When the 2012 season concluded, I was sifting through my database of Cowboys plays and I noticed something interesting regarding Dez Bryant's targets. The superstar wide receiver was hardly used at all downfield in the beginning of the season. Below, I sorted all of Bryant's deep targets (those thrown at least 20 yards downfield) by game.
Six games into the 2012 season, Bryant had seen only four deep targets, three of which came against the Chicago Bears, a game in which the Cowboys got down early and were forced to throw. In four of his first six contests, Bryant didn't see one deep target. And take a look at Bryant's average stat lines:
- Games 1-6: 63.7 yards, 0.33 TDs per game
- Games 7-16: 100.4 yards, 1 TD per game
Bryant exploded when the Cowboys found ways to get him the ball downfield. It could just be a coincidence, but when you consider that Bryant is widely labeled as one of the NFL's premiere jump ball/deep threat wide receivers, there's reason to think that it probably isn't.
So, when possible, we know the 'Boys should probably try to get Bryant in favorable situations deep down the field. But that doesn't mean that deeper is always better.
Average Length of Passes Around the NFL
Using stats from Pro Football Focus, I researched a stat called aDOT, average depth of target, coined by Mike Clay. I sorted the league's quarterbacks into four quantiles based on the average distance of their passes and their winning percentage in 2012.
You can see that the quarterbacks who threw the longest passes were the most successful as a whole. That top quarter of passers includes Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco. For what it's worth, Luck led the league with an aDOT of 10.8 yards.
On the other end of the spectrum, though, we see nearly as much success from the short-tossing quarterbacks. That group includes Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, and both Robert Griffin III and Peyton Manning landed just outside of it. Christian Ponder had the shortest passes in the NFL in 2012, averaging just 6.8 yards. In case you're wondering, Romo's aDOT of 9.0 yards ranked him in the second quantile, right behind Tom Brady.
So what's going on here? Are these stats meaningful? I think the success of the deep-throwing quarterbacks is real – these stats actually hold up over the past few seasons – but there's also value in throwing short if it's used as an extension of the running game. Both Ryan and Rodgers threw the ball a bunch last season, effectively using screens and other short passes in place of runs.
Tony Romo in 2012
Despite throwing deep to Bryant more often in the middle and tail portions of the 2012 season, Romo's average pass length didn't increase.
Romo's average pass length peaked in the Cowboys' seventh game, the near-comeback win against the Giants, and it was at its lowest in the team's first loss to the Redskins. Overall, though, there's not much of a trend here, suggesting the Cowboys probably didn't make a major effort to purposely get the ball downfield more frequently.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Actually, one of head coach Jason Garrett's best traits as a play-caller has been his ability to mix up play types and locations in an effective manner. Still, one of the main reasons Romo's average pass traveled 9.0 yards past the line, the 11th-highest mark in the NFL, is because the Cowboys don't throw many screens. I counted only 24 all season, 1.5 per game.
Meanwhile, only 10.8 percent of Romo's passes traveled at least 20 yards downfield. Twenty-two quarterbacks had a higher deep ball rate. So while it seems a big portion of Garrett's offense is based on intermediate routes, the 'Boys could perhaps increase offensive efficiency by utilizing both shorter and longer passes, the short attempts as an extension of the running game and the deep looks to find Bryant and Romo's other playmakers downfield.