He beat Philadelphia Eagles cornerback James Bradberry, who started the play across from him at the line of scrimmage before dropping off into a zone defense. Nearly 30 yards down the field, Valdes-Scantling looked wide open for what could easily turn into the kind of momentum-swinging, home-run play that wins Super Bowls.
But Patrick Mahomes won without it.
As Gardner-Johnson tried to bait Mahomes into throwing the deep ball, the quarterback instead found Travis Kelce underneath. He connected with the tight end on a pass that Next Gen Stats calculated as a 90% completion probability the second it left Mahomes’ hand. The play went down as a 22-yard reception, but Mahomes’ pass traveled just under 14 air yards, while Kelce picked up the remaining 8 yards after making the grab.
That was Mahomes’ longest completion of Super Bowl LVII. Despite possessing an arm capable of launching a football 70 yards, Mahomes attempted just four passes of at least 15 air yards — and completed three of them — in his second Super Bowl victory.
In his first Super Bowl appearance three seasons earlier, he attempted twice as many of those passes.
The next season, Mahomes noticed defenses were starting to play him differently. If he was going to beat them, it wasn’t going to be with go-balls to Tyreek Hill.
“We faced so many deep coverages where teams were taking away all our deep throws,” Mahomes said of the 2021 season during a Super Bowl LV media session. “I had to learn when to just take what’s underneath. That’s something where I’ve kind of grown and matured. We’ll call deep plays still all the time, but if defenses are going to play that deep, even though I want to in my heart of hearts to throw it downfield and make those big plays, I’ll take the underneath stuff and find ways to move the ball down the field that way.”
The evolution of Mahomes’ aerial attack mirrors a league-wide trend that last season saw the fewest number of deep balls attempted — defined as traveling at least 15 air yards — since 2006.
“It’s directly attached to Patrick Mahomes,” ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky said, explaining the phenomenon. “Teams have sat there and said, ‘We are going to take these home-run hitting quarterbacks and make them hit singles.'”
In a league seemingly obsessed with finding the biggest arm — and the most explosive receivers to take advantage of it — the moonshots might be a thing of the past.
There were 3,416 attempts at least 15 yards downfield during the 2022 regular season, the fewest in any season since 2006.
But when quarterbacks did let it fly, they were pretty successful. Completion percentages on those attempts of at least 15 yards downfield was 45.1% — the second-highest completion percentage in a single season since 2006.
The trend continued through the first week of the 2023 regular season, too. Both air yards per attempt and number of passes attempted of more than 20 air yards were lower than the 2022 averages — and the 2022 Week 1 numbers. Just 9.2% of all passes attempted were deep balls, down from 10.4% in Week 1 of 2022, while air yards per attempt decreased from 7.3 to 7.1. Passers produced the fewest yards (6,225) and TD passes (37) in a Week 1 since 2006. They averaged 6.25 yards per attempt, the lowest Week 1 output since 1996.
So what gives? There’s not a simple answer. Around the league, head coaches, coordinators and players all point to different reasons.
Theory 1: Defense killed the deep ball
Patrick Peterson remembers coming into an NFL where truly elite defenses had lockdown corners, where they dared quarterbacks to try it: your best guy vs. our best guy.
Disciples of Deion Sanders like Darrelle Revis and Champ Bailey.
After 13 years, though, Peterson is seeing fewer islands and more archipelagos.
“A lot of defensive schemes were around their cornerbacks,” Peterson said. “…I won’t say defenses have become more complicated, but defenses have said now we don’t want to make the quarterback just find the easy throw right away. We want to make him think through the process of passing the ball, just not line up, ‘OK, I got a press corner here, a single high, I’m going deep to one of these guys.'”
Instead, defenses are using more two-high looks, putting two safeties back deep and making it more difficult for receivers to get open on the vertical routes. And it’s not just the secondary adjustments that discourage quarterbacks from throwing deep. As the game evolved, defenses went from static zone coverage where defenders were only active if someone was in their assigned area to more dynamic, man-match coverages that blend zone concepts with varying degrees of man-to-man defense. Think Pete Carroll’s Legion of Boom to Vic Fangio’s counterpunch developed with the San Francisco 49ers.
Part of the chess match is the evolution and usage of pass rushers.
That’s exactly the goal, Peterson said. Blanketing over the top, forcing the quarterback to hold on to the ball longer and progress through his reads gives the pass rush the extra tenth of a second needed to get to the quarterback.
“It’s not a Tampa-2 oriented defense, but it’s very soft zones and the deep ball isn’t there,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “If you make a living of trying things that a defense is really trying to take away, it’s kind of an uphill battle, and you’re wasting a lot. So sometimes you take what they give you.”
Bengals coach Zac Taylor did just that in his offensive adjustments from 2021 to 2022. A year after Joe Burrow and the Bengals stormed into the Super Bowl with 11 regular-season touchdowns that went at least 20 air yards, Taylor noticed defenses playing Burrow differently, taking away the deep balls that made the Bengals offense so lethal. After averaging 8.3 air yards per attempt in 2021, Burrow’s average dropped to 7.2. And though he attempted nearly 100 more passes in 2022, Burrow attempted four fewer passes of more than 15 air yards. In his first outing of 2023, Burrow averaged 7.1 air yards per attempt — but more alarmingly, 2.6 yards per passing attempt. It was the first time in his career that he averaged fewer than five yards per attempt.
“I felt like we saw more two-high defenses than any year I’ve been in the league,” Taylor said of the 2022 season. “And, yeah, specifically to us, but also around the league more generally, you’re seeing a lot of coordinators come in and play a lot more two-high looks.
“A lot of times that’s good quarterback play, not forcing the ball into those looks. It’s not because those calls aren’t coming in, they’re just not forcing the ball down the field.”
Theory 2: The Tyreek Hill effect
There’s a reason why NFL quarterbacks aren’t forcing the ball down the field as much: They don’t have to.
As downfield attempts decreased over the last 17 seasons, the average yards after catch steadily increased.
In 2006, about 43.5% of the passing yards generated by offenses were produced by receivers after catching the football. By 2022, that mark was north of 50%.
Call it the Tyreek Hill effect.
Hill’s prowess as a speedy, vertical threat forces defenses to back up, but his quick-footed shiftiness makes him — and players like him — uniquely capable of taking advantage of the space created underneath with the defenses protecting the deep ball.
“The best [situation] is when you know the true wideouts are threatening people all the time on the outside, and when they do, that allows the rest of the game to become a lot easier,” Shanahan said. “And then if they’re tough with the ball in their hands, then they usually get to really change the game.”
Shanahan’s signature offense is predicated on those versatile, tough players, ones like Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey, who the 49ers acquired in a midseason blockbuster trade last year, racked up 695 yards after catch, while Samuel amassed 493 in an abbreviated season. The 49ers averaged a league-high 6.6 yards after the catch last season, marking the fifth consecutive season where Shanahan’s offense averaged more YAC per reception than any other team in football. Predictably, the 49ers were 29th last season in pass attempts of more than 15 air yards.
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With the rise in popularity of skill players like McCaffrey, Samuel and Hill, it makes more sense for quarterbacks to take the safer throw knowing their receiver is plenty capable of picking up the yards on the back end of the play.
“It’s high risk, throwing the ball all the way down the field, maybe in double coverage or if it’s 40 yards in the air,” Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “Rather, (you can) throw it five yards and let that guy run the rest of the way, so the run after catch has been a huge emphasis …You see the really good teams who are scoring a lot of points. They’re not necessarily always throwing it deep. They’re throwing it underneath and letting the guy run the rest of the way.”
Sometimes that means throwing the ball to the running back and letting him do the dirty work. While Trubisky had running back Tarik Cohen as his YAC playmaker in Chicago, Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert has one of his own in Austin Ekeler.
In 2022, Ekeler set a career high by leading the league with 843 yards after catch, exceeding his expected yards after catch of 762, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Ekeler was fourth in receiving yards on a Chargers team where no one had more than 900 receiving yards, despite having a cannon-armed quarterback in Herbert.
Herbert averaged 6.7 air yards per attempt in 2022, nearly a full yard less than each of his first two seasons in the NFL. His percentage of passes attempted of more than 20 air yards was also its lowest last season, dropping from 10.3% in 2020 to 8.2% in 2022.
Even though Herbert’s overall volume of deep passes decreased, the Chargers were still in the top half of the league with 61 attempts of passes of at least 20 air yards, though they were 20th with a 36.1 completion percentage. In theory, the more success a team has with picking up yards after catch on the short passes, the more likely an opportunity opens up for an occasional deep ball.
“The really good, really disciplined quarterbacks know where the ball has to go,” Orlovsky said. “They get the ball out quickly, they take your boring completions and they make sure the coach knows again, I need you to call that (deep pass) again at some point. I’ll do the right thing with the football. Keep calling your shots and you’ve got to trust your quarterback to make the right decisions.”
Theory 3: The see-saw
Sitting at a round table during NFL owners meetings earlier this year, Arthur Smith’s eyes lit up at a question about the deep ball’s decline. He leaned back in his chair and pondered.
“I can give you my theory, right,” the Atlanta Falcons head coach said, scooting forward.
“It’s the way the game’s been played, and I think you’re seeing a much more wide open game now coming from the youth level.”
Pee Wee football concepts in the NFL? Yes, and it’s not as crazy as it sounds, Smith said. The NFL isn’t just a copycat league, football is a copycat sport. Concepts start at the grassroots level, and as a generation of players advances through the ranks, so, too, do the schemes and styles.
“On a Texas high school football field, you’re seeing a lot of spread,” Smith said. “Guys are very talented, skilled position guys. You’re not seeing some of the old school, intermediate drop back game.”
And once those skilled position high school players make their way to the NFL, they become positionless players. The new wave in offensive threats, positionless players are the perfect vehicles to carry a scheme predicated on the run-pass option. The concept leans heavily on the run game to set up the deep ball, and it’s a key part of Smith’s offenses.
“The institution of the run-pass option has just provoked quicker throws,” Orlovsky said. “And more space created laterally and horizontally, just spreading offenses outward, promotes easier underneath completions.”
While Smith’s units in Tennessee and Atlanta averaged some of the deepest throws in the league, they simply didn’t throw the ball all that often because of the strength of the run game and the types of players on the roster.
With the Titans, Smith leaned heavily on All-Pro running back Derrick Henry, and in Atlanta, he’s continued to make his offenses more horizontal. Not only did the Falcons use a run-heavy offense in 2022 behind a strong offensive line and running back Tyler Allgeier, they also utilized the run-pass option with positionless offensive skill players like Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Pitts. The Falcons ranked 25th last season in passes attempted of more than 15 air yards, and inversely, ranked third in rushing yards.
Consider the phenomenon an offensive see-saw. While the volume of deep throws decreased across the league, the run game surged. In 2022, offenses averaged 4.5 yards per rush and 121.5 rushing yards per game — both record-highs since at least 2006.
“I’m sure there’s a myriad of reasons that outline (the deep ball decline), but one that jumps out to you is the uptick in rushing,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Passing down, rushing up, it’s a reasonable kind of discussion.”
The deep ball is dead. Long live the deep ball.
Pure pocket passers and gunslinging offenses are relics of a bygone era.
“I don’t know,” Smith said. “That’s a good question. It’s like in basketball, right? You had the three-point revolution. People saw the Warriors win a certain way. But until you have another Steph Curry and Draymond Green and Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson playing together, you know, who can jack that many threes and be that successful? Is the basketball game ever going back to low post? It’s a great debate.”
It’s a debate that pervaded the 2023 NFL draft as teams evaluated first-round quarterbacks and carefully considered the offensive identity each pick could bring and what level of success it could have in an ever-evolving league.
“Do you want Anthony Richardson, the big play superstar, massive arm? Or do you want C.J. Stroud who’s the ‘death by a thousand paper cuts’ guy? People were torn,” Orlovsky said. “Now obviously the ideal world, you want both. But it’s interesting to see what style of quarterback you prefer with what kind of style of offense your team may want to run.”
So maybe the deep ball isn’t dead — it’s just hibernating.
The NFL is cyclical. An offensive concept rises up through the levels of football, NFL defenses adapt to it and take it away, offenses find a new answer, on and on. It’s a never ending carousel, and that’s why after 25 seasons as a head coach between Philadelphia and Kansas City, nothing fazes Andy Reid. It’s a never-ending chess match with a finite number of logical counter moves. It’s just about having the right answer key to the right test at the right time.
“This thing is all a big circle, so I’m sure it’ll come back somewhere,” Reid said. “It’s like a dog chasing its tail. You just gotta stay ahead of it. It’ll be back around somewhere.”
ESPN San Francisco 49ers reporter Nick Wagoner contributed to this story.