Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
21 Aug 2014
by Cian Fahey
317 completions. 551 attempts. 57.5 percent completion percentage. 18 touchdowns. 27 interceptions. 39 sacks. Seven fumbles.
Those are the numbers that are being used to judge New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Those are the numbers that some would use to condemn him as one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. That kind of inefficient production at 33 years of age creates a simple equation: Age + Poor Production = Decline.
It's the kind of logic that is easy and the kind of logic that would have passed for quality analysis roughly 10 years ago.
In the analytical age, those numbers are antiquated. No longer are people relying solely on raw stats to judge a player's ability and impact on the field. The rise of the independent Internet website or blog has created numbers that look at the game in greater detail and give us a better idea of what is happening on the field.
Over a relatively short period of time, analytics have become a crutch for mainstream media outlets to rely on and a tool for NFL teams to use when building their rosters.
Because analytics come in number form and are closely related to mathematics, where everything is decisive and definite, too often we treat all of the advanced numbers as definitive statements about the subject. Anyone who ever analyzes football, no matter what method they choose, must understand the importance of context.
Context for analyzing any quarterback is important. When that quarterback is Manning in 2013, its importance becomes much greater. The reason for this is the scheme Manning played in and the supporting cast he played with.
There are 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL, but there are not 32 quarterbacks with the same responsibilities. Significant differences exist between what each quarterback does on the field regularly.
For example, Alex Smith was primarily asked to take care of the football and complement a strong running game with safe passes for the Kansas City Chiefs last year. The Chiefs could do this successfully because of the creativity of Andy Reid's offense. In comparison, Nick Foles played in an offense in Philadelphia that maximized his strengths and masked his weaknesses. He played in a scheme that slowed the pass rush and gave him wide-open throwing windows on a regular basis.
In New York, Manning was asked to consistently make difficult throws down the field while under pressure in the pocket.
Kevin Gilbride was the New York Giants' offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2013. Gilbride's offense was built on running the football and aggressively pursuing big plays down the field in the passing game. As the above chart reflects, a chart that tracks Manning's first eight games from last season, this meant that Manning was more regularly throwing the ball further than 5 yards down the field.
When you compare that ratio to other starting quarterbacks in the NFL over a similar period, a huge contrast can be seen.
Like the stats that are listed at the start of this article, Gilbride's offensive philosophy is antiquated.
NFL teams nowadays are investing in talented defensive backs and disruptive pass rushers to prevent big plays in the passing game. In Gilbride's offense, the quarterback is forced to hold onto the ball longer as slow-developing routes are executed down the field. Slow-developing routes are useful at times, but constantly relying on them allows instinctive defensive backs time to sit back and read the play before attacking the ball in the air.
As such, turnovers become inevitable.
This play is a great example of the lack of creativity in Gilbride's offense. The three receivers that run routes down the field all begin the play running in straight lines for at least 10 yards. During this time none of them look back for the football and they are easily covered by the defensive backs in their area. Without any crossing motions or quick turns, Manning is forced to hold onto the football in the pocket.
As Manning does this, his pass protection begins to fail and he is forced to move off his spot before finding his checkdown underneath.
If you are forced to play the ball in front of NFL defenses today, you won't run an effective offense. However, if you're also so blunt in how you try to get in behind the defense, you become destined to fail because it's easier for the defense to tighten throwing windows and stay assignment-sound. Because the Giants didn't have a dominant defense in 2013, Manning also couldn't afford to check down very often because he was under pressure to prolong drives and score points.
Manning consistently made very impressive throws into tight coverage down the field in 2013. These throws weren't highlighted as positives very often because he also ultimately had turnovers as he attacked very tight throwing windows while throwing under pressure. It simply isn't sustainable for your offense to work or for your quarterback to be efficient when he is being asked to attempt these kinds of throws on a regular basis.
Take these two plays for example. The degree of difficulty of these plays for the quarterbacks is relatively simple. Both of these teams focus on creating easy offense, and they do this by alleviating the pressure on their pocket passer. The Giants attempted to achieve the same success, but by doing it the hard way. Nothing was easy for Manning. In fact, there were times when it seemed impossible for him to be successful in that scheme, with that talent.
It's important to note that Manning was never benched. The Giants' coaching staff recognized that he wasn't the problem during the year, then the front office backed that up by replacing Gilbride with Ben McAdoo after the season.
McAdoo was the quarterbacks coach of the Green Bay Packers last year. It's not a coincidence that he is coming from an offense that works under a dramatically different philosophy than what Gilbride installed in New York. Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers have always excelled at taking the underneath yards against defenses to draw them forward, before taking shots down the field with their talented quarterback.
By picking and choosing when to attack the secondary deep, the offense remained efficient and the quality of their deep throws was much greater.
When you align Manning's pass chart for the first half of last season against Rodgers', you can clearly see where each offense concentrated the bulk of their attempts.
An important thing to note is that many of Manning's throws that went less than five yards were similar to the one that was previously detailed in this article: throws that saw Manning check the ball down as a last resort when he couldn't find receivers down the field. On the other hand, most of Rodgers' underneath throws were designed screens, quick throws to uncovered receivers in the flat, and well-designed route combinations that quickly set receivers free within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
By hiring McAdoo, the Giants set about installing an offense with more West Coast principles. If the quality of the supporting cast is there, this should take a huge amount of pressure off of the quarterback position.
The quarterback is the only player on the field who is directly connected to every single one of his teammates. Because of that, the supporting cast for a quarterback has a greater bearing on his production than it does on any other player.
In 2013, Manning's supporting cast was very poor.
A key player in that offense was wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. Nicks is a proven talent who had an established relationship with Manning, but he struggled to perform in 2013. Injuries and effort were a question mark, while he definitely dropped too many passes. Nicks left in free agency to join the Indianapolis Colts, and how the Giants replaced him highlighted the altered philosophy on the offensive side of the ball.
The Giants didn't just select Odell Beckham, Jr., in the first round of the NFL draft, they picked him with the 12th overall pick.
If Gilbride was still running the offense, there is no chance that Beckham would have been worth that investment to the Giants. That's not to say Beckham couldn't have been effective in that system, but rather that the system wouldn't have used enough of the 21-year-old's versatility. In Nicks, the Giants had the perfect style of receiver for Gilbride's offense. He was tall, athletic, and understood how to get open down the field. He wasn't exceptionally dynamic with the ball in his hands, but he didn't need to be. Beckham isn't like Nicks. Physically he is smaller, but more importantly, he can beat the defense at every level. He has the speed and vision to be elusive underneath with the ball in his hands and the precision in his routes with the ball skills to make contested catches down the field.
By pairing Beckham with Victor Cruz, the Giants have given their quarterback two receivers who can make the offense effective without asking him to throw the ball down the field. The only other question is whether they have the pieces to keep the pressure off of him in the pocket.
Simply by letting Manning release the ball more quickly this year, the Giants should take the pressure off of their offensive line. A renewed sense of urgency in the running game would also go a long way to slowing the pass rush down though. Last year, the Giants ranked 30th in rushing DVOA. With Andre Brown, Peyton Hillis, and Brandon Jacobs as the team's leading rushers, that should have come as no surprise. Investing a fourth-round pick in Andre Williams and signing Rashad Jennings in free agency should at least allow the Giants' running game to keep the unit balanced this year.
If everyone is healthy, the Giants should have enough firepower at the skill positions to effectively execute McAdoo's offense around Manning. The biggest question marks remain on the offensive line.
Veterans Chris Snee and David Diehl are retired. Both are name-recognition players because of the team's past Super Bowl runs, but neither were impressive starters in recent years. Both starters at offensive tackle—William Beatty and Justin Pugh—will return. Neither are special players, but both are good enough starters to adequately complement Manning's ability in the pocket in a quick-passing offense. All the question marks exist on the interior.
Geoff Schwartz was signed in free agency to be a starter at left guard. Schwartz appears to be the only guaranteed starter, but Brandon Mosley is expected to start at right guard if he plays well during the remainder of the preseason. At center, veteran J.D. Walton was signed as a free agent to be an insurance starter, but ideally second-round pick Weston Richburg would be the Week 1 starter. Tom Coughlin seemingly prefers that rookies sit, but the relative talent on his roster could force his hand.
The Giants just need their offensive line to avoid the kind of displays that saw their quarterback get sacked on six of his first nine dropbacks against the Carolina Panthers last season. That was only one of many bad stretches during a year that saw Manning set a career-high with 39 sacks in a single season.
Manning's numbers have never been very good during the regular season. He has never thrown fewer than 10 interceptions in a 16-game season and on six occasions he has thrown at least 16 interceptions. Only three times has he crossed the 4,000-yard barrier, despite not missing a start over the past nine seasons. His completion percentage has been lower than 60 percent more often than it has been above 60 percent.
In this new scheme, with this new supporting cast, Manning is still unlikely to be one of the most productive players in the NFL, but he also shouldn't touch the depths of despair he reached last season.
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