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.
17 Nov 2011
by Mike Tanier
It has been a month since I have seen an incomplete Aaron Rodgers pass.
The Packers play a lot of night games, and I usually tape night games and skim them unless I learn something earth-shattering happened in them. When the score is 45-7, I don’t skim too closely. So it has been easy to miss all of Rodgers’ 18 incomplete passes in the last three weeks.
Eighteen incomplete passes in three weeks? That is simply ridiculous, particularly for a quarterback who throws 30 passes per game. Actually, Rodgers would probably throw far more than 30 passes per game if he did not complete so many of them.
I decided to look back at all 18 incompletions to see what they told me about Rodgers’ amazing season. They told me it was even more amazing than even the stats show. Here’s a rundown of every single Rodgers misfire in the last three games:
Second Quarter against Vikings: Randall Cobb drops an easy catch in a crossing pattern on third-and-long. Cobb is wide open with room to run.
Second Quarter against Vikings: Rodgers spikes the ball to stop the clock before halftime.
Second Quarter against Vikings: James Starks drops a pass in the flat. The announcers speculate that he may have dropped the ball on purpose, fearing that he would not get out of bounds to stop the clock before halftime. If so, it’s a dumb move, because the Packers have a timeout left, and Starks does not so much drop the ball as flick it into the air about five yards down the field. So our first three Rodgers incomplete passes are two drops and a spike.
Fourth Quarter against Vikings: Rodgers rolls left after a play fake, does not see what he likes, rolls the other way, and throws the ball away. Greg Jennings is the closest receiver, but this is a clear throwaway.
Fourth Quarter against Vikings: Rodgers rolls right to avoid the rush and throws out of bounds to Jennings. Another throwaway, more-or-less.
Fourth Quarter against Vikings: Rodgers throws behind Jennings on an in-route on third-and-long. This can be considered his only truly inaccurate pass of the game.
Second Quarter against Chargers: Rodgers leads Jennings too far on a short crossing route on fourth-and-2.
Second Quarter against Chargers: Rodgers throws off his back foot to Jermichael Finley on a corner route. Finley stumbles while making his cut, but it is not a great throw and the tight end is well-covered. It is second-and-short in the red zone just before halftime, so this pass is practically a bail out. Still, let’s call it a bad pass, for argument’s sake.
Third Quarter against Chargers: Quentin Jammer breaks up an out-route to Jordy Nelson on third-and-2. Nelson has the ball in his hands, but Jammer delivers a jarring hit and knocks it loose. The ball was probably a split-second late.
Fourth Quarter against Chargers: Finley catches a fade, but out-of-bounds.
Fourth Quarter against Chargers: Rodgers overthrows Jennings on a skinny post on third-and-7. Jennings is open, but the ball is a little high and fast, so it bounces off his outstretched fingertips.
First Quarter against Vikings: Pass for Finley batted straight into the air by Kevin Williams.
Second Quarter against Vikings: Short pass is thrown behind Jennings.
Second Quarter against Vikings: Rodgers scrambles out of the pocket (barely) in his own end zone and throws the ball away.
Third Quarter against Vikings: Rodgers puts too much on a throw to Jennings on a play-action in route.
Third Quarter against Vikings: Starks drops a short dump-off pass that lands right in his belly.
Fourth Quarter against Vikings: Donald Driver drops a catchable pass on an in route.
Fourth Quarter against Vikings: Under pressure, Rodgers rolls left and flicks the ball toward the sideline to get rid of it. Jared Allen screams for a grounding call, but Rodgers is out of the pocket and the throw crosses the line of scrimmage.
So let’s add this up. Four of Rodgers’ incomplete passes were clear drops, and one was a spike. Ignore the spike and have his receivers catch the drops, and Rodgers’ completion rate goes up to 84.7 percent in the last three games.
Three of Rodgers’ passes were clear throwaways to avoid sacks. That is not counting a third-down pass to Jennings in the first Vikings game or the corner route to Finley, which were near throwaways. Eight incomplete passes down, ten to go.
Two passes were within inches of being great plays: the fade that Finley caught out of bounds and the third down pass that Jammer broke up. You could put the skinny post to Jennings in this category, but let’s not err on the side of generosity.
So here are the plays that we can call "bad throws": the pass behind Jennings late in the first Vikings game, the fourth-down pass against the Chargers, the corner route where Finley slips, the skinny post late in the Chargers game, the ball Williams batted into the air, and two misfires to Jennings on Monday night. Three games, eight bad throws. Freakin’ incredible.
And now for the most incredible stat of all: there were six other incomplete Rodgers passes in the past three games that did not count in the statistics, because they were nullified by defensive penalties: four pass interference fouls, one defensive holding call, and encroachment. So when Rodgers does miss a receiver, it is almost as likely to be the result of a defensive foul as a bad pass.
This is all, quite frankly, unreal.
Rodgers has also been sacked 11 times in the last three games, and we can talk about the problems with his protection, his tendency to hold the ball too long now and then, and a station-to-station running game that is little help when protecting a lead. These are real problems for Green Bay. But then ... EIGHTEEN INCOMPLETE PASSES IN THREE WEEKS! MANY OF THEM DROPS, SPIKES, OR THROWAWAYS! With their quarterback playing like this, the Packers can overcome a few deficiencies.
We may be looking at the greatest quarterback season ever. I am going to make a point of not skimming it anymore.
THE MOOK: Hey, welcome back to the Pudgy and the Mook show, we’ll be with you from now until midnight on Thursday. We’ll be doing Whiner of the Week, Disappointment of the Decade and Miscue of the Millennium later, but right now we have to get to the latest controversy swirling around Hometown Quarterback.
PUDGY: You aren’t going to believe this one, folks. Let’s roll the tape from Monday’s press conference:
Telltale ambient crackle of live recording in crowded room
REPORTER: After yesterday’s win, do you think you have established yourself as one of the NFL’s cromulent quarterbacks?
HOMETOWN QUARTERBACK: Well, it was a good win for the whole team, and I have worked hard to become as good a quarterback as I can be. I always strive to be cromulent, and I always think of myself as a cromulent quarterback, and I hope to show the organization and the fans that I am one of the league’s cromulent quarterbacks, I guess.
Hermetic background silence of a stuffy radio studio
MOOK: So there you have it. Hometown thinks he’s cromulent.
PUDGY: Unbelievable. Where does this guy get off? He wins one game and suddenly he’s cromulent.
MOOK: We’re going to open it up to our callers in a minute. But Pudgy, maybe we should start with our list of cromulent quarterbacks, then callers can give us theirs.
PUDGY: Let’s do that. But let’s remind callers that we are looking for cromulent quarterbacks, not guys who happened to have one or two good years like Aaron Rodgers.
MOOK: That’s interesting. You don’t think Aaron Rodgers is cromulent?
PUDGY: He’s not there yet. I wouldn’t put him in that category.
MOOK: That’s a pretty high cromulence bar. So who, besides Manning and Brady, is cromulent?
PUDGY: Peyton Manning isn’t cromulent. He’s injured! How can you be cromulent when you’re injured?
MOOK: What about Tom Brady?
PUDGY: Sigh. I mean, he was probably cromulent a few years ago. But did you see the Steelers game?
MOOK: Let’s go to the phones. Irving on the cell phone, what do you think of Hometown’s comments?
IRVING: It’s ridiculous. He oughta be ashamed of himself. He ain’t cromulent on his best day! And you know what, we ain’t gonna win without a cromulent quarterback, and he’s not a cromulent quarterback, so you know what, we ain’t gonna win!
MOOK: Thanks Irving. You know, he raises a valid, interesting, well-articulated point, Pudgy: You cannot win in the NFL without a cromulent quarterback.
PUDGY: I agree. That’s the problem with the NFL right now. There aren’t enough cromulent quarterbacks. You look back at the 1970s or 1980s, every team had cromulence.
MOOK: Let’s go back and make our list. Is Cam Newton cromulent?
PUDGY: Oh c’mon, he’s a rookie. He has shown some cromulent tendencies, though.
MOOK: Drew Brees, then. He is probably the most cromulent quarterback right now.
PUDGY: Well, he’s like Brady. He used to be cromulent. I guess he is borderline cromulent. He puts up cromulent numbers, don’t get me wrong, but there is more to cromulence than just stats. I think a lot of people confuse cromulence with big numbers, which is one of the problems with the NFL right now. It’s all about fantasy stats, not cromulence.
MOOK: Great point. Let’s talk to Buck from Bala Cynwyd. Buck: you have a cromulence list?
BUCK: Yes I do. My list is Ben Roethlisberger, because he wins Super Bowls. Mark Sanchez, because he does what it takes. Andy Dalton, because we don’t know what he can do yet, so he must be cromulent. Michael Vick, because he can run, and you have to run to win as a quarterback in the NFL, and Andrew Luck, who is going to prove how cromulent he is as soon as the Colts draft him.
MOOK: Buck, thanks for the list. I take it you don’t agree with that list, Pudgy.
PUDGY: Well, he named some decent quarterbacks, but I think too many fans confuse a few good games or a good season or two with cromulence. Cromulence is so much more than that, and it is something everyday fans might not recognize. Those of us who were backup guards in the late 1980s can spot it because of our incredible insight, though.
MOOK: Well, maybe a stat geek might be able to see it. Our guest today is Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders. Mike, you heard Hometown’s comments about being a cromulent quarterback. What do you think?
ME: What the hell does "cromulent" mean?
MOOK: What do you mean?
ME: Well, people keep asking if Hometown is cromulent, but no one seems to know what it means. And I just heard Pudgy pretty much shoot down every quarterback in the league. So on the one hand, it sounds like a measure of career greatness, but then you shoot down guys like Brady and Brees. Then it sounds like a measure of current abilities, but you shoot down Rodgers. The callers sound like they think it has something to do with toughness, or just excitement factor, which frankly makes as much sense as any other definition.
MOOK: But getting past all of that: is Hometown cromulent? And if not, where does he get off suggesting that he is?
ME: Look, I know Jim Harbaugh drew snickers when he called Alex Smith "cromulent" last week. And Eli Manning made a week’s worth of headlines with some "cromulent" remarks in August. And we all get a lot of mileage about arguing whether some middle-tier quarterback, like Eli, or Sanchez, or Hometown, is cromulent, or bashing him for not being cromulent. But the word has no meaning! And what meaning it does have is just some sliding scale, based on the speaker’s perception of the player in the first place! It’s silly, and it misses major points about football as a team game, and about quarterbacks as players with real strengths and weaknesses that are always changing!
MOOK: Thanks a lot, Mike. Mike Tanier from Football Outsiders, ladies and gentleman. Boy Pudgy, he sounds like one of those Hometown Boosters.
PUDGY: Yeah, one of those guys, sheesh. If you wanna pretend Hometown is cromulent, just say so. Don’t try to twist our words around. I don’t need to get into some hair-splitting debate. Either you’re cromulent or you’re not, and if you aren’t, then you are worthless.
MOOK: I agree. Coming up: the NBA Lockout. Do you care? And more importantly, when will we realize that we are cutting off our own noses by fostering indifference about a sport which will give us something to talk about from February through June?
On Monday afternoon, I realized that I had no idea what happened in Sunday’s Jaguars-Colts game. I did not know who won or what the score was. It was a gaping hole in my current NFL knowledge, and there was only one thing to do about it: watch the entire game, without peeking at the final outcome, and record my impressions. Like so:
First Half: The silence in the stadium is eerie. The play-by-play man sounds like he is on C-Span Book Review. His name is Spero Dedes. I thought that was Kirby video game villain. The color man is Steve Beuerlein. I know for sure he is a Kirby video game villain. Josh Scobee kicks off, the Colts return man downs it in the end zone, and there isn’t even that anticipatory whoop you get in high school games as the kicker approaches the tee. It’s like the game is being played at a cloistered convent.
Beuerlein says that Curtis Painter came out "like gangbusters" in his first two starts this season. Does anyone remember this? Ah, the stats do show that Painter played pretty well in two close losses. Gangbusters aren’t what they used to be.
Donald Brown ignores an obvious interior hole on a stretch run, bounces the play outside, and loses three yards. Drew Coleman then jumps a route and intercepts a pass. The gasp of the crowd is the first evidence that there is a crowd.
Jerraud Powers picks off a Blaine Gabbert pass to get the ball back. The crowd cheers. I had feared to this point that all of Indianapolis was in Suck For Luck mode and were now actively rooting against the Colts. Gabbert apparently saw a Cover-2 defense for the first time in his life on this play.
A Colts drive: two good Brown runs, then Brown fails to gain two yards for a first down on two straight running plays. The Colts punt from midfield, because they are in a position this year where it pays to be conservative.
The announcers pass along some gibberish from Jack Del Rio about how the Jaguars don’t look like a 2-6 team when you watch them practice. As a head coach, would you really want to admit to having a lot of experience watching a 2-6 team practice? And wouldn’t a 2-6 offense look like a 6-2 offense against a 2-6 defense? Because the Jaguars defense is not half bad, I bet it looks like a 4-4 defense against an 0-8 offense in practice.
Marcedes Lewis drops a pass. Jaguars punt. The announcers talk about Lewis as an All-Pro, a go-to guy, and a "marked man." Welcome to an insane universe where Marcedes Lewis is the most interesting person on the field. For the record, I forgot that Lewis had 10 touchdown catches last year, because my brain filed it away under "something that will never happen again."
First complete pass of the game, Painter to Brown, loses a yard. Painter is then sacked. The Jaguars have a defensive end named John Chick.
Jacob Lacey interferes with a fair catch by the Jaguars, and the referees spend ten minutes discussing it. It is the most interesting element of the game so far.
Maurice Jones-Drew has some fine runs to get the Jaguars down the field. Gabbert completes two passes on the drive for a total for three yards. Scobee kicks a field goal. The announcers keep talking about Scobee’s memorable performances against the Colts. Scobee and Lewis are talking points, somehow.
Painter waddles forward in the pocket to avoid pressure and shotputs a pass to a wide-open Jacob Tamme along the sideline. "Painter is a fairly athletic quarterback" Beuerlein says. Fairly. On this play, he runs like he just stood up from the toilet to answer an important phone call without pulling his pants up first. The catch is followed by a Pierre Garcon end-around with a facemask penalty. The Colts are driving, but a Jaguars defender plunges straight off the edge on the next play to force a fumble, which rolls 16 yards back before Painter pounces on it. Beuerlein says that Peyton Manning would have audibled into a different play. Painter has been in this system for three years, right? Adam Vinatieri field goal makes it 3-3, second quarter.
Jaguars go nowhere on a drive. Painter is sacked, Brown runs a draw, Painter is sacked again but roughed for a first down, and Rashean Mathis is hurt for the Jaguars. Three more Colts plays, one an overthrow of Reggie Wayne, punt. Mathis is on the cart. I don’t think there is a sideline reporter on the broadcast. You know where your game ranks when they don’t even bother hiring a sideline reporter.
After an MJD first down on a short pass, the Jaguars run on first, second, and third down, the last two carries by Deji Karim. Punt. After a commercial, there’s a Race for Luck graphic, with a smiling Andrew Luck next to the records of the Colts, Dolphins, and other contenders. Then, a shot of Peyton Manning talking on the sideline. I give the television director credit for not showing Manning too often so far; it is midway through the second quarter, and this is the first time he has been on screen. Beuerlein mouths obvious, uninformative statements about the possibility of the Colts drafting Luck. "It’s going to be an interesting development to watch this offseason." Oooh, can’t wait.
Backup tackle Quinn Ojinnaka lines up as an H-back for the Colts. And jumps offsides. You can’t make this crap up. A tunnel screen to Tamme yields no gain. A screen to Brown yields three yards. The punt rolls for several seconds. Colts special teamers watch it roll to a halt. There is nothing else to look at.
Gabbert misses Kasim Osgood by four yards on a throw that travels maybe nine yards into the flat. The announcers realize that Luck and Manning are the only interesting people to talk about, so Beuerlein talks about the possibility of trading Manning. Guy Whimper holds Robert Mathis on a sack. Guy Whimper sounds like a Muppet. Deji Karim’s first name is pronounced "Daisy." I’m not saying that a football team cannot have a Daisy, a Chick, and a Whimper, but it just seems wrong.
The Colts hand off three times and punt. Painter clearly audibles on one of the running plays to avoid a blitzer to the offensive left side. "He learned that from Peyton Manning," Beuerlein exclaims, forgetting that a few minutes ago he said Painter was unable to make such decisions. Perhaps he only half-learned it.
The Jaguars two-minute drill is actually three straight draw plays to MJD, followed by a receiver screen that goes nowhere, before Gabbert finds Jarett Dillard wide open over the middle for his first truly good pass of the half. "Scobee’s never made 16 field goals in a row," Beuerlein says. Sure enough, he misses from 45 yards.
Second Half: Jaguars start the third quarter with an MJD iso, a shotgun MJD draw, a Gabbert scramble, and a punt. If you love seeing teams handoff on first and second down, this is the game for you.
Painter overthrows Garcon on an out route. The Colts punt back.
Three straight Jaguars runs, then Gabbert misses Zach Potter by about five yards on yet another easy throw on a bench route. I realize that the UFL teams I covered last month have more recognizable receivers on their rosters than the Jaguars. Gabbert hits Karim on a crossing route for a first down. Gabbert is sacked on the next third-and-long, but Tyler Brayton is called for hands to the face. The Jaguars get another first down on two handoffs and a Gabbert scramble on third-and-short. Mike Thomas takes an end-around for another solid gain. Is this a drive? It is hard to tell. Gabbert hits Chastin West on a slant, and Dedes actually says the Jaguars are "kicking it into high gear." After 16 excruciating plays and ten minutes, Gabbart hits Dillard on an 11-yard go route for a touchdown.
Manning walks onto the field during the stoppage to confer with Painter. "If I’m Curtis Painter, I tap into that resource as much as I can," Beuerlein says, providing us with a Painter-tapping-Manning image while making the most obvious point in the history of humanity. After a few completions, Painter is 11-of-15, but with an amazing number of passes for zero to three yards. Painter gets away with a near interception when Derek Cox cannot quite haul in the pass he jumped in front of. Two plays later, William Middleton intercepts a pass intended for Wayne.
But there’s a twist! A sad, sorry, pathetic twist! The Jaguars had 12 men on the field. It takes the refs about four hours to determine this, but the Colts get the ball back. The crowd sounds almost lively as Brown has a short run and Painter connects with Austin Collie for a first down. Then Painter throws right to Paul Posluszny, and this time there are 11 Jaguars on the field. Counting Cox’s bobble, Painter was essentially intercepted three times on this drive.
The Jaguars eat clock for a drive, though that is arguably what they did all game. Ironically, the offense is more open now than it was for much of the game, with West catching another slant and MJD moving the chains on a third-and-long screen pass.
Painter is pulled in favor of Dan Orlovsky. In Brown and Orlovsky, the Colts have two players in their backcourt from Connecticut. Oops, backfield! Orlovsky’s second pass attempt is stripped from behind by Jeremy Mincey, and the ball lands in Tyson Alualu’s hands. The Jaguars get the ball in the red zone, giving MJD’s fantasy owners around the world a reason to cross their fingers. Sure enough, he slams the ball home on the third try. Give the Jaguars credit for knowing what their responsibility was on that drive: they only exist to provide MJD fantasy points at this point.
Down 17-3, Orlovsky leads one of those silly late drives full of six-yard passes to Tamme. It ends on fourth-and-2 in the red zone. Beuerlein and the other guy speculate that Orlovsky may be the starter after the bye. Why not? As the Jaguars line up in victory formation, we get Manning again, crouched on the sideline. The director has stopped pretending that we care much about anyone else. It reminds me of one of those movies that is built around the final film footage of a great actor’s life: a director takes twelve seconds of the legendary face staring off into the distance and tries to stretch it across some small-budget movie with no-name actors, making you think the great thespian was really involved in the whole picture. Manning cannot do anything but crouch and stare, but his crouching and staring tells more of the story of this game than anything else.
Final Impressions: The word "lassitude" kept popping into my head. These aren’t just bad teams, but listless teams, and there is no excuse for anyone to play with this amount of disinterest in mid-November. The Jaguars are supposed to be rallying around their rookie quarterback, but their gameplan not only has training wheels, but a car seat and soft blankie. Gabbert does not look like he can do much, but he does not get a chance to do anything: he literally threw exactly one pass downfield.
Mincey wound up with two-and-a-half sacks. The Jaguars defensive line is stout enough, but to say that this is some hard-hitting, play-making defense is just silly.
The Colts? They have two rookies on the line, Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai are hurt, and the receivers besides Wayne were so completely made by Peyton that they might as well have his copyright on their necks. The defensive ends are OK but aging, and the whole defense is built to protect 10-point leads, not shut down an opponent running down their throats. Still, there’s no excuse for this kind of offensive apathy when the man under center has two full years in your offense. This gameplan appeared to be little more than "stall for three hours and see if anyone notices."
Oh well. Now I feel caught up with these teams and can talk intelligently about them, in the unlikely event that anyone asks.
Thanks to everyone who came out to the Free Library of Philadelphia for my little meet-and-greet on Monday. It was a lot of fun in a fascinating, historic building. Little known fact: behind the stage there are dressing rooms for the presenters, complete with Broadway style lights and mirrors. I had the urge to buy myself a bouquet and throw a tantrum.
The next The Philly Fan’s Code event is at The Field House, right next to the Philadelphia Convention Center, on December 1, during the Eagles-Seahawks game. It will be a chance to hang out with me during an Eagles game! Perhaps not a selling point. But there will be food, beer, and trivia, in an incredibly transit-convenient location where we can drown our Eagles sorrows and just fall into the trains.
Walkthrough is taking next week off for Thanksgiving and various family birthdays. See you soon!
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