Thursday, July 7, 2011

Denard's INT rate and what it means for 2011

It will surprise precisely no readers of this blog that I'm more pessimistic about the upcoming football season than most Michigan bloggers. Despite the bevy of returning starters, the thought of switching from Rich Rodriguez's spread'n'shred offense to Al Borges' West Coast system makes me break out in hives, especially given that Denard Robinson had the 84th worst INT rate among QBs last year (3.8%). MGoBlog believes that putting Denard in the shotgun (and natural progression) will mitigate these problems, but I'm not entirely sure. So let's take a look at some numbers.

The first thing that I pulled up were numbers about Rodriguez's and Borges' offensive structure, and much to my surprise, Borges is not the West Coast gunslinger I thought he was. The following is a chart of Borges' teams' run/pass split since 2004. Last year's team is added for comparison.

Auburn 2004 Auburn 2005 Auburn 2006 Auburn 2007 SDSU 2009 SDSU 2010 Michigan 2010
Pass Att (%) 308 (36%) 339 (41%) 282 (37%) 356 (40%) 448 (58%) 426 (49%) 385 (41%)
Rushes (%) 553 (64%) 481 (59%) 470 (63%) 543 (60%) 328 (42%) 439 (51%) 556 (59%)

I was expecting to see Borges teams rely heavily on the pass, nearly the invert of what is shown here, and was going to follow by saying that relying on a mistake-prone quarterback in that type of offense, regardless of off-season improvement, was a dangerous proposition. But this isn't the case. Instead, Borges' offense, by the numbers anyway and with exception to the 2009 San Diego State team, looks a lot like a typical pro-style, I-formation attack.

If we use only these numbers, we can more or less expect the same reliance on Denard's passing skills next year. And given natural player progression (about which more later), the likelihood that Denard's interception rate drops in the coming year falls somewhere around "expected". However, with an offensive scheme change, and one that likely limits Denard's greatest attribute, those improvements may very well be mitigated. If we're using the information at our disposal (the Spring Game and Denard's awful interception rate a year ago) as any indication, the transition may be more akin to the shift from Carr to Rodriguez than we're all comfortable with.

One of the reasons this feels like Threetidan 2008 is because the Spring Game is impossible to ignore. The mistakes that Denard was making--overthrowing receivers, throwing behind receivers, etc.--are largely independent of offensive schemes and are habits he showed a tendency for as last season progressed. The more comfortable he is with specific plays, the better he'll be able to read and anticipate throws, but sailing passes to open receivers over the middle of the field is not indicative of a quarterback with the full range of passing skills. Even if his interception rate drops through natural improvement (though I'm relatively certain it's headed in the other direction), the effect will be minimal at best. Throw in a heavier reliance on a stable of running backs that proved themselves Exceptionally Average last year, and a serious offensive reversion to the mean (or worse) is in the making.

Most of the hope about next year's offense comes from a beaming smile and the misconception that all quarterbacks are created equal. Denard's improvement from year one to year two was unprecedented. His freshman year, Denard was a quarterback that showed barely any grasp of the offense, poor decision-making ability, and poorer mechanics. Then year two rolled around and he started smiling and holding babies and making stratospheric leaps.

Unfortunately, there's a reason many schools were recruiting him as a cornerback. Denard's ceiling is not something that's ever been discussed outside of Rodriguez's spread'n'shred attack, which had previously turned him into a Heisman hopeful. In a system that doesn't rely as heavily on his legs (or the threat of his legs), does Denard have even a moderate ceiling? A fair amount of his yards last year were on the one-man play action plays that made opposing safeties look silly and Denard look like a revelation. If you excise those plays from his stat sheet in an effort to replicate a West Coast, quick-passing attack, Denard's numbers likely start to trickle down to earth. So not only does expected improvement from Denard make a logical leap, his Spring Game performance coupled with his high interception rate from last year stand to reason that his performance may get noticeably worse.

I started writing this not entirely sure where it was headed, and as we near the 1,000-word mark, I don't think I've made my point. I agree that leaving Denard in the shotgun is the right thing to do, but Denard in Shotgun /= Lower Interception Rate. Given that he spent almost all of last year in the shotgun with a bevy of plays designed specifically to get easy completions as defenses compensate for his running ability, it's unlikely that an offensive shift that may not include those plays will positively affect his decision making and interception rate. Shotgun is the better alternative to having Denard under center where he'll have to deal with footwork and other details he hasn't practiced extensively. But I find it hard to see a scenario in which the offense, and Denard specifically, doesn't take a significant step backwards in 2011.


Anonymous said...

Some of the interceptions came about because UM was going for it on 4th and long. Further, you are assuming that Borges will completely give up on zone reads and other elements of RR's offense. I believe that by relying more on a normal running game and on shorter passes DR could have a reasonable season with lower interceptions. Finally, if UM can find an above average RB, then with DR's potential running ability, I believe our running game could be quite effective. We may not have as many long runs as last year, but we will have many more long drives with 10-15 running plays.

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