The consistently outstanding Football Perspective took a look at the much-used yards per attempt statistic, and how it may be overvaluing certain quarterbacks. Specifically: those who play in a deep passing offense, which would mean players like Cam Newton, Eli Manning and, of course, Josh Freeman.
Whatever the theory, this chart makes it clear that Yards per Attempt isn't really system-neutral. Deep throwers have an advantage, because the dropoff rate in completion percentage - at least in 2012 - wasn't disproportionate to the increase in yards per completion. This also makes sense in light of two of the surprise finishers in the top 12 in yards per attempt last season: Cam Newton and Josh Freeman.
The list of the top 12 leaders in Y/A from 2012 is a who's who of the top quarterbacks in the league, Newton, Freeman, and Matt Schaub (and to the extent that Schaub's presence surprises you, that's nothing to do with Y/A and everything to do with his performance down the stretch; he ranked 7th in Y/A through the first eleven weeks and then 15th in Y/A and 19th in AY/A over the final six weeks). And for those who didn't already know, Newton and Freeman finished first and second in yards per completion.
I have some questions here, mostly relating to why we should view use as a negative. Average depth of target may be not just a consequence of system, but also of a quarterback's own competence. After all, many quarterbacks simply can't play in a system like that because they can't make the necessary throws. But, assuming this evidence points in the right direction, these are some troubling indications.
Josh Freeman saw the biggest jump in air yards per completion in the NFL from 2011 to 2012, going from 5.61 air yards per completion in 2011 to 7.92 in 2012, according to a different Football Perspective article. The question may be whether that's more due to system rather than his own improvement. To an extent, Freeman was a poor fit for a West Coast Offense relying largely on shorter passes. While Greg Olson tried to incorporate some deeper throws, the resulting offense was a mess in 2011.
In 2012, though, the offense looked much more coherent. The deep passing game seemed to take better advantage of Freeman's best asset (his arm), but it may also have served to overstate his numbers. The best statistical argument one can make in favor of Freeman's performance last year revolves around his yards per attempt and his sack rate, both of which were among the best in the NFL.
And yet advanced statistics have taken a dim view of Freeman's performance since the 2010 season. For the 2012 season, Football Outsiders had the Bucs ranked as the 24th passing game based on per-snap efficiency, while ESPN's Total QBR had him ranked 18th in the NFL.
None of this really means anything for Freeman going forward. He has to improve, but we already knew that, and there are reasons to believe he will. But this evidence suggests that the one statistic that speaks most in his favor may be inflated due to the system, diminishing its value. Does that make Freeman more replaceable after the season?