Having an inefficient passing offense in today’s NFL is like going to play a round of golf without your putter. I guess you could make use of what you have – maybe you’re a freak of nature when it comes to putting with your driver – but chances are, you’re screwed.
The Bills, Browns, Raiders – they’ve been playing golf without a putter for years. And by no surprise, those three teams have seen a lack of success over the last decade, barely staying competitive in a league full of parity.
Being able to work the pigskin through the air is important these days. It’s vital. And thinking about the aforementioned teams – along with others who have struggled to toss the rock against opposing defenses – made me wonder which teams have been the worst at throwing the ball in recent years. Which teams, over the last decade, have struggled most to put points on the board through the air?
Conveniently, I could find that answer by using numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. If you’re new to the site, NEP looks at down and distance and individual game situations to determine whether a play performed above or below expectation. Without boring you here – especially if you’re a daily numberFire reader – take a look at the fascinating metric in more detail over at our glossary.
Net Expected Points, at a team level, can be adjusted for strength of schedule. That’s obviously important because you’re able to see how a team performed regardless of their opponent. Every team is evaluated equally. For the purposes of the exercise in finding the worst passing teams over the last decade, I used this data – I used Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points.
Quite simply, I took the scores from all 32 teams over the last 10 years (2004 through 2013) within the metric and added them up. In essence, the totals showed the number of points added or lost by a team via the pass. While one team may have had a couple of really bad seasons, if they were to put together a few good ones, they still looked all right in the end. It’s a cumulative total, so it won’t only capture the horrific individual seasons we sometimes see.
Not surprisingly, New England finished first on the list, and by a very solid 269-point margin. Second and third were close between – you guessed it – Indianapolis and New Orleans, thanks to the play of Peyton Manning (for all but three of these seasons) and Drew Brees (all but two). Fourth went to San Diego, and fifth to Green Bay.
But that’s not what I’m worried about here. I care more about the terrible, Tim Couch-like play that NFL franchises have suffered through over the last decade. And while the results of these teams may not be overly surprising, they certainly are interesting. Especially at the number one spot.
10. Miami Dolphins, -109.35 Adjusted Passing NEP
We begin with the Dolphins, a team that’s hoping their passing woes are behind them with franchise quarterback Ryan Tannehill. I’m not so sure they're well off based on this study, but, if nothing else, there’s hope.
And that’s good news for Dolphins’ fans, who have suffered through the play of Jay Fiedler, A.J. Feeley and Cleo Lemon since 2004. Over the last decade, Miami has seen nine passers drop back to pass at least 200 times. And if not for Chad Pennington’s brilliant (I say brilliant within the context of it being Chad Pennington) 2008 campaign, the Dolphins would be lower on this list. In fact, when you remove that year from the data set, Miami comes in at the seven spot, rather than being a fringe team within the study.
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, -130.85 Adjusted Passing NEP
While Bucs fans will be quick to say that their team deserves (maybe “deserves” is the wrong word) to be even lower on this list, the reason they’re not is because the team’s quarterback play has rarely reached David Carr-like levels. Yes, their playing of nearly 131 points below expectation isn’t good, but they’ve dipped below a -50.00 Adjusted NEP score just once over the last 10 years. That was in 2006, when rookie Bruce Gradkowski was running the offense.
Keep in mind, too, that Josh Freeman wasn’t a bad quarterback every year in Tampa Bay. In fact, his 2010 campaign was the best signal-calling season the team has seen over the last 10 years, where the team, adjusted for strength of schedule, played over 66 points above expectation. And imagine that – the Bucs went 10-6 that year, their only double-digit win season since 2006.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars, -183.96 Adjusted Passing NEP
Recency Bias has forced us to forget that the Jaguars made the playoffs in 2005 and 2007, led by quarterbacks David Garrard and Byron Leftwich. And actually, from 2004 through 2010, Jacksonville’s total Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points sat nicely at 55.66. Jacksonville was a pretty average passing team.
And then Blaine Gabbert happened.
Since Gabbert entered the league in 2011, Jacksonville’s Adjusted Passing NEP has dropped 239.62 points. In other words, in each of the past three seasons, the Jags have lost about 80 points through the air. On a per game basis, that’s roughly five points. If this Blaine Gabbert era would have stretched the entire decade, the Jaguars total Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points score would have nearly doubled – in a bad way – the score of the number one team on this list. That’s how bad it’s been in Jacksonville over the last three years.
7. San Francisco 49ers, -204.16 Adjusted Passing NEP
If not for Jim Harbaugh, I’m not sure where the 49ers would land within this article. While they’ve compiled a -204.16 Adjusted Passing NEP score over the last 10 seasons – the seventh-worst total in the entire NFL – they’ve played nearly 200 points above expectation over the last three seasons. Again, it shouldn’t be surprising to see that the Niners won just three fewer games over this time span compared to the seven years prior.
Things were bad – scary, even – in San Francisco for a while. Nothing was worse than in 2007 though, where Trent Dilfer and Alex Smith combined for a -156.23 Adjusted Passing NEP season. That’s the second worst passing season from any team over the last 10 years.
At least 49ers fans have room for optimism with Colin Kaepernick under center. The team now has three straight seasons with above average play, and without it, they probably would be close to number one on this list.
6. St. Louis Rams, -265.52 Adjusted Passing NEP
You could say that the Rams are trending in the complete opposite direction as the 49ers. While 2004 through 2006 saw quarterback play that was above expectation, 2007 through 2013 has been passing hell for St. Louis. It’s a good thing the Cardinals are always in the World Series hunt, eh?
St. Louis’ passing game has improved over the last couple of seasons, but improving from where they were isn’t saying much. If Drake’s Started From the Bottom was about the St. Louis Rams passing offense, “here” would still just be a minimum wage job at a local fast food joint.
If you’re curious, since Sam Bradford entered the league, the Rams have played 60.95 points below expectation. The only reason Rams fans may like to think that he’s a competent quarterback is because, prior to him starting in St. Louis, the team went through a three-year stretch where they played 313 points below what they should have. Their quarterback play was like Blaine Gabbert with a torn ACL. For three very miserable seasons.
5. Buffalo Bills, -286.16 Adjusted Passing NEP
Since 2004, the Bills have had just three seasons with an Adjusted Passing NEP above zero. None of those seasons featured an offense that threw the ball 30 points above expectation, and in today’s NFL, that’s barely breaking through as a top-20 passing offense.
You know you’ve got a problem when Ryan Fitzpatrick owns the two best Passing NEP seasons for your franchise over the last decade. That’s right – the Bills have had 13 instances where a quarterback has dropped back to pass 200 or more times since 2004, and Ryan Fitzpatrick owns the top two spots in Passing NEP among those players.
The worst quarterbacks? They’re the dudes that like to go by their initials, which, in my super unbiased opinion, is the way to go. J.P. Losman finished 2005 with a -49.68 Passing NEP score, while E.J. Manuel finished his rookie campaign last year with a -47.84 score.
The Bills are a little like the Bucs, but without any highs. At least Tampa Bay had a really solid season with Freeman. The Bills have just had a seventh-round bro from Harvard.
4. New York Jets, -296.43 Adjusted Passing NEP
We really should be giving props to Herm Edwards, Mangenius and Rex Ryan here – the Jets are just two games below .500 over the last 10 years, and they’ve performed that way with the fourth-worst cumulative passing offense in the league. Or you could take the pessimist approach and realize that the organization is awful at evaluating quarterbacks, noting that the Jets may have indeed won a Lombardi since Y2K if not for their butt fumbling ways.
Five of the Jets’ last seven seasons have resulted in an Adjusted Passing NEP score that was less than -50.00. To put that in context, a score that low consistently ranks in the bottom five in the league. Congratulations, New York – your second-favorite football team has, without fail, thrown a bottom five passing offense onto the field five times over the last seven seasons.
Things aren’t trending up, either. The team has lost over 180 points through the air over the last three years, and Geno Smith’s rookie year was about as bad as Mark Sanchez’s. And we know how that turned out.
3. Cleveland Browns, -397.19 Adjusted Passing NEP
You can’t have a bad passing attack list without mentioning the Cleveland Browns, who have totaled an Adjusted Passing NEP of nearly -400 over the last 10 seasons. Even worse, the team has seen just one season where a quarterback performed above expectation. If you know your football, you’d remember that as 2007, where Derek Anderson got real with Braylon Edwards.
Outside of that one season, the Browns haven’t seen a single quarterback reach positive NEP land. The worst performance came from Chuckie Frye back in 2006, where the “Why is he starting for us?” passer played 72 points below expectation.
Over the last decade, Cleveland has seen eight different quarterbacks drop back to toss the pigskin at least 200 times in a season, and only three of those players threw for that much volume during more than one campaign. Those guys? Derek Anderson, Colt McCoy and Brandon Weeden. Yup, that’s a recipe for fans to put bags on their heads.
2. Oakland Raiders, -404.96 Adjusted Passing NEP
Wait a second. Oakland’s number two? How is there a team that’s been worse through the air over the last decade than the franchise that drafted JaMarcus Russell?
Yes, Oakland’s number two. And actually, the team would be ranked a little more favorably if not for JaMarcus Russell’s awful, horrendous 2009 season where he captured a -115.53 Passing NEP total. Well, that and the Aaron Brooks/Andrew Walter combo we saw in 2006, where the team posted a -153.80 Adjusted Passing NEP. That wasn’t a dream. That platoon really happened.
The best Raider seasons from a passing perspective came in 2011 and 2012 under Carson Palmer. That’s sickeningly sad. Perhaps it’s not as bad as the Bills with Ryan Fitzpatrick, but the lows with the Raiders have been so low that the team finds itself at number two on this not-so-lovely list.
1. Chicago Bears, -456.95 Adjusted Passing NEP
Anytime you think your football team can’t throw the ball, take a good look at the 2004 Chicago Bears. That season, Chicago fielded the four-headed monster of Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel, Jonathan Quinn and Rex Grossman. They threw the ball 471 times, completed just under 53% of them, and totaled just nine touchdowns to 16 interceptions.
The poor quarterback play was contagious, too. Even Paul freaking Edinger’s only pass that year – remember, he’s a kicker – was picked off. He’ll forever be remembered for his -45.00 yards per attempt average from 2004.
In total, that Bears passing attack played 195.25 points below expectation. That’s over 12 points per game! It’s honestly amazing that Chicago was able to win five games that year, considering an average quarterback would have led the team to see a two-touchdown point swing per game.
Chicago’s passing troubles have stayed with them since that season. Between 2005 and 2012, the team never put together a passing unit that played better than 17 points below expectation, consistently placing them in the bottom 10 in passing.
Marc Trestman, the quarterback whisperer, changed that in 2013. My man crush on Chicago’s head coach was brought to light in this preseason article, and because he didn’t disappoint me, I’ll forever be in love. Trestman coached the first Bears team to a positive Adjusted Passing NEP score over the last decade a season ago, and did so with an injured quarterback and one who could have easily been bagging groceries instead of playing in the NFL. The Bears played over 83 points through the air above expectation, a solid 140 points better than their average from the previous nine seasons.
Thanks to poor quarterback play, the Bears have been the worst passing franchise over the last decade. But thanks to Marc Trestman, the team will most likely find themselves out of this spot a year from now.