Self Scouting the Eagles Part 1: On Drops

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

For teams riding a hot streak, a bye week is about as welcomed as a root canal. It threatens to disrupt the positive momentum a team has built by placing 14 long days between their games.

But for a team like the Eagles, who are mirred in the middle of a season that is as disapointing as it is frustrating, the bye week could be the perfect tonic. It provides the opportunity for the team to get away from the facility for a week, clear their heads, and hit the reset button on the season.

While the players are away, Chip Kelly and his coaching staff will be spending the week self-scouting, which simply means they will be evaluating what the hell went wrong with the first seven weeks of the season and coming up with a blueprint for salvaging the rest of it.

The good news for the Eagles is that the NFC East is very much wide open. The Giants are the best team by default, but they have question marks across the board that the Eagles exposed two weeks ago. The Cowboys are an injured, toxic wasteland. And if the injuries to Dez Bryant and Tony Romo don’t derail their season, it could be ended by Greg Hardy and Joseph Randle, two head-cases that seem hellbent on out-crazying one another. And the team from Washington is probably the only team in the NFL that is more inconsistent than the Eagles, as their wild, come from behind victory over the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed us last week.

So what can the Eagles do to get back into contention? What is holding the team back? Let’s try to replicate what is going on inside the NovaCare Complex this week and do some self-scouting of our own.

I’ve identified five issues with this team, in no particular order, that I want to discuss. But I am sure there are more than this, so feel free to leave your list in the comments:

  1. Drops
  2. Quarterback play
  3. Lack of consistency
  4. Self-inflicted wounds
  5. Mismanaging player acquisition and utilization

I want to address items 1 and 2, as well items 3 and 4, at the same time because I think they go hand in hand. Let’s break down the drops and quarterback play first. Part two and three will come out over the next week.

1. Drops and Quarterback Play

I wrote an in-depth breakdown of the issues facing Sam Bradford last week (which you can read here), so I am not trying to rehash those issues again. Instead, I want to focus on the utility of measuring drops and challenge how we apportion blame for drops between the receiving corp and Sam Bradford.

It is no secret that the Eagles wide receivers have dropped a ton of passes this year. We have seen it discussed ad nauseum for the entire season, but it peaked after last Sunday’s loss to the Carolina Panthers where the team dropped anywhere from seven to 10 passes depending on which website you rely upon.

The common narrative emanating from the game was that the receivers were to blame for the drops, and the optics — at least at first blush — certainly supported that. In a fitting end, Miles Austin dashed any hopes of an Eagles comeback by dropping a Sam Bradford pass on 4th down late in the 4th quarter.

But after going over the game tape, I saw issues that suggested, as always, it was not as clear cut as we thought. While the receivers deserved their fair share of the blame, Bradford’s placement on certain passes, including the Miles Austin drop, had at least some impact on a handful of the drops, and had significant impact on others.

But before I get to that, let’s take a step back and examine how drops are evaluated on a macro-level by the media and advanced metric websites such as ProFootballFocus.com. Gaining a better understanding of the issues inherent with how we measure drops will help us evaluate the Eagles season to date.

Drops at a macro-level

Organizations like Pro Football Focus, as well as other advanced metrics companies that work directly with NFL teams, have placed considerable emphasis on drops when evaluating a quarterbacks play. PFF.com factors drops into two of its key “Signature Stats”: QB Rating and Accuracy Percentage.

From the website, PFF states accuracy percentage “accounts for dropped passes, throw aways, spiked balls, batted passes, and passes where the quarterback was hit while they threw the ball – factors that hurt the quarterback’s completion percentage but don’t help show how accurate they are. The formula: ((Completions + Drops) / (Attempts – Throw Aways – Spikes – Batted Passes – Hit As Thrown)).

PFF does a similar thing with its quarterback rating, again from its website: “Offering an alternative to the out-dated standard, we take into account dropped passes, throw aways, spikes, and yards in the air and further adjust the old formula so it makes more sense and is a more accurate measure.”

In other words, in an effort to determine how accurate a quarterback truly is, and how well that quarterback is performing overall, PFF tries to remove static from the equation — i.e., bad plays which are outside of the quarterback’s control that impact his rating and completion percentage.

Sounds good in theory, right?

But noticeably absent from these equations are plays that the quarterback benefits from undeservingly. For example, PFF does not subtract from the quarterback’s accuracy percentage catches that were off target but caught because a wide receiver made a spectacular grab. And in the quarterback rating, PFF does not factor in easy interceptions which were dropped by a defender.

So a quarterback gets credit when a receiver drops a pass like this:

But does not get dinged when a defender drops an easy interception like this:

Or when a receiver bails out the quarterback from an inaccurate throw like this:

By focusing on only half of the equation, the results are improperly skewed to the quarterbacks benefit.

Another different, but related, issue I have with drops is that drops is that not all drops are created equal. But they are largely treated the same.

Drops are inherently subjective; which is why you can look at three different websites and get three different numbers for a total on team drops. Most websites, however, use the basic parameter of ruling something a drop if the ball hits a receiver in the hands.

But this approach places too much emphasis on the wide receiver and ignores the impact that a quarterback’s ball placement has on the receiver’s ability to catch the ball. That simply cannot be ignored if we are to fully and properly evaluate what constitutes a drop pass versus a bad throw.

Let’s take this out of the abstract. I think we all can agree that this is a drop by Riley Cooper. The ball is placed perfectly by Bradford, and Cooper fails to make the catch:

Ditto this play by the otherwise sure handed Darren Sproles:

Bradford has shown an affinity for the wheel route, and you cannot place this ball any better than that.

But what about this throw from Bradford to Jordan Matthews against the Cowboys?

Matthews is running a crossing route and has a step on his defender, so Bradford ideally needs to place the ball in front of Matthews so he can catch the ball without breaking his stride. Instead, Bradford is off with his throw, placing it on his backside shoulder, which forces Matthews to stop on his route and contort back towards his defender to make the catch. Is this really a “drop” or simply a poor throw by Bradford?

Or what about this throw to Nelson Agholor against the Jets — does this constitute a “drop”? It hit Agholor’s hands, so at least under some standards, it might be labeled a drop even though it was clearly a poor pass by Bradford.

I have not found any website which takes the negative plays — i.e., dropped interceptions, spectacular catches by the receiver —  into account, or which does a fair job differentiating between a drop and an incompletion based on a poor throw by the quarterback.

Until I see a metric that takes both into account, I assume, for better or worse, that these plays even out in the long run. Absent extraordinary circumstances, it is reasonable to expect that a quarterback will be let down by his receivers roughly the same percentage of times that he will be bailed out by his receivers. Ditto with interceptions. It isn’t perfect. But it seems like a more complete way to evaluate a quarterback’s play.

Drops on a micro-level

Which brings me to the Eagles this year. PFF.com has Bradford as the victim of a league leading 25 drops. And against the Carolina Panthers, the Eagles dropped anywhere from seven to 10 passes during the game.

Some of them were flat out drops. Like this pass to Darren Sproles:

Or this pass to Zach Ertz:

Those are inexcusable drops. In Sproles case, it contributed to a stalled drive inside the Panthers 20-yard line. The Eagles ended up settling for three points instead of a touchdown.

But there were other plays — three, to be exact, where Bradford hurt himself with his ball placement.

Let’s start with the interception Bradford threw when he targeted Jordan Matthews early in the game. When I watched this play initially, I thought Matthews was at fault. While ball placement was not ideal — Bradford threw it to Matthews’ outside shoulder when he was running an inside crossing route — I thought the catch should have been made.

But one thing we have to take into consideration is that this is pass is four-five yards past the line of scrimmage, and Bradford delivers the ball on an absolute rope. That increases the degree of difficulty here because Matthews barely has any time to react to the ball.

Here is another view:

Bradford could have made this easier by either taking something off the pass or placing the ball in front of Matthews (or both). While NFL caliber wide receivers likely should have made that catch, NFL caliber quarterbacks –without question — should be able to deliver this easy pass accurately. Bradford did not, which is why I think he deserves a good share of the blame.

In the third quarter, the Eagles were driving deep into the Panthers’ territory, down 21-13. A touchdown could have brought the Eagles within one or tied the game (had they gone for two).

On third and goal, Bradford had Josh Huff running a post route to the middle of the end zone, but Huff dropped the would be touchdown:

Or did he? Let’s look at this a little further. First, here is the screen shot right before Bradford delivers the throw:

IMG_1825

So far so good. Bradford has Huff one on one with a linebacker (Kuechly) and a clear lane to throw in-between the defenders. The only problem? Bradford doesn’t fully lead Huff; the ball is again thrown to the wrong side of Huff, causing him to have to turn away from where his momentum is carrying him. Here is a close up:

IMG_1828

The ball is hard to see, but what is apparent is that Huff is having to turn 90 degrees in air to try to make the grab. Could he have made the catch? Possibly. But would the catch have been much easier to make if Bradford placed it properly? You bet.

Back to that Miles Austin play I alluded to earlier. It was 4th down on the Eagles last drive of the game, and Austin is running a seven yard out route. He gets open, Bradford gets him the ball, but Austin fails to make the catch.

But again, Bradford’s ball placement here was suspect:

IMG_1831

You can see where the ball is thrown compared to where Austin’s momentum was taking him. It was an easy pitch and catch made more difficult by Bradford’s ball placement. Austin still could have made the catch, but I think Bradford deserves the lion’s share of the blame here.

Without question, the receivers need to improve moving forward. I am not ignoring that nor excusing their poor play. But we should not automatically assume that every (or even most) drops are solely on the wide receiver. The quarterback plays a big part in whether a pass is caught, and up until this point in the season, Bradford has failed to live up to his end of the bargain.

A reason for optimism

Let’s end on a positive note, because I think there is a chance we see the drops improve over the season. For starters, the normal drop rate in the NFL usually is around 7-8%. Currently, the Eagles are at 11.41%. So we should expect at least some regression to the mean over the remainder of the season.

But I also think we should see some improvement from Bradford as he continues to work his way back from his knee injury. Look at this chart of Bradford’s dropped passes throughout his career:

Year

Drops Percentage of Pass Plays Rank
2010 36 6.1% 5th most
2011 31 8.6% 1st*
2012 30 5.4% 18th
2013 12 5.5% 19th
2015 25 11.41% 1st

In Bradford’s first two years in the league, his team struggled with drops, having the fifth most drops in his rookie year, and the most drops in his sophomore campaign. This is understandable: Bradford was new to the league and likely needed time to adjust to the speed of the game, the complexity of the defenses, and the tighter windows through which he had to throw.

But in the following two seasons, Bradford showed marked signs of improvement, ranking slightly better than league average.

The Rams did not bring in any high priced, big name wide receivers over the course of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. And while both seasons were cut short by injury, they were not too short to write off the improvement as too small of a sample size (Bradford played 10 games in 2012, seven games in 2013). So this improvement likely was the result of Bradford becoming more accurate with his passes.

So why the regression this year? Obviously, the wide receivers are not playing well, and that is likely contributing to the high numbers. But I also think Bradford’s knee injury is limiting his play — not only from a confidence and mechanical perspective, but also because it prevented Bradford from getting a full offseason’s work in as he worked through his rehab from March to August.

I am not making excuses for Bradford. He has not played well up to this point in the season and he will need to improve if the Eagles are going to have any chance to competing for the NFC East title. But I would not at all be surprised if we start to see the drops improve over the course of the season, not only because the receivers can’t be this bad (can they?), but also because Bradford’s accuracy should improve as the season progresses.

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8 thoughts on “Self Scouting the Eagles Part 1: On Drops

  1. I have to disagree that Bradford is at fault for the first two throws you highlighted in the Panthers game, and only slightly at fault for the third. The ball is only very slightly behind Matthews, if you look at the vine the ball bounced off his chest. The main reason that pass had some steam on it was Bradford had to quickly get rid of it as a Panthers d-lineman was hitting him as he was releasing it. That’s a pretty accurate pass under the circumstances.

    The Huff pass was thrown were it needs to be. If you look at the positioning of the defenders, that isn’t a pass you want to lead the receiver, because it would give the defender lurking in the upper-left corner of the still shot a chance to make a play on the ball or level the receiver. He threw it high and a little behind so neither Panthers defender could make a play on it or Huff. Bradford’s made two mistakes on the play, if any. Trusting Huff to make a play most receivers could make, and missing Ertz on that same play open in the endzone and a better option on the play. If you had said he missed Ertz, I would agree, but that kind of throw is one most high-level qbs make, trusting the receiver to make a play while keeping the ball out of harms way.

    The final one, to me, is only slightly Bradford’s fault. Sure the ball is a little high, but that isn’t a difficult catch. Austin’s toes were still on the ground as the ball hit his hands, which suggests a leap in the air would have easily allowed him to catch it. He’s all alone, no defender affecting his ability to leap. This ball was a drop. Every throw isn’t going to be perfect, but receivers still need to catch it within reason. That is an extremely catchable ball. The fact that it wasn’t perfect doesn’t make it any less of a drop.

    • couldn’t agree more. I haven’t seen a fanbase be more nitpicky with a QBs ball placement in my life. We’re talking inches in either direction. I watched players make catches that were much more difficult than these routinely for Brady and Brees and both Mannings this weekend and after the receiver made the catch, no one commended the WR for making an amazing catch that bailed out their QB. They simply went along talking about how amazing each of those respective QBs are. If you’re slowing to a stop on a sit down route in between two LBs and the ball hits you in the chest, that’s a drop. If you’re in the endzone and the ball hits you square in the hands even if you had to hop a little bit and turn around in the air, and you don’t catch it…that’s a drop. If you’re running an out pattern and the ball hits you square in the hands without you even jumping off the ground but is technically a few inches higher than ideal, that’s a drop. End of story.

      • Those are all fair points, but I again come back to the same question I ask myself when evaluating whether it is a drop: which was easier to execute: the throw or the catch?

        Yes, in each of these three circumstances, the receiver could, and arguably should, have caught the ball. But they were not, at least in my opinion, easy or routine catches to make. The throws were. A 5 yard slant is one of the easiest throws in football to make, even if a defender is bearing down on you. Ditto a seven yard out. They are routine throws that need to be delivered with accuracy.

        In both instances, the throws were off, which contributed to the drops. Now, we can have a discussion over how much they contributed to the drops, and I think that is a fair conversation to have. I obviously think that Bradford deserves more blame because they were easier throws to make than they were catches to make. You disagree. Fair enough.

        But your responses highlighted why I wrote the article in the first place: the only player we seem to evaluate when it comes to drops is the wide receiver. That is simply too one sided for a play that requires the offensive line to block, the quarterback to deliver an accurate throw, and the receiver to make the catch.

        And not to avoid the third pass in question: the Huff pass. I have heard other people make the same argument: that Bradford had to throw slightly behind Huff to avoid leading him into the defender. This vine does not show the defender’s position all that well, but from the All-22 angle, the defender does not look to be level with Huff. Which can also be seen from the screen shot right when Bradford is releasing the ball. That is the better time frame to evaluate Bradford’s decision. Bradford has a clear lane to throw the ball, and the defender is not only a solid 15-20 yards away, but he is about three yards closer to the goal line. I am not sure that Bradford is considering him too much with his ball placement. Perhaps if he was back closer to the endline I would agree.

  2. Nice to see the occasional post up here again–even if from a new voice. Good article.

    Two notes about the drops: I think the talent deficiency of the WRs is really important. The WRs have to exert so much effort to get minimal separation; they simply don’t have the surplus focus necessary to make the extra effort at the point of the catch. Everything seems so difficult as a result–working really hard just to make basic plays; a play that’s the slightest bit tougher seems impossible. Not to open an old wound, but compare this to DJax, who could half-heartedly run a poor route, then almost immediately get two steps of separation when the ball was in the air and still have an extra gear to accelerate to the ball, while preserving enough energy for sufficient body control to make a tough catch. No one here now can do anything remotely similar to that.

    Second, timing is clearly still an issue, and that’s largely on Bradford. The WRs should’ve made a lot of those catches, but it would be nice if Bradford were as accurate as advertised so that the WRs didn’t have to think as much. For as much as Chip talks about repetitive accuracy, that simply isn’t a strength of Bradford right now. The WRs don’t help, certainly. I don’t think Sam is confident that the WRs can get open, and the WRs aren’t confident that Sam can get them the ball, which completely screws up the timing on both ends and makes every pass play a lot harder than it should be. Sam needs to trust the WRs (even if they don’t really merit it) and let it fly rather than waiting through that half second of uncertainty that screws up the timing.

    • Spot on. The WRs are not talented enough…. yet. I still (perhaps irrationally) have faith that Matthews, Agholor and to an extent, Huff, can turn it around. But they aren’t there yet, and it definitely is part of the problem.

      And the timing is most definitely an issue. Which ties back to a lack of chemistry. Which ties back to the roster turnover (11 new starters) plus Bradford spending March to August rehabbing instead of developing chemistry with his new receivers. I keep hearing that Matthews and Ertz are spending extra time on the JUGS machine, but wonder why they aren’t instead spending extra time with Bradford after practice catching the balls. That is a better real life simulation that cannot be replicated by practicing with a machine.

      As for repetitive accuracy, I agree again. That was one of Bradford’s supposed strengths. But when I went back and evaluated the tape, I noticed that accuracy became less apparent, especially when Bradford was under pressure. For whatever reason, Bradford loses his mechanics under pressure, which leads to bad throws. It’s the biggest flaw in his game that concerns me the most, because it has been an issue his entire career, and I don’t know that he can fix it.

      • Very fair response to my reply above (for some reason I can’t reply to you there, so I will do so here). I played WR in my youth and completely agree with you that the difficulty in making a back shoulder catch while running full speed in the opposite direction is criminally underrated. And, as a former WR, I am inclined to routinely side with WRs when it comes to ball placement issues. That being said, I still must respectively disagree with you on your specific examples of such.

        Let’s start with the Huff endzone drop as I think that’s a good example of what I’m talking about:
        Look again at your still frame of the endzone angle (what Bradford is seeing) at the moment Bradford releases the ball. Huff is running in from the right against man coverage and there’s a LB dropping into coverage with his shoulders facing Huff on the left. The area that you indicate as the desired placement of the ball is circled in red and centered on the “T” in Panthers written in the Endzone, equidistant between Huff and the dropping defender. Now play the vine of that play again, but this time hit pause at the moment the ball hits Huff’s hands. You’ll notice that he jumps from the left side of the “T”, the ball hits his hands in between the “T” and “N” and continues to be bobbled until he lands squarely on the “N” to the right. In fact, his left foot is squarely planted in the middle of the “N” as he’s bobbling the ball.

        This is the precise location that you indicated was the optimal placement of the ball. In your still of the catch point, however, you place a red circle to the right of Huff’s head, while the ball is clearly to the left of his helmet and has not yet made it to Huff. The circle is over the guys crotch standing behind the endzone and nowhere near the ball. This makes it appear to be a much harder catch than it was. In fact, if you watch the footage or even just go off of your still, while Huff has to stop and jump a bit, the ball still hits him in the hands and is IN FRONT of his body in relation to the direction he’s moving. This is not the super difficult and underrated back shoulder pass that you’re alluding to. This should be a routine catch for a professional WR.

        One further note on placement: The dropping LB is just a yard or two deep in the endzone while Huff is a good 4-5 yards deep at Bradford’s release point. This makes it unlikely that the defender is in position to blow Huff up with a hit if Bradford leads him too far to the left. That’s true. But, note his body position. He’s dropping with his shoulders facing huff and is starting to break in that direction. While he’s of little threat to hit Huff, I content that he’s still a threat to pick off a pass further to the left or at best get a hand on it. Remember how athletic these guys are. They can jump. Remember Kiko teaching Matt Ryan that lesson in week one. If he leads Huff a bit more and the defender can take a more vertical route to the ball, he’s in great position to make a pick.

        I contend that that ball was placed perfectly. Slightly high to alleviate the risk of INT from underneath defenders, but not too high as it still hits Huff essentially in the helmet after he hops only a few inches off the ground. And, it’s thrown just enough inside to give the prowling defender dropping into coverage no chance at making a play on it, while still ending up ahead of the trailing defender on Huff and actually even ahead of Huff himself so that he doesn’t have to fully turn around to catch it. Further, the ball hits Huff in the hands while his body is square to the QB, not behind him where he has to turn completely around, making it a much easier catch than you are contending.

        The INT drop to Matthews on the crosser: Again…running full speed and trying to catch a back shoulder pass is very hard, but when you’re nearly at a stop square to the QB, a back shoulder throw is not hard. Matthews is sitting down over the middle against a zone coverage. He’s barely jogging, not running full speed and he’s slowing down as he’s setting up between two LBs in zone coverage. The ball should ideally hit him square in the chest. Instead, it hits his left shoulder just over the “1” on his “81” jersey. Here we are talking about 4 inches off from ideal placement. This is not a difficult catch, even if it’s placement is less ideal than if Bradford had walked the ball over to him and placed it in the center of his chest. The catch is made more difficult because Matthews makes a cardinal sin in his technique for catching this pass. His arms should be extended in front of him with the thumbs and forefingers touching. This is the correct way to catch a pass that’s coming straight at you and into the center of your chest. It places your strongest fingers at the catch point and allows you to snatch/grip the ball with your hands as it comes into your body. Instead, he turns his hands over, puts his pinkies together and tries to basket catch a ball that his coming in fast into his chest. Bad technique. Pinkies together only works when you’re running and the ball is out in front of you. By trying to basket catch this he only gets his pinkies and palms on the ball. It bounces off them, hits his chest and bounces into the air. Any receiver will tell you that this is solely on Matthews.

        The Austin drop on 4th down: Again this is disingenuous use of red circles. You circle the ball while it’s in the air and seemingly to Austin’s left. However, the ball is still a full yard away from Austin and is traveling towards the sidelines. There’s a red line showing the space Austin has towards the sideline. And, you state that the ball should be thrown into this space. The only problem is that, that’s exactly where the ball is thrown. If anything Bradford led Austin just a fraction of an inch too far. The ball was plenty out in front of him and not behind him at all. If Bradford had thrown it any further out in front Austin would have not been able to get to it. The only problem was that this ball was about 1 inch higher than it should have been. If the ball is just a bit lower, Austin gets more than his finger tips on it and makes that catch. However, I’ll note that in your recent “Improvements in the Passing Game” article you highlight two such out patterns that were similarly thrown an inch or two high, but where the WR made a leaping grab as examples of Bradford’s improved accuracy. However, the throws were nearly identical. The only difference is in the outcome.

        And, that’s the crux of my issues with these complaints on placement. Ask yourself this, if Huff, Matthews and Austin and all made those catches without any seemingly heroic feats to do so, would you have been pounding the table insisting that we should call out Bradford’s placement? Or, would you have just glanced passed them as nothing extraordinary and even perhaps lauded Bradford’s accuracy and decision making in making those plays? If so, then I think you should consider that perhaps we’re nitpicking his placement on these plays a bit more than we should.

  3. Pingback: Self-Scouting the Eagles: On Play Calling and Player Utilization | Eagles Rewind

  4. When I watched the Giants vs Saints shootout, I saw plenty of less than perfect throws like the ones you focus on above. Pretty much all of them were caught.

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