Man...the results from two of this week’s Reacts survey questions were about as lopsided as I can ever remember getting from Hogs Haven readers!
Asked what Washington should do if they end up with a top-10 pick in the 2024 draft — with the choices being to select the best rookie QB they could or build around Sam Howell — 97% of those responding to our survey said to stick like glue to Sam.
Our second question asked whether the offensive line is now ‘fixed’ following the lineup changes implemented after the first Giants game, when Nick Gates was benched in favor of Tyler Larsen and Chris Paul took over for injured LG Saahdiq Charles. The resounding answer was ‘no’, with 91% of Hogs Haven readers who took the survey being in agreement.
I was gonna write about 1,500 words to explain what’s going on with Sam Howell and the offensive line, but then I read this week’s Stats & Snaps article in which I saw that Matt-in-Paradise had already done the job in a painless 223 words. Here’s what he had to say:
Sam Howell [h]as shown [a] dramatic drop in sacks taken over recent weeks, coinciding with some substitutions on the offensive line, which raises the question of whether Sam or the OL is getting better. Let’s have a look at the numbers.
Through Week 8, Sam Howell averaged 5.4 sacks per game with an average sack rate of 14.1% of dropbacks. In the 3 games since Chris Paul replaced Saahdiq Charles and Tyler Larsen replaced Nick Gates, those figures dropped to 2.3 sacks per game and 4.8% sack rate.
Did the OL player substitutions lead the reduction in sacks? Through Week 8, the OL allowed an average of 12.25 pressures per game. In the three games since, that went up to 16.33 pressures per game. The OL has actually allowed more pressures since the substitutions.
How about Sam Howell? Through Week 7 (1 week before the OL adjustment), Howell had an average time to throw of 2.91 seconds and was very consistent from game to game (low 2.81 sec, high 3.02 sec). Starting with the Giants game, something seemed to click and his average time to throw suddenly dropped to 2.6 seconds. For the last 4 games, he has averaged 2.67 seconds.
It appears that Howell has improved at getting rid of the ball quickly, while the OL has got worse in pass protection.
While I appreciate Matt’s concise summary, I still want to expand on it.
Matt is focused on average time to throw as a single point of comparison from game to game. This is a useful indicator of a trend in the team’s playcalling and in Sam’s play, but averages are limited in how much they can convey. Remember that very few of Sam’s throws are made at the average time; most of them will be out even faster, and a lot of them will come out slower — many will come out much slower. The ones that are coming out faster are doing so because Sam is doing a better job with pre-snap reads; also, quick decision-making is reflected in that reduced average time to throw and there is a cause-effect relationship at play.
But the plays that extend longer — especially if they reach the range of 3 seconds-plus in time to throw — are a different beast. In the first 7 games of the season, Sam was causing a lot of sacks because of his movement in the pocket. It was common for him to step into pressure or to move out of a pocket in such a way as to cause one of his linemen to lose his block, resulting in a sack. This has been an area of major improvement for Sam as the season has progressed, but particularly since that loss to the Giants in the Meadowlands.
Sam has been moving more subtly and more effectively in the pocket so that, when he extends plays, he is moving in ways that make use of his protection rather than breaking it down faster.
As mentioned by Matt above, Sam was under a lot of pressure against the Seahawks, but he regularly escaped that pressure and extended plays successfully.
Compare Sam Howell’s decision-making and response to pressure in these two video clips from the Week 6 game against the Falcons and the Week 10 game against the Seahawks
(H/T to Mark Bullock, who diagrammed and posted these All-22 film clips)
The offensive line is still giving up pressure, but Eric Bieniemy has helped Sam, especially early in games, by calling quick passing plays that rely on pre-snap reads, and Sam has helped himself by making quicker decisions, moving more subtly and successfully in the pocket, and being more willing to throw the ball away when a play just isn’t working.
Sam is the man
Commanders fans who responded to this week’s Reacts survey seem to believe wholeheartedly that Sam Howell is the man to lead the team now and into the future. It says a lot that, with a 2024 draft class that seems to feature some of the best NFL prospects in years at the quarterback position, only 3% of fans want to go after one of those prospects in the draft, preferring the metaphorical bird in hand to those in the metaphorical bush.
If you are not among the 97% majority who seem to be totally bought into the Sam Howell bandwagon, the video in the tweet below is for you.
Still have doubts about Sam Howell? What does he have left to prove? pic.twitter.com/L9xpaBFhwQ— RefTheDistrict (@RefTheDistrict) November 15, 2023
Production, efficiency and success
The NFL is a notoriously difficult sport to reduce to statistical measures. Nearly every single traditional measure has its drawbacks, and ‘analytics’ people have, especially in recent years, responded by developing complex second-, third- and fourth-order analytical metrics that attempt to contextualize the measurement of player performance.
Some people embrace this movement towards advanced analytics, while others dismiss the discipline as ‘made up numbers’ and insist that watching the game and making up your own mind is the only thing that matters.
My own view is a bit ambivalent with respect to advance metrics and the popularity of analytics, but one thing that I’ve discovered over my years of writing about the NFL is that offensive skill players (QB, RB, TE, WR) can be compared in three basic ways that often offer conflicting signals:
with production being the simplest measurement of performance, and success being the most “made up” of the three.
Production comprises pretty raw statistics like passing yards, rushing yards, or points scored. These are the numbers that ‘Stoner’ is talking about in the video above when he refers to “old school stats”. Sometimes, players or teams can be at or near the top of production statistics simply by doing something more often than others. For example, in 2022, Brian Robinson, with 205 carries, ranked 19th in the NFL in rushing attempts despite playing in just 10 games because the Commanders relied on a run-heavy offense from Week 6 onwards.
This season, no team in the league has come close to passing the ball as much as the Commanders (a sentence I never thought I’d type). Sam Howell has attempted 397 passes in 10 games. The next closest is Joe Burrow at 365 (though Joe won’t throw another pass in 2023). No other QB in the NFL attempted more than 350 passes this season, and only 20 QBs have thrown at least 300 times.
Knowing this, it is unsurprising that Sam Howell leads the league in passing yards with 2,783. At his current pace, he will throw for over 4,700 yards this season, and his pace isn’t slowing down; in fact, it’s picking up steam.
- In Weeks 1-3 Sam threw for 671 yards (3 games) — on pace for 3,802 yards in 17 games.
- In Weeks 4-7 Sam threw for 1,078 yards (4 games) - on pace for 4,581 yards in 17 games.
- In Weeks 8-10 Sam threw for 1,034 yards (3 games) - on pace for 5,859 yards in 17 games.
(to reach 5,000 yards in 2023, Sam would need to average 317 yards per game in the final 7 games. He has averaged over 320 per game in the 4 games played since Week 7)
Sam is also tied for 5th in touchdown passes with 17 — two behind the leader, Josh Allen, who has 19. Sam is 2nd in first downs on passing plays...well, you saw the video above. You don’t need me to tell you all of the ‘old school stats’ again.
The point, however, is that the video from RefTheDistrict above is chock full of production statistics. In other words, Sam is leading the league or near the top of the league as a passer based on sheer volume of pass plays run. And that goes for negative stats as well as positive ones. Sam leads all quarterbacks in sacks taken and yards lost due to sacks. He’s also tied for the 4th-most interceptions (9), once again, just 2 behind the leader, Josh Allen, who has 11.
Efficiency calculates output that is measured on a more apples-to-apples basis by dividing production by some input measure. We get statistics like yards per attempt, or average per carry, or points per game. Last year, both Brian Robinson and Antonio Gibson ranked fairly low on efficiency measures like yards per carry, despite the overall relative success of Washington’s running attack.
Many people who aren’t yet convinced that Sam Howell is the guy (and there aren’t many people publicly making that claim right now) point to his efficiency metrics and say that the huge number of passing plays that the Commanders have run in 2023 mask Sam’s relative inefficiency.
For example, per Pro Football Focus, among quarterbacks with at least 250 dropbacks, Sam Howell ranks 14th in completion percentage (66.5%) and 16th in yards per attempt (7.0). Since these two metrics are typically negatively related, being in the middle of the pack on both is an indication that Sam is much more of a middling QB than his gaudy league-leading production figures would indicate. In a related number, Sam ranks 17th in average depth of target (ADOT).
Interestingly, again per PFF, Sam leads the league in Big Time Throws with 24 (a production number), but is also 6th in BTT% (an efficiency number) at 5.4% (Dak Prescott is #1 at 6.6%).
Focusing on efficiency over production paints a different picture of Sam Howell as a middle-of-the-pack quarterback, which might argue against him as the guy to build around in 2024 and beyond.
The concept of “success” in the NFL is one that I associated with Football Outsiders (FO), who until their apparent recent demise as a publication, highlighted success rate as a key metric in player evaluation. I wrote a detailed article earlier this year about the interrelationship between production, efficiency and success in the run game. In that article, I gave a detailed explanation of how FO defined success in the run game, but the heart of it was this sentence:
A play counts as a “Success” if it gains 40% of yards to go on first down, 60% of yards to go on second down, or 100% of yards to go on third or fourth down.
For example, if the Commanders were facing 3rd & 1 and Brian Robinson carried the ball for 2 yards, the play would be a ‘success’ because he picked up the first down.
- People looking at production would focus on the 2 yards.
- People looking at efficiency would focus on the average of 2 yards per carry.
- People looking at success would focus on the 100% success rate on that play.
I found a slightly different measure of success for passing plays from a different source - (powerrank.com).
This site is using criteria that are similar but not identical to FO’s success for running plays.
A [passing] play is a success if the offense gets the following fraction of yards towards the next first down:
-50% on 1st down
-70% on 2nd down
-100% on 3rd, 4th down
The site ranks Washington’s offense 18th in the league with a success rate of 41.7% (San Francisco is #1 at 54.3%).
Washington’s offense has been very inconsistent in terms of success metrics this season.
A related measure of success is 3rd down conversion percentage. Per TeamRankings.com, Washington is ranked 20th in the NFL by this metric for 2023. The Commanders have converted just 37.21% of third down plays, while the top-ranked Eagles have converted 50.0%.
Interestingly, though, over the past three games (Weeks 8-10), Washington’s 3rd-down conversion rate has been 52.27% — the best in the NFL, and the Commanders are one of only two teams (along with Buffalo) to be above 50%. This could be another sign (along with things like the reduction in sacks) that Sam and the Washington offense turned a corner following the loss to the Giants in Week 7. The ‘success’ measures paint a more muddled picture of Sam as a starting quarterback, but there are some signs that he will be more consistent and more successful in these measures in the final 7 games than he was in the first 7.
This week’s survey saw a significant drop in the percentage of fans who are confident in the team’s direction.
The survey results are split right down the middle, 50/50.
Those who feel negatively about the team’s direction appear to be focused on the 2023 season and the general sense of under-achievement. At 4-6, the team isn’t necessarily underperforming preseason expectations, but those expectations were largely founded on the vision of a team struggling to get a young quarterback up to speed in the NFL.
Instead, Sam Howell has be the strongest good-news story of the ‘23 season for the Commanders, while the defense has been disappointing and consistently near the bottom of the league statistically.
Those who feel positively about the team’s direction seem to be focused on the ownership change (hooray!) and the seemingly inevitable change in the leaders of the football side of the franchise — that is, GM and coaching staff.
Ron Rivera and his future in Washington
Both groups of fans probably looked with keen attention at the vision of a defiant but seemingly defeated Ron Rivera at Friday’s media session.
Put a fork in him; he's done like dinner.— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) November 18, 2023
It's a stark contrast to the happy and carefree guy we saw during training camp. https://t.co/FBYagpiAGC
Fuck, I’ve been through enough. The last three and a half years has not been easy. Anybody who thinks it’s been easy...to hell with them. And I’ll be honest with you, because that’s how I feel about the last three years. It’s been a lot, we’ve done a lot.
Later, Ron expanded on his present and future with the franchise.
My biggest disappointment has been we haven’t played as well on defense as we needed to. Does that make my job security shaky? It could. I have no idea what Mr. Harris is going to do. So all I can do is just focus in on each game, each week, and just stay on that game. I did the same thing in Carolina, and the truth is, this is the nature of the game. I get it. So, if it happens, it happens. If I stay, I stay and so until then, I will just continue to work. I know what my goals are. I know what my vision is.
A ‘parting of the ways’ between Ron Rivera and the Commander organization feels inevitable at this point, and Ron’s demeanor in the video clip above suggests that he knows it too. The only point where there seems to be much disagreement is the question of when that parting will take place; some people want or expect it to happen during the season while others are focused on the end of the season.
Personally, I’m in the latter camp. I don’t see the value in firing Ron now, and a clean sweep of the organization on January 8th 2024 feels to me like the right approach.
Until then, I would expect the weekly confidence survey results to bob up and down with the wins and losses that the team earns over the coming 8 weeks, though an in-season firing of Ron or any other member of the coaching staff would send shockwaves through the fan base, I imagine.
All I know for sure is that the players will buckle their chinstraps every week between now and January 7th and go out to play hard in an effort to win every game. For me, that’s enough for the moment.
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