Sam Bradford improved considerably down the stretch, but key statistics suggest he might not be the Eagles long-term solution.
Patrick Causey, on Twitter @InsdeTheHuddle
A quick note before we start: We are at the end of a three part series analyzing the Eagles head coach (read here), front office (read here) and now, quarterback. A special thanks to David Menard, who helped me with the Chip Kelly statistical comparisons in this piece. Give him a follow on Twitter @heyyou_ca.
The Eagles are at a crossroads right now, starring square in the face of a franchise altering decision that could have far reaching implications for the next half decade. What should the Eagles do with soon-to-be free agent quarterback Sam Bradford?
Debating the Eagles quarterback position has become an offseason tradition of sorts since Donovan McNabb was traded. It provides the perfect opportunity to pass the time between the end of another disappointing season and the eternal optimism that comes with the summer, when we somehow talk ourselves — yet again — into believing that “this year will finally be our year.”
The options facing the Eagles are simple: they can sign Bradford to a long term deal, let Bradford walk and fill the quarterback void via the draft and/or free agency, or use the franchise tag to evaluate Bradford for another year or trade him to a quarterback needy team.
The one option that can easily be dismissed is releasing Bradford outright. The NFL is starving for quarterbacks and Bradford showed enough promise down the stretch that, at a minimum, the Eagles should be able to trade him for a valuable draft pick (how valuable remains to be seen).
But choosing between the remaining options — signing Bradford long term or franchising him — is anything but simple. So I broke this down by using an easy decision making matrix: look at the positives, look at the negatives, and then come to a solution (profound stuff, I know).
When viewed through this prism, a clearer picture starts to emerge. Bradford undoubtedly has positives working in his favor: he has all the tools of a franchise caliber quarterback, tools that have tantalized scouts, coaches and football executives since he burst onto the scene during his Heismann trophy campaign at Oklahoma. We saw glimpses of those tools, first during training camp and the preseason, and then at the tail end of the 2015 season when he finally started to look like the quarterback we had all hoped he would become.
But sandwiched in the middle of those strong performances was a reminder why Bradford was traded by the Rams in the first place: his sporadic accuracy, faulty mechanics, and refusal to attack defenses deep were significant impediments to the Eagles offense. And when we take a step back and analyze not just the 2015 season, but Bradford’s entire career, the scales start to tip decidedly in favor of franchising Bradford instead. Indeed, we would be foolish to ignore the risk of relying on such a small sample size of good games from Bradford when making our decision. We would be remiss to ignore the impact that playing in Chip Kelly’s quarterback friendly offense had on Bradford’s strong play. We would be wise to recognize the limitation that Bradford’s risk adverse approach to playing quarterback (i.e., refusing to attack defenses deep) has on the Eagles ability to score points. And we must remember that any long term deal risks coinciding with Bradford suffering another significant injury.
Let’s break this down further.
In Support of Bradford
Bradford’s Improvement Over The Course Of The 2015 Season
If we look at Bradford’s season as a whole, his mediocre numbers largely mirror his mediocre career, leading to the inevitable conclusion that Bradford is nothing more than a mediocre quarterback.
But, as is often the case, extenuating circumstances exist which require us to take Bradford’s 2015 numbers with a grain of salt. Bradford came off a two-year layoff thanks to consecutive ACL tears, missed significant time in training camp thanks to rehab, and had to learn a new offense and develop chemistry with new teammates. So as I said back in training camp, some growing pains were to be expected.
And as we saw, Bradford’s play improved as the season progressed, which suggests that he was indeed rusty. If we break Bradford’s season down into halves, that improvement becomes apparent (Bradford’s rank among qualifying quarterbacks are in parentheses):
|1st Half||62.0 (23rd)||9th||1,766 (17th)||6.4 (32nd)||9 (20th)||10 (4th)||25 (1st)||31st||-0.4 (12th)||76.4 (32nd)|
|After Week 9||68.2 (3rd)||4th||1,959 (21st)||7.6 (11th)||10 (20th)||4 (19th)||17 (12th)||17th||11.5 (8th)||97.0 (10th)|
The two areas where he either maintained or regressed in rankings — total yards and touchdowns — were likely the byproduct of Bradford missing 2 1/2 games more than an issue with his play.
Still, those numbers aren’t overwhelming. At best, these numbers show that Bradford went from one of the worst quarterbacks in the league to middle of the pack.
But what if we limit our focus to the last five weeks of the season, after Bradford came back from injury? That was, without question, Bradford’s best stretch of the season:
|67.0 (9th)||4th||1,428 (5th)||7.2 (17th)||8 (10th)||4
|15 (2nd)||20th||10.9 (7th)||93.2 (15th)|
These numbers are something worth considering. As I’ve laid out before, history suggests that on average, you need at least a quarterback that ranks in the top 13 of DVOA and DYAR to realistically compete for a Super Bowl. If Bradford could replicate these numbers for the entire season, he would certainly be within striking range of that baseline production.
We can also see Bradford’s improvement over the course of the season by comparing each game he played to how the rest of the NFL has performed against that defense. On the left, you see the averages for each defense that Bradford faced on the year. On the right are Bradford’s stats for each particular game. The numbers highlighted in green are the areas in which Bradford outperformed the defense’s average, the numbers in red are where Bradford under-performed.
You will notice a lot of red in the early part of the year, but see that the green starts to predominate as we get down the stretch.
These statistics lend credence to what many of his supporters have been saying: Bradford struggled early on because of his time off from the game and his adjustment to a new offense. But once he became comfortable, Bradford’s play started to improve.
And to an extent, that theory is backed up by the tape as well. I brokedown the tape on Bradford four times this year (which you can read here, here, here and here). I can’t rehash all of it, but I do want to briefly cover some of the areas where we saw Bradford’s play improve the most: accuracy, throwing under pressure, and manipulating the defense.
Per PFF.com, Bradford ranked 11th in completion percentage on the year, completing 65% of his passes. But if we account for drops — which were an issue all season long for the Eagles — Bradford was the fourth most accurate passer in the league, with a 78.1 accuracy percentage according to PFF.com.
But accuracy goes beyond just completion and accuracy percentages. Ball placement is critical in the NFL. It requires quarterbacks to fit a ball through impossibly tight windows with regularity. That repetitive accuracy is what separates the good quarterbacks from the great ones, the latter of whom are able to carve through a defense with surgeon like precision to move the ball down the field.
Bradford struggled mightily with his accuracy early in the year, something which I attributed mainly to his faulty mechanics. But as the season progressed, Bradford’s accuracy started to improve. Whether it was building more confidence in his knee or thinking less on the field (or both), we started to see the pinpoint accuracy that was so often discussed during training camp:
Throwing Under Pressure
When the Eagles acquired Bradford, I was concerned with his inability to perform well under pressure. As this chart shows, Bradford was one of the worst passers in football when facing pressure in St. Louis:
|2010||41.1 (23/29)*||4 (T-18)||7 (T-5)|
|2011||38.4 (23/24)||6 (21)||2 (22)|
|2012||41.6 (20/27)||5 (11)||2 (T-23)|
|2013**||38.8 (26/29)||2 (T-12)||1 (T-21)|
About halfway through the year, Bradford was still struggling, completing only 44.6% of his passes under pressure, which ranked 26 out of 31 qualifying quarterbacks. His 4 touchdowns and interceptions also ranked 2nd and 3rd worst in the league.
But Bradford improved considerably as the season progressed and ultimately finished the season as PFF.com’s top passer under pressure. While you can (and arguably should) quibble with PFF’s ranking system, his numbers were still impressive: he completed 56.6% of his passes (4th best), had a league high 74.6% accuracy percentage, and threw the 9th most touchdown passes in the league.
Go back and watch the Arizona Cardinals game; it was an absolute clinic on how to deliver passes under pressure:
Manipulating the Defense
There are certain things that separate the best quarterbacks in the league from the mediocre ones. Repetitive accuracy, smart decision making, and manipulating the defense are near the top of that list. While Kelly prevented Bradford from making adjustments at the line of scrimmage presnap, Bradford was still able to show off the cerebral part of his game on occasion.
I’ve covered this play before, but it is the quintessential example of how a quarterback can outsmart a defense:
The player whose ankles Bradford just broke with his eyes is Carolina’s All Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly. Bradford deftly manipulated Kuechly to open up the middle of the field for Jordan Matthews.
We didn’t see this from Bradford with any sense of regularity until the second half of the season. But it was an encouraging sign nonetheless, providing hope that Bradford could build off this next year.
All good things right? Let me channel my inner-Lee Corso for a moment: Not so fast my friends.
For starters, Bradford’s improvement occurred over a small sample size of five games. And as we have seen in the past, putting too much stock in good production over a short period of time is fraught with risk. (Remember Nick Foles?)
We would also need to consider two other factors that suggest Bradford is not the long-term solution: whether Chip Kelly’s offense has artificially inflated Bradford’s stats and how much value Bradford actually contributed to the Eagles.
(Note: this article was split up into separate pages due to its size. Please click on 2 to continue)