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My Preferred Scheme for the 2018 Miami Dolphins: The Run Game and Play Action Passing

Don’t get it twisted, this isn’t a knock on Ryan Tannehill. It’s about highlighting everyone’s strengths.

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Arizona Cardinals v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

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 2018?

Play Action for the Miami Dolphins in 2018

  • 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).
  • We’re going back to 2013, but even in Ryan Tannehill’s 2nd professional season, he finished #7 in Play Action QB rating (118.4).
  • 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 10, if not higher, play action passer.

When you look at the composition of the team, we have the players to make this work. The 2 previous GIF’s are deep completions to Kenny Stills. Although we’ve seen light action to this point, the offensive line looks better on paper and should have better cohesion. A more intact offensive line allows longer plays to develop, like a play action pass.

The running backs are quickly shaping to be one of the most stout position groups on the roster, headlined by Kenyan Drake. We have wide receivers that can make the secondary look silly with time to execute longer-developing routes.

In my opinion, a balanced offense that leans ever so slightly towards the run while creating opportunities through play action passing is my hope in terms of how the Miami Dolphins approaching offensive game plans in 2018.

What are your thoughts, fam?