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Coller: Traditional stats won’t explain why Bridgewater is hard to replace

Minnesota Vikings quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater (5) and Shaun Hill (13) run onto the field during pre game of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

When Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a catastrophic knee injury at practice, there were two reactions within the fan base. One camp declared the season over, while the other suggested Bridgewater’s production should be replaceable.

The argument for the latter is that Bridgewater’s 2015 season was worthy of the “game manager” tag, which backup Shaun Hill has written in bold letters on his calling card.

Could Hill throw 14 touchdowns? Could he have an 88.7 quarterback rating? He certainly could. Hill’s per-16 game average is 23 touchdowns and his QB rating is 85.2 for his career.

But one thing to keep in mind with Bridgewater: Traditional stats such as win-loss record, completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, interceptions and quarterback rating are not always the best tools to evaluate a quarterback’s impact on his team’s success. And with Bridgewater, the boxcar stat line can be particularly misleading.

In 2015, Bridgewater had an 11-5 record with a 65.3% completion percentage, 3,231 yards, 14 touchdowns, nine interceptions and 88.7 rating.

That stat line has some sunny sides and cloudy sides to it. An 11-5 record and division title is excellent. Bridgewater’s 65.3% completion percentage ranked ninth – also a very good sign. The rest of his numbers are underwhelming. A shade over 3,000 yards would have been good in 1995, but in 2015 it ranks 22nd. A mere 14 touchdowns ranked 26th. And the third-year QB ranked 22nd in rating and fell short of the league average these days for touchdown-to-interception ratio last season, which is about 2:1.

Which story is closer to the truth about Minnesota’s young quarterback? Should we define Bridgewater as a leader who wins games and is highly accurate or as a guy who doesn’t move the ball down the field effectively or get his team in the endzone?

With some quarterbacks, say, Aaron Rodgers, you can draw conclusions from the back-of-the-baseball-card numbers. Rodgers has the highest quarterback rating of all time. You don’t have to look any further than that to know that Rodgers is a freak show Hall of Famer.

But most quarterbacks’ traditional stats are affected heavily by scheme, weapons, strength of schedule, etc. Only your Rodgers, Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees are good enough to overcome nearly any outside factor and still post All-Pro numbers.

Rodgers lost Jordy Nelson, his runaway best receiver, in preseason to an ACL injury and still tossed 31 touchdowns and only eight picks and won a playoff game. Newton saw Kelvin Benjamin go down for the year and still won MVP and went to the Super Bowl.

The rest of the quarterbacks in the NFL – the non-Hall of Famers – have to be analyzed much more closely than the Rodgers, Newton, Brady group, whose case for mega-stardom can be easily made with win-loss records, touchdowns and QB rating.

One of Bridgewater’s biggest opponents to putting up a stupendous quarterback rating is his own rushing game. Only one team threw fewer touchdowns last season than the Vikings, but Minnesota ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing TDs. Peterson had 11 and Bridgewater had three of his own.

The goal of any team or quarterback is not to throw a touchdown, it’s to have the offense score a touchdown, right? But QB Rating so heavily weights touchdown passes, that it can paint an inaccurate picture of how effectively the quarterback is operating his offense. The Vikings might point to being ranked seventh in the NFL in scoring percentage (which is number of times they scored on a drive divided by their total number of drives) as a reason to be pleased with their QB play.

PrimeComputing.com has a QB Rating calculator that demonstrates the impact of TD passes on rating. Keeping Bridgewater’s completion percentage the same and interceptions the same, this is how his rating would look with ‘X’ number of added touchdown passes:

15 TDs: 89.4
20 TDs: 93.1
25 TDs: 96.9

Basically, if all of Peterson’s touchdowns had been TD passes instead, Bridgewater would have cracked the top 10.

He would have been Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions, who tossed 32 touchdowns, 21 of which came from inside the 10-yard line. Bridgewater only attempted a total of 20 passes from inside the 10, six of which were TDs. Meanwhile, Peterson was handed the ball the second most times inside the 10 in the NFL last year and scored seven of his 11 touchdowns that way.

Inside 20 Inside 10
Player Tm Cmp Att TD Cmp Att TD
Blake Bortles JAX 49 97 25 24 45 19
Aaron Rodgers GNB 45 97 20 19 41 15
Eli Manning NYG 45 90 20 21 41 14
Tom Brady NWE 53 87 27 21 39 15
Carson Palmer ARI 43 84 25 17 40 13
Kirk Cousins WAS 50 79 22 25 39 16
Matt Ryan ATL 42 75 17 19 32 12
Jay Cutler CHI 33 75 11 14 37 9
Jameis Winston TAM 30 75 15 14 36 10
Cam Newton CAR 43 75 24 17 31 12
Ryan Tannehill MIA 33 73 15 13 37 8
Ryan Fitzpatrick NYJ 38 73 23 17 33 13
Matthew Stafford DET 48 73 26 27 36 21
Drew Brees NOR 44 73 19 12 25 10
Philip Rivers SDG 43 72 22 12 21 11
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 36 65 15 17 31 12
Alex Smith KAN 34 61 14 8 14 5
Russell Wilson SEA 29 59 16 9 25 9
Andy Dalton CIN 30 56 19 9 20 8
Joe Flacco BAL 30 55 10 13 23 6
Sam Bradford PHI 25 54 10 10 19 7
Derek Carr OAK 23 53 17 9 15 8
Teddy Bridgewater MIN 20 49 9 7 20 6

Source: Pro Football Reference

It is clear that the Vikings’ team strategy in the red zone had a significant effect on their quarterback’s QB rating. Should we punish Bridgewater in our evaluation because his coaching staff prefers to give Peterson the ball inside the 10? I say, of course not.

There is also a good argument to be made that Bridgewater should have been throwing the ball more often inside the 10. Peterson scored on just seven of his 24 rushes and the Vikings ranked 27th in touchdown percentage in the red zone.

Bridgewater’s top-notch completion percentage stat can be just as misleading as his touchdown total.

Whether you throw the ball 50 yards through the air or three yards, it still counts as 1-for-1. According to SportingCharts.com only 43.8% of Bridgewater’s total yards were through the air – like, actually in the air. The Air Yards stat calculates how many of the total yards thrown by a QB were made up of Yards After Catch. For the Vikings’ signal caller, nearly 60% of his 3,231 yards were by the receiver, tight end or running back running after the reception. Only Stafford and Alex Smith had lower percentages.

Lowest % Air Yards
Player Team % Air Yards
Alex Smith KCM 43.5%
Matt Stafford DET 43.6%
Teddy Bridgewater MIN 43.8%
Philip Rivers SD 44.1%
Sam Bradford PHI 45.0%
 —
Highest % Air Yards
Player Team % Air Yards
Brian Hoyer HOU 65.1%
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 62.7%
Jameis Winston TB 62.5%
Tyrod Taylor BUF 62.5%
Carson Palmer ARZ 62.0%

Source: SportingCharts.com

What does that say about completion percentage and Bridgewater? The natural assumption that goes along with Air Yards is that quarterbacks who are throwing deep will have fewer. Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor, known for his deep ball, had 62.5% of his yards come through the air. Longer passes will have lower completion percentages, shorter one will connect at a higher rate. So Bridgewater’s top-10 completion percentage may be a product of the Vikings’ decision to throw more shorter passes than most teams.

There could be several explanations for the Vikings choosing more short passes: Lack of receiving options, poor offensive line play or non-belief in Bridgewater’s deep-ball ability.

According to ESPN splits, he only launched 42 passes more than 20 yards through the air and completed just 11. His completion percentage is weighted heavily by going 82-for-98 on passes behind the line of scrimmage.

This is where some might say: Bridgewater can be replaced by Hill!

Not so fast…

A closer look at Bridgewater’s completion percentage suggests that he will be very hard to replace.

Pro Football Focus ranked Bridgewater as the NFL’s most accurate passer in 2015. PFF wrote:

“While this number is inflated by the large amount of short throws required by the Minnesota offense, it is no small feat to be the most accurate in the league. In fact, Teddy scored his best passing grades on throws between 10–19 yards.”

Throws like these.

Many have questioned PFF’s conclusions – including Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer – so, to paraphrase Lavar Burton, don’t just take their word for it. Pre-Snap Reads creator Cian Fahey tracked every pass thrown by every starting quarterback in the NFL last season and found Bridgewater to have been the fifth-most accurate.

In his book 2016 Quarterback Catalog he wrote:

“Bridgewater is a quarterback who excels at throwing to short and intermediate routes. He is so consistent with his accuracy to these types of routes that he ranked in the top five of Accuracy Percentage despite not being able to throw the ball accurately down field.”

Fahey’s Bridgewater analysis largely surrounds the circumstances in which he was forced to perform. He calls Bridgewater’s receiving corps in 2015 “woeful” and points to pass-rush-induced checkdowns as a major reason for the high number of short passes.

“It’s tougher for a quarterback to elevate his receivers on vertical routes because a greater emphasis is put on them to create separation rather than have the quarterback create it for them with timing and precision. No matter what offense the Vikings ran in 2015, they were going to have problems because of the quality of their offensive line,” Fahey said.

Both of those things were expected to improve this season, especially his weapons with a healthy Charles Johnson and the addition of Laquon Treadwell. There was a good chance the Vikings would make the mid-range passing game the centerpiece of their offense.

So how can we quantify what the effect of Bridgwater’s absence will be vs. Hill (or whoever they may sign)?

Ignore the touchdowns and keep an eye on how efficiently the Vikings move the ball on offense. Hill’s career Yards Per Attempt is 6.8 whereas Bridgewater’s was 7.2 and had the possibility of climbing as he matured.

Another way is to look at ESPN’s Expected Points Added statistic, which factors game situations and how much plays involving the quarterback brought his team closer or farther away from winning. This stat filters out quarterbacks who put up 300 yards and three touchdowns after their team is down 35-0. Last year Bridgewater finished 18th in the NFL. Will Hill make plays at key times and boost his team’s win probability?

The reality is that there isn’t one stat that will tell us whether the Vikings will see a massive drop off. The collection of stats tells us that that Bridgewater was trending toward a big season and that Hill will have a difficult time matching his pinpoint accuracy.

But it is clear that the simple boxscore stat line doesn’t tell us that everything will be fine without Minnesota’s franchise quarterback.





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