Which Style of Passing Offense Is Most Effective?

Some teams like to consistently throw it deep, while others opt for shorter passes. Which one is most effective?

Over the past decade, the NFL has enjoyed more offensive innovation and creativity than it has in possibly the entire century preceding. In just the last two years, we've witnessed the advent of the read-option offense and the implementation of Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly's Oregon Blur offense in the professional game, and offensive scoring is at an all-time high.

While transcendent talents like Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning are playing right now, we can't solely credit these players for the offensive outburst that we are witness to. Much of this credit rests on the shoulders of coaches and coordinators who are testing the boundaries of possibility in offensive innovation in a game that is extremely receptive to it. Whether this is a drastic change, like Tony Sparano's affinity for Wing-T (also known as the "Wildcat") schemes, or as simple as Ron Rivera's new "riverboat" penchant for going for it on fourth down, these decisions have changed the offensive landscape of the NFL.

Our task today is to analyze these developments and see what style of passing offense been the most effective over the past decade. While individual routes and concepts have adapted and transformed over the years, we can still break down passing schemes into two primary categories: Precision and Vertical. When matched up, which will prove the most effective?

Airing It Out

This study looks at the last 10 years of NFL passing performance as delineated by Net Expected Points (NEP), our signature metric here at numberFire. NEP is a measure of how much a player or team advances its chances of scoring on any drive, measured in expected points. For our purposes today, Passing NEP is key. This is the sum of expected points gained or lost by a quarterback - or team quarterbacks - on all drop backs. For teams, this is the best measure of how effective the passing attack, as a whole, is performing. On a scale this large, too, the outlier effect of both singularly amazing seasons (2013 Broncos) and singularly terrible seasons (2005 49ers) on the average will be neutralized.

I’ve taken all offensive NEP data for every team in the NFL over the past 10 years, and broken down each offense by its style of passing. As I said before, these two general system types are "precision" and "vertical". When thinking of a precision offense, Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense is the prototypical style for this. This is a passing scheme that is predicated on timing, ball placement, and receivers who can get separation from defenders quickly. Often, this offense has shorter, quicker passes, and fewer steps in drop backs before the quarterback gets rid of the ball.

Vertical offenses, on the other hand, aim to move down the field in large chunks. Deep throws and the ability to win jump balls is a necessity for vertical teams, and the historical example of this is the Air Coryell offense, innovated by Don Coryell.

Each play-caller on a team - usually the offensive coordinator, sometimes the head coach - has developed a different scheme for its passing offense, so a team like the New York Giants will have had multiple styles over multiple years (i.e. Kevin Gilbride ran a vertical style passing attack for many years, and 2014 coordinator Ben McAdoo has installed a precision-based offense for the new season). Some coordinators themselves have changed their styles, like Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy. McCarthy was a major proponent of a deep-threat offense until about 2012, when his Packers became much more spread-focused.

Tight Spiral

Now that we’ve laid out our historical context and defined our terms, let’s get into the heavy data. By the numbers, what has been the most effective style of passing attack in this new pass-heavy league?

The table below displays season averages for team NEP, Passing NEP, and Rushing NEP, as well as data on play selection and total plays run, for both offensive types.

StyleTotal PlaysPass-to-Run RatioNEPPassing NEPRushing NEP
Precision1,084.391.2710.69 15.98-2.42
Vertical1,076.461.3222.56 28.69-3.62

First, it’s important to examine the speed of these offenses. In theory, a team that can get more offensive plays off is more likely to sustain drives and score, and therefore a greater amount of plays is a good indicator of offensive efficiency. This category goes to the precision offenses: shorter, quicker plays and – typically – a hurry-up offensive approach is characteristic of these offenses. This kind of speed and focus on ball control allows offenses to grind their way down the field securely.

Interestingly, too, we see that the pass-to-run ratio for precision offenses is lower, indicating that they are likely to be less pass-heavy in their play selection, again opting for control and surety while letting their runners pound the ball for consistent gains. This is also reflected in the Rushing NEP averages: precision offenses tend to have more valuable run games, to the tune of 1.20 Rushing NEP more than their field-stretching counterparts.

Where the vertical offenses shine is in the total value categories. In terms of Total NEP, vertical offenses outscore precision ones on more than a 2-to-1 ratio, and by nearly the same margin in Passing NEP alone. Even if we look at the average Adjusted NEP scores (adjusted for strength of opponents), the vertical offenses still generate 9.05 and 9.82 expected points more on average in Adjusted Total NEP and Adjusted Passing NEP, respectively. This is likely due to the abilities of these offenses to make bigger gains of yardage at a time than precision offenses, giving them a greater effectiveness on a per play and per drive basis. This will move teams into scoring position more efficiently than the shorter schemes, but it requires risky deep shots and lots of time for the plays to develop.

Shots Downfield

The data is a bit mixed on its prescription of whether or not a precision or vertical offense has been out-and-out more successful than the other, but it's very clear about each one’s benefits and drawbacks. For teams that run precision schemes, ball control and play total are the clear rewards for this kind of offense, but at the cost of high-powered play that has a chance to win a game for them at any moment.

Vertical schemes are the exact opposite: they thrive on the big play that gives them excellent field position and scoring chances, but their willingness to sacrifice security for power makes them more of a boom-bust proposition.

By our NEP scores, though, which is how we measure value, the answer appears clear. A vertical scheme – like Bruce Arians’ and the Arizona Cardinals’, or Norv Turner and the Minnesota Vikings’ – will generate the most value in the shortest span of time. That’s what we look for in NEP, and while there may be slightly more risk in a vertical offense, no one ever won anything without risking something.