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Making Excuses for Sam Bradford

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The Daily Norseman breaks down the stats to determine if and when Bradford’s situation is to blame for poor performance.

Minnesota Vikings v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Is Sam Bradford a good quarterback? We’ve been discussing it quite a bit this off season. Depending on what you want to measure you can identify certain statistics that seem to show that Bradford excels as a quarterback, while other stats paint him in a more negative light. And when you look at his situation each season he has played, it’s pretty easy to come up with a bunch of excuses that explain away some of the poor stats…or is it? This article may not be able to end the debate once and for all, but I hope to put out as much objective data as possible, and let you decide.

First, let’s explore some of the more popular excuses for why Sam Bradford hasn’t been able to perform as a top 10 quarterback in the NFL after 6 seasons so far. If you’ve read the comments or open threads here at the Daily Norseman recently, you’ve probably seen them all. Here are the most common: he hasn’t had an offensive line that was any good, he hasn’t had any good wide receivers to throw to, he hasn’t had a viable running game to complement his passing attack, he hasn’t had a good defense, he’s come off of injuries, and he’s had to deal with changing offensive coordinators every year of his career. Are any of those actually true? Let’s break them down.

Excuse #1 – He hasn’t had a good offensive line

First off there are several ways to evaluate an offensive line, but when we’re talking about QB performance, we’re concerned primarily with pass blocking. This can be somewhat subjective, but there are two things that the NFL tracks that are objective ways to judge offensive line pass blocking: sacks allowed and QB hits allowed. I used Football Outsider’s “Adjusted Sack Rating” and then developed my own “QB Hit Ratio” to come up with a ranking for every offensive line Bradford has played behind in his career. I weighted the Sack Rating rank at 75% and the QB Hit rating at 25%, because I think sacks allowed is more important than hits allowed. That gave me the following overall ranks for every offensive line that Bradford has played behind.

As you can see in the table, you can easily make the case that no, Bradford has not played behind a great offensive line during any season he has played. His best offensive line was his rookie year with the Rams in 2010, but even that line wouldn’t be considered a top 10 unit in pass blocking. On average, the offensive lines he’s played with have been mostly below average. That said, with the exception of the 2011 offensive line, none of the lines he has played behind were truly awful in the amount of sacks and QB hits allowed. So to use the offensive line as an excuse for poor QB play might be a bit of an exaggeration for every year except 2011. That might come as a shock to those Vikings fans that witnessed the historically bad Vikings offensive line in 2016, but in terms of these metrics, they don’t score that poorly. It could be argued that Bradford did a good job of getting the ball out quickly and to close targets to minimize the impact of a bad offensive line, but for the purposes of this article and for comparison in this metric, the Vikings 2016 offensive line will be considered to be “below average” rather than “epic-ally bad.”

Excuse #2 – No Good Wide Receivers

This one is tough to nail down, because the relationship between quarterback and wide receiver is so intertwined. Was the pass not completed because the ball was thrown poorly, or because the receiver caught the ball poorly? It’s very rare for a wide receiver to have a great statistical year with a bad quarterback and also tough for a quarterback to generate great stats with no good receivers. But the best measure of WR production in my opinion is Football Outsider’s “Defense-Adjusted Yards Over Replacement” or “DYAR” for receivers. This metric examines every play and situation and calculates how well the player did against the league average production of the same situation and then adjusts the yards based on the difficulty of the opponent being faced. It is an attempt to determine how “good” the wide receiver is independent of any other variables. The table below shows Sam Bradford’s highest ranked receiver in each year that he played by this DYAR metric.

It would be false to say that Bradford has never had any good receivers to throw to and in fact, he has had several good receivers to throw to over the years, specifically the 2012 and 2016 seasons. That said, he has had some truly awful years with 2010 and 2011 giving him no better than the 69th and 70th best receiver in the NFL (that was Brandon Gibson those two years by-the-way). So you could probably make the case that his lack of weapons in 2010 and 2011 might have accounted for his drop in production. But other than those two years, he’s had decent to great receiving options.

Excuse #3 – No Viable Running Game

It’s generally believed that a good running game can take some pressure off the quarterback and help to better setup play action passes. A good running game can also keep a defense on their toes as they might have to account for both the run and pass preventing them from being able to cheat towards one type of play versus the other. One of the best measures of a running game is the old “yards per carry” metric. I like this metric because is measures efficiency over the course of an entire season. Looking at yardage totals or even yards per game can be inflated if it comes from a team that simply runs the ball a lot. But looking at the yards on a per play basis, especially with season-long carry totals will paint a good picture of running efficiency. The table below shows the YPC ranks Bradford has had with each team.

In looking at the table above you can easily make the argument that Bradford has never had a great running game to work with. And in fact, he’s had two downright terrible years in running efficiency: 2010 and 2016. With the exception of 2012, which was at least an average running game, every other running attack he’s been paired with has been below average or worse. This is potentially a viable excuse, although some quarterbacks are able to thrive despite the absence of a running game.

Excuse #4 – Hasn’t had a good defense

Even if Bradford was a great quarterback and ran one of the top offenses in the league, there isn’t the phrase “Offense wins championships.” We’ve seen it over and over in the NFL: a high-flying offense collapsing in games if they don’t have a good defense to pair with it. Has Bradford had any good defenses to play with? Actually, yes, quite a few. See the table below.

Here I turned once again to Football Outsiders and their “Defense-adjusted Value over Average” to arrive at a total defensive ranking. In a nutshell DVOA measures a team's efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent. And as you can see Bradford has played with some truly great defenses in 2012, 2013, and 2016. He’s also played with some below average defenses, but none that were truly awful. This excuse doesn’t seem to hold up, with the exception of maybe 2011.

Excuse #5 – He’s had a lot of injuries

While it is true that Bradford has dealt with a lot of injuries, this excuse is sometimes overstated. There were really only three seasons where he dealt with injuries. In 2011 he dealt with a severe high ankle sprain and missed 6 games, and so to his 2012 season was one where he was “coming off an injury.” He also tore his ACL in 2013 and missed the entire 2014 season to rehab because of it. So 2015 was the other season he was “coming off an injury.” And while he certainly dealt with other injuries and played through them…all players do that to some degree. Unless he was missing significant time, I don’t see “injuries” as a viable excuse for any seasons other than 2011, 2012 and 2015. That means 3 of his other seasons would not be viable for this excuse.

Excuse #6 – He’s had to change offensive coordinators every year

This is almost true. As fearless leader pointed out in an article recently, Bradford has only had one season with a consistent offensive coordinator from one year to the next. In the 2012 and 2013 seasons he had Brian Schottenheimer as his offensive coordinator, meaning that 2013 was literally the only season of his career where he didn’t have a change in offensive coordinators. I don’t think that can be over-stated enough. Learning and mastering a new offensive system is difficult to do, and it’s why so many players fail in their transition from college to the NFL. They have to learn new terminology, new skills, new techniques and new plays. And for a player to have to do that every single year would be a huge undertaking.

So what does this all mean? Are the excuses valid? Can we simply explain away Sam Bradford’s performance? Well, it depends on the season. Let’s take things year-by-year.

2010 Season – St. Louis Rams

Obviously, this was Bradford’s rookie year. Going through all six excuses, while he had a good offensive line and was 100% healthy, he was actually in a pretty bad situation otherwise. He had no good wide receivers to throw to, with Brandon Gibson being his best option (ranked 70th best), a terrible complementary running game (29th in YPC) and a below average defense (ranked 19th). He was also a rookie making the transition from college to the NFL and learning a new playbook. In other words, 4 of the 6 most common excuses were viable for his rookie year. Here are some of Bradford’s passing efficiency stats from 2010:

In terms of efficiency for an NFL quarterback, his stats could be described as pretty average to below average. But for a rookie it was promising and in fact, he won the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2010 with those stats. You could make the argument that his season might have been even better had it not been for all of the issues outlined above.

2011 Season – St. Louis Rams

There were high hopes for Bradford in his sophomore season after getting Rookie of the Year honors, but it was pretty much a disaster however you want to look at it. Not only did he deal with a severe high ankle sprain most of the year which ultimately cost him 6 games, he was not in an ideal team situation either. This year saw him having to work behind the worst offensive line of his career ranked 29th that year, with no upgraded weapons at wide receiver. Receiver Brandon Gibson improved his ranking by one spot compared to the previous year (69th best WR in the NFL). While the running game was at least respectable, it still couldn’t be called any better than “below average” with a 19th ranking in yards per carry, and the defense regressed slightly to a 21st rank. To top it all off, he dealt with a change in offensive coordinator too. This year was probably the one year where if you wanted to make all the excuses for Bradford, you probably could and not be wrong. It just so happens that all those excuses correlate with the worst statistical efficiency of his career.

2012 Season – St. Louis Rams

Things started looking up for Bradford in his 3rd year. In terms of excuses, there are very few to make for this season. He had an above average offensive line ranked 14th best, a decent wide receiver ranked 21st (Brandon Gibson again…who made a big jump up), a decent running game ranked 14th best and a dominant defense ranked 7th best. That said, he was coming off an injury and had another season with a new offensive coordinator. While it wasn’t the perfect storm of an excuse-less season (and save his defense none of the variables was truly outstanding), he was still in a pretty good spot to succeed. And when you look at his stats, this was a decent year of quintessential “average” quarterback play, and his best year to date.

While he didn’t hit any career benchmarks in any particular statistical category, he also did not have any “career worst” stats either. His QB Rating and QBR suggest he put up an average performance.

2013 Season – St. Louis Rams

If 2012 was his best season as far as having pieces in the right place, 2013 was arguably even better. This was the first time he had continuity in his offensive coordinator. He was not dealing with any injuries coming into the year, and the other pieces around him were not bad. In fact, no variable could be called truly “bad”, although none of them were truly outstanding either. His offensive line was ranked 16th overall. His best receiver was below average, ranked 49th, but not a dumpster fire like his first two years. His running game was ranked 17th and he was paired up with a strong defense ranked 11th overall. I would argue that in 2013 there simply is no excuse you can make for Bradford’s performance and it has to stand on its own. So it might surprise you that 2013 started off as his strongest statistical season yet.

Unfortunately, Bradford only played 7 games in 2013 before tearing his ACL. He would end up missing all of the 2014 season to rehab before eventually being traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. But his QB Rating and QBR suggest he had at least an “above average” season, if not a good one. He had a strong ANY/A rating that takes interceptions and sack yardage into account. I don’t think he was on pace for a “Top 5” season by any means, but his efficiency was pretty good. It just so happens that his improved performance correlates to a lack of excuses.

2015 Season – Eagles

While things were looking up for Bradford in 2013 before the injury (and it’s hard to come up with any excuses that year), 2015 had arguably a few excuses to make. Obviously, he was coming off an injury and dealing with a new team and a new offensive coordinator (although it was the same one he had his rookie year in 2010). Bradford was also playing behind a below average offensive line ranked 19th paired with a below average running game ranked 21st overall in YPC. He had below average wide receivers with his top receiver ranked 41st overall (Jordan Mathews). He also had a below average defense ranked 17th. None of those pieces were truly good, but none of them were awful either. I think a case could be made for 3 out of the 6 excuses (coming off injury, change in coordinator, and no running game). His situation compares pretty well to his rookie year although he has maybe one less excuse total this year. Statistically speaking Bradford did a little better than his rookie year too.

Maybe it’s not surprising to see improved numbers when you compare his 2015 Eagles season to his 2010 Rams season, as they were both with the same offensive coordinator (Pat Shurmur). If nothing else, it’s kind of encouraging to see improvement, especially for Vikings fans since Pat Shurmur is also our offensive coordinator right now. Bradford improved his completion percentage from 60 to 65 percent. He improved his YPA from 6.0 to 6.5 and his QB Rating from 76.5 to 86.4. His Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (which correlates most closely to QB wins) also improved dramatically from 4.73 to 5.85. For whatever reason ESPN’s QBR rating declines from 50 to 43, which I simply can’t explain because the formula is not public. In any case, whether this improvement is due to one less excuse to make for Bradford, or maybe just more experience with the system remains to be seen. But I would call this another year of “average” quarterback play with a few excuses that can be made for him.

2016 Season – Vikings

We all know what happened last year with Teddy Bridgewater and the trade for Bradford. In terms of excuses, we can make only a few. He had a change in offensive coordinator from the Eagles to the Vikings in Shurmur to Turner, but ultimately Shurmur took over half-way through the year. He also dealt with the worst running game in the NFL with a 32nd ranked rushing attack, and a below average offensive line ranked 19th. That said, he was 100% healthy, had excellent receivers to throw to and had a dominant defense. While this may not have been the perfect storm of 2013 in terms of team situation, it was arguably his second best setup. Aside from just a couple excuses to make (change in coordinator and no running game), most of this season should stand on its own. Any way you want to look at it statistically speaking, 2016 was Bradford’s best season to date.

While Shurmur was only in charge of the offense for just over half the season, you could look at this as Bradford’s third year in that system. And he once again improved over his previous two years in the Shurmur system. Bradford had his highest QB Rating of his career, a strong yards per attempt number and an outstanding ANY/A rating. Even his QBR number is respectable at 59 (ranked 17th among all quarterbacks last year). It would be tough to call his 2016 season “elite”, but I would call it good, if not great. We all know he broke the single season completion percentage record, although that comes with a caveat of short and quick passes. Still, it was a good year and came with very few excuses too.

Conclusion

Bradford has played 6 seasons in the NFL, and of those six, three of them would be what I would call above average or better: 2012, 2013 and 2016. The other three seasons are “average” or worse. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when you look at the variety of excuses people try to make for Bradford, that they correlate almost exactly with his level of success. The more excuses that are viable, the worse his performance is. The less excuses you can make, the better his performance is.

What follows is a simple chart that shows this correlation in visual form. I have adjusted the QB Rating by sliding the decimal place over ne spot to read in single digits so that the graph line is more easily readable compared to his ANY/A stat. In the case of the Excuses Ratio, a score of 10 means that there are no excuses to make, while a score of 0 means all 6 excuses were made. The correlation co-efficient on ANY/A was strikingly high at 0.87 and reasonably high on QB Rating at 0.79.

Lastly, I find it really encouraging that in the three seasons that Sam Bradford has worked with Pat Shurmur he has consistently improved across a variety of statistical measures. His completion percentage, yards per attempt, QB Rating, and Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt have all improved in each of the three years he worked with Shurmur. If that trend continues, we could expect an even better year from Bradford in 2017 than we got in 2016. If we had to predict the future, we could also predict an excuse-less year for Bradford too. He’s not coming into the year with any injury issues and he doesn’t have to deal with a change of offensive coordinator. Hopefully the running game and offensive lines improve with all the additions in free agency and the draft. We already have good receivers and a great defense, so assuming those other pieces on offense are in good shape, 2017 could be the best year of Bradford’s career. If we assume the Vikings can field at least a league average offensive line and running game, then there shouldn’t be any excuses made for Bradford’s performance this time around.