When we last visited Sam Bradford‘s performance as Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, it wasn’t at all clear that the decision to trade Nick Foles for him was correct. Chip Kelly recently doubled down on Bradford’s performance, declaring he saw improvement on a weekly basis that got Kelly excited. What might Kelly be seeing, and what context can we add to Bradford’s performance?
The Contrast with Sanchez
One thing we’ve seen lately that we didn’t see earlier in the season was the Eagles’ 2015 offense with another quarterback. Mark Sanchez started two games and finished a third as Bradford suffered a shoulder injury and a concussion. While playing half the season in 2014, Sanchez was, on the whole, roughly as good as Foles was. In his playing time this season, Sanchez has been a significant downgrade from Bradford. Table 1 shows the statistical details, using adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) and Football Outsiders’ metric DVOA.
Table 1. Mark Sanchez vs. Main Starters, 2014-15
Two specific areas stand out as major issues for Sanchez. First, he has continued the trend from most his career of throwing interceptions at a rate above the league-average while Bradford has taken better care of the football. Sanchez’s interception rate is 4.4 percent, compared to Bradford’s 2.8 percent.
Second, the Eagles’ offensive line has been much more problematic for Sanchez in pass protection. His adjusted sack rate, as calculated by Football Outsiders, is 9.0 percent, the seventh-highest rate of the 40 passers with at least 100 dropbacks this season. Bradford’s, by contrast, is just 4.9 percent, the tenth-best rate in the same group, even though he started both games the Eagles played without Jason Peters. Quarterbacks can do a lot to control this number, as Denver’s similarly contrasting numbers with Brock Osweiler and Peyton Manning and many other examples show, and Bradford is helping the line in a way Sanchez is not.
This contrast suggests that even though Bradford’s production is down from what Foles did in 2014, this could be the result of broader offensive issues which Bradford is doing well to mask.
Bradford Is Playing Better
Bradford’s numbers since returning from injuryare better than the ones he had earlier in the season. His DVOA earlier was -17.9 percent. Since then, it is 2.5 percent, better than the league average. His game against the Bills was his worst in the last four contests; on a per-play basis, it would have been his third-best performance in the first seven games.
One other thing Bradford is not doing is running. He has just one actual rushing attempt in the past couple games, while most of his nominal carries have been aborted snaps or kneeldowns. This is important, because he was not an effective runner when the Eagles tried to use him as one in the option game.
Finding the Range Downfield
The biggest development in Bradford’s game of late has been the deep pass. His performance on short throws has been roughly the same as it was earlier in the season, with a DVOA of -1.9 percent compared to -0.2 percent over the first seven games. If anything, he has been less consistently productive on them, posting a success rate of 39 percent compared to 47 percent earlier. Only throwing fewer interceptions has saved the numbers from being worse.
Where Bradford has improved the most has been on deep throws. This was where the great Foles-led offense of 2013 made most of its hay, and it was a big struggle for Bradford earlier in the season. He had the sixth-worst success rate of the 32 passers with the most deep attempts earlier in the season. Over the past six weeks, he has the second-best success rate, 60 percent, and the third-best DVOA among the 32 passers with the most deep attempts.
The easy response is to say that this is a fluke due to a small sample size, the product of a limited number of games and passes. What makes Bradford’s performance so encouraging, though, is he has been doing it at multiple levels. His numbers are better on throws 11-15 yards downfield, 16-20 yards downfield, and even that 21-25 yard area where he did not have a single completion on 18 attempts in the first seven games, while he has continued to enjoy success on very deep throws like his 53-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor last week.
The numbers suggest Kelly was not just blowing smoke, that Sam Bradford has been playing better of late and may well be doing much better than Nick Foles would have done for the 2015 Eagles. Kelly still has a problem, though: the Eagles are still a below-average offense. Looking just at the last four games Bradford has played, they are 20th in DVOA and just 17th in passing DVOA. Even if Bradford is in fact the answer, Philadelphia still has offensive problems to address.