Hello Bucs fans. I’m Robbie Knopf and I’m excited to join the staff of The Pewter Plank. You may know me as editor of the Tampa Bay Rays website here at FanSided, Rays Colored Glasses. I’ve pretty much always been a baseball writer, but football has been another passion for me and I’m lucky enough to have this opportunity to dabble into football and release some of that passion that has been bubbling up for way too long. I’m planning on discussing the Buccaneers using a keen statistical perspective, and I’ll start today by discussing Josh Freeman and the adjustment he needs to make as a quarterback if he’s ever going to become that top 5 or top 10 quarterback the Bucs need him to be as they look to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season.
After struggling his rookie season in 2009, Josh Freeman broke out in a big way in 2010 as he led the Buccaneers to a 10-6 season, passing for 3451 yards on a 61.4% completion percentage, throwing 25 touchdowns while allowing just 6 interceptions and also rushing for 364 yards. His third year, though, did not nearly live up to the lofty expectations set by his sophomore season. He did pass for a few more yards, 3592, despite playing in 1 less game, and he also upped his completion percentage to 62.8%, but his touchdown to interception ratio slipped all the way to 16-22 and his struggles were a huge factor as the Bucs went just 4-12 on the year. Then this past season, Freeman did rebound, but he still certainly had his share of issues. Freeman passed for 4065 yards, 9th in the NFL, and he tossed 27 touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions. But the crazy part of Freeman’s season was that his completion percentage was only 54.8%, just 29th among qualifying NFL quarterbacks and barely above the 54.5% mark that he managed when he struggled mightily as a rookie. It was an extreme departure from his 62.1% completion the previous two years- if his true completion percentage should have been 62.1%, the chances of him managing 558 pass attempts with just a 54.8% mark is just 4195 to 1. Clearly something changed, and it was a conscious change. Freeman’s season was certainly not entirely bad as he passed for more yards and turned around his touchdowns and interceptions, but why did his completion percentage drop so significantly?
What’s the worse play in football? Just about any fan would say an ugly interception that gets returned for a touchdown. But there may be one play that frustrates fans even more: a sack, especially one that results in a fumble. In an interception, at least the quarterback was trying to make something happen, however misguided he have been. For a sack, though, the quarterback doesn’t even have a chance. He just goes down with the ball still in his hands and you never what could have happened if he had released the ball a second earlier. Often there was a receiver running open somewhere on the field, and the quarterback simply didn’t have the time to get the ball to him. For a quarterback, a sack is when he doesn’t do his job of getting the ball out of his hand and some people would take that as a personal failure. Josh Freeman is one of those people.
There have been very few trends that have held true throughout Josh Freeman’s career as he has been extremely inconsistent the last four years. One of them that has, though, has been that his sack percentage, the percentage of his pass attempts that has ended in a sack, has gone down each of his years in the NFL until it was just 4.5% mark in 2012, 8th-best in the NFL (right between Matt Schaub and Matt Ryan). If Freeman has been so enigmatic, why has that happened? Your first thought has to be that as quarterback’s get more time on the field, of course their sack percentage will go down as they adjust to the NFL game. However, quarterback age and sack percentage had just a .429 correlation in 2012 (among QBs with a minimum a 224 pass attempts), which is a moderate association and nothing to scoff at, but it also means that just 18% of the variation in sack percentage was explained by the quarterbacks’ age, so we can’t simply say he’s learned to avoid sacks from experience and stop there. Really, Freeman’s lower sack rate had a lot to do with Freeman doing everything he possibly could to prevent sacks. And while that sounds great in theory, it had some serious negative implications as well, and one of those was his completion percentage.
The most staggering difference in Josh Freeman’s numbers between 2011 and 2012 is that according to Advanced NFL Stats, he went from just 33rd in the NFL in deep throw percentage all the way up to 3rd as 25.6% of his throws were towards a target 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Given that sacks often happen on long-developing plays like deep throws, a stat to look at might be not just deep percentage but deep percentage minus sack percentage, and by that metric, Freeman was the best in the NFL. The Bucs integrated more deep pass plays into their playbook and allowed Freeman to show off his arm strength and deliver his first 4000-yard season. But the results of Freeman going down the field more often were far from universally positive as Freeman’s completion percentage was second-worst in football and his 17 interceptions were two off from the most in the NFL. What’s interesting about that is that while completion percentage and deep throw percentage proved to be related in 2012, the same can’t be true of interception percentage and deep throw percentage. Deep throw percentage and completion percentage had a moderate correlation (-.401) for NFL quarterbacks in 2012 and were especially significant for the ten quarterbacks who threw deep the most in 2012 as their collective 58.3% completion percentage compared to the 60.9% NFL average was something with only a .023 probability (44 to 1 odds) if their true completion should have been the 60.9% NFL average. But for interception rate and deep throw percentage, the correlation was only .134 and even for the top 10 deep throw quarterbacks, their interception rate was only 2.74% compared to the 2.6% league average, an event that would occur 27% of the time even for a sample of that size, not even close to statistically significant. Despite that, Freeman’s interception rate was 3.0%, 8th-highest in the NFL, and it’s also worth noting that his 54.1% completion percentage was second-worst even among a group where almost everyone’s completion percentage was low. Why did both of those happen? To find the answer, you have to go back to sack data.
Freeman started throwing the deep ball substantially more in 2012, and while it makes big plays a more common occurrence, doing that also comes with quite a bit of risk. However, Freeman amplified the risk even more by refusing to take sacks and instead forcing risky passes into double coverage when he should have simply held onto the ball. In 2010, Josh Freeman threw for 25 touchdowns against just 6 interceptions, completing 61.4% of his passes. Thanks to Freeman’s newfound propensity towards the deep ball, that quarterback is never coming back. However, by making a simple shift in his quarterbacking strategy, taking a few more sacks rather than forcing balls into coverage, Freeman has the ability to reduce his interceptions, raise his completion percentage into more reasonable levels, and maybe even become that top QB the Buccaneers have been waiting for him to become. If only it were as simple as it sounds for Freeman to put that plan into action.
The first time Josh Freeman gets sacked in the 2013 NFL Season is going to be a frustrating moment for Bucs fans. But when it happens, stay positive and think “Phew- if he had thrown that there’s a pretty good chance that it would have intercepted.” And at the same time, hope that Josh Freeman has the same thought going across his mind.