Mike McCoy: Quarterback Whisperer
By hiring Mike McCoy, the Chargers did not net a big-name new coach. While Andy Reid and Chip Kelly were greeted with substantial fanfare and coverage, McCoyâ€™s hiring slid more under the radar. But he brings one distinct skill, and itâ€™s a skill that Chargers fans and potential Philip Rivers fantasy owners should be optimistic about: throughout his career, Mike McCoy has been able to coax career years out of otherwise middling quarterbacks.
The Carolina Years
McCoy first started coaching with the Panthers in 2000, but it wasnâ€™t until 2004 that he started working with quarterbacks. He eventually earned the title of offensive assistant coach and then passing game coordinator until in 2007, before he left for Denver in 2008. During his tenure, Carolina made the playoffs three times, including a Super Bowl appearance and an NFC Championship Game loss. McCoy obviously isnâ€™t responsible for all of the teamâ€™s success, but he clearly had a positive impact on the passing game.
In McCoyâ€™s first year working with the quarterbacks, Jake Delhomme put up a career year, throwing for 3,886 yards, 29 TDs against 16 interceptions, with a 58.2 completion percentage. Delhomme also put up 70.61 Net Expected Points (NEP) that year â€“ or 70 points better than the average quarterback. That year he had a stellar .12 NEP/pass, which wouldâ€™ve doubled Andrew Luck and Joe Flaccoâ€™s 2012 outputs. (It should be noted that Luck and Flacco also play in an NFL with more wide open passing offenses.)
Delhomme posted another strong year in 2005, the year the Panthers lost in the NFC Championship Game to the Seahawks, with another .12 NEP/pass performance. He had a down year in 2006, then got off to a hot start in 2007 before an elbow injury shelved him for the season. In 2008, McCoyâ€™s final year with the team, Delhomme posted a .11 NEP/pass rate, back to his peak levels.
After McCoy left the team, Delhommeâ€™s career began a sharp decline, although whether that can be attributed to McCoyâ€™s influence or Delhommeâ€™s advancing age (he was 34 that year) is up for debate. Whatâ€™s not debatable is this: Mike McCoy was able to turn relatively uninspiring Jake Delhomme into a well above-league-average quarterback. McCoyâ€™s Carolina years featured teams that finished 3rd and 9th in the NFL in Adjusted Pass NEP (2005 and 2004, respectively.) Jake Delhomme once helmed the leagueâ€™s third-best passing offense.
Rocky Mountain High
When McCoy joined the Broncos in 2008, he came onboard as the Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach. There, he once again inherited a so-so quarterback and got a career year out of him.
This time, the unlikely hero was Kyle Orton. Orton entered the 2009 season coming off a respectable but middling year with Chicago in which he averaged just 6.4 yards per attempt. McCoy turned him into an offensive force in Denver, where he promptly put up 3,802 yards, with 21 TDs against 12 interceptions all while completing 62.1 percent of his passes. The yards, touchdowns and completion percentage would all prove to be career highs. (This is barring some sort of Kurt Warner-type late career renaissance.)
Orton was nearly as good in 2010, when he threw for 3,653 yards, 20 touchdowns and just 9 picks, with a 58.8 completion percentage. In those two years with Denver, Orton put up NEPs/pass of .05 and .06, which again, is what Flacco and Luck did last year. And again, Orton played the best football of his career under Mike McCoy.
The next case study is a strange one. It is a statistical outlier, bolstered by an excellent defense, a lot of luck and possible divine intervention. Its name is Tim Tebow.
Look, no matter how you crunch the numbers, Tebow is just not a good quarterback. The 2011 Denver Broncos â€“ the Tebow season â€“ won the pathetic AFC West with an 8-8 record, and then stunned the Steelers in overtime in the playoffs. (Hey Nik and JJ!) Our numbers hated Tebow â€“ they pegged him for an impressive -55.53 NEP that year, meaning he cost his team more than 55 points through the air compared to an average quarterback. The immortal Blaine Gabbert only managed to put up -36.9 NEP last year, making him look like Dan Marino in comparison. (If anyone was wondering, Mark Sanchez put up a stupefying -65.98 last year. He's going into camp as the presumptive starter. J-E-T-S!)
But McCoy is the only person on the planet to coax decent(ish) football out of Tebow. He threw for 1,729 yards with 12 TDs and just six interceptions. And thereâ€™s got to be something said for putting Tebow in a position where he couldnâ€™t singlehandedly sink the team, right? Letâ€™s just move on. Iâ€™m relatively confident McCoy doesnâ€™t exactly highlight the Tebow era on his resume.
Of course, last year, McCoy finally got a top-flight QB to work with in Peyton Manning. But that wasnâ€™t without itâ€™s challenges either. Manning was coming off a major neck surgery and he missed the entire 2011 season. He visibly wasnâ€™t himself the first couple weeks until he regained some of the velocity on his ball.
Itâ€™s not exactly hard to coach Peyton Manning. But he did put up career second-bests in yardage (4,659), touchdowns (37) and completion percentage (68.6 percent) last year, which has got to count for something. Manning met up with McCoy and suddenly had his best year since 2004, even though he was coming off a major injury.
Manning also put up 164.88 NEP last year, which was 30 points better than Aaron Rodgers, 20 points better than Drew Brees, and seven points better than Matt Ryan. (The Falcons were really, really good last season, even though they always get slept on.) The only QB to put up better numbers than Manning last year was Tom Brady. Oh, and that 164 number was the fourth-best of Manningâ€™s career. The McCoy effect strikes again.
The Philip Rivers Reclamation Project
So what does this all mean for Philip Rivers? As Chargers fans know, Rivers has seen his play fall off significantly the past couple seasons. Maybe its Vincent Jacksonâ€™s departure, maybe itâ€™s a constantly banged-up Antonio Gates or maybe it was an inert Norv Turner on the sideline. But one thingâ€™s for sure: Rivers has seen his yards per attempt decline every season since 2009. Take a look at the chart below to see how heâ€™s gone from one of the gameâ€™s biggest downfield threats to a checkdown specialist.
In 2012, Rivers posted a meager 16.93 NEP. That put him in the same ballpark as Andy Dalton and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Not good for a guy who used to put up seasons comparable to Manning and Brady. The Chargers have invested enough money in Rivers (about a $17 million cap hit in 2013) that heâ€™s basically untradeable. Heâ€™s also just about their only realistic path back to the playoffs. This all calls for some of the Mike McCoy magic quarterback improvement dust that heâ€™s used in the past.
Rivers will be by far the second-best quarterback McCoy has worked with in his career. Every single quarterback Mike McCoy has worked with has seen a significant boost in productivity in their first year working together. Finally, for Chargers fans driven crazy by years of Norv exposure, there is reason to be optimistic about the guy on the sideline.