How teams with first-year starters are simplifying offense

Four NFL teams opened this season with quarterbacks who had never started a regular-season game. Despite every nightmare scenario you could imagine, those teams are a combined 7-1. Along the way, they have revealed the novel concept of compensating for the inexperience with sensible playcalling and reasonable expectations.

From Dallas to Denver, and from Philadelphia to New England, too, the art of bringing along a young quarterback has looked fundamentally similar. In a victory for common sense, those teams have followed two tenets:

  1. They are calling far fewer pass plays than the NFL average.

  2. The throws their quarterbacks do make are far shorter than typical.

The strategy has produced varying levels of efficiency from the quarterbacks involved. The Patriots' Jimmy Garoppolo leads the NFL in Total Quarterback Rating (90.8), whereas the Broncos' Trevor Siemian (51.6) ranks No. 26. The Cowboys' Dak Prescott (76.3) is No. 11, and the Eagles' Carson Wentz (58.9) is No. 22.

But it has been enough to win at an 87.5 percent clip. More important, the relevant data reveals a clear approach from their coaches, based on research by ESPN Stats & Information senior analyst Jacob Nitzberg. As the first chart shows, all four teams rank in the league's bottom third in dropback percentage -- the amount of plays in which the quarterback throws, scrambles, is sacked or spikes the ball relative to the team's total amount of offensive snaps.

Fewer dropbacks can also be associated with having a lead, and indeed, the highest dropback percentage from a 2-0 team is the Baltimore Ravens' 61.7 percent (No. 18 in the NFL). Regardless, it stands to reason that no team breaking in a new quarterback would push a higher boundary, whether they are preparing for the next decade, as the Eagles are with Wentz, or covering for an injury, as the Cowboys are asking Prescott to do for Tony Romo.

The second factor is no less instructive. As the next chart shows, these teams are asking their quarterbacks to make shorter and arguably less complicated throws than what many of their league counterparts are attempting.

The most extreme example is in Denver, where Siemian has thrown only one pass that has traveled at least 20 yards or more in the air among 59 attempts. Siemian has thrown only eight passes that have traveled 15 or more yards downfield, and overall, he ranks No. 32 in the NFL with an average length of 5.76 air yards per throw.

Prescott (7.85 air yards/throw) and Wentz (7.70) rank No. 19 and No. 20, respectively. Garoppolo ranks No. 24 at 7.52. And after Garoppolo injured his shoulder in Week 2, replacement Jacoby Brissett didn't throw a pass among nine attempts that traveled farther than 5 yards in the air.

Working the short passing game is hardly a novel concept in the NFL, where efficiency and post-catch yards have been on the rise for years. But there are a couple of important points to be made about the way these four teams have approached it.

First, they're emphasizing short throws more heavily than most of the league. And second, the approach is, for the most part, a notable departure from the schemes they ran last season.

The third chart shows what the Eagles, Broncos, Cowboys and Patriots did in the first two weeks of 2015 with experienced veteran quarterbacks behind center. Three of them ranked among the NFL's 10 most pass-happy teams in terms of dropback rate, and all checked in above the league average.

It's difficult to provide a linear comparison for the Eagles, who fired coach Chip Kelly in the offseason and replaced him with Doug Pederson, in part, because they wanted a more balanced offense. Otherwise, though, you can see the clear change in strategy from Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and Patriots coach Bill Belichick when forced to replace their starters.

Kubiak, especially, has taken some heat for an offense that from the outside appears to lack imagination. But viewed with this data, his scheme appears tailored to an inexperienced and perhaps physically limited quarterback whose strengths are a quick release and short-range accuracy. Kubiak would be more vulnerable to criticism had he tried to force Siemian into the offense that Peyton Manning ran last season, or the one that Joe Flacco mastered with the Baltimore Ravens when Kubiak was their offensive coordinator in 2014.

The same goes for Garoppolo in New England. Although he was well-regarded in every way a backup could be, it wouldn't have made sense to ask him to do everything Tom Brady did last season. Why should the Cowboys ask Prescott to do what Romo did, or for Wentz to throw as often or as deep as, say, veteran Sam Bradford did in the 2015 Eagles offense?

This is not to say that the Patriots, Broncos, Cowboys and Eagles won't open up their passing games as the season progresses. Brady is due back in Week 5, and Romo could return a month or so later. Wentz will only grow more comfortable, and it has long been assumed that Siemian will return to the Broncos' bench when first-round draft pick Paxton Lynch is ready to play.

But for now, at least, these teams have demonstrated prudence and realism. What a pleasant development it has been in a league where hubris in scheme and playcalling have brought down many a franchise.