Is Drew Brees Really on the Decline?
The NFL world is feeling uneasy about Drew Brees.
I think that pretty much covers the main points, points which seem valid on the surface. After all, which athletes at 36 years old really keep going at the same pace? Which quarterback can keep his production steady after losing one of the most lethal weapons in the league? Who can accumulate passing production if the team turns to the run?
I get it. Those make sense. But are they really true? Is Drew Brees really on the decline?
Let's take a look.
Fiction: Brees' Passing Numbers Are Declining
This, of course, is the most important, overarching concern. Brees' passing touchdowns have dropped from 46 to 43 to 39 to 33 in the last four seasons. His yards per attempt (7.5) mark this year was the lowest in that four-year span, too. He narrowly missed out on 5,000 yards (throwing for 4,952 this year), but it was the first year in the last four that he didn't hit that plateau. But his completion percentage (69.2 percent) ranked second in the league this year and was his best since 2012.
So how do we really determine if he's on the decline? Well, our Net Expected Points metric (NEP) does a good job with that. NEP accounts for more than raw production, and it weights production based on a variety of on-field variables. Think of it this way: a 10-yard pass is a 10-yard pass in the gamelog, but a 10-yard pass on 3rd-and-5 helps a whole lot more than a 10-yard pass on 3rd-and-15.
You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
How, then, does Brees look in terms of NEP this year -- and his whole New Orleans career -- compared to the rest of the quarterbacks who dropped back to pass at least 300 times?
|Year||Passes||Pass NEP||Rank||Pass NEP/P||Rank||Pass Success Rate||Rank|
Well, he's never ranked outside the top 10 in any of our key measures -- cumulative Passing NEP, Passing NEP per drop back, or Success Rate (the percentage of his drop backs that lead to positive NEP gains) -- since joining the Saints. Is it a decline to go from second to sixth in Passing NEP? Yes. Did his per-drop back Passing NEP sink? Yep. Is he still a top-seven quarterback? Yes.
I'm not denying that Brees wasn't as good as he normally is this year. That's not the point. It's just that panicking about Brees' impact is hasty to say the least. It's a fact, that his 2014 production was down, but to say that it's been a steady decline isn't true.
Fiction: Losing His Weapons Will Ruin Brees
Jimmy Graham's impact will be missed, of course, but he wasn't that efficient this year during a season riddled with injuries. In terms of Reception NEP per target, Graham added just 0.59 points above expectation on each intended pass. That ranked 18th among the 32 tight ends with at least 40 targets. His Reception NEP (73.56) still ranked fifth among that subset, but Graham has never actually been uber efficient. His 0.84 Reception NEP per target in 2013 -- his banner year -- was sixth among 40-plus target tight ends.
In 2012, his score was 0.67, which ranked 10th of 36 qualified tight ends (but was far behind Rob Gronkowski's 0.96 mark). Graham was 10th in 2011, too (0.73).
Conversely, Kenny Stills has been the most efficient per-target wide receiver in each of the past two seasons.
That loss will certainly hurt Brees (right?), but if we want to suggest losing a super efficient receiver will diminish Brees' potential in 2015, we also have to realize that, with Stills in 2014, Brees "declined."
Either Brees has made the most of his weapons in New Orleans or he's been extremely lucky with getting efficient (in terms of Reception NEP per target) receivers and tight ends in the past five years.
In 2011, four of the top 18 (among 134 players) were Saints: Colston (0.99), Meachem (0.95), Devery Henderson (0.88), and Moore (0.87). Oh, and Graham was 46th (0.73), for what it's worth. In 2012, Moore (0.98) ranked second, and Colston (0.88) ranked 11th.
In 2013, Stills (1.16) was tops, Graham (0.84) was 24th, Colston (0.82) was 27th, and Moore (0.74) was 42nd out of 143 players. This year, Stills again led the NFL (1.05), and Colston -- surprisingly -- was 24th at 0.81. Brandin Cooks, for the record, was just 78th (0.60) and Graham (0.59) ranked 83rd.
Even in his perceived down year -- with a down year from Graham on top of things -- Brees was able to get some solid performances from his receivers, just like he has done in the past five years. Just because he's losing Graham and Stills doesn't mean that the Saints can't turn in some solid or even stellar receiving seasons in 2015.
Fiction: Brees' Passing Has Limited New Orleans' Rushing
If you had to describe the Saints' offense during the past nine years, you'd likely say that it's pass-first and pass-second in nature, leaving behind a middling rushing offense, but that's only partially true. The true part is that they're pass-heavy, but they've only been worse than average in schedule-adjusted Rushing NEP per play just twice in that span.
|Year||Adj RNEP/P||Rank||Pass-to-Run Ratio||Rank|
Even though New Orleans has been one of top-five pass heavy teams in the past four seasons, they have boasted a top-12 rushing offense in terms of efficiency in that duration. So, they've had rushing success without sacrificing passing volume, but the indication is now that the Saints are going to rely on the run more and more, which will inevitably cause the pass-to-run ratio to decline. Is that going to hurt Brees?
Fiction: Relying on the Run Will Diminish Brees' Impact
It's a convenient argument to say that passing production is contingent on volume. I dug back into 15 years of NEP data, ranging from the 2000 season through 2014, to see the impact of pass-to-run ratio on a team's schedule-adjusted, cumulative Passing NEP at the end of the season. More directly, I found the correlation between pass-to-run ratio and Adjusted Passing NEP in the 478 unique seasons since 2000.
A correlation of 1 would show that as pass-to-run ratio went up, Adjusted Passing NEP went up. A correlation of -1 would show that as pass-to-run ratio went down, Adjusted Passing NEP went up (which is highly unlikely by comparison). A correlation of 0 would indicate that there's no real relationship between the two numbers.
What did I find?
Umm...a correlation of -0.003431114. If you want to round that to two decimal places, we get a nice, round correlation of 0.00.
The truth of the matter is that bad passing teams can throw the ball a lot, and efficient and productive quarterbacks can play on run-heavy teams. To say that Brees' cumulative, on-field productivity will decline based solely on an increased focus on the running game isn't at all supported by data.
Fiction: Offseason Changes Will Cause Brees to Struggle
I'm not a prognosticator, and I'm not in the line of making guarantees. However, much of the perceived worries surrounding Brees aren't empirical -- that much is true.
He could go out and sling 40 interceptions and throw for 2,000 yards in 2015, but that wouldn't really prove that these concerns were justified. The facts of the matter are that Brees' decline in 2014 was overstated, that Brees has made successful receivers out of his players in the past (whoever they were), that the Saints have had a good running game recently, and that pass-to-run ratio tells us nothing about expected passing production.
Yes, there is a changing of the guard happening in New Orleans, but you shouldn't write off Brees just yet, and you certainly shouldn't be surprised if he's a top-three quarterback yet again despite these perceived challenges.