Big-play shortage among young QBs

Now that there is hope on the labor front, football fans can begin to focus on some on-the-field issues.

A quiet subject involves offenses' ability to go downfield. Being able to run the ball is important, but in a passing league, it's vital that a quarterback is accurate and can complete passes downfield. To be a successful offense, you need a quarterback who can easily complete more than 60 percent of his passes, but plenty of coaches look at yards per attempt as a more important number.

Quarterbacks may be able to dink and dunk with short passes, but the inability to complete downfield passes eventually bottles up an offense. If a quarterback can't stretch the field, cornerbacks squat on routes without fear of being beaten deep and deflect more passes or come up with interceptions. The inability to stretch the field also hurts the running game because safeties can play closer to the line of scrimmage.

What's interesting is that some of the league's best young quarterbacks have to improve their yards-per-attempt numbers. It stunned me looking back at last season that Atlanta's Matt Ryan, already an elite quarterback entering his fourth season, averaged only 6.5 yards per attempt. Now we see why the Falcons gave up so much to move up from near the bottom of the first round to acquire WR Julio Jones and his sub-4.4-second speed.

Ryan isn't alone. The Jets' Mark Sanchez has been to two consecutive AFC title games, but he averaged only 6.5 yards per attempt last season. The Rams' Sam Bradford was remarkable in a seven-win rookie season, but his lack of speed at receiver gave him a puny 6 yards-per-attempt figure.

You can see why fans in Miami have grown skeptical of Chad Henne's skills and the Dolphins' play calling. The Dolphins traded for WR Brandon Marshall, but Henne's yards-per-attempt average improved from only 6.4 to 6.7 in 2010. Not good enough.

It's likely that yards per attempt will be even more important this season because of the kickoff rule change. Teams can now kick off from the 35-yard line, giving them more chances of getting touchbacks and having opposing offenses start drives at the 20. Last year's average drive start after kickoffs was around the 27. Moving offenses back to the 20 will make scoring drives even tougher, particularly if a team can't generate a big pass play.

Try going 80 yards without a big play. Jay Cutler benefited from an average drive start of the 33 thanks to the return ability of Devin Hester. From the 33, an offense is only three or four first downs from field goal range. But drive starts from the 20 put additional stress on an offense. Eighty-yard drives are hard. A dink-and-dunk offense is almost doomed if it is required to make 10-play drives.

Here are the numbers. Last season, there were 792 10-play drives out of 6,013 offensive possessions, a meager 13 percent. That means you can expect a 10-play drive roughly one of every 10 possessions. Ten-play touchdown drives are even rarer. They occurred only 280 times last season, 4.7 percent of the time.

Despite having a 6.5 yards-per-attempt average, Ryan proved his elite status by being able to manage 35 10-play drives (third-best in the league) and 15 10-play touchdown drives (tied for second). The Falcons' coaching staff asked Ryan to throw only 38 passes longer than 21 yards. He completed only nine.

The addition of Jones should allow Ryan to try more downfield throws and open up the offense. Ryan completed 62.5 percent of his passes last year, but the Falcons ranked as the sixth-worst team for yards after the catch. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Falcons averaged only 3.87 yards after a pass-catcher grabbed a completion.

The Falcons won 13 games last year, but some of that success was the result of playing four NFC West teams, the league's worst division. They have to be better at getting downfield to have hopes of getting close to that record this season.

It's a little surprising that Sanchez had only a 6.5-yard average. On any given play, he could have thrown to a proven 60-reception pass-catcher -- Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, LaDainian Tomlinson, Dustin Keller or Jerricho Cotchery. The Jets ranked as the fourth-worst team for yards after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Clearly, more downfield plays will be needed this year.

Bradford is another story. He did a remarkable job last season, completing 60 percent of the passes with one of the least talented receiving groups in football. The Rams didn't add a big-play receiver, but they hope to get more passing productivity out of their tight ends. They also hope new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' imaginative schemes will open up the offense.

The Mendoza Line for a quarterback is about 6.4 yards per attempt. Drop below that number, and you rarely find an offense that can score more than 20 points a game. The Rams averaged 18.1 with Bradford's 6.0 yards-per-attempt figure.

Now it's up to the negotiators from the owners and players to end this lockout and get quarterbacks back on the field to work on these problems.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.