In 2011, Eli Manning threw for 4,933 yards and won the Super Bowl. Last year, he threw for 3948 yards and missed the playoffs. It’s tempting to think that something was “wrong” with Manning last year. Another narrative would be that 2011 was a career year far out of line with anything else he’s done, which would make 2012 was the real Manning. I’m not sure I buy either of those explanations.
Let’s start by comparing Manning’s numbers in 2011 and 2012. Yes, his passing yards dropped, but that’s a meaningless metric on its own. He threw 53 fewer passes in 2012, a partial explanation for why his yards declined. And while his yards per attempt did drop from 8.4 to 7.4, about 20% of that dip was mitigated by the fact that he took fewer sacks (his Net Yards per Attempt dropped from 7.7 to 6.9). In addition to improving his sack rate, Manning’s touchdown and interception rates were virtually identical, which means his decline was limited to pass attempts and yards per attempt.
We can break down the numbers on why his yards per attempt declined thanks to some additional data courtesy of NFLGSIS. In 2011, Manning averaged 8.4 yards per attempt. That was a result of three things: a 61.0% completion rate, 5.82 yards after the catch (per completion), and 7.92 Air Yards per Completed Pass. In 2012, Manning averaged 7.4 yards per attempt, with a 59.9% completion rate, 4.33 average YAC, and 7.97 Air Yards per Completed Pass.
The tiny drop in completion percentage is more than offset by the better sack rate, and if Manning was throwing incomplete passes instead of taking sacks, that’s a good thing. As for what happens when he completed a pass, his entire decline was in the form of yards after the catch. In 2011, he ranked 3rd in Air Yards per Completed Pass and 6th in YAC per completion; in 2012, he ranked 2nd in AY/CP and 30th in YAC per completion.
Now there’s some evidence to indicate YAC might be more on the quarterback than Air Yards. Other studies, and what I think is popular opinion, is that YAC is more about the receiver than the quarterback. But let’s further investigate why the Giants dipped in YAC. The table below shows a more precise breakdown. For both 2011 (in blue) and 2012 (in red), you can see the number of Receptions, Air Yards per Reception, YAC per reception, and Yards per Reception. The rows show each of the Giants top three receivers, top tight end, and top running back, along with the other players at wide receiver, tight end, and running back.
|2011||Jake Ballard / Martellus Bennett||TE||38||11.08||4.82||15.89||55||7.78||3.6||11.38|
|2011||Mario Manningham / Domenik Hixon||WR||39||10.67||2.74||13.41||39||11.08||3.46||14.54|
Cruz, Nicks, and the team’s top tight end all averaged more Air Yards per reception and more yards per reception in 2011 than in 2012. But remember how we saw that Manning’s Air Yards per completed pass did not decline in 2012? As it turns out, that’s a bit of a misleading statement. Manning’s Air Yards per completed pass did decline on passes to Wide Receivers (11.0 to 9.8) and to Tight Ends (9.4 to 7.5); however, running backs average essentially zero air yards per completed pass, and 25% of Manning’s completions went to running backs in 2011 versus just 15% in 2012. In English, this means Manning was throwing much less often to running backs last year, which tends to lift a quarterback’s air yards per completed pass (of course, one explanation for the decline in Air Yards per completed pass to his receivers and tight ends is that he was throwing short to them in lieu of checking down to the running backs).
Regardless of the explanation, we’re starting to get a clearer picture of Manning’s last two seasons. The Giants went from 8th in receptions by running backs in 2011 to 27th last year. That’s probably the result of the Giants having a terrible running game in 2011 — 32nd in both rushing yards and yards per carry — and a good one last year (14th in yards, 7th in yards per carry).Of course, fewer passes to running backs also means fewer YAC, which partially explains why Manning’s average YAC decreased. But the bigger explanation was the declines for both Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Going from Mario Manningham to Domenik Hixon as WR3 didn’t hurt Manning, and the fourth and fifth wide receivers (Rueben Randle (11.84/3.84/15.68) and Ramses Barden (12.29/3.43/15.71)) were huge playmakers in 2012. But none of that was enough to compensate for the declines of Cruz and Nicks.
For those two, there are a couple of obvious explanations. Nicks was injured most of the year, which explains why both his YAC and his Air Yards declined. In week 2, he gained 199 yards against the Bucs, including 84 yards on three huge catches in the fourth quarter. But that performance came at a cost: his knee slammed to the ground late in the game, and he played at something well below full strength for the rest of the season. Nicks struggled to get separation without his trademark athleticism, and the numbers back that up.
Cruz had five touchdowns of 60+ yards (including a 99-yarder) in 2011, one shy of the NFL record. Averaging 7.17 YAC per completed pass is unsustainable for any wide receiver other than hybrid players like Percy Harvin. In addition, with the decline of Nicks on the other side, it looks like Manning turned Cruz into a possession receiver, which explains the dip in Air Yards per Reception.
The one surprising result was seeing Jake Ballard average more Air Yards per catch and YAC than Martellus Bennett. And while I’m no fan of catch rate as a way to measure players, it’s useful to describe a player’s game. In 2011, Ballard was targeted 73 times according to Footballguys, so his catch rate was just 52%.1 Bennett had a 62% catch rate, so the takeaway there is the decline in yards per reception from the tight end position came with an added benefit: a higher catch rate. Again, with fewer throws to the running backs and an injured Nicks, the Giants were forced to transform their tight end position from playmaker into a safety valve.
The last few paragraphs have provided some granular analysis of the Giants passing game, but let’s take a big step back. Yes, Manning’s yards declined in 2012. That’s because he threw fewer passes (including to the running backs) and his wide receivers and tight ends were less explosive. But what about the Giants offense as a whole? In 2011, New York ranked 9th in points scored and 9th in points per drive; last year, the Giants were 6th in points and 2nd in points per drive. That’s right: despite all the talk about the Giants “decline” on offense last year, only the Patriots averaged more points every time their offense touched the ball. One reason that wasn’t obvious to folks is that the Giants dropped from having 191 drives in 2011 to 169 drives last year. Part of the reason for that dropoff is because the Giants had fewer big plays in 2012 on offense; another reason is the Giants defense was very bend-but-don’t break last year, finishing 30th in third down rate and 31st in yards allowed, but 12th in points. That kept opponents on the field, and since the Giants also had a less-explosive offense, led to longer drives by both teams, and fewer drives overall.
Add it all up, and you have a Giants offense that touched the ball less frequently last year, but was even more effective than it was in 2011. Part of that was due to the improvement in the running game, but Manning also had another strong season. No, he didn’t post gaudy passing yards numbers, but that’s not his fault: the team ran more instead of dumping to the backs, the Giants had significantly fewer drives, and his big-play receivers were injured.
What about the second point, that Manning’s 2011 season was far out of character? To some extent I’ll buy that: Cruz in particular is probably never going to catch five 60+ yard touchdowns in a season. But in January, I charted his career in 10-game increments. I’ll reproduce that chart below, which displays the average of Manning’s ANY/A in each of his last ten games (playoffs included) beginning with the tenth game of his career in 2004. Of note: the black line represents the league average ANY/A and the two big purple dots show the two Super Bowl victories (or, more accurately, the Super Bowl win, the prior three playoff wins, and the last six regular season games of that season).
Manning was a below-average quarterback for most of his career, prior to his first Super Bowl. Even his trailing ten-game average ending in Super Bowl XLII comes in below that line. But he appears to have used that victory (or, perhaps, the week 17 game against the Patriots a month earlier) as a launching point for his career. By the time he won his second Super Bowl, Manning had placed himself squarely among the league’s best quarterbacks. We’ve already explained the reasons for the dropoff in ANY/A (which is almost entirely due to a dropoff in yards after the catch) in 2012. One argument is that 2011 was the outlier year; another was that Manning has steadily improved and become one of the game’s better quarterbacks (which, of course, is how the anti-stats crowd describes him). In that light, I think his 2012 season was generally another strong performance. The question for 2013 will be whether his YAC will jump back up to 2011 levels, but I’m not sure how much of that is under Manning’s control.
Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams
- As a counter, NFLGSIS has Ballard with only 61 targets that season, which would give him a better catch rate than Bennett. If that’s the case, then it would appear that replacing Ballard with Bennett was a straight downgrade. [↩]