Monday, December 5, 2011

Climbing Mount Marino: Will Drew Brees Set the New NFL Single-Season Passing Yards Record?

At his current pace, Drew Brees would pass
for over 5,100 yards this season.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
"All hands on deck" should be the motto of every NFL team as they head into the final four games of the NFL season, but it should have particular resonance in New Orleans.  The Saints, winners of three straight, have an excellent chance to win the NFC South division crown, but to do it, they will need their offense to keep playing at a high level. And that means catching the football nearly every time it comes out of Drew Brees' right hand.

Much has been made of the assault, led by Brees, on Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record of 5,084. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are also within legitimate striking distance of the mark, but neither one has amassed yards quite so quickly as Brees this season.  Brees surpassed 5,000 yards once before in 2008, falling just an intermediate completion short of the No. 1 spot, but with a seemingly favorable schedule on his side and a very hot offense at the ready, Brees already seems to have been tapped by experts as the player to watch in this race.  However, there is a tortoise-vs.-hare element in the statistics that may prove crucial in determining whether or not Brees will be the one to set the new single-season passing record.

Here are the respective game logs for Drew Brees and Dan Marino in the seasons in which they threw for more than 5,000 yards:

Note that Brees was having a more prolific season individually in '08 than Marino in '84, but his team wasn't playing as well as Marino's Dolphins, nor was Brees being as efficient as Marino. In 12 games, Brees threw more interceptions and fewer touchdowns than Marino, and except for the drubbing of Green Bay and the shootout with San Diego, the '08 Saints defense and/or special teams gave up fewer than three touchdowns in each win and more than three in each loss.  Brees was pressed to make plays, and he took chances through the air: he hucked 11 interceptions in the first 6 losses, and averaged more than 45 attempts in each of those games (against only 33 on average in the first 6 wins). Still, Brees was in position to top Marino if even if he threw for only 304 yards in each of the last four games, and according to his yards-per-attempt pace, that would've required an average of 37 attempts per game to do this.  But that didn't happen. 

Here are the numbers from each player's last four games in their respective 5,000-yard seasons:   

 Again, Brees is shown to throw more often in the losses than the wins, probably because A) that's what the Saints under Brees have an affinity for, and B) they were behind in both games. Here's another befuddling tidbit: the pass defenses that Marino faced were ranked 20th, 4th, 22nd, and 5th respectively at the end of the season; between the four of them (1984 Jets, Raiders, Colts, Cowboys), they gave up an average of 197 yards per game through the air that season, though Marino's average for that four game stretch was a scintillating 351 YPG, including the 35-completion, 470-yard performance in the loss to the Raiders (the 4th-ranked pass defense that year).  

Brees, on the other hand, saw defenses that ranked 21st, 30th, 27th, and 16th against the pass. The per-game average for each of those teams (2008 Falcons, Bears, Lions, Panthers)? 226 YPG.  Brees' average against them in those four showings: 299 YPG.  Pretty ho-hum showing for a talented QB facing some below-average secondary units (which is not to devalue the quarterback position: it's very hard to throw for 300 yards, but Brees has shown he's capable of it on a regular basis, and for some reason, he didn't pull through this time). 

It should be noted that Marino had the benefit of a Miami defense that finished 7th in in the NFL in points allowed, whereas New Orleans would finish the 2008 season as the 26th-best in terms of scoring.  In the long haul, a lousy defense will assuredly hamper a quarterback's ability to perform at the highest possible level, as it inevitably forces the passer's hand to throw more often when the team is behind; additionally, when he does throw, many of the passes will likely be low-percentage tosses that are meant to gain yards in bunches rather than inches.

Here are Brees' current season stats for 2011:

Brees' numbers are up in virtually every category this season, the most important two being wins and attempts. The 2011 Saints defense ranks 19th in scoring allowed, which has undoubtedly helped their record, but the quarterback's average number of attempts per win (39.8) is still considerably less than the average in losses (46).  Brees' YPA stats (8.13) are also lower this year than in the first 12 games of 2008 (8.21) and thus nowhere even close to Marino's YPA of 9.31 for the first 12 games of the 1984 season.  

In the final four games this season, New Orleans is set to play Tennessee, Minnesota, Atlanta and Carolina, who are ranked 18th, 26th, 21st, and 15th, respectively; on average, they've given up 239 YPG, nearly 100 yards below Brees' season average and well below Brees' lowest mark thus far, a 258-yard day in the upset loss to the Rams.  Brees has thrown for over 320 yards in each of his 3 previous games, but to continue that kind of play will not be easy.  If the Saints clinch a playoff berth by winning their next two games, their tactics may change, and Brees may rest (if needed) in preparation for the playoffs. Then again, if they lose, he will have to keep playing and throwing more often than he would like, which will decrease his efficiency, making his run at Marino's record all the more difficult.  It's a trickier hypothetical than it looks, quite frankly. 

Even with the improved defense and the speed with which he compiled 4,000 yards, it's not safe to assume that Brees will finally  supplant Marino at the top of the list. From an efficiency standpoint, he's playing worse than in 2008, and if they're going to win the NFC South, it's in the Saints' best interest to make sure Brees isn't throwing more than 40 times a game.  If he does beat Marino's total, Brees will likely not be alone, nor will he be first in that category at season's end.  For those trying to find out which man is most likely to surpass 5,084 by the largest margin, efficiency statistics point to Aaron Rodgers, and it would be wise to examine his accomplishments in greater detail in order to consider who is the most legitimate threat to set the single-season record, assuming it will be broken. But, as seen with Brees, that's a fairly sizeable assumption to make.

(All stats used come from, or

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tale of the tape: John Harbaugh seems a little too tolerant after the Ravens' loss to the Seahawks

Take a look at these two videos. The first is of University of Memphis football coach Larry Porter, whose team lost 41-35 to conference rival UAB on Saturday after holding an 18-point second half lead.

The second video (click the link to go to the NFL's official video archive) is an edited clip of Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh. The Ravens lost 22-17 to the Seattle Seahawks.

John Harbaugh post-game press conference 11/13

I'm all for diplomacy -- my minor is in International Studies -- but the way these guys talk, you would think they both lost tough games, and that the losses were one of many. Porter's team, now 2-8, has been a Conference USA punching bag and college football pincushion for the last two years, and they lost to a pretty lousy team. Baltimore also lost to a bad team (at least one with a losing record), but the Ravens have been considered the class of the NFL at times this season, which is part of what makes Harbaugh's patronizing tone so unnerving.  It isn't like this was an anomalous pothole in the road to home field advantage through the playoffs: the Ravens have played down to the level of low-caliber teams four times already this season, losing on three of those occasions and narrowly avoiding a fourth defeat by mounting the biggest second-half rally in franchise history to beat Arizona at home.

The mistakes have been the same in each undoing: turnovers, a lack of rushing attempts, and a meager vertical passing game (among other things)all of which contribute to Baltimore losing the time-of-possession battle by more than ten minutes. Jamison Hensley, the erstwhile Baltimore Sun reporter and Ravens beat writer, shed light on the elephant in the room that  so many fans have pointed to, time and again, in the hours after a frustrating loss (I've added the bold for emphasis):
The Ravens' loss at Seattle really isn't shocking at all. Just take a look at Ray Rice's touches.

Rice finished with five carries and eight receptions, a total that usually spells disaster. Over the past two seasons (including playoffs), Baltimore is 14-1 when Rice gets more than 20 touches and is 5-7 when he receives 20 or fewer...

The Ravens abandoned the run too early against the Seahawks. When Baltimore quickly fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron went with the pass on 16 of the next 17 plays.

Rice politely declined comment to reporters after the game because he wanted to say something positive and needed time to collect his thoughts. In this case, his lack of touches speaks for itself.
   (See Hensley's full blog post here.)

It is inconceivable for a team thought to be one of the best in football to repeatedly hobble itself by playing to its weaknesses. On a related note, this is not an apology for the Ravens' defense, which failed unconditionally in trying to stop the Seahawks on their final drive. However, the majority of football games are lost because of multiple mistakes made across 60 minutes, not just the painful ones made in the final minutes of a close contest. Regardless of the sterling record the Ravens own under Harbaugh with Flacco under center, there are serious questions being posed in every Baltimore neighborhood about why a team with so much talent can allow themselves to faceplant with so little grace on a regular basis.

Someone made an important point to me the other day: Cam Cameron might have lost his job a few months ago if not for the NFL lockout. Is this the tax that Baltimoreans are paying for the NFL's work stoppage? Such a notion is speculative at best, but it is not without reason: the offense, by most qualifications, was average at best last season, and in the playoffs, the Ravens were the only team to play multiple games and average less than 300 yards of offense (258.0) per game (Pittsburgh, the next closest team, averaged 312.3 in three games; Seattle averaged 345.5 in two games).

On Saturday, Standford University head coach David Shaw, a former Ravens assistant, said in an interview on ESPN's College Gameday that one of the most difficult things about being a head coach is hiring the right people for your coaching staff and allowing them to do what they do best -- that is, coach football -- without being overbearing or getting in their way. Harbaugh's concentration prior to being a head coach was special teams and defense, and to this point he has left the offense mostly to Cameron and Flacco. Harbaugh's responsibility is the overall preparation of his team, week in and week out, so that they are in the best position to dispatch their competition, and he has usually taken the blame when things have gone badly rather than throw one of his assistant coaches under the bus for a job poorly done.

The job, however, ain't gettin' done.  When will Cam Cameron stop thinking short passes to Ray Rice are a viable substitute for the run game? When will he also stop believing that short passes to Ray Rice can be alternately considered as a passing offense that legitimately threatens to score points rather than just gaining a few first downs? When will Flacco stop throwing these passes out of sheer fatigue and dissatisfaction with a routine that bears no fruit?

Whether the Ravens are facing division-leading San Francisco (8-1) or bottom-feeding Cleveland (3-6),  the offense needs to produce. The Ravens have a propensity for losing should-win games in embarrassing fashion, and trying to paper over that trend with the same "Mistakes were made" professionalism that Harbaugh almost always maintains will eventually wear on owner Steve Bisciotti and others in the organization, to say nothing of the fans. Efficacy is more important than effort for good teams, and it's about time for Harbaugh to start asking serious questions of his offensive coordinator regarding his plan to score more points than the opponent.  It's his head or Cameron's if the Ravens don't make the Super Bowl. Time for Harbaugh to start getting mad if he doesn't want to be mad and jobless at the same time.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Hopeful

So given that I haven't posted anything in the last. . . I don't know. . . ten months, I thought it might be time to fill you in on a few things (you being whatever small number of readers this post might entertain). I've been writing a lot for my college newspaper, editing the sports section and doing a little work on the side as a play-by-play announcer for the football team, which has been surprisingly satisfying. That being said, I am, believe it or not, still thinking of ways to keep this blog relevant, dormant though it's been. Anyway, I'll be sure to post any good brainstorms that I have on here, and if not, will secondly attempt to direct attention to those posts elsewhere on the Web. That's all for now, sports fans.

Monday, January 31, 2011

More Brian Wilson Hilarity: Giants Closer Goes Nautical with George Lopez

Shout-out to my buddy Ryan from Virginia Tech, who directed me to yet another installment of San Francisco Giants pitcher Brian Wilson's preposterous off-the-field antics. Wilson fields the inevitable Chuck Norris comparison, discusses his seafood preferences, and remarks on the importance of his "release".  Just to put things in perspective, Wilson is set to earn $15 million in the next two seasons, which means he isn't even in the top 5 among highest paid relievers.  I realize comic relief is a difficult talent to appraise, but he really needs deserves more funding to maintain the attire of The Machine and other characters that he breaks out on occasion.  Where's the love, Brian Sabean?