Deep Pass Troubles
by Rivers McCown
As you may know, we here at Football Outsiders have a book coming out shortly. It's called Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, and it is due to be released in mid-July. While I do plenty of editing, my most specific task in this annual is to write the chapters and player comments for the NFC North. While researching some ways to contextualize Christian Ponder's season, I came across an interesting stat that had some weird outliers, and I'd like to lay one of them out and see what the readers think. Ponder's big problem, which is no secret and was no secret coming out of college, is that he is terrible on deep passes. He had a DVOA of 10.7% on balls that we marked as "deep" (travelling 16 or more yards down field) -- which sounds a little impressive until you realize that the average seasonal DVOA on deep passes is usually between 45% and 65%. (Remember, DVOA is based on all pass plays, and of course the category "deep passes" doesn't include a number of negative plays like sacks or dumpoffs that fail to convert third down.)
Our data on distance of pass attempts goes back to 2005. Sicne then, there have been 29 quarterbacks with 50 or more deep pass attempts and a seasonal DVOA below 15% on deep passes. It's a pretty harrowing list to look at if you have an optimist's view of Ponder's future.
|Quarterbacks with a sub-15% DVOA on "Deep" Passes, 2005-2012 (min. 50 attempts)|
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Boy, that's a lot of past and present Vikings on one list ... Cassel, Favre, Frerotte, Jackson, Ponder. Anyway, Favre was losing arm strength at the end of his career and he was still slinging his guns all the way to the finish line, so it's not a big surprise to see him on this list. The second player who jumped out at me was Stafford, because scouts constantly gushed over his arm talent despite the fact that he had a poor college completion percentage. Turns out the scouts were right on this one long term, but the completion percentage was a warning sign that he was not at all ready to play in the NFL as a rookie. Stafford compiled -653 DYAR in 2009, ahead of only JaMarcus Russell. You can understand why his deep balls were not priority A at that point.
The third name that surprised me here was Matt Ryan. I don't know what was in the water in Atlanta in 2009 -- probably the same thing that's making them create a stadium shaped like a sphincter -- but the entire passing game ground to a halt. The especially strange thing was that, in 2008, Ryan had a 126.8% DVOA on 89 deep balls. Anyway, 2009 turned out to be a fluke season and Ryan was eventually gifted with Julio Jones and made some adjustments to his deep ball. He's pretty stellar at it these days.
Then, the fourth name that surprised me, because it appeared twice, was Josh Freeman. I will admit that I have not watched a lot of Freeman -- NFC South games not involving the Saints or Falcons have not been appointment viewing for a while and the Bucs last year did not play the NFC North (which I was watching to prepare for the book) or AFC South (which I watch as a Houston fan). The last game I charted that involved Tampa Bay was when they played the Texans during Raheem Morris' 2011 march to see just how much quitting it would take to forever ruin his coaching reputation. You can see why I'd want to discount that as a subjective indicator of Freeman's talent. In 2012, with the addition of Vincent Jackson, Freeman's DVOA on deep passes went up to 53.5%.
So, I thought I'd dig in to the numbers to see if I could find some objective thing that Josh Freeman was especially good at. It turns out, in this case, that the numbers and the eyeball test say the same thing. The only thing consistent about Freeman -- other than the fact that his DVOA is usually above average when he is under pressure -- is his inconsistency.
|Josh Freeman DVOA by Pass Length|
Outside of Jackson coming in last year, there hasn't much turnover in Freeman's offense. Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, and Kellen Winslow were constants in 2010 and 2011. Winslow declined heavily and Dallas Clark wasn't the answer -- is Freeman's large drop in Short DVOA since 2010 all because he has no tight end? Williams said that part of the problem in 2012 was that receivers didn't know when to break their routes off. Is that something that gets fixed?
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That's the kind of straw-grasping that Freeman's advanced stats leave you to make. When he's been below average in DVOA, he's been below average on all downs. When he's above average in DVOA, he's above average on all downs. His red-zone DVOA follows a rollercoaster pattern (which is true for most quarterbacks, to be honest). I know we have a few hardcore Bucs fans here. What theories do you have about what has happened to Freeman since 2010?
Based on what I've seen and researched of him, I can see why head coach and haircut watch-setter Greg Schiano is peeing down both legs when it comes to Freeman. It's been four years, and Freeman's main trait as a quarterback is that nobody knows what to expect him to be in four years.