So long, goal-line fade: Why one of the NFL's least efficient passing plays is disappearing

Calvin Johnson is appalled when he hears how rarely quarterbacks succeeded last season in throwing the goal-line fade, a pass he loved to catch during his playing days. Over the course of nine seasons with the Detroit Lions, the wideout mastered the art of hauling in lofty tosses to the back pylon, limbs outstretched as he leapt over hapless defensive backs like the world's grittiest ballerina.

"I'm sorry, only five were caught?" the 34-year-old snorts over the phone. "Maybe somebody could use me ... just post me up."

NFL GMs, before you get too excited: The man formerly known as Megatron is joking. He's perfectly happy in his post-football life in Michigan, where he's launching a medical marijuana dispensary business this year. But yeah, you probably could just post him up.

Yet in the years since Johnson hung up his cleats, the goal-line fade is slowly going the way of the Blu-ray disc, with attempts dwindling to new lows -- much to the delight of both DVOA enthusiasts and Monday morning coordinators everywhere. According to charting data from Sports Info Solutions, quarterbacks attempted only 37 fades from 5 yards or less last season, down from 42 in 2018 and 51 in 2017.

Part of the reason lies in the remarkable inefficiency of the play. Just 13.5% of those 37 fades were caught for touchdowns in 2019, compared with 57% of flat routes, 42% of slants and 42.5% of out routes. Although last season was historically awful, the play has always been a dubious option. Over the previous two seasons, quarterbacks connected on 30% of fades thrown close to the goal line compared with 48% of all other routes.

So why do coordinators still dial up the fade, albeit more infrequently than they did in years past?

"They don't trust their quarterback," one offensive coach explains. "People get conservative because they already have points. They think, 'We've got a field goal anyways.'"

Since defenses are typically condensed around the box at the goal line, the fade -- always thrown quickly, after a single step from under center or as a catch and pitch out of shotgun -- is intended to avoid traffic, ideally exploiting a favorable one-on-one matchup, killing some clock or perhaps drawing a foul. It's not an efficient throw, sure, but it's seen as a safe one.

And yet, last year, the fade resulted in two interceptions, or a 5.4% interception rate against 2.7% for all other throws (the humble flat route, unsurprisingly, was much safer). And what of the notion that the throw probably will generate a new set of downs? Fades thrown from the 5-yard line or closer also attracted just a single defensive pass interference call, according to Sports Info Solutions, while slant routes drew six fouls.

On its face, the fade seems like a simple proposition: If your X receiver is bigger and stronger than the defensive back lined up across from him, take the matchup and count on him to win. But the play's success is predicated on much more than just size.

"A lot of coaches will say it's a jump ball, like basketball, but that's a hope and a prayer, not having a plan," former NFL quarterback and current ESPN NFL analyst Matt Hasselbeck says.

Successful fades, he clarifies, are the product of countless reps in practice, typically with a red line drawn 5 yards from the sideline so that a receiver leaves enough room for the quarterback to drop the ball in bounds. The duo must master the timing, which varies depending on where the snap is taken.

"There are so many nuances with this play," Hasselbeck says. "The wide receiver and quarterback must be on the same page."

According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson is the only player ever to bring in more than 50% of his fade-route targets. He loved catching the goal-line fade because he felt as if the success of the pass rested mostly on his shoulders, removing other confounding variables. "Any crossing route, I'd be like, 'Why'd you call that play?' There's a lot of traffic, it's really condensed down there," Johnson says, laughing.

Johnson acknowledges that his 6-foot-5 size played a role in his success with fades but insists that a receiver's footwork at the line of scrimmage is typically more important than his height. "A little guy can win on a fade if he has good technique and a good release," he explains, noting that receivers often have to sell the defender on a slant to gain outside leverage.

And indeed, only two of the five successful goal-line fades thrown last season targeted receivers over 6 feet tall: a Philip Rivers pass to Mike Williams and a Jameis Winston throw to Mike Evans. The other three TD-scoring fades were to James Washington, T.Y. Hilton and Odell Beckham Jr. (Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield attempted four fades at the goal line in 2019, more than any other passer) -- all relatively diminutive pass-catchers. Still, when asked why the fade might be going out of style, one defensive backs coach suggests that there are fewer towering X receivers dominating the league right now.

"If I had Pat Mahomes, I don't think I'd ever throw a fade." Former NFL coach Todd Haley

Hasselbeck, meanwhile, points to the rise of analytics as a main reason the fade is dying out. Given what the numbers tell us about the route's efficacy, it seems plausible that statistics-conscious staffers, whose ranks are growing across the league, could be bad-mouthing the route to offensive coordinators and advising them to put the pass out of its misery.

But the ever-evolving QB position also plays a part in the route's slow disappearance. Former NFL coach Todd Haley, last as an offensive coordinator with the Browns in 2018, says he thinks it has a lot to do with the rise of athletic quarterbacks.

"If you've got a guy who can run and keep a play alive, why take one step and lob it to the corner?" he says. "When I had Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald (when Haley was the Arizona Cardinals' offensive coordinator in 2007-08), we didn't have that option. [Warner] wasn't a mobile guy, but he was a precision passer. And we had a big receiver with great hands."

Haley says he thinks there are ways to improve the goal-line fade. As a receivers coach with the Chicago Bears, he cooked up a route he swears by called a "fall asleep fade," in which receiver Marty Booker would feign a block before springing for the back corner. But he also believes it's optimal to have skill players running east and west, stretching the field and giving a mobile quarterback multiple options.

"If I had Pat Mahomes, I don't think I'd ever throw a fade," he says. (Indeed, the Kansas City Chiefs didn't call any fades at the 5-yard line or closer last season.)

Johnson, for his part, thinks it is coordinators who are putting more faith in scheme over talent. "They're less like, 'This is your man, go make a play,'" he says. "There's nothing wrong with that."

But of course, he adds, that wasn't his preference when he played.

"In my experience?" He says. "Put it on me."