Non-QB Passing Plays Are Awesome, But Are They Actually Effective?

Jaguars receiver Ace Sanders threw a 21-yard strike in last night's win over the Texans, just one week after MoJo Drew threw an eight-yard touchdown in a win over the Browns. These variations on a play that, for lack of a better term, we'll call "someone who isn't the QB throws the ball" are always a treat to watch (even when run by Jacksonville), in part because it seems like they're often remarkably effective. Are they?


To find out, I used Pro Football Reference's play index to track down every passing attempt by a non-quarterback in the NFL and AFL, starting in 1969. Some parameters: If a player had ever been listed as a QB in pro football, he was excluded. I also omitted players who worked exclusively as punter/kickers, because fake punts and kicks—while awesome in their own right—are a very different type of play.

All in all I counted 1,520 passes thrown by 529 different players. So how did these attempts turn out? The chart below shows the passing stats for non-QB attempts, compared to the stats for actual QBs during the same time period:

Illustration for article titled Non-QB Passing Plays Are Awesome, But Are They Actually Effective?

That 38.9 percent completion percentage is ugly, but otherwise these plays have been very effective, averaging almost nine yards per attempt and resulting in 237 touchdowns against 132 interceptions (that's a touchdown on about every sixth attempt). These plays also result in a lot fewer sacks, but carry a passer rating—constrained by the lousy completion percentage—slightly below professional quarterbacks. Think of a generic trick-play passer as a sort of freak-show version of Johnny Unitas.

Unfortunately, today's NFL viewers don't get to watch many of these awesome misdirects; below is a chart showing non-QB attempts per game over the past 45 seasons. This sort of trick play has been on its way out for decades—with brief renaissances in the early '80s and '00s—and over the past three seasons the NFL has averaged just one non-QB throw per 16 games.

Illustration for article titled Non-QB Passing Plays Are Awesome, But Are They Actually Effective?

Who will be the next great non-QB passer? Here are the 29 non-QBs who've had at least 10 pass attempts since 1969, ranked by QB rating:

PlayerComp Att Yds TD Int Comp %Y/A Rating
Antwaan Randle El22273236081.5%12.0156.1
LaDainian Tomlinson8121437066.7%11.9146.9
Donny Anderson8161602050.0%10.0125.0
Marty Booker3101262030.0%12.6118.8
Mike Montgomery4101111040.0%11.1115.0
Bobby Anderson8161681050.0%10.5108.3
Marcus Allen12272826144.4%10.4106.8
Andy Johnson7131944153.8%14.9106.6
Earnest Byner310903030.0%9.0104.2
Willard Harrell6121444150.0%12.098.6
Louis Carter4121111033.3%9.396.2
Calvin Hill5132043138.5%15.793.8
Joe Washington5111793145.5%16.393.8
Ronnie Brown412632033.3%5.391.3
Leroy Kelly210591020.0%5.985.0
Keith Byars6141196142.9%8.583.0
O.J. Simpson6161101037.5%6.982.8
Bob Parsons7141310050.0%9.482.7
Greg Pruitt8191826242.1%9.677.1
Walter Payton11343318632.4%9.769.6
Terry Metcalf410782140.0%7.867.9
Brian Mitchell7181681238.9%9.352.3
Jerry Rice310711130.0%7.150.4
Gerry Ellis412711133.3%5.947.6
Freddie Solomon7151220146.7%8.147.1
James R. Jones310621130.0%6.246.7
Josh Cribbs615830140.0%5.530.7
Dan Reeves413730330.8%5.611.5
Gerald Willhite213310115.4%2.47.5

While Walter Payton has the most attempts (34), yards (331), and touchdowns (8), he also has the most interceptions (6), and a measly 32.4 percent completion percentage.

Antwaan Randle El was much more efficient with the ball, leading the pack in completions (22), completion percentage (81.5 percent!), and passer rating (156.1). Fun fact: Not only does Randle El, a quarterback in his college days at Indiana, have highest passer rating of this group; he has the highest passer rating of all time, for all passers with at least 20 completions.


The moral? The element of surprise is a pretty useful tool. Maybe your coach shouldn't have a receiver throw it every game, but it's probably worth it to use some sort of trickery every once in a while—like Belichick turning linebacker Mike Vrabel into the NFL's weirdest red zone threat, or Peyton Manning's triennial naked bootlegs. It's not being cute; it's just being smart.