Tales of failed red zone drives, Part I: Up 14-0 in the second quarter, the Philadelphia Eagles had a first-and-goal at the Washington 9-yard line. They threw three straight passes, but not one ball was thrown into the end zone (in fact, none of them even crossed the 5-yard line). The drive died at the 10, and Philadelphia settled for three points instead of seven.
Tales of failed red zone drives, Part II: Late in the fourth quarter, the New Orleans Saints trailed Tampa Bay 26-20, but had a first down at the Tampa Bay 12. The next three plays were an incompletion into the end zone, a 5-yard catch-and-run by Darren Sproles and a Drew Brees scramble for a short gain. On fourth down, Brees threw into the end zone again, but the ball was intercepted and the game was effectively over.
Obviously, the scoreboard dictated strategy in both situations, but the differences in philosophy were striking. Philadelphia threw balls in the field of play, hoping a receiver could catch a pass and slip across the goal line, while New Orleans aggressively attacked the end zone. (The Saints could have picked up a first down at the 2-yard line, making their dogged pursuit of six points look even bolder.)
Which is the best way to score at the goal line, then: throwing into the end zone, or throwing short of the goal line and hoping receivers can get six points after the catch? Intuitively, it would seem that throwing into the end zone would produce more touchdowns, with an increased risk of interceptions. And in this case, the numbers prove intuition entirely correct. Here are the statistics for every goal-to-go pass attempt in 2010:
Throwing into the end zone is clearly a better way to score touchdowns. A much better way. Throwing short of the goal line will produce a lot more completions for a few more empty yards, but it won't actually get you six points all that often. And while throwing into the end zone does carry an added risk of interceptions, as the Saints will tell you, sometimes that's a risk you have to take.
(Numbers for the first six weeks of 2011, by the way, are very similar, except that the difference in interception rates between the two types of passes is slightly smaller -- 2.6 percent to 2.2 percent. That's likely due to a small sample size, but it makes it even clearer that teams should be throwing into the end zone when they approach it.)
Which brings us back to the Eagles. They've thrown 17 goal-to-go passes so far this year (only New England and Dallas have thrown more). However, only six of the Eagles' goal-line passes have actually been thrown into the end zone, a rate of 35.3 percent that is lower than all but two other teams -- Tampa Bay and Baltimore. (And those two teams have thrown only nine goal-line passes between them, so we shouldn't be too confident in any conclusions we draw there.) Whether it's due to the lack of an effective end zone target or just Andy Reid's fetish for bubble screens and shovel passes, that strategy goes a long way in explaining Philadelphia's red zone struggles, which in turn go a long way in explaining the four-game losing streak the Eagles just snapped.