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My new favorite football stat: Receiving +/- and Patriots reason for cutting WR Brandon LaFell

This will change the way you look at completion rates.

I’ve been asking for this stat for the past few years, but I just lacked the database of information to make it a reality. Now Football Outsiders has made it a reality.

Completion rates never tell the whole story as a 60% completion rate for a quarterback that throws checkdowns all day is entirely different from a 60% completion rate for a quarterback slinging the ball 20+ yards down the field. Passes in the middle of the field also yield a far greater completion rate than those on the sidelines.

There’s a better way of evaluating quarterback completion rates than a simple completion versus attempts calculation.

Introducing: Passing +/-

What is it? Let’s say the average NFL quarterback (ANQ) will complete 75% of their passes in the middle of the field when the receiver is 5 yards down the field. Hypothetically, let’s say Patriots quarterback Tom Brady completes 8 of his 10 passes here. This means that Brady was 0.5 completions above expectation, and receives a score of +0.5.

Football Outsiders took this idea and applied to every pass to determine how many completions above or below expectation each quarterback fared- and they did it for the past decade.

Brady ranked 17th in 2015 with a mere +3.5.

Over the past decade, Brady ranks 8th in the NFL in Drop Adjusted +/-, with 169.7 completions above expectation. The unparalleled leader is Saints quarterback Drew Brees with a filthy +401.1, further ahead of #2 Peyton Manning (+302.6) than Peyton is ahead of #5 Ben Roethlisberger (+216.8).

Per Football Outsiders, Brees and Manning have led the league in +/- a combined eight times in the past decade, with Brady’s 2007 (+32.0) and Russell Wilson’s 2015 (+27.4) the other two leaders. Brees has four of the five best years in the past decade.

Now I’m sure this metric isn’t flawless and will inflate the numbers for quarterbacks with god-tier deep threat wide receivers. Teams that focus on shorter passes or passes in the middle of the field (hello, Patriots) seem to have lower numbers, and quarterbacks that deal with injuries on offense will naturally see a decline.

But I think this is a clear step in the right direction for a better evaluation of quarterback completions.

Football Outsiders also looked at the receiving +/- for targets and you won’t be surprised at who finished at the bottom of the 81 qualifying receivers in the rankings.

Former Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell finished with a -8.8, which means that Brady completed nearly 9 fewer passes than expected in LaFell’s direction. That said, LaFell ranked ahead of 80th ranked Dez Bryant (-8.5), 79th ranked T.Y. Hilton (-7.7), and 78th ranked new-Patriot Nate Washington (-7.4).

Of course LaFell didn’t have to deal with the quarterback issues those other receivers faced, so that’s an even bigger flag on LaFell.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, slot receiver Danny Amendola ranked 9th in the entire league with a +8.3 score. I really wish the Patriots got Amendola more involved because he has reliable hands and always moves the chains. Wes Welker was the 2nd ranked receiver over the past decade with a +58.1, trailing only Jordy Nelson’s +58.4.

Increased usage would also condition defenses and potentially open up passing lanes for tight end Rob Gronkowski, who finished with an unexciting -0.6. Scott Chandler finished with the 7th worst tight end score at -3.1.

Football Outsiders noticed that Gronkowski rated +23.6 from 2010-2012 and a mere +2.1 since 2013, when Julian Edelman became the focus at wide receiver. Perhaps increasing the slot usage would also unlock another level of Gronkdom that we haven’t witnessed in years.

Using Football Outsiders own DVOA metrics, which shows how efficient a team is on the field, we see a continuous decline in the Patriots offense since 2010 when Gronkowski entered the league.

But we also notice that the Patriots rushing attack has been in the negatives over the past two seasons and perhaps an increased usage of Amendola isn’t the only way to force linebackers to step up in the box and open up passing lanes for Gronkowski.

If the Patriots running backs were actually considered a threat, or used as rushers, defenses would have to respect the play action in ways they did not in 2015. No one cared if New England pretended to run the ball last season; they encouraged it. A viable rushing attack would go a long distance when looking at improving the Patriots offensive efficiency.

Football Outsiders actually looked at the +/- for running backs and Dion Lewis 48th out of a qualifying 55 players, but they reinforced that it didn’t mean much for the position. Lewis ranks alongside the likes of Darren Sproles, LeSean McCoy, and Giovanni Bernard.

Backs typically catch the ball behind the line of scrimmage, so any incomplete passes will greatly reduce the back’s score- and Lewis’ real value comes in his yards after the catch ability, not his hands, and +/- isn’t a grade of yards after the catch. I would also guess that wheel routes yield a lower completion rate than simple dump off slip screen passes, even if they might be categorized in the same area of the field.

I’m interested in seeing future use of this stat- how about on defense, to better evaluate passing defenses?- and I also think that it offers quality insight into the effectiveness of players and play calling.

The Patriots have created a brilliant offense of high completion plays in the middle of the field, but the rest of the offense has atrophied with low quality outside receivers and rushers. Since defenses don’t have to fear the Patriots rushing and sideline attacks, they can focus their resources on clogging the middle of the field, neutralizing the Patriots advantage.

This isn’t to say the Patriots offense is “neutralized” in the sense that they’re average. They’re clearly a top three offensive unit on an annual basis. But they could be better. Hopefully the coaching staff and the players at running back and sideline receiver continue to develop to recapture the advantage.