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Analytics Nerds Say the Long Pass Has Been Murdered. And Their Prime Suspect is Patrick Mahomes.

JOHN G MABANGLO. Shutterstock Images.

Sports, like nature, society and culture, go through trends that can be gradual, slow processes take years for us to notice. It's not like you flip around to the MLB games one night to find everyone's swinging out of their cleats, talking about exit velocity and pulling their starters after four perfect innings. Any more than a Velociraptor mother put her kids to bed one night and woke up to a nest full of hummingbirds. Perhaps you went to your 30th superhero movie in the last dozen years and it finally hit you that they all blow now, but it took a few garbabe, 3-hour long slogs of bad CGI and blue beams shooting up into the sky while everyone's looking for a glowing cube or a magic orb to realize it. The arc of history can move too slow to notice, even when you're paying attention.

I for one, hadn't noticed that deep balls in the NFL are on the Endangered Species List. Not until I heard it from the mathletes in the analytics department. And they blame the MVP of all people:

After describing a 22 yard pass to Travis Kelce in the Super Bowl that traveled 14 air yards, the gang from CSI: NFL identifies their culprit:

Source - That was Mahomes' longest completion of Super Bowl LVII. Despite possessing an arm capable of launching a football 70 yards, Mahomes attempted just four passes of at least 15 air yards -- and completed three of them -- in his second Super Bowl victory.

In his first Super Bowl appearance three seasons earlier, he attempted twice as many of those passes.

The next season, Mahomes noticed defenses were starting to play him differently. If he was going to beat them, it wasn't going to be with go-balls to Tyreek Hill.

"We faced so many deep coverages where teams were taking away all our deep throws," Mahomes said of the 2021 season during a Super Bowl LV media session. "I had to learn when to just take what's underneath." …

The evolution of Mahomes' aerial attack mirrors a league-wide trend that last season saw the fewest number of deep balls attempted -- defined as traveling at least 15 air yards -- since 2006. 

"It's directly attached to Patrick Mahomes," ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky said, explaining the phenomenon. "Teams have sat there and said, 'We are going to take these home-run hitting quarterbacks and make them hit singles.'"  …

There were 3,416 attempts at least 15 yards downfield during the 2022 regular season, the fewest in any season since 2006.

But when quarterbacks did let it fly, they were pretty successful. Completion percentages on those attempts of at least 15 yards downfield was 45.1% -- the second-highest completion percentage in a single season since 2006.

The trend continued through the first week of the 2023 regular season, too. Both air yards per attempt and number of passes attempted of more than 20 air yards were lower than the 2022 averages -- and the 2022 Week 1 numbers. Just 9.2% of all passes attempted were deep balls, down from 10.4% in Week 1 of 2022, while air yards per attempt decreased from 7.3 to 7.1. Passers produced the fewest yards (6,225) and TD passes (37) in a Week 1 since 2006. They averaged 6.25 yards per attempt, the lowest Week 1 output since 1996.

OK. The math checks out, I guess. The evidence is clear. On this particular Clue board, it was Patrick Mahomes. In the Secondary. With the Checkdown. 

Whether this this is good or bad is a matter of personal taste, I suppose. An eye of the beholder thing. Like whether you prefer your NBA as 3-pointer happy as it's become, or liked it better before the 22-foot jumper became extinct. Or whether people liked MLB in the late '60s when they had The Year of the Pitcher (I remember reading someone referring to it as The Year of the Infield Pop Up), or the 70s when the baseballs were juiced, or the late 90s and 2000s, when everyone's balls were juiced. I remember after a while, I started to realize there are only so many 13-10 games with seven home runs you can watch before it loses its magic. And thanked my maker and Dan Duquette we had Pedro Martinez. The AFL brought high-octane offenses like Al Davis' Raiders into the NFL, and within a few years they were getting Super Bowl scores like 14-7 and 16-6. But pro football took over the whole country anyway.

As far as what this means for the NFL, it just proves to be careful what you wish for. The best laid plans of mice and men go astray. They imagined a world with 75 yard bombs filling the quad box on Red Zone week after week and Fantasy teams putting up numbers like the National Debt Clock and wrote rules to make it a reality. But defenses adjusted, and all they've done is create a world of screens, flats, digs and curls. The Law of Bill Polian overruled by the Law of Unintended Consequences. 

Which is how it should be. Like they say, defensive coordinators get paid too. Let them adjust to all the deep balls, then make offenses adjust to their adjustments. As the historians say, generals are always fighting the last war. I just hope this one time the powers that be don't try to come up with yet some other phony, gimmicky, artificial rules change to undo this trend and just let the coaches and players figure it out. But I have zero faith they won't.