Throwing the Football Down the Field

Photo Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

This story was 97% done before the Carson Wentz “cracked vertebrae” story came out, but I figured I’d go ahead and finish it anyway.

On Monday morning, I mentioned an awkward exchange between the Inquirer’s Jeff McLane and Eagles head coach Doug Pederson. It was just one of many awkward exchanges between the pair this season. In fact, every exchange between these two feels awkward.

McLane asked Pederson about Wentz and how his average pass per length has dropped off this season. Jeff’s number was 7.68 yards this year, compared to 9.91 last season.

Pederson sort of shrugged off the question but ultimately answered it. Here’s the full exchange:

Q. You talked about QB Carson Wentz’s improved accuracy, yet his average pass per length has dropped from 9.91 yards per attempt to 7.68. How do you explain that? (Jeff McLane)

PEDERSON: I would have to look at all the attempts and see if it’s design, if it’s scheme.

Q. Is he taking too much underneath? Is he not trying to push the ball down field enough? (Jeff McLane)

PEDERSON: Again, without looking at the coverage, coverage dictates where the ball goes; blitz dictates where the ball goes. If it’s down the field, he’s going to throw it down the field. You have to play quarterback in this league. Every play can’t be designed to get you 20-plus yards. That’s foolish.

Q. So you’re saying that defenses are taking away the deep ball? (Jeff McLane)

PEDERSON: Defenses are playing defense. You’re confusing to me, because if you play quarterback in this league, the mentality is you take what the defense gives you. That’s the mentality. If it happens to be a back or tight end underneath, then you know what? First and second-down, we stay ahead of the chains. We get a chance to stay on the field on third-down. If that affects the overall, then it’s probably going to affect the overall. But at the end of the day, I would rather take a win over a two-yard discrepancy or whatever you got there.

Doug is right; you’d have to watch 11 games worth of all-22 film and dissect all of the defensive coverages, every play call, every route run by every receiver to get a true understanding of why this is happening. And then you factor in the back and ACL injuries and wonder if Carson can even consistently chuck the football beyond 40 yards.

But it definitely is happening. There’s no disputing that. I’m not sure specifically where McLane’s number comes from, but the NFL tracks air yards at their Next Gen Stats page, and this is where Wentz ranks in a couple of categories, after the jump:

  • 5.8 average completed air yards (20th)
  • 7.8 average intended air yards (19th)
  • -2 air yard differential (21st)
  • 55 yards for longest completed air distance (13th)
  • -1.1 average air yards to the sticks (22nd)

Allow me to explain some of the jargon here.

‘Average completed air yards’ is basically how far Carson is throwing the ball downfield on completed passes only (no duh). The ‘intended air yards’ is how far he’s throwing on all of his attempts. You see he’s a bottom-half quarterback in both of those categories.

The differential is easy enough to explain. That’s just the disparity in his total attempts versus the distance of his actual completions. For context, Josh Allen and Jameis Winston have the two worst differentials in the league, because they have big arms and throw a lot of deep stuff that just doesn’t connect. Carson is very close to Alex Smith in all three air yard categories, which is where you don’t necessarily want to be, because Smith is considered a dinking and dunking “game manager” type of quarterback. I guess it depends on whether you like your QB to be a “game manager” or not, but I don’t, not unless you have 2-3 YAC monsters catching swing passes.

On the flip side, I think those three stats explain why Carson’s completion percentage is so high. His 69.6 number is fourth best in the league. Obviously if you throw a lot of shorter, higher percentage stuff, that number goes up. You take more risks, it goes down. Jared Goff and Pat Mahomes are good examples of this dichotomy, because their completion percentages aren’t great but they are both top-eight in each air yard category.

As for longest completed air distance, that one is self explanatory. Carson’s bomb to Shelton Gibson in week five is the chunkiest pass he’s thrown all season, a pass that he hurled from his own 25-yard line to the Vikings’ 20-yard line.

The ‘air yards to the sticks’ is interesting, as it measures whether or not a QB is throwing short of the first down marker or throwing beyond it. Wentz is -1.1 yards on average, which means he’s a little more reliant on his guys using their feet after the catch to move the chains. I think a lot of the Eagles bread-and-butter slant plays have been a bit short and sloppy this year, which explains why they haven’t been as good on third downs.

As another example, Eli Manning and C.J. Beathard are the worst AYTS quarterbacks in the league, throwing 2.3 yards short on average. The only six guys who are throwing beyond the sticks on average are Allen and Winston, plus Ryan Fitzpatrick (another gunslinger), Goff, Mahomes, and Mitchell Trubisky.

You can get a little more detailed when looking through Carson’s charts.

In the Sunday loss, he only threw the ball four times beyond 20 yards, completing that big 4th quarter pass to Nelson Agholor but missing on the three other attempts:

You see 13 of his 22 completions took place within 10 yards of or behind the line of scrimmage, with a good chunk of stuff coming right around the hashmarks.

Here are his charts from the wins against New York and Washington in the prior two weeks:

Still not a lot of downfield stuff, right?

He completed one pass of 20+ yards in four attempts from those two games combined. You see a lot of green to his left down the seam, which is where Zach Ertz thrives.

So, no, he’s not pushing the ball down the field, not with any regularity or consistency. Is it his back? Is it the repaired knee? Is it the coverage that defenses are showing him? Do the Eagles simply not have a deep threat in the receiving corps?

It’s probably a little bit of everything. Actually, I should use past tense if Carson is seemingly done for the season:

It was probably a little bit of all of that.

This Sunday we’ll get a chance to see if Nick “the Franchise” Foles takes a few downfield cracks, and that will help us determine if this Eagles shortcoming was more about Carson or more about all of the other involved factors.

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5 Responses

  1. I watched this presser live and couldn’t believe McLane even asked this question. I think this is where analytics go overboard. Of all the issues after that Dallas game how is this question even asked? Did he really expect a coherent answer mid-season? Wentz can only throw the ball to where the receivers are in their routes and how open they are. The season is basically lost and this geek is asking the head coach about a 2.23 yard difference in passing.

    1. I don’t think he helped himself with the phrasing. He asked about Carson’s accuracy being up, but obviously a quarterback’s accuracy is going to increase if he’s throwing the ball shorter distances…

      Beyond that, Doug clearly doesn’t like talking to Jeff, so he’s now painted into a corner where any question he asks, fair or not, is met with a combination of disdain and disinterest.

    2. I could not disagree more. Even if you dont complete the pass, when u dont throw down field, it shortens the field and make the offense all the more predictable. It’s not a coincidence that Ertz is on pace for 120 catches.

  2. I can’t believe we are still talking about the eagles after carson wentz broke his back sky diving off of the empire state building
    during his day off.
    I’m not sure how he even managed that considering his arm got chewed off by that shark at the camden aquarium fish ‘feeding’ incident
    before during.

    None of this stuff is over blown or secretive or rumour mongering or made up to get this site
    up to 98 million hits/month.

    Its all true. Just schefty, goodell and the eagles front office.

  3. They lack a speedster deep threat . Like the one who got hurt pre-season. Like the one Chip got rid of. Like Todd Pinkston.

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