Are We Overreacting to Teddy Bridgewater’s 2015 Struggles?
My parents always told me as a kid “if something’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing." I always try to set the bar high for myself in life. I tell myself that good wasn’t good enough because I can achieve perfection. When a boss asked if I could get something done by the end of the week, I told them I could do it by the end of the day. If my cross-country coaches wanted me to run five sprints, I did eight.
Setting my expectations that high, though, can leave myself open for disappointment when I’m reminded that I’m not Superman. Even though one of us might achieve something great in life, if we were expecting perfection, we will be disappointed. This is perceived failure, and it feels just as awful as the real thing.
When Teddy Bridgewater was drafted in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft and anointed as the quarterback of the future for the Minnesota Vikings, he came with a lot of expectation. Now, despite all the promise of development, Bridgewater hasn't developed into the passing machine that his peers Derek Carr and Blake Bortles have. Vikings fans are getting nervous because of the expectation of greatness.
With two years under his belt, we have to wonder: should we be concerned about Teddy Bridgewater?
Hang in There, Baby!
A few years ago, in 2011, the Vikings spent another first-round pick on another mobile passer lacking in top-notch arm strength -- Christian Ponder -- and that ended up blowing up spectacularly for them. It’s fair for Minnesota to be worried about its latest quarterback investment in theory, but has Bridgewater really done anything to warrant this concern?
We can examine just how impactful he has been for his team by using numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) analytic. NEP is an analytic helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player or team did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Bridgewater passes for five-yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.
By looking at Bridgewater’s Passing Net Expected Points over the last two years, we can get a sense of his developmental trajectory so far. The table below shows the raw versions of these, as well as Passing NEP per drop back and his Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of passing plays that result in a positive gain of NEP. Has Bridgewater really stalled out?
|Year||Drop Backs||Pass NEP||Pass NEP/Drop Back||Pass Success Rate|
Sure enough, Bridgewater took a small step back in his Passing NEP per drop back rate and Passing Success Rate from his rookie season to sophomore one, but this small of a drop hardly seems like cause for panic.
The real concern is that Bridgewater was expected to take a step forward with the return of Adrian Peterson at running back. It was thought that Peterson’s dominant rushing presence would force opposing safeties to stack the box and defend against the run, and therefore open up the field for Bridgewater to pass more. Unfortunately, this clearly wasn’t that cut-and-dry of a solution.
We can possibly attribute a small part of this regression in rate to his increased volume of drop backs, which saw him add 50 more passing chances in his second year. His 441 drop backs in his rookie year were a statistically significant amount, though, so it seems unlikely that this decline was a way out-of-whack 2014 coming back down to earth.
A likelier reason for this downturn is a change in the team situation or a change in the offensive scheme’s focus. If we can nail down whether anything significant in the Vikings’ team situation shifted, we can figure out if Bridgewater’s sophomore slump was real.
Keep Calm and Carry On
The first shift in the Vikings’ offense from 2014 to 2015 is obvious: Adrian Peterson played. After Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon split 277 carries in 2014 (and the running backs as a whole rushed 323 times), Peterson took on 327 rushes himself in 2015 (414 total). This was expected, and the passing attack lost 70 plays as part of this surge in rushing emphasis.
There is a weak-to-moderate correlation between increased team Adjusted Rushing NEP per-play and team Adjusted Passing NEP per-play (0.38) -- rushing efficiency to passing efficiency on a per-play basis -- but there’s little to suggest that this change greatly influenced the passing game for the Vikings.
Rather, let’s look at Bridgewater’s statistics and see if anything changed about his profile.
The table below shows his passing yards per drop back, completion rate, touchdown rate, and interception rate. Also, thanks to Pro Football Focus, I was able to pull up his Aimed Completion Rate (percent of on-target passes completed) and Average Depth of Target (the average distance he threw when targeting a receiver, known as aDOT).
Does anything in Bridgewater’s profile indicate a reason for an NEP slump?
In nearly every way, Bridgewater improved -- even if slightly -- from Year 1 to Year 2. He drastically cut down on his interceptions in 2015, dropping 0.80 percentage points off his rookie mark, increased his passing yards per drop back, and even upping his completion rates. The two areas where he regressed were in touchdown rate and Average Depth of Target.
What does this mean? Touchdowns can vary pretty wildly season to season for a passer. Peyton Manning has a standard deviation for his touchdown rates over his career of 1.49 percent. That means that the average amount his touchdown rate will vary from his career average in any given season is roughly 1.49 percent of his drop backs. That’s the difference between throwing 55 touchdowns in his record-setting 2013 season and throwing about 45 that year instead. A 0.25 percent decrease in touchdown rate is hardly anything to be scared of.
The real sink for Bridgewater’s NEP value appears to come from his diminished Average Depth of Target, which means that, on average, he threw shorter passes this past season than he did in his rookie year. It makes sense why this was the case: four wide receivers with at least 20 targets on the team in 2014 had aDOT’s of 10.0 yards or more. Charles Johnson, Greg Jennings, Jarius Wright, and Cordarrelle Patterson were all functioning further downfield in 2014. In 2015, only Mike Wallace and Stefon Diggs had aDOT’s passing the 10.0-yard mark.
The added emphasis on running the ball likely allowed Bridgewater not to take more deep shots, but instead took pressure off him to throw deep. Instead of opening up the deep third, the improved rushing attack gave Bridgewater a chance to just focus on moving the chains, making higher-percentage throws that boosted his completion rates and helped lower his interception rate.
In reality, the Vikings’ passing efficiency didn't diminish in 2015; it actually improved. The schedule-adjusted Passing NEP per play as a team went from -0.01 in 2014, when Matt Cassel started the first four games of the year, to 0.06 in 2015.
So, yes, the concern about Bridgewater is a bit overblown. His receiving corps diminished last year, and he still improved his peripheral rate stats despite that. Adding in a new receiving weapon like rookie Laquon Treadwell will only help him in 2016 and beyond. Perhaps Bridgewater will peak as a game manager type of quarterback and we'll have to lower our expectations for him, but the fact of the matter is that he's improving as a passer incrementally and not detracting from his team along the way.