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Chill Out on Teddy Bridgewater

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Teddy Bridgewater isn't playing poorly, or even simply average. He's playing well and showing exactly the kind of development you hope for in a franchise quarterback, even without gaudy statistics.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Every week, we're treated to pieces written locally or national about how Teddy Bridgewater's development has been disappointing, and it seems like there are fans coming out of the woodwork that regret the Vikings' pick of Bridgewater in the 2014 draft.

This probably does not include the vast majority of fans, though certainly disappointment has set in for Vikings fans with regards to Bridgewater's development. What's going on? Is something wrong? Was Big Draft right about Teddy while bloggers and tweeters were wrong (that possibility is too ridiculous to consider, if we're being honest).

* Almost all of this piece was written before the game in Oakland against the Raiders, though I did watch All-22 of the Raiders game to see what was up with the unusual amount of time Teddy was spending in the pocket. While a number of us, including Eric Thompson were surprised to see the All-22 much kinder to Bridgewater in that game, no quarterback has had their Week 10 performance evaluated in this look.

I wanted to do a comprehensive, but simple analysis that combined statistics and film, so I chose to grade Bridgewater and a number of cohort quarterbacks to emphasize the importance of film watching while keeping a solid notebook of plays.

Methodology

For the purpose of this analysis, I decided to take a look at a specific situation universal among quarterbacks and, generally speaking, system-free. That is to say, I tried to isolate instances where quarterbacks were in similar situations and the system generally did not constrain them: third and long.

  • There is a defined goal and endpoint for third and long situations. The difference between keeping the offense on schedule and focusing on explosive plays is nearly nothing in this case. Game managers and gunslingers converge; Alex Smith should be trying to do the same thing as Cam Newton is: create a new set of downs.
  • The defense knows what's coming. It's almost always a pass, and almost always near or at the sticks. The defense is usually in nickel (sometimes dime) and the pass-rushers have their ears pinned back. The offense is not likely to kill the play and go for a run, though we can suppose that some quarterbacks and systems will deign for a screen (nothing's perfect when trying to find system-independent analysis).
  • The defense is trying harder to screw the quarterback up. Related to the second point above, defenses are much more likely to use their exotic packages in coverage and rushing in order to screw the quarterback up. Third and long engenders riskier throws—and defenses like to magnify the risks of those with pressure and confusing coverages. The defense also knows they won't get burned on a run (usually) in those situations so they can be a little bit more blasé about run discipline.
  • The quarterback has options. Usually, anyway. On third and long, offenses rarely put fewer than three eligible receivers into patterns and often will have four or five. We saw that wasn't the case with some offenses (Seattle comes to mind) but it does make for easier analysis, so long as you take into account the actual number of options available to a quarterback.

So I chose this because it is tough on the quarterback and easy on the evaluator. There is also decent evidence that college-level third down conversion ability translates to NFL playing ability.

I decided to look solely at passing plays on third down with six or more yards to go and 12 or fewer yards to go. 12 was my cutoff because, anecdotally to me anyway, offensive coordinators beyond that were much more likely to settle for a field position game and generate a better punt or easier field goal rather than put their offense into a position to convert a new set of downs.

I chose these parameters before taking a look at Bridgewater specifically because I felt it was a decent process and a good way to find a variety of games and personnel while limiting the sheer amount of plays I would have to look at—50 or so passing attempts.

It turns out that Teddy is very good at third and long.

Statistically, he's not that great. The Vikings rank 21st in their ability to convert through the air in those situations and naturally Bridgewater is a big part of that. But on the film, it certainly looks like he's much better.

For comparison's sake I also decided to look at other quarterbacks: Alex Smith, Tom Brady, Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson. I chose Carr and Bortles for the obvious comparator reasons, Smith because he is supposed to be notoriously bad at these situations, Brady because he is very good this year in this capacity and Rivers and Wilson because they are statistically average at this. Through that I hoped to get a good understanding of the distribution of passes in this situation to provide more context for Bridgewater's play.

My notes for Bridgewater are fairly complete, but for the other quarterbacks they are not. I'll provide their grades in comparison to Teddy's regardless but there won't be specific reasoning for the grades like there is for Bridgewater.

As a sidenote: Kansas City was hard to watch in part because the offense did exactly what I selected against—offensive designs for short passes with no chance of converting. Still, I tried accounting for that as well. It got to the point where I saw 3rd and 9 in the fourth quarter down 18 and expected a screen to the short side of the field despite, on the other side of the field, the fastest receiver in single coverage with the defender off by seven yards and no safety. I was right. Throw short to the side where you have a numbers disadvantage, I always say.

For the purposes of this grading system, I used a general guide of "Did this quarterback give the offense a very good chance of converting OR did well above average?" for pluses, and "Did this quarterback hurt his offense by his actions" for minuses, and marked ungradeable or "no impact" plays as 0's. Quick sacks, for example, were zeros, as were well-blocked screens. Plays where most receivers were extremely open and would convert were also zeros (think prevent defense). Functionally, if the worst version of Mark Sanchez could have achieved the same result, it was a zero (or rather, if the failure or success of the play was entirely dependent on a player who was not the QB).

Plays that did not convert could be pluses while plays that converted could be minuses—drops not caused by the quarterback could be pluses, as an example, while ill-advised attempts to run or passes woefully short (and not by design) would be minuses even if they converted (there were not many minuses that converted—it is pretty easy to give QBs the benefit of the doubt).

Grades

Here were the distribution of quarterback grades after removing all of the "0" graded plays.

QB Third and Long Grades

Before you ask, it is my personal belief that this statistic can be very sensitive to how good an opposing defense is. For the most part, however, I think it can be relatively independent of surrounding talent—affected by opponent strength but not by teammate strength. When no one is open, the QB is not penalized. When the pressure comes before the WR breaks, same thing. In fact, it can reward good QBs who make good plays in bad situations—like scrambling out of pressure to make a tough throw on the run.

Obviously, all of these grades showcase higher positive grades than there were successful conversions in this situation (league average is 33.5%) and that's because most of the "0" graded plays did not convert. Either the quarterback was sacked (through no fault of his own, or it would be a minus) or the QB was forced into a throw that had little chance of converting (either by defensive scheme or offensive playcall).

If you choose to include all "0" graded plays, they "plus" grades are closer to matching a team's third-and-long conversion ability, with a difference mostly accounted for by drops.

Takeaways

Derek Carr's grade in particular surprised me because throughout the entire process I remember being impressed by his throws. A lot of "oohing" and "aahing" from me. But it seems like a lot of smaller instances added up to depress his grade, which is still pretty good. He had receiver drops caused more by ball placement than receiver error, and a number of screens that graded as a "0".

Obviously this kind of analysis has limited usefulness—I don't think Bridgewater is playing better than Carr right now because he had a better third and long grade from me, a Vikings fan with a vested interest. I mean, it's not as if I don't think I did my work in an unbiased fashion, but you have to acknowledge that it can filter in even when you do your best to avoid it. It should be pretty clear when you look at the explanations for the Bridgewater grades below that it is a highly subjective process—one that would be made easier if I had clear-cut definitions and a more wider range of grades.

Besides, one stat does not a career make.

More to the point, I think it highlights the fact that the talent differences between the two quarterbacks are much smaller than commonly believed. It would also go far enough in explaining why there is a discrepancy in context-oriented statistics (like the top fifteen grades that both Pro Football Focus and ESPN's Total QBR have given Bridgewater—both statistics that have placed him in the top ten at times this year as well) and outcome-oriented statistics (like his 29th-ranked ANYA or 27th-ranked DVOA).

And though the fact that the grading is subjective may put you off, I think the differences in grading are largely at the margins and they tend to even out.

It's also easier to remember deep misses and deep hits than it is to remember smaller but possibly more important pieces of data.

A good example is Tom Brady, at least for the purposes of this kind of analysis. There weren't a lot of third and long plays from him that seemed particularly impressive, and honestly that's not too surprising—that's not the kind of quarterback he is. But there was a lot of consistency from play to play where he would make the right decision to move the chains, be accurate with his decision and make it on time. When he took sacks, they were never his fault.

Many of the pluses I charted for Brady were marginal. Obvious positives, but not GIF-worthy.

Brady generates a lot of small advantages throughout the course of the game when compared to an average quarterback. A lot of those advantages get ignored but the reason he's consistent is why he's such a good quarterback. He makes subtle movements in the pocket to create awkward rushing angles and give himself space. He'll move through progressions quickly—but he usually won't need to because his presnap reads are very often correct. The ball comes out on time and arrives on time.

Those aren't qualities you use to describe the game's most exciting player, but they are the qualities that make the Patriots offense the best in the NFL right now. And honestly, despite the lackluster description of his qualities, Brady is a genuinely exciting player—but not for any single highlight quality.

If you wanted to continue blasphemous comparisons, that's also kind of what Drew Brees' record-breaking 2011 season was. Marginal advantages piled on top of each other without a bunch of highlights throughout—only 10.8% of his passes went past 20 yards (23rd in the league), while Bridgewater's rate right now is 11% (21st in the league).

I'm not saying that Bridgewater is playing anything like peak Brady or peak Brees right now; I'm mostly trying to demonstrate that the generic human ability to remember big things over a dozen small things means we're missing a lot of what makes good quarterbacks good. And Bridgewater does a lot of small things really damn well.

And we keep forgetting them because of throws like this:

Ban Teddy

Instead of remembering that far more often, he makes throws like this:

Teddy Threads a Needle

Every week I'm told that Blake Bortles is a much better quarterback than Teddy Bridgewater because he has more total passing yards, touchdowns and so on. Of course, this ignores that per attempt, Bridgewater has exceeded Bortles and that Bortles is quite often playing from behind and seeing garbage time defenses and so on (ranking 26th in opponent-adjusted game script is an indicator that the team is often playing from behind and by quite a margin, too) mostly that's it.

Beyond that, Bortles' advantages in touchdown rate (and also total touchdowns) comes from a few factors: first the Jaguars don't tend to score running the ball in the red zone, and the Vikings do (they have one all year), and the Vikings give their running backs more chances at the goal line—the Vikings rank 29th in pass percentage when inside the opponents' 10, while the Jaguars rank 8th.

Bortles is also more likely to throw interceptions from the perspective of his on-film decisionmaking and the perspective of recent history, where his 11 interceptions nearly doubles Teddy's 6—an interception rate of 3.1 over 2.4 can have massive impacts in on-field play because interceptions hurt more than touchdowns help. There's a reason the Vikings outrank the Jaguars in points per drive despite Bortles' theoretically more efficient season.

While I can't predict the trajectories of the two quarterbacks, it's easy to see that Bortles right now is not a better quarterback than Teddy Bridgewater despite gaudier totals. Bortles either makes decisions too quickly or too slowly, bails out of clean pockets too easily while holding on in pressured pockets and doesn't have a handle on acceptable risk levels.

I am still pleasantly surprised by Bortles' progression; he's improved his accuracy and decisionmaking while taking advantage of the fact that his two top receivers—Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns—are genuinely very, very good players. He has good stretches of play and a playmaker's instinct. But his minuses are glaring and he still plays like a much rawer quarterback; often too slow and when he's not too slow he's usually wrong.

Teddy

Here are the play by play notes I took and the grades I gave. Feel free to disagree.

Coming out of the San Francisco game, there were real concerns about the state of the quarterback position and the team as a whole. One instructive example comes on third and long, and it was the very first such instance for Minnesota in the game, with 9:07 remaining in the first quarter.

Teddy Sucked in SF

Teddy Sucked in SF

You see the issue. Had he continued with this trend, I'd be much more worried about Bridgewater and his development as a quarterback, as well as his long-term future as a franchise guy for the team. He did a good job of rectifying that performance in Week 1, and didn't continue these kinds of mistakes—staring down receivers or missing blown coverages.

There are a lot of strengths to Teddy's game, but I think the most interesting of his is his awareness. By that, I mean a broad term that captures not just situational awareness—knowledge of the score, time remaining and where the sticks are—but also spatial awareness. He has an incredible sense not just of what the context demands he needs to do, but where players are on the field and how to use them. While I didn't GIF the Raiders game, his flip to Matt Asiata while scrambling was absolutely incredible.

Oh, and there's this:

Teddy Hails a Mary

That spatial awareness allows Teddy to anticipate and respond to pressure while keeping his eyes downfield, something I'm still not sure how quarterbacks do. And Teddy's one of the better ones at that skill. He knew where Stefon Diggs was going to be in the above GIF not because of where the route concepts would put him—the break was done—but because he knew how Diggs was going to react to his scramble. He also knew that taking a sack on third down means turnover-by-punt.

Bridgewater also is one of the better quarterbacks I saw in this study take advantage of presnap reads. He's almost always correct when figuring out which half of the field he needs to read and knows what coverage the opponents are going to be in. This was a consistent feature throughout his grading, whether it was on positive, neutral or negative plays.

That recognition allowed Bridgewater to figure out whether or not to roll with a man beater on one side, or a zone beater on the other side. It's hard to find "examples" of this from a traditional perspective because they look fairly routine; it's something you see after watching it again and again (and appreciate a bit more after watching Alex Smith and Blake Bortles). Here is probably a good example:

Teddy Presnap Gawd

Here's what I wrote in my notes for the play:

1Q 12:43; 3-7 MIN 39 - Teddy Bridgewater pass complete deep left to Jarius Wright for 52 yards (tackle by Husain Abdullah)

Quick-5. Alignment = press man, w/ blitz and single-high. Perfect diagnosis of who would be open (Wright) and phenomenal accuracy deep (26 air yards from LOS).

Bridgewater is in a five-step drop, but a "quick-five" with smaller steps. The alignment of the defense was designed to look like Cover-1 with a blitz look but instead turned into Cover-2. The rotation of the safeties would mean that any receiver winning on the right side would have to deal with a safety over top. On the other side, however, a safety would have to sprint from the line of scrimmage in stride with a receiver in hopes to stay on top. Bridgewater knew that Wright would win off the snap and that's all he needed. He throws in rhythm and it's a huge play.

Teddy still has a lot of things to work on, of course. A side effect of his phenomenal presnap read ability is that he takes a little longer (or is a bit too hesitant to) see how his approach should change as a result of what's happening on the field. I'm not talking about trap coverages—he hasn't seemed to have suffered too much from those approaches—but more about not realizing when he shouldn't throw in rhythm or when a receiver is about to get open in a way he didn't or couldn't anticipate.

This is more of a "value missed" issue than it is a "problem caused" which makes it much lower impact and easier to stomach, but it is something he should improve. A great example of this occurred against the Chiefs with 9:32 left in the third quarter.

Teddy Sees The Right Play Instead of the Exciting Play

In this play, Teddy takes advantage of a seam and some space left by a safety who is ostensibly in Cover-3. He makes the right decision given the coverage and rhythm of the play, but in half a tic, Diggs is about to put serious stress on that safety and either make it so that Diggs is wide open with acres of space (a tough throw, but rewarding) or that Rudolph has even more space to generate YAC.

Diggs isn't open at the moment he throws to Rudolph, so it's not as if he made the wrong throw. It's more that he didn't choose to operate outside the structure of the play when it could have yielded some big results; attacking where he did against those holes makes sense, but once Diggs crossed the face of the safety, it could have been a lot more devastating.

One weakness we always feel compelled to mention when it comes to Teddy is the deep ball, but while it's not something you'd list in a resume I think the issues he's having with the deep ball are overblown. You can take a look at the ESPN splits and see that Bridgewater's thrown 6 balls past 30 yards, with only 2 completed, and those make the case compellingly, but while Bridgewater has had a fairly average drop rate, a lot of them seem to happen deep through no fault of his own. Take this play:

Teddy Bridgewater Deep Pass

I initially thought it was an example where a contested catch was created unnecessarily by Teddy forcing Wallace to slow down, but the ball hits Wallace's hands with the only contestation from Marcus Peters imaginary (and, it turns out, celebrated by Peters)—replays showed it only hit Wallace's hands, while Eric Berry was threatening to intercept any pass that would have led Wallace. It was a stunningly accurate throw.

And so was this, which was either a drop by Wallace or pass interference from Antoine Bethea depending on who you ask (if they're smart, it's PI):

And those aren't the only examples. Even if they were, two examples of a 30+ throw and a 40+ throw really change the accuracy rate on truly deep throws from 33% to 66%. I'm not saying Bridgewater's a deep-throwing maestro, but that his accuracy issues on deep shots are well overblown, because the wild misses—which are not really interceptable—are way easier to remember than a missed opportunity that's not really his fault, but both are equally important pieces of information to use when gauging his deep accuracy.

The traditional data that we have on Teddy suggest that he's a little below average as a quarterback. His passer rating is 24th of 33 and his adjusted yards per attempt is one better. Including sacks statistics hurts him more, as he drops to 29th in adjusted net yards per attempt. But statistics that claim to be more nuanced (and there's some really good arguments that ESPN Total QBR actually is, despite the trashing that I and other bloggers gave it when it came out) rate Bridgewater much better, in the top half—and occasionally the top ten.

With only those as our data points, there's actually little reason to worry about a 23-year-old passer (who started the year at 22) playing at a little below average. But those aren't our only bits of data; we have so much more to look at. It's easy to be impatient and demand deep shots for big touchdowns, but in doing so we miss the forest for the trees. Instead of trying to see how many receivers he has open, we ask why he's not gunning it.

It's more difficult to pick up on things like read progression or pocket presence, but those traits are far more endurant than a year's worth of deep passing accuracy and it's easy to see when he's let loose in the fourth quarter that all those traits can come together and produce a really special quarterback. It's not a guarantee, a promise, or a prediction but more a plea to just wait.

Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good.