It’s the offseason, which means we get to hear unabated praise for the team’s most important player. Mike Zimmer had a lot of good things to say about Teddy Bridgewater on Tuesday shortly after practice.
Well it was so encouraging … for him to step up and really begin to make some crucial plays for us and take more of the reins from a leadership position for us. It really gave me more confidence for the future with him, and was good to see. We needed him to play well at that point in the season, and you always need that from your quarterback at that point in the season, in the month of December. He played at a very, very high level at a crucial time, so it was really encouraging for all of us.
Wait, that’s not right.
Well, Zimmer had some strong words about Teddy regardless:
[He]’s becoming more of a leader, and you can tell that this is more of his team as we continue to go. He’s a lot more vocal with the guys, as far as telling them where to go and what routes they should be running. He obviously has a better command of the offense, as well.
Well… wait. He said those words about Teddy last year.
OK, OK. Here’s what Zimmer actually said about Bridgewater on Tuesday—stuff that Vikings fans absolutely want to hear. In response to a question about deep passing, Zimmer was pretty optimistic.
“I think we’ve just focused on it a little bit more,” he said. “There was a play last week that kind of showed me the progression. We had a hard count. One of the guys on defense jumped and we had a play action off of it and he saw the guy jump. He said, “Got you!” and he saw the safety bite a little bit and just hung it right down the middle of the field about 55 yards and a perfect strike.”
Free runners off of a hard count are the perfect scenario for a quarterback. Bridgewater was so good at hard counts last year, that he led the league in drawing offsides penalties on hard counts, despite passing for a team that ranked 28th in plays run last year.
Unfortunately, Bridgewater handed the ball off on most—if not all—of those hard counts.
Zimmer continued, “So those are the kind of things I see two years ago or even early last year, I don’t think he would have done. But there’s other plays like that where he sees the safety bite and to me he just looks more comfortable and confident as well in the things that he’s doing.”
That kind of deep passing is important to Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who feel that creating threats at every level of the field critically opens up the offense.
“It’s always important because you can back people up,” said Zimmer. “But the percentages on deep ball are not really very good. I don’t care who’s throwing them. It’s timing, the arc on the ball, guys are running full speed downfield, but sometimes you get pass interferences and things like that, which are good things, too.”
Deep passing is a risky proposition. Quarterbacks throw interceptions on deep passes (20+ yards) three times as often as they do on passes thrown before the 20-yard marker and they complete passes deep at half the rate they do otherwise—only a third of the passes thrown over 20 yards last year were caught by the intended receiver.
The best deep-ball thrower last year, Russell Wilson (per ESPN), completed only 45.3% of his deep shots and was intercepted on 7.5% of them.
So, Zimmer’s correct that the “percentages are not very good,” but it’s worth it for nearly every quarterback.
Nearly, because six quarterbacks out of the 35 last year with at least 225 attempts had a lower adjusted yards per attempt when passing deep than when passing shorter distances—Brock Osweiler, Matt Ryan, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Marcus Mariota, Matt Hasselbeck and Teddy Bridgewater.
In all honesty, it may be worth it for all quarterbacks, because the AYA calculation uses standard weights for touchdowns (equivalently 20 yards) and interceptions (45 yards) when deep touchdowns are worth more (because if you miss a touchdown up close, you’ve got a very good chance of getting another one because of how close the end zone is… and failing that, three points as compensation) while deep interceptions hurt less.
Having a good deep ball elevates a quarterback’s game significantly. If Eli Manning was as effective as Teddy was throwing deep last year, Eli Manning’s adjusted yards per attempt would fall from 14th in the league to 27th.
If Teddy’s deep ball was as effective as the average quarterback last year, he would have gone from ranking 25th in adjusted yards per attempt to 10th—and his passer rating from 22nd to 10th.
That’s not to say that the lack of a deep ball meant that Bridgewater was a poor passer; he was overall an accurate passer after accounting for distance thrown.
Zimmer mentioned that deep aggressiveness is something they’ll be working on this offseason. “[W]e’ve still got to throw them. But if you’re up there pressed and you see a guy get beat or he is hip-to-hip when they’re running, you take a few more shots when you’re doing that, which we’ll emphasize in training camp.”
He went on to say that there were a number of strong-armed quarterbacks who didn’t take care of the ball, and lost games. He wouldn’t name them, but it’s not hard to think of players like Ryan Leaf, Jamarcus Russell and familiarly Josh Freeman.
Is it all just offseason fluff? A little bit. Zimmer so far has not been the type of coach to provide empty praise, and though he uses kid gloves a bit more in the offseason than the regular season (at least with media), he never gives a false evaluation.
What’s great about Zimmer’s pressers is that he provides much more specific praise when he does choose to compliment a player, and in this case gave an example. Frazier would provide broad platitudes about a player “playing well,” like he did in the quote about Ponder above.
Even when talking about something as difficult to verify as “leadership” provided specific examples of what Teddy did to earn that sort of compliment; isolating conversations with receivers about routes being run is a useful example of what that kind of leadership can provide.
Though the praise is probably genuine, there’s still room to be careful. Should Bridgewater’s deep ball prove to be unerringly accurate in the offseason, there’s still room for concern.
Tim Tebow likely did improve his throwing motion every year in the NFL, but it reverted quickly when thrown into the fire.
Still, this is what it looks like when a young player improves at a skill they weren’t good at before; marked offseason improvement with specific examples. Scant alternative evidence is positive, with Teddy showcasing what looks to be an improved throwing motion in highlight videos but that’s less useful even than a presser mention.
For now, we can take this limited evidence and hold on to it until training camp—for an already good young quarterback to become better would be a massive boon for the offense.