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More to Sam Bradford’s struggles than it appears

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In Chip Kelly’s first season with the Philadelphia Eagles, back in 2013, Nick Foles was the toast of the league after throwing 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Foles regressed in 2014, splitting time with Mark Sanchez and throwing 10 interceptions to 13 touchdowns. That was enough for Kelly, who traded Foles to acquire Sam Bradford. Through seven starts, Bradford has just nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. What so ails the 2015 Eagles pass game, and how is it different than 2014’s struggles?

The Declining Efficiency Numbers

Touchdown and interception totals are very incomplete measures of a quarterback’s statistical production. Better numbers still tell a similar story. Two superior metrics are the simpler adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A), which takes sacks, touchdowns, and interceptions into account, and the more advanced Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which adjust for down and distance and also quality of opponent. Table 1 shows the declining production of the Eagles’ quarterback over the past three seasons.

Table 1. Philadelphia Quarterback Efficiency, 2013-2015

Year QB DVOA (rank) ANY/A (rank)
2013 Foles 35.6% (2nd of 45) 9.18 (1st of 38)
2014 Foles 1.8% (20th of 44) 5.93 (20th of 34)
2015 Bradford -16.2% (25th of 32) 4.88 (31st of 33)

The More Complicated Sack Picture

One of the hidden issues Foles had in 2013 was he was sacked at a very high rate. Among the 45 passers ranked by Football Outsiders, he had the eighth-highest adjusted sack rate (ASR), which accounts for down and distance and opponent quality. He did a much better job of getting the ball out quickly last year and had lowest ASR in the league. Bradford’s 2015 performance unsurprisingly comes out between those extremes, as the Eagles rank a respectable 13th in ASR.

Keep in mind, though, the sack numbers are already accounted for in both DVOA and ANY/A. Foles’ spectacular 2013 efficiency numbers came despite the high sack rate, and he was just average in 2014 despite the extremely low sack rate. Bradford would be even worse if he were being sacked at a higher rate.

Deep Ball Struggles

Early last season, I examined Foles’ problems on deep balls — those throws more than 15 yards downfield. That has been a continuing problem area for Bradford. The Eagles currently rank 29th by DVOA on deep passes. That is actually a downgrade from last year, where they ranked 23rd.

One of the particular issues for Foles was his inconsistency. By success rate, which I used last week in covering Peyton Manning’s early struggles, Foles ranked eighth-worst among the 32 passers with the most deep attempts. Bradford is sixth-worst this year among the 32 passers with the most deep attempts.

Bradford is actually doing better than Foles on particularly deep passes, those more than 25 yards downfield, but only 3.9 percent of his throws have traveled that far compared to 11.0 percent of Foles’ 2014 attempts. Meanwhile, Bradford has been abysmal on passes between 21 and 25 yards downfield. In that interval, he is 0-17 with two interceptions and one successful play, a pass interference penalty.

Bradford’s Strength-Short Passes

Roughly half of NFL throws these days are attempted no more than five yards downfield. Bradford comes out just barely better than average on those passes. Among the 33 passers with the most attempts, he ranks just 16th. Just average, though, is a significant upgrade on 2014 Nick Foles.

Last year, among the 33 passers with at least 100 such attempts, Foles ranked 32nd in DVOA, ahead of only Josh McCown. This area more than any other might have been where Foles’ struggles precipitated his departure, and the Eagles have improved here.

Bradford’s Other Struggle: Intermediate Passes

Though Bradford has been better on short passes, he has not matched what Foles did on just slightly longer throws. Bradford has been dismal on throws 6-15 yards downfield, ranking third-worst by DVOA.

This is in sharp contrast to Foles, who perhaps surprisingly given his struggles on very short passes was the most efficient passer in the league in this area last year.

Context May Matter Most

Bradford has been worse than Foles was last year on those short-to-intermediate passes. It is worth mentioning, though, that Foles is one of those two quarterbacks who has been worse than Bradford on those passes this year. Playing for the Rams is different than playing for Chip Kelly’s Eagles.

The 2015 Eagles offensive line and especially the run game are not the 2014 or 2013 Eagles offensive line and run game. DeSean Jackson was the gamebreaker for the 2013 Eagles passing game. The fall in the deep-pass game from 2013 to 2014 was partly the result of his absence, but Jeremy Maclin was a gamebreaker in his own way. It is not clear the 2015 Eagles have any such gamebreaker. First-round pick Nelson Agholor has just eight catches. Bradford’s most efficient receiver to date by Football Outsiders’ numbers has been Miles Austin.

Perhaps the Eagles can use their bye week the Broncos did, and fix aspects of their offense that have not been working. More offensive line consistency should help. So would another player emerging as a consistent player, whether the rarely-used Austin or Agholor or anybody else, as would a more threatening run game. Like Denver, a good defense, third-best per Football Outsiders, means the offense only has to be so good. But it has to be better than it has been or it will be too late to mount a playoff push even in the NFC East.

The NFL’s final 4 all overcame injuries to star players

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The list of players sitting out this weekend’s conference championships is almost as impressive as the starting lineups: Julian Edelman. Carson Wentz. Dalvin Cook. Dont'a Hightower. Allen Robinson. Sam Bradford.

Following the NFL’s season of carnage that claimed the likes of, among others, Aaron Rodgers, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and Joe Thomas, this year’s final four all overcame not only the odds – “Minneapolis Miracle , anyone?” – but devastating injuries to key starters.

“We have a tough and resilient team,” Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long said of the NFC’s top seed , which is missing its second-year QB in Wentz, an MVP hopeful when he blew out a knee in December.

Even before Wentz’s injury thrust backup Nick Foles into the starting job for the playoffs, the Eagles lost nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, playmaking middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, versatile return specialist Darren Sproles, and special teams captain Chris Maragos.

Yet, here they are, 60 minutes from Minneapolis and Super Bowl 52.

“I think that starts at the top with Doug, because he sets the tone for being resilient and even keeled,” Long said of his coach, Doug Pederson. “At the end of the day, we have a tough group of guys.”

So do the Minnesota Vikings, who are trying to reach their first Super Bowl in more than four decades and fulfill mantra to “Bring it Home” and become the first NFL team to play the title game in its own stadium.

And they’re doing so behind Case Keenum, who crashed Tom Brady‘s playoff party along with fellow perennial backup Foles and Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles.

Together, the four quarterbacks left standing have a combined five Super Bowl rings, two NFL MVP awards and four Super Bowl MVP trophies. Brady, of course, owns all of that hardware himself.

Such is the panorama of these playoffs following a season of pain in which so many superstars were rendered sideline spectators with broken bones, snapped ligaments, torn muscles.

Keenum replaced an injured Bradford, who had replaced an injured Teddy Bridgewater. Bradford, now back in uniform as Keenum’s backup, blew out a knee in the first month of the season, as did rookie running back in Cook, who needed reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL.

Behind resilient coach Mike Zimmer , who resisted the urge to quit just before he got the Vikings’ head coaching gig in 2014, Minnesota rolled right along. Keenum deftly took over for Bradford, and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray became a productive backfield tandem.

“We’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team,” Zimmer said. “They’ve been a resilient bunch all year long. I expect it to continue to be that way.”

The Patriots are also a bunch of fighters; they reached their seventh straight AFC title game despite losing Edelman, Brady’s top target, to a torn ACL in the preseason, and Hightower to a torn chest muscle in November.

Play caller Josh McDaniels and Brady, who led New England to a fifth Super Bowl title last year despite the absence of Rob Gronkowski, adjusted accordingly to Edelman’s absence with another terrific year.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy stepped in for Hightower and ranked third on the team with 73 tackles and second with 5+ sacks despite missing three of the final five games with a calf injury.

Van Noy’s sack total was just a half-sack shy of Hightower’s career high set in 2014.

“The thing about K.V. is he’s very versatile,” said Patriots safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty. “So we’ve used him a bunch of different ways. … He’s been a big asset to our team.”

The Jaguars are the healthiest of the remaining playoff teams. They have only one opening-day starter on injured reserve: former Pro Bowl receiver Robinson, who tore his left ACL on Jacksonville’s opener.

Four months removed from reconstructive surgery, Robinson is now traveling with the team, so he’ll be on the sideline Sunday at New England, serving as a mentor to a raw receiving corps.

“Every person in this locker room put in a lot of work to get to this point, with me being one of them,” said Robinson, who was poised for another big year after dominating the league’s best secondary in training camp.

His injury on Jacksonville’s third offensive snap created a huge void for the offense. Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns tried to pick up the slack, but they ended up on the sideline at one point with injuries, too, leaving rookies Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook to assume bigger roles.

Cole, an undrafted rookie from tiny Kentucky Wesleyan, had 42 catches for 748 yards and three scores in the regular season. He added a clutch 45-yard catch that set up a late TD in Jacksonville’s 45-42 stunner at Pittsburgh last week.

“I wish I could just wake up tomorrow and feel like I did Sept. 9,” Robinson said, “but I understand it’s going to be a process. I know I’ll be back to that point and better.”

Like so many other stars, Robinson will be in street clothes Sunday, cheering on his teammates in hopes of getting a sideline pass to the Super Bowl.

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With contributions from AP Pro Football Writers Rob Maaddi and Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers Mark Long and Kyle Hightower.

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Steratore will lead 7-person officiating crew for Super Bowl

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NEW YORK (AP) Referee Gene Steratore will lead the seven-person crew of on-field game officials working the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The other members of the officiating crew for the Feb. 4 game are Roy Ellison (umpire), Jerry Bergman (down judge), Byron Boston (line judge), Tom Hill (field judge), Scott Edwards (side judge) and Perry Paganelli (back judge).

The crew has 127 years of NFL officiating experience and 101 combined playoff game assignments.

Steratore entered the league in 2003 as a field judge and was promoted to referee in 2006. He has officiated 11 playoff games, including two conference championships. He was the alternate referee for the 2010 Super Bowl.

Under the NFL officiating program’s evaluation system, officials must be rated in the top tier at their position to be eligible for the Super Bowl. They must have at least five years of NFL experience and previous playoff assignments.

Paul Weidner is the replay official.

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