Dan Henning: Conservative Plays & Check Downs


There has been a lot of talk on the site after the Bills game wondering why the play calling from Dan Henning was so conservative.  There has also been talk about why Henne is so quick to throw to the running backs on a check down.  I want to talk about both of those in conjunction with what I saw against the Bills.


Conservative Play Calling


I know I am going to catch a load of crap for this but I am going to say it anyway.  Dan Henning is not a conservative play caller.  He calls plays according to the talent that he has on the field.  Henning called plays, using the same offense, for Carolina that led them to the Super Bowl, put two WR’s in the Pro Bowl in different years (Steve Smith and Mushin Muhammad), had a Pro Bowl running back a completely different year (Stephen Davis), and made Jake Delhomme a Pro Bowler.  With the exception of Steve Smith, I would hesitate to call any of those other players great.


Henning calls a good game, always has.  What he does is utilize his best players to the best of their abilities.  He calls it “Feed The Beast”.  In the past those “Beasts” were Ricky and Ronnie, hence the WildCat.  Henning needed to get both of those players on the field at the same time so he and Lee developed the formation.  But the Phins have been primarily a running team because that is where the “Beasts” were.


Now he has a new weapon, Brandon Marshall.  Against the Bills Marshall was targeted 13 times.  That is Feeding The Beast at its finest!  If Henne throws a better deep ball, Marshall would have had 9 catches for over 100 yds and a TD.  Still Marshall had 8 catches for 53 yds even while commanding double coverage.


The play calling wasn’t conservative, it was expected.


Check Downs


Check downs are not designed.  Let me repeat, check down passes are not designed.  You cannot blame a check down pass on the offensive coordinator.  Check down passes are the result of a QB going through his progressions. 


Here is what happens in the passing game.  The play is called.  Based on the play call, formation, route combination, and coverage, a primary WR and a secondary WR is recognized by both the QB and WR presnap.  At the snap of the football, the QB drops back and reacts to the coverage.  The WR’s (and TE’s) also adjust their routes to that coverage.  If the primary WR is open, he gets the ball.  If he is covered, the secondary receiver should be open and he gets the ball.  If neither the primary or secondary WR is open, the QB goes to the check down.  It is a process the Henne goes through on every single pass play. 


But defenses know this stuff too.  Based on down and distance, they will take away all the patterns that will get 1st downs leading to the inevitable check down pass.  How many times have we all said why did he throw the 7 yd route when 10 yds was needed for a 1st down?  Well the defense dictated where the ball was to be thrown.  So instead of forcing a pass, Henne goes to the check down.


We can argue why Henne checks down so much.  I think it is a combination of several things:


  1. I don’t think Henne anticipates open receivers that well.  He only throws the pass when a receiver is open and not to a place where he will be open.  All the great QB’s have this anticipation.
  2. Marshall is going to get a lot of double coverage so it is important that the secondary WR beat one on one coverage.  Hartline was only targeted 3 times against the Bills with no catches.  Whoever plays opposite Marshall has to be a factor in the passing game.
  3. That 3.5 second pass clock that the Phins use in practice can be a great teaching tool.  It forces a QB to make quick decisions.  But it can also prevent QB’s from reading the entire field.  It looks to me that Henne is so conditioned (robotic if you want) to get the ball out of his hands in a timely fashion that he doesn’t utilize the time the OL can give him.  There is no rule that says you have to throw the ball in 3.5 seconds.  If you have the time, survey the field and take a shot.
  4. Henne is a product of the Parcells, Sparano school of QBing:  Don’t take chances and limit mistakes.  Make the safe play.  Don’t take sacks.  Don’t force a throw.  I think this philosophy has been so ingrained in Henne that he doesn’t take a necessary chance even when Marshall is involved.
  5. Inexperience of Henne.  He just isn’t comfortable yet.


Chad Pennington is the most accurate passer in the history of the NFL because he is the first to get to the check down receiver.  He never forces the issue and doesn’t have the arm strength for much more than short passes.  Chad Henne has the big time arm to go downfield and Dan Henning is an OC that can make that happen.  He did it in Carolina with similar talent.  As soon as Henne gets better (and a quality #2 WR) this offense is going to take off.  And it is going to take off because Dan Henning is a damn good OC.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Phinsider's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of The Phinsider writers or editors.

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