Sam Bradford’s Improvement

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

I have broken down Sam Bradford’s performance twice this season: once after the Eagles win over the New York Jets, and about a month later after the Eagles beat the New York Giants.

After the Eagles win over the Jets, I concluded that Bradford was playing poorly across the board: making bad reads, not letting plays develop, and delivering the ball inaccurately.   After the Giants win, it was clear that Bradford was still struggling in these areas, and also struggled throwing under pressure and maintaining his mechanics. A lot of these issues persisted in St. Louis, which raised doubts about whether it was reasonable to expect Bradford to overcome them. But, with hesitation, I concluded that Bradford deserved more time to develop confidence in his knee and a comfort in the Eagles system.

So now seems like a good time to check back in on Bradford’s development. But before we do, let’s play a guessing game.

Pick which quarterback you want on your team:

Quarterback B is obviously Sam Bradford’s numbers this year.

Quarterback A? Carson Palmer in 2013, his first season in the Arizona Cardinals’ system.

It is by no means a perfect comparison, as Brian Solomon and Dave Mangels pointed out in our lengthy discussion on Twitter, but it is — to a certain extent — illustrative of the effect learning a new system can have on a quarterback.

Chip Kelly echoed this point a few weeks back, quote courtesy of BleedingGreenNation.com: “I think Sam, as a whole, has progressed as the season has gone along. I know it takes a long while to play quarterback in this league. There’s so many different things you have to get. And when we got Sam, we knew with any quarterback it’s going to take time. Name any quarterback playing at a really high level now and they’ve been playing in the same system for years, not for months. And that’s Sam’s case is. He’s just been playing in our system for months.”

Breaking down the tape over the last three games — with wins over the Patriots and Bills, and a loss to the Cardinals — lends support to Kelly’s point. Without question, last Sunday’s performance against the Arizona Cardinals was his best of the season, which came on the heels of two good — but by no means great — performances against the Bills and Patriots. And while there are still valid questions about why Bradford’s improvement is not translating to more points from the offense (which I plan to address later this week), it is clear that he has improved in the areas I consider most critical for being a successful NFL quarterback: accuracy, throwing under pressure, working through his progressions, manipulating defenses, and operating effectively within the pocket.

Let’s break it down further.

Accuracy

Delivering the football accurately from the pocket is arguably the most important skill a quarterback can posses. When the Eagles acquired Bradford in the offseason, reports emerged that the Eagles coaching staff believed Bradford’s accuracy compared to Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner, while his teammates compared his quick release and accuracy to Aaron Rodgers (chuckle).

But once the games went live, Bradford’s accuracy went out the window. One of the primary issues was Bradford’s faulty mechanics, which led to a lot of passes missing their intended mark:

Of course, Bradford was off by a mile with this throw. The accuracy required to be successful at the NFL level is much more precise than even that.

Consider this throw to Miles Austin (RIP) against the New York Jets:

Bradford needs to lead Austin, but instead throws it a good six inches behind him, which allowed the defender to make the play.

But now, we are starting to see that accuracy in practice and at training camp translate onto the field. Perhaps his best throw of the year came against the Arizona Cardinals, when he delivered the perfect back shoulder throw to Brent Celek:

Here is a better angle:

Against the Buffalo Bills, I thought Bradford’s best pass of the day actually resulted in an interception. No, you read that right, that was not a typo. Bradford’s pass to Brent Celek deep in the red zone was a perfectly thrown pass with enough touch and accuracy to split the linebacker and safety bracketing Celek:

The only problem, of course, is that Celek got outmuscled for the football by a spectacular play from Leodis McKelvin. Of course, we cannot fault Bradford for this — or at least we shouldn’t. It was a great pass and another example of his improved accuracy with the football.

Under pressure

For the majority of Bradford’s career, including the first half of this season, Bradford has struggled to throw under pressure. It was the one achilles heel that I was not sure Bradford could ever get over. Here is a chart showing his numbers throwing under pressure, with the ranks in parentheses:

Year Cmp% TD INT
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)

It’s why we saw bad throws like this against the Atlanta Falcons:

Bradford’s mechanics are all over the place here: his feet are too far apart, and he shorts his release to get rid of the ball before he is hit. The only problem? He didn’t see the underneath defender, who jumps in front of the softball Bradford just lobbed for an easy interception deep in the Eagles territory.

When I originally wrote this article back in October, Bradford’s numbers were staying true to career form: his 44.6 completion percentage ranked 26th of 31 qualifying quarterbacks, and his 4 touchdowns and interceptions ranked 2nd and 3rd worst overall.

But now? Somewhat amazingly, Bradford ranks 1st overall throwing under pressure according to PFF.com. His 73.9 accuracy percentage (completions + drops counted as catches) ranks first in the NFL. His 56.3 completion percentage ranks 6th. That is a drastic improvement in such a short period of time.

One of his best throws under pressure came on 3rd and 11 with 2:49 left in the game against the Patriots. The Eagles were clinging to a touchdown advantage, but momentum had clearly swung in the Patriots favor..

The safe call here is to run the ball. It likely would have given the Patriots the ball around the 2:00 warning deep in their own territory. But Kelly trusted his quarterback (or didn’t trust his defense to stop Brady…. or both), and the move paid off:

Jason Peters deserves credit for the late block which made the play possible. But watch how Bradford navigates the pocket despite the pressure coming from three different spots to deliver a strike to Cooper for the critical first down. We just weren’t seeing that consistently earlier this year or when Bradford was at St. Louis.

Against the Cardinals, Bradford shined throwing under pressure, completing 9/11 passes, 81.8%, for 1 touchdown and 1 interception. He repeatedly connected with his receivers when the defenders were bearing down on him, especially on third down.

Consider this throw to Josh Huff for a first down with Bradford backed up deep into his own end zone

The Cardinals ran a stunt with their defensive line, springing Marcus Golden free. Kelce was too late and Sproles was unable to get a clean block, giving Golden a free shot on Bradford. But Bradford stepped into his delivery and made an impressive throw to Huff for the first down, 25 yards down the field.

On another third and long, the Cardinals again used a stunt up front to bring pressure on Bradford, but he was able to hit Jordan Matthews for the first down:

Bradford’s injury history is an obvious impediment to a long term deal, or at least it should be. But Bradford’s toughness should not be  in doubt. Despite taking a beating over the last three weeks, he has stood tall in the pocket and delivered accurate throws to his receivers.

Avoiding Checking Down Too Early

Earlier in the year, we discussed how Bradford was checking down far too often, which left the opportunities for big plays on the field. This was a consistent problem throughout Bradford’s career, as the significant majority of Bradford’s passes were less than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, as you can see from this chart below:

Year Percentage
2015 65%
2013 74%
2012 69.5%
2011 65%
2010 74%

Prior to this year, 70.62% of Bradford’s passes traveled 10 yards or less on his career. While 65% this year isn’t a significant drop, it is an encouraging one, especially when coupled with what we are seeing on the tape.

But let’s take a step back for a minute and look at what we saw from Bradford earlier in the year. Take this simple triangle concept that is a staple of Chip Kelly’s offense. Riley Cooper is running an underneath drag route, Ryan Mathews is running an out route out of the backfield, and Brent Celek is running a corner route.

ertz-missed 1

The route concept is called a triangle route because it gives the quarterback three defined reads to make on the play, all of which form the shape of a triangle.

Watch how quickly Bradford — without being under pressure —  checks down to Mathews here.

Bradford’s inaccurate throw was made worse by Brent Celek breaking wide open on the corner route. Had he held onto the ball for just a hair second longer, he could have connected with Celek for a huge gain:

Ertz 3

During his time in St. Louis, Bradford averaged a paltry 6.3 ypa. That number has risen this year to 6.91 ypa; an improvement no doubt, but it still ranks 26th of 35 qualifying quarterbacks, according to ESPN.com.

However, over the last three weeks we are seeing Bradford give his receivers more time to get open to make a play downfield. Not all of them have connected, which explains why Bradford’s ypa remains in the pedestrian range of 7.1 over the last three weeks, per PFF.com.

The most obvious example was the deep touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor against the Buffalo Bills:

Watch how Bradford maneuvers in the pocket while keeping his eyes down field. Here is a closer view:

You might have noticed in that clip that most of the underneath routes were open on this play:

IMG_2563

Despite being under pressure and having to navigate the pocket, Bradford did not check down or give up on the play too early, something he likely would have done in the same circumstance earlier this year.

Chip Kelly’s scheme is most effective when he is stretching defenses horizontally and vertically. It prevents defenses from dropping a safety in the box to shutdown the anemic run game and gives the underneath crossing routes more room to breath. Bradford can go a long way towards helping to unclog that congestion by taking even more shots down field.

Manipulating defense

Final good area before touching on a few topics that need to improve. Some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL — Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, to name a few — manipulate defenses with their eyes to create openings in the passing game.

We are starting to see Bradford do the same thing. One of the first times I saw it all year was against the Carolina Panthers, which was around the time that Bradford’s play started to improve overall. Watch as he manipulates All Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly with his eyes to open up the passing lane to Jordan Matthews:

We saw another example with Sam Bradford’s touchdown throw to Zach Ertz against the Cardinals. The Eagles send Cooper, Ertz and Celek on vertical routes, attacking the defenses down the seams. This play puts Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu in a bind: he has to choose whether to provide help on Celek or Ertz.

Bradford focuses on Celek which forces Mathieu to provide help over the top, but Bradford quickly pivots and delivers a strike to Ertz for the touchdown

Here is a close up so you can see how Bradford uses his eyes:

These are one of the traits that separate the mediocre quarterbacks from the very good and great ones. While I am obviously not comfortable putting Bradford in the very good category yet, it is an encouraging sign to see him making these types of plays on a more consistent basis.

Chemistry Still a Concern

It’s not all roses and fairy tales, however. While no quarterback is perfect, Bradford is still struggling checking the ball down too frequently, has made some really poor throws, and he still has a penchant for sailing a pass or two:

But the area that I expected to see more improvement from is the chemistry with his receivers. It’s a weekly occurrence for Bradford to throw to one spot while his receiver is running in another direction.

The biggest culprit is with Darren Sproles, as we saw twice during the loss to the Cardinals:

Sproles sat on the route while Bradford thought he was going to continue running across the formation.

Bradford and Sproles again weren’t on the same page when the Eagles were trying to mount a comeback in the 4th quarter. The miscue provided the final nail in the Eagles coffin:

These types of miscues were understandable — and even expected — earlier in the season. But they are becoming much harder to defend 15 weeks in. While Bradford will undoubtedly benefit from a full offseason to learn this offense — especially if it does not involve rehab — you would expect some of these chemistry issues to be ironed out midseason.

Conclusion

In a league starved for quarterbacks, we should be encouraged by Bradford’s improvement over the last half of the season. That is especially true for the last three weeks, where we have seen Bradford make significant strides in areas that he has struggled consistently with his entire career: delivering accurate throws under pressure, and giving his receivers a chance to make a play down the field. And while I am not on board with locking Bradford up long term — not yet, at least — these last two games could go a long way towards answering that question.

 

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Sam Bradford’s Improvement

  1. Great article…I think Bradford has improved a lot starting with the Carolina game, especially considering he doesn’t not have any receivers making plays for him. There is routine separation, no one to challenge defenders deep and no one making tough catches (like at all). I am consistently amazed at how every team has at least one to three toe dragging great catches a week and we almost never have any.

    FYI: I believe that is Mathews in the last clip you had there, not Sproles.

    Follow up from the earlier article on Murray. Do you guys believe or is their any statistical evidence that running backs can regain some form after a 375+ carry season two seasons removed from that season? Basically, is there any evidence that Murray could look faster and more explosive next year given his limited carries this year? Especially because we don’t think it’s a scheme problem.

    Thanks guys, love the site.

    • With regards to the 370+ carry thing…the problem with that trend or stat or whatever you want to call it, is that it’s a very small sample size to begin with. Couple that with the fact that the majority of backs that achieve that type of stat count do so towards the very ends of their careers when you would expect them to start declining anyways, and when they certainly don’t have time to “bounce back”, and there’s even less players to draw a conclusion from. Finally, a good amount of the running backs that hit 370+ and then declined, did so due to devastating, career-ending injuries the following year (ie Terrell Davis). So, they never got a chance to have a bounce back year either and your pool of potential players to draw a conclusion from to answer your question gets shrunk even further. In addition, you’re dealing with reversion to the mean in most cases. Most backs that get 370+ carries in a single season do so when they are having a particularly great, often times outlier, season in their primes. It’s only natural for them to revert back to the mean anyways regardless of the number of carries they got the year before.

      Ultimately, though, if you look at all the backs that carried more than 370 times in a season, you see one of three things happen the following year. They either keep chugging right along with no noticeable decline until it’s time to retire (Erik Dickerson, Walter Payton, John Riggins, Curtis Martin, Emmitt Smith, Ladanian Tomlinson), they get injured the following year (Terrell Davis actually had 2 straight excellent seasons with over 370 carries then tore his ACL, Jamal Anderson, Edgerrin James, Larry Johnson, Michael Turner, Barry Foster), or they fall off drastically (Marcus Allen, Earl Campbell, Eddie George, Ricky Williams, Shaun Alexander, Jerome Bettis, Christian Okoye, or your Jamal Lewis and you get busted trying to distribute cocaine the year after you get over 370 carries and then you come back to have a successful but not as good career).

      Of the people that had season ending injuries:
      – Terrell Davis: had 3 consecutive years with 345, 369 and 392 carries with yards per attempts of 4.5, 4.7 and 5.1 respectively. 4 games into the following season he had what was essentially a career ending ACL tear. He was 27 years old when he got hurt and going into his year 28 season he was probably headed for decline anyways. Obviously he never regained his form from his prime.

      – Jamal Anderson: had 410 carries in his year 26 season, 2 games into the following year he blew out his ACL. He returned for his year 28 season and rushed for over a 1000 yards but only 3.6 ypc. At 28-29 most running backs decline anyways.

      – Edgerin James: had 369 and 387 carries in his first two years, tore his ACL in year three, had a down year with 3.6 ypc in year four and then rattled off 5 straight seasons with well over 1000 yards

      – Larry Johnson: had 416 carries in his year 27 season, the following year he had a season ending foot injury, ran for 4.5 ypc in his year 29 season and then a series of legal and disciplinary incidents got him suspended and ended his career.

      – Michael Turner: had 376 carries in his year 26 season, got injured in game 11 of the following year in which he was averaging 4.9 ypc and already had 10 rushing TDs. Ran for over 1300 yards in each of his year 28 and 29 seasons while averaging 4.3 ypc, then declined at age 30 as RB tend to do.

      – Barry Foster: had 390 carries in his year 24 season. Was averaging 4 yards per carry and had 8 rushing TDs in 8 games the following season before getting injured in game 9. He was never the same after that.

      Of the players that had drastic fall offs:
      – Marcus Allen: Surprisingly only had one really great year his entire career when he rushed for 1759 yards, 4.6 ypc and had 380 carries as a 25 year old. Prior to that he had 1014 yards with 3.8 ypc his first year as a starter at age 23, and 1168 yards at 4.2 ypc at age 24. He played for 12 more years after that one massive season, but never topped 890 yards in a season again.

      – Earl Campbell: entered the league at 23 years old, had 302, 368, 373, and 361 carries respectively in his first 4 years. His 5th season was cut short due to injury, but he came back in year 6 at the age of 28 and carried 322 times for 1301 yards, 12 TDs and averaged 4 ypc. By the time he was 29 he was done…like many RBs.

      – Eddie George: came into the league at age 23, had 335, 357, 348, 320 and 403 carries respectively in his first 5 years in the league. He averaged only 3.9 ypc in those first 5 years. From ages 28-30 he rushed for 939 yards on 315 carries (3.0 ypc), 1165 yards on 343 carries (3.4 ypc), and 1031 yards on 312 carries (3.3 ypc). So clear decline around age 28, as to be expected in most RBs.

      – Ricky Williams: had 3 straight years with 313, 383, and 392 carries from age 24-26, then took a year off to go smoke pot in Tibet. Then he came back at age 28 and averaged over 4 ypc for the rest of his career, playing until he was 34 years old.

      – Shaun Alexander: from age 24-28 he had 309, 295, 326, 353, 370 carries. Then at the age of 29 he fell off a cliff as most RBs do.

      – Jerome Bettis: had his best year at the age of 25 where he carried 375 times for 1665 yards at 4.4 ypc. He followed that up with 4 straight 1000 yard seasons and averaged 4.0 ypc, and then played another 4 years as a short yardage back retiring at the age of 33. But, he certainly fell off his peak performances from age 24 and 25 despite his long career.

      – Christian Okoye: had one good year at the age of 28 when he rushed for 1480 yards on 370 carries, he had done little before that, and didn’t do much after that, although he had 1031 yards and a 4.6 ypc average in his year 30 season.

      So take from all that what you will. But, from the 20 players I can find with over 370 carries, 6 had no noticeable drop off, 6 had unfortunate career ending injuries which is just a part of playing RB in the NFL sadly, and 7 had substantial drop offs, and 1 was Jamal Lewis who is just uncategorizable.

      Of the 7 with substantial drop offs, 4 had multiple years of extremely high use leading up to a predictable decline at around 28-29 years of age (was it the 370 carries that one year or just the fact that most RBs decline substantially at that age?), 2 were one hit wonders anyways and 3 of those players actually had very long productive careers after those years.

      If you’re looking for backs that had a down year (without injury) and then seemed to rebound, there’s Jamal Lewis and Ricky Williams who seemed to need a year off before regaining somewhat of their form, there’s Bettis who had a down year before having a few more good years, and most notably Michael Turner who had a terrible year and then went right back to being great for a couple more years.

      Overall, I think the curse of 370 is a myth. There’s no special cut off. All usage hurts the body of a RB. The more they get used the faster they decline. One massive year like Murrays shouldn’t destroy him irreparably. The truth with him is that he probably wasn’t ever nearly as good as his stats looked last year to begin with and next year he will be entering the dreaded year 28 season for RBs where they decline regardless.

  2. Pingback: Bleeding Green Nation :: Eagles News: Sam Bradford is showing improvement in Philadelphia's offense - Rainy Monster

  3. Pingback: On Doug Pederson, The Front Office and The Quarterback, Part 3 | Eagles Rewind

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s