Every fan has experienced it. Your team has the ball in scoring position. It’s a big moment. And before you can say, “Run the dang ball!” your quarterback is cocking back to lob the football toward the back corner of the end zone. It lands two yards out of bounds, safely out of reach of the nearest offensive and defensive players. You fill with rage. You scream obscenities at your team’s offensive coordinator as the placekicker trots onto the field to attempt a field goal.
Why would anybody possibly want to throw a fade route there? Doesn’t the coach know that play never works?
You’re right, by the way. The red-zone fade isn’t an efficient play. According to Pro Football Focus, college teams had a success rate of only about 36 percent when attempting it during the 2016 season. That’s right in line with pro averages of about 33 to 35 percent.
So what gives? Why does this play seem to be a base part of virtually every college offense even though the ball falls harmlessly to the turf about two-thirds of the time? Part of the draw, actually, is that it indeed falls to the turf.
Pro Football Focus data tells us that while there were 61 touchdowns thrown via red-zone fades in 2016, there were also only four interceptions. You might score a touchdown, you might draw a defensive pass interference penalty, or you might live to fight another down.
“It’s a safe throw,” says Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. “The matchup is always an issue, but I think that, playing the odds, the completion rate certainly isn’t high. But I’d rather give up that low-percentage fade throw [than something riskier]. And I can see why teams take away the inside and give you that outside throw. They want to see if you can complete it.”
Langsdorf has coached at virtually every level of the game of football during his 20-year coaching career, calling plays for the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos (2000-01), Oregon State (2005-13) and now Nebraska (2015-present). He also worked as an offensive assistant for the New Orleans Saints (2002-04) and New York Giants (2014). “When you have a guy like Eli Manning throwing to Odell Beckham Jr., that’s a different deal than in college. You obviously have a better chance of completing it. And you’ll see it a lot in Canada — you’re at the 5, and it’s like you’re throwing a Go route [a more vertical cousin of the fade] instead of a fade because of the 20-yard end zone.”
It can still serve a purpose in college, though, and it usually has to do with the matchups a defense is offering. “Defenses are going to challenge you,” says Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. “They know it’s a low-percentage throw, and they’re going to factor that in. That’s the fun part of competing.”
Colorado State head coach Mike Bobo concurs. “A lot of times you see fades thrown, but originally a run was called. The defense has the box outnumbered, and you have 1-on-1 on the outside, so you throw that. It’s your hot answer. It’s never just ‘I’m calling the fade.’ ”
“Philosophically, it’s interesting what defenses are willing to give up based on how they feel they match up with you,” Yurcich says. “We got challenged quite a bit this year even though we thought we were pretty good athletically at receiver. We continued to see press-man [coverage], even in the bowl game [against Colorado].”
Pressing college receivers at the line can work wonders for a defense, at least one that can actually pull it off. But OSU’s receivers were dynamite in 2016, and they had Mason Rudolph throwing them the ball. Rudolph completed 57 percent of his passes in the red zone — “everything over 55 percent down there is a good mark,” says Yurcich — for 13 touchdowns and just one interception.
Colorado State had one of the most reliable red-zone offenses in the country in 2016, averaging 5.5 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent’s 40). What does Bobo, a former offensive coordinator at Georgia, think about the fade? He credits a quality run game for a lot of the Rams’ red-zone success, but he does employ the fade … with a twist.
“When I was with Coach [Mark] Richt at Georgia, we were more ‘Throw it into the bucket’ [on fades] — kind of an old-school fade,” he says. But they learned that completion percentages went up when they weren’t aiming quite so deep in the corner of the end zone.
If you think about it, one of the hardest things about a good fade is that there are virtually three defenders on the play — the cornerback, the back of the end zone and the sideline. The old-school, in-the-bucket approach created a tiny window of success where a receiver could go up and get the ball. But there’s a throw that offers more margin for error. “We identified a spot in the red zone, five yards deep and about three yards from the sideline,” Bobo says. “That was the spot we would throw it to. That still goes to the receiver’s back shoulder, but the receiver is selling it like they’re throwing to the back pylon.”
Still, even with solid execution, this is a play the defense doesn’t mind the offense attempting most of the time.
“You’ll play that rare team that maybe throws it really well or has a big-time receiver you would worry about,” says Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. In those instances, “You’d make sure you try to take that into consideration and maybe not give them as many of those.” But generally, playing tight, taking away inside throws, and daring a QB to make a pinpoint lob is a good way to go because incomplete passes lead to field goals, and field goals don’t usually beat you — touchdowns do.
“We talk about it all the time,” Hankwitz says. “Field goals aren’t going to beat you very often. So when we get inside the 12, that’s when we go to our more specific coverage. We try to practice that specific situation.
“That’s a big-time win if you hold them to a field goal,” he continues. “Offenses are going to get down into the scoring area [in today’s college football], but we know we need to win the red zone. Just because they’ve gotten down there doesn’t mean they’re going to score. Field goals are psychological, too — ‘We’ve gotten down there three times, and we only got nine points?’ ”
Hankwitz is right that field goals won’t do much damage, and he’s right about the low percentage of the fade. You do get one throwaway down, though.
On average, if you gain zero yards on first-and-goal, you only lose about 0.6 expected points. For instance, on first-and-goal from the 4, FBS offenses averaged 6.15 points per possession; on second-and-goal, they averaged 5.56.
That isn’t a significant drop-off, but things get dicey from there. The average drop grows to 0.9 expected points with an incomplete pass on second-and-goal. Example: second-and-goal from the 7 was worth 4.61 points in 2016, but third-and-goal from the 7 was worth 3.73.
On third-and-goal, things take on a far more all-or-nothing quality. A team’s expected point total drops by about 1.5 points on average with no gain on third-and-goal and by 1.75 points inside the 5.
“Earlier downs is where you’d like to see them,” Langsdorf says, in reference to the hated fade.
The lesson: Don’t curse your offensive coordinator for throwing a harmless fade — as long as it’s on first down. If it’s third down, curse up a storm.
Written by Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) of SBNation.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 Regional Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.