The young season has already brought some interesting developments within the Air and Space division. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is part of the early MVP discussion after throwing for 599 yards and seven touchdowns while not taking a sack. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, meanwhile, has been a human shock absorber, and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is off to the best two-game start from a yardage perspective (620 yards) of his career.
What I have found particularly interesting, however, is the way the Minnesota Vikings have used new starter Donovan McNabb. Watching the Vikings from an anecdotal perspective, McNabb has seemingly made every throw off some variation of the bootleg that gets him out of the pocket and creates a natural short-range opening for a receiver. The reality, ESPN Stats & Information tells us, isn't that far off.
As the chart shows, McNabb has thrown 11 of his 45 passes this season from outside of the pocket, including his sole touchdown pass, a 3-yard strike to receiver Michael Jenkins in Week 1. Only Colt McCoy of the Cleveland Browns has thrown a higher percentage of his total passes from outside of the pocket, and McCoy is nine years younger than McNabb and more prone to unplanned scrambles.
But the Vikings are purposely getting McNabb outside. They are attempting to capitalize on his career-long success throwing on the move and also want to monetize the respect opponents are showing for tailback Adrian Peterson. It's also worth noting that a bootleg to McNabb's right gets him away from any backside pass rush potentially allowed by new left tackle Charlie Johnson.
To little surprise, McNabb's performance has been dramatically better on those plays than when he has remained in the pocket. He said this week that he's "willing to do whatever it takes to win" and hopes the early threat of a bootleg will soften defensive reactions to Peterson's every move.
"Teams are going to pursue to try to stop him from getting that big run," McNabb said, "which is going to open up lanes outside on the nakeds and boots to get the ball to our receivers on the outside. That's going to happen all throughout the course of the year and we just have to capitalize on the play-action game and get the ball down 15, 20, 25 yards to create some more explosive plays."
To this point, McNabb's eight completed passes on the outside have netted a total of 67 yards. But even if they start netting more yardage, it's difficult to imagine an NFL team winning consistently when its best (and only) passing play is a bootleg. The chances for producing a big play are smaller, and frequency can become predictable.
Like any offense, the Vikings will have to find at least some success via traditional pocket passing. To this point, McNabb has the fewest number of completions on passes thrown from the pocket (17) than any starter in the NFL. For comparison's sake, NFL leader Tom Brady of the New England Patriots has about four times as many.
McNabb accurately noted that the Vikings are finding alternate ways to make explosive plays, noting a 42-yard screen play last Sunday to tailback Toby Gerhart. Ultimately, however, the bootlegs and screens will have to be part of a bigger picture that includes at least the potential to score quickly on traditional downfield passes rather than at the end of long drives.
"I think people are seeing teams throwing deep balls for 60, 70-yard touchdowns," McNabb said. "And that's going to come. But you have to methodically move the ball downfield and move the chains and we [are] able to do that."