In an era of play-action and offensive misdirection, the bootleg has become a favorite and a crutch for many NFL teams. In 2020, 21 teams averaged at least two bootleg dropbacks per game, 10 averaged at least three, and six averaged at least four, according to Sports Info Solutions.
With the increase of mobility at quarterback, teams have become more comfortable putting their quarterbacks on the run. The horizontal stress put on the defense typically sets up for the quarterback to get outside the pocket for a short, easy completion with the option to take off and run. It also comes with its own built-in safety net against bad decision making. Moving the pocket and flooding one side of the field limits what the pass rush and secondary can do. This season, the interception rate on bootleg passes was just 0.9% with a sack rate of 3.5%.
Bootlegs can be a shortcut to help a struggling passer or offense — see Mitchell Trubisky, over averaged eight bootlegs per game over the final four weeks of the regular season — but they can be a legitimate weapon when put in the hands of the league’s best offensive minds, quarterbacks, or both. That’s where we find ourselves in the Divisional Round.
Four of the top-six leaders in bootleg dropbacks will be playing in the Divisional Round and those quarterbacks will be facing off against each other. Jared Goff (first) and Aaron Rodgers (sixth) will helm the offenses when the Los Angeles Rams visit the Green Bay Packers Saturday night while Baker Mayfield (second) and Patrick Mahomes (third) take the field when the Cleveland Browns visit the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
The Packers have fully embraced the power of the boot in Rodgers’s second year under Matt LaFleur with an increase in volume and efficiency.
Aaron Rodgers Bootleg Dropbacks, 2019-2020
Green Bay’s boot action is in line with the increase in the use of jet motion this season. The Packers were among the leaders in motion at the snap this season, per ESPN Stats & Info and the offense used the boot to work with the motion…
…and against it to create open throws.
All the designed horizontal spacing has allowed Rodgers to be more efficient in the short game, almost as a schemed check-down. As Rodgers drifted away from his top-tier efficiency over the past few seasons, a lack of rhythm in the short game was part of the reason. If the deep ball wasn’t there, Rodgers was likely to throw the ball away instead of moving to a shorter option. Rodgers finished with his highest positive play rate (the percentage of plays with positive Expected Points Added) on shorts throws outside of the red zone since at least 2015, at 66.9%. Boot plays had a big impact there, with a positive play rate of 73.3%.
These designed short throws haven’t taken away from what Rodgers has been able to do with the deep ball. Instead, the deep ball has benefitted. The Packers were one of the league’s best teams going deep in any situation this season (Rodgers was third among quarterbacks in deep attempts and led the league in EPA on throws over 20 air yards) partially because the defense now had to worry about the short and intermediate area.
While Green Bay had a few deep shots designed off bootlegs that went for big plays, the biggest impact came in the red zone. Rodgers had 16 boot dropbacks in the red zone this season, which resulted in nine touchdowns. The Packers led the league in points and touchdowns per red zone trip in 2020 and when Davante Adams wasn’t destroying defenders, the boot game was a big part of it.
Bootlegs in the red zone can have a disadvantage by cutting an already condensed field in half, but the Packers’ bootleg designs consistently created openings, such as a favorite in the delayed tight end release to the boot side. They’ll run this from different formations to either side.
The Chiefs also went hard on bootlegs in the red zone. Patrick Mahomes had a league-leading 19 bootleg dropbacks in the red zone this season, 28.3% of his total bootlegs, which resulted in 11 touchdown passes.
Kansas City struggled in the red zone, relative to the rest of the field, where they ranked just 15th in touchdowns per red zone trip. The bootlegs weren’t as much about creating space for the offense as Andy Reid has mastered in the open field, but they were calls that allowed the quarterback to buy time and wait for something to eventually open.
With Mahomes at quarterback, that can often work out!
Nearly half of Mahomes’s red zone touchdown passes (11 of 23) came on some type of boot. The Chiefs also were able to use the boot to create space in the open field. Mahomes had the fifth-most bootlegs outside of the red zone and he averaged 9.0 yards per attempt on those plays. Occasionally those are still plays that buy time for Mahomes.
But often there is something open quickly that can get a Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, or Mecole Hardman open. The Chiefs also love the sprint out to combine with these concepts, getting Mahomes on the move outside the pocket without any type of play-fake. No team used a sprint out more often than Kansas City. They trusted it so much, it was their go-to as a game-sealing play on a third-and-7 to ice a win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 12.
No team used more boot than the Los Angeles Rams with Jared Goff this season and unlike the Chiefs, it was mostly an open-field concept with only 13 of his 91 dropbacks (14.2%) in the red zone for just two touchdowns. The Rams use the boot for the traditional sense, to get easy throws of the quarterback and allow receivers to run after the catch.
As Goff has struggled this season, the Rams have gone hard on the boot with a significant reliance on getting the quarterback outside the pocket. The reliance on super short passes has limited some of the upside on the boots, even as the volume and completions have gone up in 2020.
Jared Goff Bootleg Dropbacks, 2017-2020
A problem for the Rams this season has been Goff’s turnovers on boots. Goff has two interceptions on bootlegs this season after only two over the previous three seasons. The number of picks isn’t as big of a deal as the processing to force the ball on a play that’s intended to nearly erase the possibility of a turnover.
But when the Rams are able to hit these plays as designed, chunk gains are available. 63.7% of the Rams’ yards on boots came after the catch and because of the volume, no team came close to the total yards after the catch at 464. No other team had over 300. The Rams used their tight splits to create more space to the outside and when they added more misdirection, just as jet motion, they got defenders out of place immediately. On the below play against the Arizona Cardinals on a first-and-10, they brought Cooper Kupp back across the formation in the opposite direction of the run and jet motion for a gain of 11.
As quarterbacks have become increasingly mobile as a group, Goff’s lack of a threatening top speed actually helps him out on boots. Without a threat to run, defenders can be enticed to charging at Goff on the bootleg, which creates an opening once space is cleared, as was the case on Los Angeles’s opening play against the New England Patriots.
The Rams have also created some shot plays off the boot. Those were more prevalent and more successful in previous seasons, but there were still a few of them sprinkled in throughout the season.
Shot plays have been the basis of Kevin Stefanski’s bootleg game with the Cleveland Browns. While the bootleg is so much about stretching defenses horizontally, Stefanski has mastered adding in a vertical element. Baker Mayfield tied with Kirk Cousins, who was under Stefanski last season, in boot attempts that traveled 11 or more air yards. But Mayfield had a decisive advantage in passing yards on those plays, 450 to 240.
Mayfield was also the only player to have at least 10 bootleg passing attempts that traveled at least 20 air yards. On those throws, Mayfield was 8-of-11 for 324 yards, and two touchdowns per SIS. Drew Brees was 8-of-16 for 261 yards and two touchdowns on all of his throws over 20 air yards this season.
On rollouts to his right, Mayfield has 3-of-5 for 137 yards and a touchdown but, of course, more production came to his left, where he went 5-of-6 for 187 yards and a touchdown.
The Stefanski Bootleg Left was prominent in Minnesota last season when he was the offensive coordinator and it has traveled to Cleveland with Mayfield. The idea is that defenses aren’t expecting right-handed quarterbacks to be able to roll to the opposite side and turn their bodies to make a throw. But Stefanski has created a system in which not only are those throws available at a high volume, but they have space down the field.
No quarterback rolled to his left more often than Mayfield in 2020 and there was also a clear difference in the area of the field attacked on those bootlegs. Mayfield’s 30 completions had 303 air yards — 10.1 air yards per completion — yet Goff’s 23 completions, the second-highest total, had just 56 air yards — 2.4 yards per completion.
What also makes the bootleg left so deceptive is that Stefanski doesn’t limit route options to the left side of the field. With so much room, throws to the middle and right are open and the Browns have been able to hit those for big plays. On a first-and-10 on the opening drive against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 5, Jarvis Landry went for 32 yards on a deep crosser away from the boot.
The Browns have used the expected tendency of the short pass to the left to open things up. Against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 11, the Browns had Austin Hooper run a shallow cross from the right of the formation, which drew in the middle for the field safety and opened up a deep shot to Rashard Higgins for 43 yards.
Other teams use boot as an extension of their play-action game, but the Browns major in it. Cleveland is the only team to use boot on over 50% of their play fakes, at 50.3% per SIS data. The Broncos and Rams (49.2%) are close behind.
No team is better at creating open throws and pushing the ball downfield on those plays than the Browns, who had just 37.2% of their yards come after the catch.
Bootlegs might not be the driving force in a playoff win, unless it’s the Browns, but with so many of the league’s best offensive minds embracing more boot, it’s sure to show up and make an impact in the Divisional Round and beyond.