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Data Crunch: Pushing It Downfield

Posted Oct 20, 2017

The Bucs haven't yet unlocked their deep passing game but they still have a high-yield aerial attack due to continuing improvement in Jameis Winston's completion rate and yards per completion

Two weeks ago, we noted in Data Crunch that, for the first time in franchise history, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had four different players with at least 200 receiving yards after just four games. With just one more game played since then, those four – Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Cameron Brate and Adam Humphries – have already combined for 1,197 yards, propelling the Bucs' passing attack to almost exactly 300 yards per game through five outings. That's the most prolific five-game start in more than four decades of Buccaneer football.

Tampa Bay's passing attack is so potent this year (currently ranked second in the NFL) that it even survived the loss of starting quarterback Jameis Winston to a shoulder injury in the second quarter in Arizona last weekend. Veteran reserve Ryan Fitzpatrick came in and threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns.

But it's not just the numbers that are unprecedented in team history, it's the nature of the Buccaneers' passing attack. Mostly via Winston's right arm but with an assist last week from Fitzpatrick, the Bucs are completing passes at a higher rate than they have in recent years despite not relying on a short passing attack. Winston and company are still trying to perfect the very deep pass, but they have been very good at hitting intermediate-range passes and thus picking up a lot of yards per completion.

The Buccaneers drafted Winston first overall in 2015 and immediately installed him as the starter. Dirk Koetter was the team's offensive coordinator and play-caller at the time; in 2016 he ascended to head coach while retaining play-calling duties. Tampa Bay fans got a glimpse of the type of passing attack their team would have with Winston when he surpassed 4,000 yards as a rookie, completing 58.3% of his passes and averaging just under 13 yards per completion. That completion rate was near the bottom of the league's rankings, while the yards per completion were near the top. Winston showed great accuracy on intermediate range throws.

In his second year, Winston threw for more than 4,000 yards again while improving his completion percentage. The Buccaneers' mark of 61.4% in 2016 was still 20th in the NFL but much closer to the league average, which was 63.0% in both 2015 and 2016. However, the team's yards-per-completion mark took a significant tumble to 11.73, 11th in the NFL.

READ: Jameis Winston to Start in Buffalo

In 2017, Winston and the Buccaneers seem to be putting it all together. The Bucs are completing the same percentage of their passes but their yards per completion is nearly all the way back up to their 2015 high-water mark. If he maintains his own pace, Winston would be the first quarterback in franchise history to complete at least 60% of his passes and average at least 12.5 yards per completion in the same season.

In the chart below, one can see how the Bucs' passing attack has progressed since Winston's arrival. The averages and ranks apply to the team as a whole, but Winston has taken all but 44 of the Bucs' 1,310 regular-season passes since his arrival.

The third line in the chart above notes a related statistic, yards at catch, or Y@C. The final yardage total of every completion is a combination of Y@C and YAC, or yards after catch. In the Koetter/Winston offense, the Buccaneers have always generated a lot more Y@C than YAC. That remains true in 2017, even though the team imported Jackson and his robust career YAC totals. While the Buccaneers would still like to do better in that latter category, they're managing to complete the ball farther downfield than even the last two years, when they ranked second in the league in that category both times.


Again, the Buccaneers would love to have it all, catches well downfield like the 41-yard Fitzpatrick bomb that Evans snared in the end zone last Sunday (by definition, that's all Y@C and no YAC) and quick-hitters that become long gains like Jackson's 41-yard slant against the Patriots. For now, though, the team is clearly tilted towards the first type of gain. In fact, they could end up with the highest Y@C rate for any NFL team in the last quarter-century among those that also completed at least 60% of their passes.

Highest Yards-at-Catch Average, NFL Teams with 60% Completion Rate, Last 25 Years

 

Team Season Primary QB Comp. % Y@C Avg.
Tampa Bay * 2017 Jameis Winston 61.4% 8.8
Minnesota 2000 Daunte Culpepper 62.0% 8.8
Tennessee 2003 Steve McNair 62.7% 8.7
St. Louis 2000 Kurt Warner 64.7% 8.5
Minnesota 1998 Randall Cunningham 61.4% 8.5
Arizona 2015 Carson Palmer 62.8% 8.4
Indianapolis 2004 Peyton Manning 67.0% 8.3
New England 2004 Tom Brady 60.4% 8.2
Pittsburgh 2004 Ben Roethlisberger 63.7% 8.2
Jacksonville 1996 Mark Brunell 63.4% 8.2

* Through five games.

Individually, Winston (12.72) ranks third in the NFL in yards per completion, behind the L.A. Rams' Jared Goff (13.37) and New England's Tom Brady (12.80). The Buccaneers' own franchise record for yards per completion was set at 14.97 by Doug Williams in 1981; Winston's current mark would only rank 10th in team history, if maintained. But, of course, the NFL passing game have changed over the decades, favoring higher-percentage attacks. The league as a whole completed 54.6% of its passes in 1981, and Williams had a mark of 50.5%. This year, the league is completing 62.8% of its passes, following a record-setting 63.0% mark for all of 2016.

As such, Winston could set new standards for Tampa Bay quarterbacks in terms of both completing passes and pushing the ball downfield. He could be the first Buccaneer passer ever to complete at least 60% of his passes and average 12.5 yards per completion in the same season.

Highest Yards-Per-Completion Average, Buccaneers, Among QBs with 60% Completion Rate

 

Quarterback Season Comp. % Yards/Comp.
Jameis Winston 2017 60.4% 12.72
Josh Freeman 2010 61.4% 11.86
Jameis Winston 2016 60.8% 11.86
Jeff Garcia 2007 63.9% 11.67
Steve DeBerg 1984 60.5% 11.54


Winston is still just 23 years old, and plenty of the other core members of the Bucs' offense are still very early in their careers, as well. The Buccaneers' passing attack should continue to improve and evolve in the seasons to come. It's likely, however, that the offense will remain high-yield in terms of the yards produced per completion.