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
||35.6% (2nd of 45)
||9.18 (1st of 38)
||1.8% (20th of 44)
||5.93 (20th of 34)
||-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.