“In small proportions we just beauties see,” author Ben Jonson wrote about 400 years ago. “And in short measures life may perfect be.”
My 2012 football rendition of that, for our purpose here, is that short passes should be easy for quarterbacks to connect on, and I expect a completion percentage a lot closer to perfect on them.
I’ve often watched a quarterback misfire on a short pass and marveled at just how he managed it. I mean, the guy is right there! Just get it to him.
In talking with quarterbacks and coaches recently, I’ve come to realize it’s too simplistic a stance. We can at least partly blame former Titans signal-caller Vince Young for getting me there. His frequent misfires on short throws drove me crazy and often were due to lazy mechanics or a lack of urgency.
“In my opinion, there is a misconception that it’s really easy to complete passes short,” said the Titans' Jake Locker, the AFC South’s other young quarterback who has fared better throwing short. “You’ve got to navigate the line of scrimmage, sometimes guys are getting their hands up trying to bat balls, and you’ve got to find throwing lanes. There are differences. There are definitely differences.
“If you’ve got matchups down the field that you like and you throw it with conviction, you don’t have to worry about up front; you don’t have to worry about somebody tipping the ball, it’s not something that goes into your thought process. When you’re throwing a checkdown 4 yards, you’re having to figure out how you can get it to a guy. And sometimes that’s a little more difficult.”
Luck has connected on just 42 of 75 passes of 10 yards or fewer (56 percent). That’s a bit higher than his overall completion percentage (53.3).
But compared to his quarterbacking colleagues, it’s not very good. Twenty quarterbacks are hitting on such passes 65 percent of the time or better. Fourteen are 70 percent or better.
“Nothing’s easy in this league, as I’m finding out every weekend, every practice,” Luck said. “It’s something I’ve got to get better at. I’ve got to get better at making sure when the guy’s open or there’s good coverage, make sure the ball’s in a place where our guy can catch it, the defender can’t. And understand, too, that will come with reps, it’ll come with time. But if I’m not getting better every week, then that’s where I start worrying about it.”
Houston’s Johnathan Joseph is probably one of the top three cover cornerbacks in the league. Like Locker, Joseph points out all the variables that go into short stuff, and he thinks a quarterback is probably under duress more often when throwing short than at any other time.
“They can show you blitz and then drop back into a different coverage that you didn’t expect, and you’re looking downfield, and by the time you look underneath you’re probably getting hurried or something like that,” Joseph said. “It can be a combination of a lot of different things.”
For Matt Hasselbeck, the Titans veteran who will fill in for an injured Locker this week in Minnesota, it’s not so much about the distance of the throw as it is the comfort level with the play.
Give a quarterback one of the dozen plays he’s most comfortable with and he’s going to fare better with it. Take him further from his comfort zone, even if the throw is short, the success rate will dip.
“Sometimes when you’re a younger quarterback, they think they’re helping you by making it a shorter throw, but it may not be something you’re super comfortable with,” he said.
And is the target moving? Timing things up with a moving target is always more difficult than getting the ball to a receiver who’s gone to a spot and turned into a stationary target. A quarterback can often get away with being a touch late on throws to a stationary target, Hasselbeck said, and being a touch late is often part of the equation with a young quarterback.
A quick wide receiver screen should rarely be missed. A swing pass to a back running more of a wheel route may cover the same distance, but is more complex.
Another variable, as with virtually any pass, is the way the route is run and the timing of it.
“Each receiver has his own flavor, runs the route a little bit different, a little different speed, a little different sense of urgency,” Locker said. “Whatever it may be, it’s different. So when you’re trying to be real quick and efficient underneath, that can affect it.”
Houston fullback James Casey is rated as having the best hands on the Texans. He’s made three catches per game for QB Matt Schaub, who can expect reliability in routes out of the backfield from a guy who is as much an H-back as a fullback.
And Casey knows Schaub will deliver a good ball. Schaub is connecting on seven of 10 passes thrown 10 yards or fewer.
“A lot of it is about the QB just throwing a really good ball,” Casey said. “Matt Schaub’s going to throw an extremely good ball. He’s really good at making it real easy to catch, putting it in spots where it’s real easy to catch. It does make a lot of difference.
“Because a lot of times as a receiver, you can’t see the ball coming out over the line of scrimmage until late. When it’s put in the right spot, you don’t have any choice but to catch it; it hits you in the chest. But if it’s a little low or something, it makes it a little harder.”