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In 2008, Larry Fitzgerald had a fantastic regular season capped off by a historically great postseason; in the Super Bowl, he set the record for receiving yards in a season, including playoff games, with 1,977 yards. Of course, 2008 was decades ago in today’s era of what have you done for me lately. The table below shows Fitzgerald’s stats over the past four seasons. The final two columns show the total number of receiving yards generated by all Cardinals players and Fitzgerald’s share of that number.

YearRecYdsYPRTDARI Rec YdsPerc
200997109211.313420026%
201090113712.66326434.8%
201180141117.68395435.7%
20127179811.24338323.6%

2009 was the last season of the Kurt Warner/Anquan Boldin Cardinals. The 97 receptions and 13 touchdowns look great, although hitting those marks and not gaining 1,100 receiving yards is very unusual. Fitzgerald was only responsible for 26% of the Cardinals receiving yards that season, although one could give him a pass since he was competing with another star receiver for targets.

Can Fitzgerald rebound in 2013?

Can Fitzgerald rebound in 2013?

In 2010, Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, and Richard Bartel were the Cardinals quarterbacks: as a group, they averaged 5.8 yards per attempt on 561 passes. Arizona’s passing attack was bad, but without Boldin, Fitzgerald gained 34.8% of the team’s receiving yards. Steve Breaston chipped in with 718 receiving yards yards while a 22-year-old Andre Roberts was third with 307 yards. In other words, Fitzgerald performed pretty much how you would expect a superstar receiver to perform on a team with a bad quarterback and a mediocre supporting cast: his raw numbers were still very good (but not great) because he ate such a huge chunk of the pie. After the 2010 season, I even wondered if he could break any of Jerry Rice’s records (spoiler: he can’t).

In 2011, Skelton, Kevin Kolb and Bartel combined for 3,954 yards on 550 passes, a 7.2 yards per attempt average (Kolb was at 7.7 Y/A). That qualifies as a pretty respectable passing game and Fitzgerald appeared to have a monster year, gaining 35.7% of the Cardinals’ receiving yards (Early Doucet was second with 689 yards and Roberts was third with 586 yards). It’s always hard splicing out cause and effect, but my takeaway is that with a more competent passing game, Fitzgerald continued to get the lion’s share of the team’s production but unlike in 2010, this led to great and not just good numbers.
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Luck winds up to throw deep

Luck winds up to throw deep.

Consider the following example. The Colts gain possession at the 20-yard line. Andrew Luck is in shotgun and throws a strike to Reggie Wayne, who catches it at the 30, runs 15 yards, and gets tackled at the 45-yard line. Luck gets credited with 25 passing yards and Wayne records 25 receiving yards. Wayne is also credited with 15 yards after the catch, a statistic that you’ll occasionally see discussed or cited.

But you rarely see Luck’s completion split into (a) 10 yards through the air, and (b) 15 yards after the catch by his receiver. Brian Burke calls those 10 yards “Air Yards” and I think that is a pretty useful moniker. The question is, what do you do with Air Yards? Luck led the NFL in Air Yards per completed pass last year (8.0), but that doesn’t make the statistic an indicator of quality. Tim Tebow’s 2011 performance produced the highest single-season Air Yards per completion average since 2006 (8.9), while Jake Delhomme (2008) and Derek Anderson (2010) each have led the league in that metric, too. Air Yards per completed pass is a very useful way to describe a player’s style, but you can’t use it alone to determine a player’s quality.

One question I have: Are Air Yards more repeatable for a quarterback than the yards he gains via his receivers’ YAC? It’s important to keep that question separate from this one: Is a quarterback who has a high number of air yards and a low YAC better than a quarterback in the opposite situation? Today, I plan to focus on the first question, but let’s take a second to address the second one.

According to ESPN’s research, yards after the catch is more about what the receiver does than the quarterback. As a result, a completion that is in the air for 40 yards is better for a quarterback’s ESPN QBR than a pass that is in the air for 5 yards on which the receiver runs for 35 yards after the catch. That makes sense, I suppose, and I suspect that’s probably true more often than not. The easiest counterargument is to point to Joe Montana, and say that what made Montana great was his pinpoint accuracy that enabled players like Jerry Rice to rack up big YAC numbers.I’m going to put off any further analysis of how much of YAC should be attributed to the quarterback and how much to the receiver, because it’s pretty complicated. One thing that is a bit easier to analyze is how “sticky” Air Yards are from year to year.
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More work on POPIP and predicting INT rates

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about interceptions per incompletion, or POPIP. In that article I showed how a player’s completion percentage is a better predictor of his future interception rate than his actual interception rate. And in this article by Brian Burke, one comment stuck with me:

Griffin has thrown deep, defined as attempts of greater than 15 yards through the air, on only 13% of his attempts, 30th among league quarterbacks. This is also likely the largest factor in his very low interception rate.

That makes sense — quarterbacks throwing short, safe passes should throw fewer interceptions. But this statement is a more important one than you might originally think, thanks to some great research by Mike Clay.

Clay came up with a metric he calls ‘aDOT’ — average depth of target — which measures exactly what you think it does. For each targeted or aimed pass, Pro Football Focus tracks how far from the line of scrimmage the intended target is. What’s makes this stat particularly appealing to me is that it’s very predictable as far as football statistics go. That’s not all that surprising because aDOT is based on a large sample of plays and basically frames how an offense operates.

Clay posted the 10 passers with the largest and smallest aDOT in 2011, which I’ve reproduced below. Note that there are some passes — spikes, throwaways, passes tipped at the line (these are grouped together as ‘other’) — with no target, and therefore are excluded when calculating aDOT. In the far right column, I’ve shown how the player’s aDOT compares to the league average rate of 8.8.

PasserYrAttAimOtheraDOTlgAVG
Tim Tebow20113182863213.3151%
Vince Young2011114111311.6131%
Jason Campbell20111651511410.5119%
Matt Moore20113473281910.4118%
Carson Palmer20113283121610.3117%
Eli Manning20117526985410.1114%
Cam Newton20115174942310113%
Joe Flacco2011605568379.8111%
Ben Roethlisberger2011553529249.8110%
Chad Henne2011112102109.7110%
T.J. Yates2011189171189.6109%
Matt Hasselbeck2011518490288.394%
Drew Brees2011763730338.293%
Blaine Gabbert2011413381328.192%
Alex Smith2011513463508.191%
Tony Romo2011522497258.191%
Ryan Fitzpatrick201156954425890%
Donovan McNabb2011156145117.989%
Colt McCoy2011463434297.888%
Tyler Palko201113512787.484%
Josh Freeman2011551519327.483%

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