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:
- Quarterback play
- Lack of consistency
- Self-inflicted wounds
- 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:
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:
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:
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:
|Drops||Percentage of Pass Plays||Rank|
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.