Tom Brady was the runaway leader in throwaways last year with 40. Behind him? Aaron Rodgers with 31.
Plenty of people chalked those numbers up to pissiness. The legends didn’t like what their minions were doing so they pulled the plug on the play and threw it into the second concourse.
And maybe there were a tiny handful of those mixed in.
A more reasonable explanation? They didn’t have anyone to throw to. So pulling the ripcord on those plays and living to fight another down was a better option than putting a possession in danger.
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We can and will armchair quarterback on whether they were both setting their sights too high. But part of the reason they are both considered to be on the short list of the best that have ever played is their decision-making — they are first and third in career TD-INT ratio. They know what they’re looking at.
A lot of factors can lead to receivers failing to gain separation — defensive scheme, down-and-distance, pass protection, how many potent skill position players defenses need to worry about. But having below-average speed is obviously going to be a primary factor.
And the Packers and Patriots were — relative to the rest of the NFL real slow at receiver in 2019. They project to be the same in 2020.
Thursday night, Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout and an NFL Network analyst, shared this research on Twitter.
We pulled 40 times for every team in the league and projected their lineup in 11 personnel (1RB, 1TE & 3WR) for 2020 season. Here are the 5 fastest groups in the league:
Here are the 5 slowest teams (based on 40 times) in 11 personnel for 2020 season:
The 11 personnel projected for the Patriots was Julian Edelman (4.52 estimated), Mohamed Sanu (4.67) and N’Keal Harry (4.53) at wide receiver with Sony Michel (4.54) at running back and Devin Asiasi (4.73) at tight end. Even if the projection were Matt LaCosse instead of Asiasi or Rex Burkhead instead of Michel, it wouldn’t make much difference. They all timed similarly in the 40.
Some of the times are estimated. And Jeremiah told me he would have preferred to use MPH but that stat isn’t yet available in college so the projection would have been too difficult. The Patriots were one of the only teams with no players timed or estimated under 4.5.
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What does it mean? To me it means that the lack of speed led to lack of separation leading to throwaways. For both quarterbacks.
Going deeper on Brady’s 2019 numbers shows two other really interesting stats. Patriots receivers were second in the NFL in drops with 34. So 74 of Brady’s passes — practically three games' worth — were either thrown away or dropped. That’s mind-blowing.
Further, Brady was — according to the Pro Football Reference chart I’m leaning on — third in the NFL in bad throws with 118. That was just behind Jameis Winston and Jared Goff, just ahead of Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Mitch Trubisky, Baker Mayfield, Andy Dalton and Kyler Murray.
I mean, two of these guys — Brady and Rodgers — are not like the others. So why? Why did they both throw it away so often and have so many bad throws?
To me, it’s primarily the lack of speed.
Bad throws may not have been counted as throwaways. But if the window is tight and the quarterback throws it to the edge of a receiver’s catch-radius where only he can get it, he’ll miss more often than if he can throw right at a receiver’s chest.
But it’s also a matter of geometry and offensive balance. The Patriots didn’t have that in 2019 as they had in the past.
Astute Patriots fans — and there are many — who’ve gotten this far have already pointed out that the Patriots aren’t a burner-based offense. Short-area quickness is the coin of the realm and that is most often indicated by the three-cone drill the Patriots hold in high regard.
But that short-area quickness can be negated by sending more humans at the guy who has it. Like Julian Edelman. Or James White.
Without a seam-threatening tight end like Rob Gronkowski. Without an outside-the-numbers wideout who threatens downfield like Brandin Cooks. With only complementary targets like Chris Hogan or Phillip Dorsett who can be limited without the best secondary defenders being utilized, outsized focus goes to a player like Edelman.
Brady’s not going to throw it into a team meeting.
So it then falls to the other wideouts to get open and catch the ball — the two most important skills a wideout can bring according to Bill Belichick.
There were barriers to the receivers being effective.
With Isaiah Wynn injured before the season began, left tackle was a tremendous weak spot for the team for much of the year. That hadn’t happened for an extended period in Brady’s 19 seasons. Protection breakdowns happened early and often and the time necessary for not-terribly-fast players to uncover wasn’t afforded.
Center David Andrews was lost and the dropoff to Ted Karras was significant. Neither Shaq Mason nor Marcus Cannon played at the level the Patriots were accustomed to. The tight end position was a liability in both the running and passing games. So the Patriots struggled to run the ball effectively (3.7 YPC was their lowest average since 2005, matching the 2015 season) and second-and-10 or third-and-8 was routine.
So what’s the upshot for 2020 with, presumably, Jarrett Stidham at quarterback?
There’s been a lot of “looking on the bright side” in the past couple of weeks.
From Mike Tannenbaum saying the Patriots have arguably the best stable of running backs in the league to Christian Fauria saying the Patriots are better off without Brady to Mike Reiss saying there are folks around the team who think the “totality of the offense” can improve post-Brady to Greg Bedard saying the Patriots could have the best offensive line in the league, it’s raining optimism.
But I think the ineptitude of the Patriots offense in 2019 — especially as the team went 4-5 in its final nine games — is being glossed over as a temporary condition.
With Andrews and Wynn back, a healthy Harry, a well-rooted Sanu, a healed-up Edelman, the addition of the rookie tight ends, things are looking bright. There's also an offseason add who everyone should keep an eye on — former Arizona burner Damiere Byrd.
And Stidham’s mobility relative to Brady means the Patriots have a quarterback who may be able to move the pocket a bit, throw on the run, buy time, restart plays and give the offense a new personality.
That’s how the thinking seems to go.
That’s a very rosy outlook for a team that just lost a guy who was MVP two years ago and went from having the best tight end ever to virtually no tight end at all. Never mind the Cooks and Danny Amendola losses which weren’t sufficiently off set.
I will buy the Stidham part. The Patriots are intent on making their scheme more dynamic (we’ll see how the pandemic alters that) and Stidham is a new dog who may be able to do some new tricks we haven’t even considered. There is true optimism in Foxboro about that.
But even if everyone makes healthy returns and takes that presumed developmental leap, the fact remains that the skill position players aren’t dynamically fast.
Pressure will be there for Stidham to be accurate enough to get tight-window completions Brady was able to get routinely. And he has to be smart enough to realize that he can’t put the team’s strength — its defense — at a disadvantage by just slingin’ it and winding up with turnovers.
Having guys with great 40 times doesn’t mean you will win a ton of games. The Packers were in the NFC Championship last year and the Patriots went 12-4. They were slow and still are.
Referring back to Jeremiah’s info, the Giants, Broncos and Panthers have/had some of the fastest skill guys in the league. None of them made the playoffs. The Chiefs and Texans are the other two in the top five.
But consider this. Those teams with slowish skill guys that made the playoffs? They had legends at quarterback. The teams with fast skill guys that didn’t? They had new guys at quarterback.
How will it look for the Patriots with the combo of a new guy throwing to slow guys?
That’s what we’re going to find out.