Thursday, October 15, 2015

Is Teddy Bridgewater the Answer?

Three years ago to the day, I wrote an article claiming that Christian Ponder was not the Vikings answer at quarterback. He was doing well at the time (I know that's hard to believe) and some Vikings fans were mad. I think I got more mean-spirited tweets and emails for that one article than everything else I've written combined. I was surprised, mostly because Ponder didn't really look good, even when he'd have decent numbers thanks to Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson. But some people just really wanted the Vikings to have a franchise quarterback, and they let me know Ponder was the man. My point isn't that I'm a genius and others are fools. The point is with all of the available statistics today, it's less difficult than in the past to predict a quarterbacks future success if you know what stats to look for.

Today, I'm going to take a look at Teddy Bridgewater. Mean-spirited emails are welcomed, but I like the nice ones more.

Unfortunately, one of my favorite advanced quarterback stats, Average Yards per Pass Attempt (AYPA) isn't available this year because the website that has tracked that stat over the last few years (Advance Football Analytics) is merging with ESPN. I would've preferred to use the same stats to evaluate Teddy as I did with Ponder, but there's plenty of other statistics that can be used. I just was a big fan of AYPA.

In place of it, we will be looking at Pro Football Reference's Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt (ANYA). Unlike AYPA, ANYA doesn't do a great job adjusting for screens and dump offs that become big plays. However, it factors in sacks, interceptions and touchdowns in the formula, and in general a better ANYA correlates with more wins better than almost any other QB stat. For reference, Aaron Rodgers led all of football last season with an ANYA of 8.65. During Ponder's first two seasons, his ANYA was an abysmal 4.71, which would have ranked 33rd last season.

As a rookie, Bridgewater finished 27th in this stat, at 5.46. Rookie seasons from quarterbacks really don't mean a whole lot, because almost every rookie struggles, so it's hard to fault Bridgewater for finishing near the bottom of the league. What's more important is if he's shown improvement early this season, or if he's taken a step back.

To this point, Bridgewater has regressed. His ANYA is down to 4.77 this season, ranking 31st in the league. The Vikings have only played 4 games, thanks to a bye this past weekend, so there's a chance the sample size is simply too small after only 1/4 of the season. There are bigger name quarterbacks below Bridgewater, such as Matthew Stafford, Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck. Ryan Mallett is in 35th, dead last. Luck's struggles are almost certainly because of a more serious shoulder injury than the team led on. He's too good to be as bad as he's been when he's played. What's interesting to me is that Stafford, Kaepernick and Mallett have three of the strongest throwing arms in football, but their decision making and accuracy make them a liability more often than not. Bridgewater is considered the opposite; someone with a below average throwing arm but very good decision making and accuracy.

One factor hurting Bridgewater's ANYA rating is that the Vikings have been extremely conservative with Adrian Peterson back in the fold. Bridgewater has thrown just 115 passes in 4 games, the lowest in the league for anyone playing at least 4 games. Andrew Luck has thrown 116 passes in just 3 games, with a bum shoulder. Touchdowns are important, and Bridgewater has only thrown 2. I don't think anyone expects him to only throw 8 touchdowns over 16 games, so the touchdowns should increase.

Another factor is that Bridgewater's pocket presence seems overstated. Due to the fact that Christian Ponder never had any pocket presence, and the Gophers Mitch Leidner can barely be called a quarterback, people overstated Teddy's ability because he clearly looks so much better than those two in the pocket. He's been sacked at an alarmingly high rate for someone who's supposed to be more of a game manager, meaning he's taking one and three-step drops and making quick throws. Those plays are designed to avoid sacks. However, after posting an 8.8% sack percentage as a rookie, he's up to 10.2% this season. Ryan Fitzpatrick leads the league in sack percentage, being sacked on only 1.4% of his pass attempts this season. That's remarkable, and not really surprising since the Jets are playing conservatively as well, and Fitzpatrick is almost certainly the smartest quarterback in the league. The only quarterbacks worse than Bridgewater this season are Russell Wilson and Alex Smith, which suggests offensive lines play a larger role than the quarterbacks decision making does, which is a good sign for Bridgewater. That said, the Vikings aren't just going to suddenly find a ton of stud offensive lineman, so Teddy might have to make due with what he has and start making quicker decisions. Hopefully that will come with experience.

If Teddy's TD:INT ratio can go from 1:1 (where it currently sits) to something close to 2.5:1, and he can get his sack percentage down to about 7.5%, the Vikings will win a lot of football games, regardless of his arm strength. As fun as the years of Randy Moss and company were, a great defensive team like the Vikings are building generally wins bigger games and for longer periods of time. Bridgewater fits into the system, and if he can continue to improve, the Vikings are in good hands. And while progression seems natural, plenty of quarterbacks regress. RGIII, Ponder, etc. the list could go on and on. Which way will Bridgewater go? Feel free to discuss in the comments.