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The Underrated Deadliness of Play Action Passing, and Why the 2017 Miami Dolphins Could Excel in the Play Action Game

The 2017 Miami Dolphins have a dangerous concoction of ingredients to have one of the best play action attacks in the NFL.

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NFL: Miami Dolphins-Minicamp Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Play Action in Theory

Screw numbers and efficiency ratings for a moment, let’s contemplate what play action actually accomplishes: it causes the defense to pause. In a game of inches, hundredths of a second, and tight throwing windows, forcing the defense to take precious time diagnosing and reacting can make all the difference.

There are only a handful of ways offenses are able to create the “freeze”. Read-option action or a fake jet sweep have the same principle as a traditional play action pass, although sometimes with different intent. The early 2000’s offense of the Indianapolis Colts with Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, and Marvin Harrison is the perfect play action case study: to me, there’s no better prototype or apex of play action football.

The Colts built their offense around the stretch run and play action pass. James’ high quality vision and zone running abilities allowed the Colts to use the stretch run as the staple of their running game. Due to the nature of stretch runs and the extra time it takes to actually hand the ball off, compounding the stretch run with play action allowed for “maximum freeze”.

The Colts probably could’ve ran a more traditional offense and still put up monster yardage and points, but the way they incorporated stretch runs and play action into their repertoire - that was art, in my humble opinion.

When I’m thinking about successful offensive football, I often resort to the concept of keeping defenses off-balance as the #1 component in successful play calling. “Keeping defenses off-balance” can mean different things depending on the opponent or situation, no doubt. In the long run, though, call me crazy, but plays that keep the defense wondering if it’s going to be a run or pass are some of the best plays you can draw up in keeping defenses off their equilibrium.

Play Action with Statistical Context

*Primary sources for statistics were taken from this PFF article in 2013 and this Football Outsiders article in 2016.

Play Action Vs. Non-Play Action

Measured Stat With Play Action Pass Without Play Action Pass
Measured Stat With Play Action Pass Without Play Action Pass
QB Rating 99.2 83.3
YPA 8.6 6.8
Completion % 61.20% 61.30%
INT % 2.40% 2.70%
TD% 6.10% 3.90%
Usage 21% 79%

The table is based on 2 years of league-wide data, with the stats being published in December of 2013. PFF follows up the table with some commentary:

These comparisons make it pretty clear that play action leads to better performance on average. The dramatic difference though is quite surprising. A difference of 1.8 yards per attempt over every pass thrown this season is enormous, especially considering completion percentage and interception rates stay about the same. Only nine out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks (125 drop-back minimum) have their ratings drop when using play action.

Now, you can’t just start throwing play action all willy nilly or it loses its luster - BUT - statistically speaking, play action passes are more successful than traditional passes per play. Like any grandiose paradigm, there is variance and local idiosyncrasies that paint a more detailed picture. Let’s look at the only picture most of us really care about: how does all this affect the Miami Dolphins in 2017?

Play Action for the Miami Dolphins in 2017

Take a trip down Nostalgia Road with me?

  • In 2013, Ryan Tannehill was 32nd out of 39 rated QB’s in terms of play action pass % (15%). That same year, he finished #7 in Play Action QB rating (118.4). PFF quoted on this, saying:

Tony Romo, Ryan Tannehill and Philip Rivers all have made a killing with run action despite having below average running games. It’s uncertain whether they’d be having the same success if they used play action more often, but the league-wide averages suggest it never hurts to have more play action.

  • In 2015, the Miami Dolphins had the 14th highest play action usage (19%) while having the 8th best DVOA on play action (including passes and scrambles).
  • Interesting data sub-set: Football Outsiders (hyperlink included above) have a column comparing the DVOA’s of play action vs. non-play action passes. Some teams were better (some much better) throwing play action passes vs. passes with no play action. The Dolphins were one of the “much better” teams, in that, their DVOA variance ranked 4th highest. Meaning, only 3 teams in 2015 had more increased success with play action principles compared to traditional passes than the Miami Dolphins: Miami ranked 8th in play action passing while ranking 26th in traditional passing.

Moral of the story and acting theorem? Ryan Tannehill is a top 7, if not higher, play action passer.

A rift exists between how analytics/metrics dweebs view play action and how NFL coaches and coordinators put it into practice. The data will tell you that a competent running game isn’t necessary for play action to be effective, considering even the team with the fewest rushing attempts in a season is still going to rush it 22 times each game on average. The data will also tell you that NFL coaches believe in the “matrimonial” prism: play action works when you’re running game is successful.

I can see both sides, but this is just a dorky segue way to Jay Ajayi being a Polar Express-sized piece of the play action puzzle. Ryan Tannehill has shown he can be an effective play action passer without a steady running game, I’m curious to see how the pendulum swings when Ryan Tannehill has one of the best backs in the NFL. In addition, the Dolphins used a heavy dose of zone blocking and stretch plays in the rushing attack in 2016 - hint, hint, wink, wink - remember how I loved the Colts scheme of the early 2000’s?

Throw in 2 different types of deep threats and the best slot guy in the NFL at WR, Anthony Fasano and his blocking capabilities, Julius Thomas and his ability to work the middle and his familiarity in the scheme, the only real question mark is the offensive line and injuries. An understatement, I know: injuries are the Grim Reaper of hopes and dreams in the NFL.

Yet, when I’m looking at this offensive personnel group and its strengths, I believe a run-oriented, play action passing attack paradigm will be the most effective model to consistent success and big plays.