the pocket, Tannehill rolls to his left and throws a 46-yard strike, on the run, into the hands of a diving Brandon Gibson for the first down.
What we wind up with is a 27-pass sample size, 12 of which were completed and 15 of which fell incomplete for one reason or another. Those reasons are important, though, because even though only 12 of the deep balls were completed, 15 of them were actually catchable. (The Lamar Miller and Mike Wallace drops, along with the pass where Wallace stepped out of bounds make up the difference there.) And of the 12 passes that were deemed uncatchable, Ryan Tannehill was hit as the ball was released three times, while there were two other instances where Mike Wallace either tripped or was held. None of which should be held against Ryan Tannehill.
The total number of incompletions Tannehill can actually be held responsible for in totality here is just seven. Of those, five balls were underthrown and two were overthrown.
Now, it wouldn’t be fair to nitpick a quarterback’s incompletions, but not do the same for those plays that ended up being successful, so let’s see how Ryan did there…
Of the 12 balls completed, nine of them were thrown either perfectly or at least close enough to the intended receiver that criticism isn’t warranted. (His accuracy looks even better when you factor in the three perfectly-placed dropped passes.) As far as the other three completions, there were two deep balls Mike Wallace caught which were underthrown, and one ball thrown behind Brian Hartline that was caught for a touchdown, but made to look a lot more difficult than it should have been.
So, are our eyes deceiving us? Is Tannehill actually pretty good at throwing the deep ball?
Well, yeah, basically.
Tannehill does tend to have a little trouble placing his longer passes, especially with regards to Mike Wallace, who too often has to slow down or stop to wait for the football. He also occasionally throws a little behind receivers, but the majority of those balls are still very catchable, so that’s not much of a concern.
The reality is, the majority of Ryan Tannehill’s deep passes are more on target than you and I have assumed. Maybe some of them are off by a little here and there, but it’s safe to say that there isn’t a quarterback in the league who can consistently throw a deep ball that doesn’t cause a receiver to slow down or have to make a play over a defender.
And if you’re trying to wrap your mind around the inordinate amount of underthrown balls Wallace’s gets, compared to the super-pretty ones that keep finding their way into Brian Hartline’s hands, you can probably find your answer somewhere in the extra year those two have spent working together.
So, when Chris Kouffman says…
The “inaccurate deep ball” accusation of Ryan Tannehill…is inaccurate.
— Chris Kouffman (@ckparrot) October 9, 2013
…I find it kinda hard to argue.