Yesterday I got a bit of a bee in my bonnet after seeing the grade Russell Wilson was given by ProFootballFocus. I assume everyone is pretty familiar with PFF at this point, and are probably pretty aware that Wilson has not had a great season by their grading standards. In general I don't pay much mind, whether I agree or disagree -- the grading system is black boxed -- so there isn't a lot to discuss. This week was different though. Coming off a huge win on the road, in a game that on first-viewing seemed like one of Wilson's better performances, PFF gave Wilson a grade of -3.5. The number alone doesn't tell you a ton about Wilson's day (raw stats: 22/37 for 263 yards, 2TD, 0INT passing; 10 for 48 yards, 1TD rushing) but let's take a look at some other quarterback grades to get some context.
Mark Sanchez's impotent passing attack earned him a grade of -1.5. Brian Hoyer edged out Wilson with a -3.3 grade after a 14/32, 2INT, 0TD day. Andrew Luck also fared better, receiving a -3.2. Luck went 24/53, 2TDs, 2INTs (including a pick-six), and lost a fumble in the end zone that was recovered for a touchdown.
In fact, it turns out that a grade of -3.5 is the lowest of Wilson's entire career. As someone who has watched quite a bit of Wilson's career, this was impossible to reconcile. Not only has he had performances that are clearly worse, this seemed to me like one of Wilson's better games. Or, at the least, a very solid showing. So how do we make sense of this?
To me, this raises a bigger, more important point. Attempting to grade a quarterback's performance requires the evaluation of a multitude of factors, and on some plays it's clear and easily observable what has happened based on the game broadcast footage. The problem with basing quarterback analysis on the broadcast footage -- whether you're PFF, a TV or radio analyst, blogger, columnist, or just a fan on twitter, is that you simply do not have the full picture.
This is the main reason there is a never-ending argument as to whether or not a given quarterback's receivers are "getting open," "getting separation," and/or whether or not said quarterback is failing to see his open receivers and/or why he's not throwing the ball to them. The NFL All-22 tape (indicates you can see all 22 players on the field) doesn't come out on Game Rewind until Tuesday evening or Wednesday, typically, so in the fast-paced world of 24/7 NFL coverage, there are several days of analysis based on an incomplete picture of what actually happened on Sunday.
As I mentioned above, PFF's exact grading system is not shared with the public. They do, however, provide this tidbit on how they watch the games.
While we feel strongly about our ability to grade games based on the broadcast footage, the All-22 has been an invaluable addition to our processes. The original analyst is instructed to flag any plays from the broadcast footage that need more information or a better view from the coach’s film. The second and third analysts are then able to pinpoint these plays along with others to get a clearer, more decisive look at every play.
The grades that come out on Monday, and that are widely circulated, are derived from the broadcast game footage. All-22 is not used in the grading process except to check any plays marked by the initial reviewer. This All-22 review is generally not completed until Wednesday. This, to me, opens these grades to a lot of questions, particularly when it comes to quarterbacks.
The most important point here though is that the All-22 is indispensable -- a requirement -- when it comes to formulating an accurate evaluation of how a quarterback performed. The broadcast views are missing too much information on what is happening downfield. For an example of this, let's take a look at the first Seahawks drive as an illustration of why this approach can be problematic, whether you're writing about the game, analyzing it for TV, or just chopping it up on twitter.
The first play we'll look at is the first pass of the game. Here's what we saw on TV:
Russell Wilson first reads right and, seeing Kevin Norwood is covered, flips to his left to find Doug Baldwin and a big patch of green grass.
From the broadcast, it looks like this ball should go to Baldwin. Watching the broadcast footage might elicit a "Russell is not pulling the trigger! He had the slant!" type of response from fans. Wilson does now throw it, though, and instead, scrambles backwards and to his left before eventually finding Paul Richardson for a first down at the sideline on an improvised play. Why?
With the All 22, we can see that a safety is lurking just out of frame. It's possible that there is still a throw to be made here, and a less mobile quarterback would likely have to try. It's also very possible that a throw here gets Baldwin killed or, worse, gets picked off if the safety can break quickly enough. I believe Russell sees that safety creeping on the slant route -- which is his second read -- and decides not to throw it.
Instead, we get this scramble, leading to a first down pass.
Moving on, here's the broadcast view for our second example:
By this point in the play, nearly all of the action is happening off screen. What we can see, though, is Russell bailing on a pretty clean pocket. This is a big no no, right?
Except, with a full view of the play, it's clear what has happened. Seattle has only sent three receivers downfield on this pass play, leaving seven in to protect initially. The three routes all go to the right side of the field. Philly has each of the receivers covered, with extra defenders lurking in zones above and below.
Russell sees Cary Williams drifting right and scrambles left to try to take advantage of the open field. Doing this pulls Trent Cole, the spy on this play, to the left along with Wilson. Wilson sees this, stops, reverses field, and hits a wide open Robert Turbin, Russell's fourth delayed outlet option. Turbo zips down the sideline for a first down.
Here's the third play we'll look at:
Here we see Marshawn calling for the pass just short of the first down marker on third and five. Russell is facing some serious pressure at this point, however he's able to slide off the tackle and continue to work his way to the sideline. Instead of throwing to Marshawn, Russell continues to scramble and eventually sacks himself by running out of bounds.
The missed throw away here is huge, as it takes Seattle out of field goal range. But potentially bigger than that, it looks like there may have been a missed chance at a drive sustaining first down.
On the All 22 we can see the DB breaking on Marshawn, and he's breaking on him with quite a bit of speed. Had Wilson attempted to simply lob a pass out towards Marshawn, there would have been a good chance the DB could have made a play on the ball.
Wilson has to be better at throwing it away, this is clear. This is something that cost Seattle twice in this game, but a pass to Marshawn would've been an even worse decision. How bad of a decision? Let's take a look at Wilson's near pick six to get an idea of how much ground the Eagles DBs are capable of covering.
Just to stay with the theme, let's take a look at the near pick from the broadcast view first.
A little blurry but you can see Jenkins breaking well in front of Moeaki, who has no shot to catch this ball. It's a throw that's been widely criticized, and rightfully so. How did Wilson not see a DB in such great position to intercept this pass?
Wilson is in the middle of throwing in this picture. Jenkins got a bit of a head start as Wilson stared down Moeaki a bit before the throw, but the amount of ground he covers is impressive.
I'm not trying to absolve Wilson of this throw. It was a near-disaster and deserves to be criticized. I think it's a great example though of what "open" really looks like in the NFL. It's easy for fans, myself first and foremost, to criticize Wilson's conservative play without considering that the guys he's playing with and against aren't human. At least not in terms we understand.
All in all, it's not hard to see that there is invaluable information in the All-22 film that can significantly change how we view a player's performance. PFF, TV and radio analysts, and fans alike need to be very careful with how much we try to take away from broadcast views. This is especially true when we start trying to analyze the decisions of a quarterback, who is reading the entire field, not just the portion of it we see.