With a usage percentage growing again for the fourth time in five years, the play-action pass is becoming a more prominent weapon in offensive play-books. Football Outsiders have taken a look at its usage and success rate, across the NFL.
There's a trend in teams who utilize the play-action system the most: those who have a prominent run-game or highly athletic quarterback. The Washington Redskins topped the league with 42% of plays being from play-action, and had the second highest yards p/play-action play with 10.1 yards. Denver topped yards p/play with 10.6, the likes of Seattle, Minnesota and Carolina all have either a mobile quarterback or prominent run game.
Arizona finished 31st in terms of percentage of play-action passes of total plays called, with 13%, which averaged 7.3 yards p/play. They actually averaged 3 yards more, on average, p/play when using play-action in 2012, deeming it a relatively more successful option the team chose to use. The success of the play-action in Arizona is reinforced more when looking at non-play-action pass attempts and their DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, calculates a team's success based on the down-and-distance of each play during the season, then calculates how much more or less successful each team is compared to the league average).
Averaging just 4.3 yards p/play on non-play-action attempts, their DVOA was -36.6%, the worst percentage in the NFL. Their success rate at regular passes was abysmal. So why would that change next season? Well, over in Indianapolis, where new head coach Bruce Arians was calling the shots, they used play-action 18% of the time, seeing 7.9 yards p/play while using it, an increase over Arizona. They also had a higher DVOA whilst using play-action, all this points to Bruce Arians having a more successful time using play-action.
There are many contributing factors to a successful play-action play. It relies upon the opposing defense being honest. If they know you cannot run the ball effectively, then they know you're going to attempt more passes. In Indy, Vick Ballard provided enough fire power between the tackles to keep them honest. Now in Arizona, where an injured Beanie Wells/Ryan Williams combo has now been replaced by Rashard Mendenhall, a proven runner who is capable of 1000-yard seasons, the run-game will be much improved, meaning they can play-off it and strike deep more often.
Also, the offensive line is much improved. Levi Brown is back, drafting Jonathan Cooper strengthens the interior, and picking up Eric Winston was a smart move on the right side. Their strength is run-blocking, on the whole. Improved offensive line lay will not only allow for a more effective run attack, but keeps the defense out of the back-field that split second longer, giving the quarterback more time to steady his feet and deliver a strike.
Also, Carson Palmer is in town. In Oakland last season, he used play-action 20% of the time, recording 7.9 yards p/play also. His relative success while using play-action should signal an increase in usage going into 2013. The Cardinals should look to not necessarily build off the play-action, but its success, not only in Arizona, but across the league, should mean an increase is usage going forward.