Why A Non-Quarterback Pass Could Swing the Momentum of Super Bowl LI

The quarterback matchup between Matt Ryan and Tom Brady is one of the highlights to Super Bowl LI. But will a non-quarterback pass be the difference maker?

The Super Bowl is made to create memorable moments.

Most of these come from standard plays that produce incredible results, like The Helmet Catch or Malcolm Butler’s interception at the goal line. Other times, there’s some bold calls that come from teams trying to do whatever possible to gain an advantage, like the New Orleans Saints successfully pulling off a surprise onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV.

In that vein, there’s the non-quarterback pass.

In Super Bowl history, there’s been five passes attempted by non-quarterbacks, with all them having been completed and three resulting in touchdowns. We haven’t seen one since Antwaan Randle El's 43-yard score to Hines Ward in Super Bowl XL, which was 11 years ago.

The odds of it happening this year shouldn’t be considered favorable -- Oddsshark has “No” as a -400 favorite for the prop bet “Will a player other than Tom Brady or Matt Ryan attempt a pass,” while “Yes” is +250.

But if a non-quarterback pass is going to happen in this matchup, both teams could be set up to make it happen.

Option Passing

During 2016 regular season, the Atlanta Falcons had 2 players combine for 537 pass attempts. The first, of course, was Ryan, who threw almost all of them (534). The other was Matt Schaub, who attempted 3 passes in a two-game stretch when the team scored a combined 83 points.

With only two players attempting passes this season -- both being quarterbacks -- our case doesn't really get helped here.

But the Falcons have someone who might be one of the league's best deep passers in wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. In high school, Sanu was a triple-option quarterback and despite moving to receiver at Rutgers, he occasionally played in the Wildcat and completed 8-of-18 passes for 207 yards and 4 touchdowns. As a pro, he's completed all 5 of his attempts for 177 yards and 2 touchdowns.

On those 5 attempts, Sanu has been worth 13.58 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP), which is just below the full season Passing NEP value for Colin Kaepernick in 2016.

All of Sanu’s passes came in the regular season with the Cincinnati Bengals -- one in 2012, one in 2013, and three in 2014. Atlanta hasn’t let him throw the ball in his lone season with the organization, but he did run out the Wildcat a few times. Most snaps ended with a handoff to a running back, but he had one carry on a Wildcat read option play in Week 12 against the Arizona Cardinals inside the red zone, gaining 5 yards and 0.09 Rushing NEP in the process.

One of the reasons the Wildcat can work with Sanu is because of his ability to pass, something opponents have to at least generally be aware of, even in that short area of the field. One of Sanu’s touchdown passes came inside the 20, though not in the Wildcat -- he was lined up as the running back.

Sanu was pitched the ball at the snap and as he ran to the right, Andy Dalton ran back out to the left for what turned out to be a long swing pass. Thanks to a bad route by the safety, Dalton caught the ball and ran in for a touchdown. (Video courtesy: NFL Game Pass)

It’s probably safe to say that play won’t be in the Falcons’ playbook due to the slight athleticism difference between Dalton and Ryan. Sanu doesn’t need much window dressing to succeed as an occasional passer, though. He can just drop back and sling it.

In the third game of Sanu’s career, the Bengals allowed him to open the game against the Washington Redskins with a pass. He lined up in the shotgun with a back to each side, faked a handoff, dropped back, and let a pass fly down the field to A.J. Green. The ball hit Green in stride, resulting in a 76-yard touchdown. The play was worth 6.26 NEP, more than the touchdown on its own.

Trick Play Precedent

Then we have the New England Patriots, who are no strangers to trick plays, especially in the playoffs. In their most recent contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game, they ran a flea flicker that resulted in a 34-yard touchdown to Chris Hogan.

Two years ago, they let someone not named Tom Brady throw a pass and it went for a 51-yard touchdown. The throw came in a fairly big spot, too. The Patriots were down 28-21 to the Baltimore Ravens in the 2014 divisional round when Julian Edelman took a pass behind the line of scrimmage from Brady late in the third quarter.

When all the defenders rushed in to stop Edelman from running upfield, he heaved a deep ball to Danny Amendola for an easy touchdown to tie the game.

Unlike Sanu, Edelman spent his entire college career as a quarterback at Kent State. During his three collegiate seasons, Edelman accumulated 706 pass attempts, 502 rush attempts, and 1 reception.

Since the Patriots have that Brady fella, the above pass has been the only professional attempt in Edelman's career. It did come at an important juncture of a playoff game, though. That play shifted New England’s win probability from 36.9 percent to 56.5 percent and was worth 4.97 Net Expected Points. New England would go on to win the game and eventually the Super Bowl.

While Edelman is widely known as the former quarterback, Hogan has also attempted a pass during his NFL career. His one career pass with the Buffalo Bills didn't work out all that well -- it was completed, but for just 4 yards and -0.1 NEP -- but he possesses one of the best traits for a non-quarterback pass by being left-handed.

The left-handed reveal makes the non-quarterback pass better because it allows the player to throw on the move to his left. That's something the defense is not expecting, along with already not expecting a receiver to throw the ball.

The Patriots have shown no hesitation to run this type of play in a big spot, and the Falcons have a potential ace up their sleeves they’ve yet to throw out.

In a Super Bowl filled with fascinating matchups, the potential non-quarterback pass could be a big chess move to make in an attempt to gain an advantage. Nothing should be left on the table for Kyle Shanahan and Josh McDaniels, who have had two weeks to prepare and are two of the game's best offensive minds.

If one of these players is called upon to pass, as we’ve seen with other plays of its kind, it could be the type of play that changes the complexion of the game.