Is the play-action pass a lost art?
The recent evolution of passing offenses, specifically the proliferation of the spread offense, has altered the way play-action passes are executed, consequently raising a valid question.
The NFL's best play action passers—Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady in no specific order—have seemingly spent more time in shotgun sets than under center, resulting in a shortened form of the concept that is akin to boxers quickly touching gloves prior to throwing down.
Technique is still important, however; eyes at the mesh-point, back-side elbow tucked to the rib cage, shoulders slumped as a result of the bending of waist and knees and finally, re-engagement with the second and third levels of the field all reign supreme.
It wasn't too long ago when NFL offenses bumped to the beat of the three yards and a cloud of dust mantra, lining up in heavy I-formation sets that enabled a downhill running game and perfect execution of the play action.
The quarterback would take the snap, turn his back to the defense, tuck his back-side elbow in while faking the hand-off with his other arm and then whip his head around before throwing a thunderous strike to an inside-breaking receiver. With the indoctrination of full-time shotgun sets, quarterbacks seem to fake the hand-off much quicker, only touching the belly of their backfield teammate before their eyes are up and scanning the field.
One of the league's best at the latter is Peyton Manning. A recent acquisition of the Denver Broncos, Manning has lit up defensive secondaries with proficient play-action passing all season. Much of it appears to come from shotgun, from which he also did a significant amount of work during his daisy days with the Indianapolis Colts.
In week 10 against the Carolina Panthers, he and the Broncos galloped to a 36-14 win, stringing together big play after big play, including a 32-yard shot to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.
On 2nd-and-5, Peyton Manning stood in shotgun with the Broncos staple "11" (1 back, 1 tight end) personnel and scanned the field.
A single deep safety showed in the middle of the field but only six in the box, with two others just outside of it. It could have very easily been an eight man box, so Manning looked to pass. The play call was a popular play action concept—Post/Dig—that theoretically puts the single deep safety into a bind, forcing him to choose which route he would cover.
Veteran center Dan Koppen snapped the ball to his magnificent quarterback who, upon receiving it, stuck the ball into the belly of running back Willis McGahee. Manning executed this with perfect technique, crouching at his knees to slump his shoulders with his eyes on the ball, making it look as if he was truly handing the ball off.
Once the initial technique was administered, Manning swiveled his head, focusing his eyes on the middle of the field where the deep safety roamed. One of the most underrated aspects of quarterbacking a play action is the use of eyes to control the safety, thus allowing the receiver more time to create separation.
And then Manning looked left where Demaryius Thomas was running a post pattern. Identifying his target, Manning secured the ball, bended his knees and cocked the ball back prior to releasing it in the direction of Thomas, who soared sky-high to bring down the pass for a 32-yard gain. The consistent technique of Manning always allows him to make a great throw, as witnessed here.
Although Peyton Manning is very good at the play action concept, he is not alone in this regard. There are four other quarterbacks in the NFL that I fancy as passers in this department because of their own excellence in certain areas of the play. They are the following, in no specific order:
Matt Ryan—Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan is one of the league's best passers on play action, and a big reason why is his improved ability to maneuver in the pocket to buy additional time for deep developing routes. The addition of wide receiver Julio Jones two years ago has also paid dividends, as well as the recent hiring of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who brings a more aggressive and contrasting approach on early downs compared to the conservative Mike Mularkey of a year ago.
Drew Brees—New Orleans Saints: There are not enough adjectives in the dictionary to describe the excellence of Drew Brees. Even in dire situations without a running game, Brees makes it appear as if he's handed the ball off, only to throw the ball over the top of the defenders. His technical and mechanical consistency is unparalleled.
Aaron Rodgers—Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers is not the most fundamentally sound of the five quarterbacks; he doesn't nearly reset his feet as much and throws from varying platforms more often than the others, but he's just as good as a passer. Rodgers' howitzer of an arm overcomes all of his fundamental flaws, if you wish to call them that, and he's arguably the best pure passer in all of the NFL.
Tom Brady—New England Patriots: Any list about successful quarterbacking without Tom Brady should be discounted, so I've chosen to include him. Brady's mechanics have not been up to his typical standards, as he sometimes gets lazy and becomes flat-footed, but he's still one of the best in the league at play action. This is due to his attention to detail, most notably the transfer of his weight at the right second and use of his eyes to manipulate defenders in multiple ways.
The quarterbacks listed above, and Peyton Manning, stand in a class of their own when it comes to play-action passing. That's no knock on others, simply a praise of these five exquisite passers.
They are quarterback maestro's and a big reason why is their technique, which consists of four vitals: eyes, elbows, shoulders and knees. Also a factor is their sheer passing ability, as seen with Aaron Rodgers. One other significant contributor to executing play action is the blockers, who must sit in their stance as if they were getting ready to run block.
Bill Walsh, who wasn't a proponent of shotgun sets and might indeed argue that the play action is a lost art, once asserted that players achieve a "sense of purpose" when they run the play action successfully, because of the frustration the illusion of the run causes defenses.