Best/Worst Red Zone Pass Offenses Since 1986

by Vincent Verhei

The 2017 Cleveland Browns went 0-16; the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl. The Browns were a very, very bad football team; the Eagles were very good. The list of things the Browns did better than the Eagles is short; the list of things the Eagles did better than the Browns is long. The biggest gap between the two, however, came on passing plays inside the opponents' 20. That's where the Eagles and Browns weren't just the two most extreme teams of 2017, but two of the most extreme we've ever measured. We noticed this while putting together Football Outsiders Almanac 2018 (on sale now!), and you'll find extended commentary on what that means in the Philadelphia chapter of that book. For now, we just wanted to look at the best and worst red zone passing teams of all time (and by all time, we mean since 1986). The Eagles, as mentioned, were among the best, but they weren't even the best Eagles team on record.

Best Red Zone Passing DVOA, 1986-2017
Year Team RZ Pass DVOA Lead QB Cmp Att C% Yds Avg TD Int Sack Fum
1999 KC 135.9% E.Grbac 23 35 65.7% 200 5.71 13 1 1 1
1993 PHI 124.3% B.Brister 33 50 66.0% 264 5.28 19 0 1 1
2017 PHI 110.8% C.Wentz 49 76 64.5% 352 4.63 28 0 0 0
1991 NYG 103.7% J.Hostetler 24 44 54.5% 219 4.98 11 0 1 0
1995 GB 101.9% B.Favre 46 70 65.7% 402 5.74 32 3 3 2

(Note that while we have listed each team's primary passer, the numbers listed here are team totals. So last year's Eagles stats, for example, include numbers for both Carson Wentz and Nick Foles.)

The 1999 Chiefs went 9-7 under Gunther Cunningham. They lost back-to-back games to the Seahawks and Raiders to end the year, finishing tied with Seattle in the old AFC West but out of the playoffs because they went 0-2 against Mike Holmgren's first team in the Northwest. They were not a great team, but they passed in scoring range better than anyone in the past 30-plus years. That's thanks in large part to Tony Gonzalez and Joe Horn, who combined for 17 touchdowns in just 111 catches.

The 1993 Eagles, were, really, kind of a mess. Rich Kotite's team started out 4-0 under Randall Cunningham, but when the starter went down, they went 4-4 under Bubby Brister (including three straight meaningless wins at the end of the year to finish 8-8) and 0-4 under third-stringer Ken O'Brien. But they had a pair of dangerous weapons in Calvin Williams (ten touchdowns in 60 catches) and Mark Bavaro (six in 43).

I assume you're familiar with the 2017 Eagles.

The 1991 Giants really stick out here. How does a team with only 11 red zone touchdown passes (they had only 13 total touchdown throws all season) finish with one of the best red zone passing DVOAs ever? This was the year after New York beat Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV, and in their first season under Ray Handley, they went 8-8 (7-5 under Jeff Hostetler, 1-3 under Phil Simms). Their red zone totals certainly don't pop out at you. But they never had big mistakes inside the 20 -- their combined total of one sack or interception was tied with Detroit for the fewest in the league -- and they averaged 4.6 yards per dropback in the red zone, a full half-yard better than anyone else that season. Plus, as we shall get to shortly, there was another team at the bottom of the red zone tables that year that was skewing the results for everyone else.

And finally we have the 1995 Packers. There's not much to say that isn't obvious here. This may have been Brett Favre's best season, as he led the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns, while finishing third in DYAR and fourth in DVOA. There were touchdowns aplenty to go around, but Robert Brooks led the team with 13 scores on 102 grabs.

And now, the other end of the spectrum.

Worst Red Zone Passing DVOA, 1986-2017
Year Team RZ Pass DVOA Lead QB Cmp Att C% Yds Avg TD Int Sack Fum
1991 PHX -215.2% T.Tupa 14 43 32.6% 107 2.49 3 7 8 2
1992 IND -157.9% J.George 17 57 29.8% 125 2.19 8 8 3 1
1997 SD -141.1% C.Whelihan 14 62 22.6% 87 1.40 5 6 4 0
2004 CHI -138.4% C.Hutchinson 13 36 36.1% 75 2.08 7 3 9 2
2017 CLE -126.9% D.Kizer 16 45 35.6% 99 2.20 9 6 2 1

Tom Tupa spent four years as Ohio State's punter. In his senior year in 1987, he was named All-American at that position while also being the team's starting quarterback. The Cardinals drafted him in the third round at the latter position -- in four years with Arizona, he threw 455 passes but only punted six times. 1991 was his only season with more than 200 passes, and it was not pretty. He finished next to last in both passing DYAR and DVOA. A full list of Cardinals red zone passing touchdowns that season: Tupa-to-Ernie Jones for 17 yards in Week 5 against New England; Tupa-to-Johnny Johnson for 15 yards, also in Week 5; and Stan Gelbaugh-to-Willie Williams for 3 yards against Philadelphia in Week 13. Gelbaugh would move on a year later to Seattle, where he would be a major contributor to the worst passing attack since the Reagan administration. As for Tupa, after a year as a backup quarterback in Indianapolis, he found great success as a punter for the Browns, Patriots, Jets, Buccaneers, and Washington. He is the only player in league history with 500 passes and 800 punts.

Jeff George was in his third NFL season in 1992, in the middle of an Indianapolis tenure that went nowhere before he found some modest success in Atlanta, Oakland, and Minnesota. He was not entirely to blame for the Colts' red zone struggles that season, however. Indianapolis also got bad plays inside the 20 from Jack Trudeau (two sacks, a lost fumble, and an interception), Mark Herrmann (0-for-3 with an interception), and -- yes -- Tom Tupa (1-for-4 with an interception).

The next two teams on our list also had revolving doors at quarterback. The 1997 Chargers got passes from Craig Whelihan, Stan Humphries, Jim "he played for the Chargers?" Everett, and Todd Philcox, each of whom threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Things weren't much better for the 2004 Bears, who went from second-year Rex Grossman to seventh-year Jonathan Quinn to undrafted rookie Craig Krenzel to failed baseball player Chad Hutchinson, the Plan D quarterback who ended up with the most playing time. (Kicker Paul Edinger also threw one pass; naturally, it was intercepted.)

I assume you're familiar with the 2017 Browns, but I did want to leave you with one more table:

Most Red Zone Interceptions, 2015-2017
Player Team Cmp Att C% Yds Avg TD Int Sack Int/Pass
Matt Ryan ATL 136 237 57.4% 890 3.76 55 7 11 3.0%
Eli Manning NYG 108 192 56.3% 761 3.96 51 7 11 3.6%
Ryan Fitzpatrick NYJ/TB 79 162 48.8% 581 3.59 39 7 3 4.3%
Drew Brees NO 169 248 68.1% 947 3.82 63 6 13 2.4%
DeShone Kizer CLE 13 40 32.5% 88 2.20 8 6 2 15.0%


5 comments, Last at 27 Jul 2018, 4:41pm

#1 by ChrisS // Jul 26, 2018 - 1:35pm

Good article, but why is it in Extra Points?

Points: 0

#4 by Vincent Verhei // Jul 26, 2018 - 3:38pm

When I started, we weren't sure it would be long enough for a full article. I still probably would have had to flesh it out more to get a full-length article out of it.

Points: 0

#2 by Bright Blue Shorts // Jul 26, 2018 - 1:43pm

Is Redzone Offense a statistic held on this site in general?

Think there could be an interesting little series on these, if not. Beyond just pass offenses. Would be interesting to see annual leader or how it's changed over the year or whatever.

Points: 0

#5 by Mountain Time … // Jul 27, 2018 - 4:41pm

Joe Horn! Tom Tupa! This could have been a Deadspin Let's Remember Some Guys thing.

Points: 0

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