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Syracuse Football: In Defense of the Bubble Screen

After a spring game full of bubble screens and short passes, folks seem a bit panicked about the direction of this offense. Don't be.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After the Syracuse spring football game on Saturday, folks seemed a bit riled up over the play-calling. With another year of experience under players' belts and proclamations from offensive coordinator George McDonald that things would be different for 2014, fans expected a much different offense at the Carrier Dome. And instead, they saw a very similar offense to last year: Bubble screens, and a whole lot of them. People were not happy.

Of course, this ignores a host of reasons why it made sense. A) Since we don't have full personnel just yet, it's possible that the full "opened up" playbook has not been rolled out yet. B) The team specifically said they would not be showing the full playbook during this scrimmage. And C) This play-calling actually worked last year.

Yup. The same person who repeatedly derided George McDonald's play-calling last year is now telling you that it's the right call. I understand your skepticism. But just hang with me...

For starters, I'll direct you to this article from SB Nation's Bill Connelly, "Quarterbacks and the Passes They Throw" last year. Basically, Bill charted passes from 43 different quarterbacks (including Syracuse's Ryan Nassib) during the 2012 season, noting both distribution of where passes were thrown through the air, as well as those passers' completion rates for each distance. For a lot of quarterbacks, not only were the majority of passes in the 14 yards or fewer range, but that's also where they saw the most successfully completed passes. Moreover, pretty much every passer saw their highest completion percentage in the 0-4 yard range, which is frequently bubble screen territory. So despite the frustration with it, screens/bubble screens/short passes are actually the most efficient passing play you can call (though we're not looking at yardage gained here).

For Syracuse's Terrel Hunt, that also held true last season. We didn't chart every single game last year, so I'll add a caveat on sample size, but in the eight games we did chart play-calling, here's how things shook out:

Pass Distribution

Player 0-4 Yards 5-15 Yards > 15 Yards Opponent
Terrel Hunt 14 9 5 Minnesota

19 13 10 Boston College

15 9 4 Pittsburgh

13 11 4 Florida State

13 7 3 Maryland

13 7 7 Wake Forest

11 15 3 Georgia Tech

9 5 7 NC State
Overall Pct. 0.47 0.34 0.19

"Surprise!" Nearly 50 percent of all passes were of the shortest variety, with long passes making up a pretty small portion of overall passes attempted. This should not surprise anyone who watched Syracuse football last season -- simply reinforce what you already knew, but with numbers to back things up. But how did Hunt fare on these passes? (what really matters most here)

Completion Percentage

Player 0-4 Yards 5-15 Yards > 15 Yards Opponent
Terrel Hunt 0.93 0.56 0.40 Minnesota

0.89 0.62 0.50 Boston College

0.80 0.56 0.25 Pittsburgh

0.62 0.64 0.00 Florida State

0.85 0.43 0.33 Maryland

0.92 0.43 0.29 Wake Forest

0.55 0.47 0.00 Georgia Tech

0.89 0.20 0.14 NC State
Overall Pct. 0.81 0.51 0.28

A couple things here: Hunt's improvement over the course of the season cannot be overstated, and for the most part, this team's success was actually largely tied to the success of the (very) short passing game. In games where Hunt completed 85 percent or more of his short passes (commonly bubble screens), Syracuse was 5-0 in this stretch. Similarly, they were 4-0 when completing more than 25 percent of long passes. Since the whole point of bubble screens and screens in general is to keep defenses honest and pull them in to disrupt the short passing game, this would appear t have been successful last season. You can also see the uptick in Hunt's effectiveness with this strategy, too. Over the final two games, he was at his most accurate at 0-4 yards (30-for-33), and as a result, was also his most accurate throwing deep balls (7-for-15).


So what does this all tell us? Despite a statement to open up the playbook, things will look a whole lot like they did last year because in order to try more deep balls, you need to attempt more short passes. As the Orange saw last year, too few short passes meant the deep passes were less effective. But inversely, the more short passes thrown resulted in a higher completion percentage when throwing downfield (again, small sample size, however).

We can all agree that the play-calling was mostly unimaginative last season, but there are various reasons for that. Inexperienced skill position players and a green offensive coordinator meant people figuring things out on the fly, and a simplification of things to compensate for that. Now, we're in year two for a whole lot of contributors, and that means embracing more risk. For some of that risk to happen, it will mean more bubble screens. And for others, perhaps not. But we can't be averse to the bubble screen just because it appears "too safe" on its face. It works, it's efficient and it's our best path to big plays and the end zone with this personnel. Now it's time for us to start accepting that and letting McDonald and the offense get to work.