Is there a bigger lightening rod, among the players, for the Rams struggles the past two years than QB Marc Bulger? Despite the team's myriad problems (which, IMO, started in the front office) Bulger's the guy that a good number of fans lined up to eviscerate on the radio, message boards, and at water coolers everywhere. That's part of the business; the QB takes the heat, and Bulger's play in the last two years, since getting a big contract, has done nothing to inspire. Thus, there's some shock out there that the new coaching staff is committing to him for at least another year. That decision is partly motivated out of financial necessity, but I think it's also quite reasonable to think that Bulger can rebound with the right circumstances.
Digging around the web yesterday, I came across a discussion of QB efficiency. The numbers interested me because I thought they might shed a little more light into the discussion of whether or not Bulger can rebound. Now, these are hardly conclusive, but the info actually showed some improvement in Bulger's turnover efficiency between 2007 and 2008 that would seem to indicate that he still has his precious accuracy and can improve as the factors outside of his control (the playcalling, injuries, protection, etc.) start to make a turn for the better.
The problem with just looking at the number of interceptions a QB throws or even the number of INTs versus the number of TDs is that you're not getting the whole picture. Teams playing from behind, as the Rams have done for much of the past two seasons, typically throw the ball more, creating more opportunities to make INTs, especially considering some of the play calls those teams are likely to employ late in games (more on risk in an upcoming post), i.e. losing can cause interception as much as interceptions can cause losing. That explains why using "interceptions per pass attempt" can be more helpful in looking at a quarterback's efficiency.
One more note how I'm categorizing attempts. I have included sacks in the total number of passing attempts, because that represents a passing play too, albeit one gone awry. Sacks aren't officially included in the league stats, but since we're talking about turnover efficiency - and sacks have a direct effect on that - I'm including it. (The must-read Advanced NFL Stats blog goes really in depth with efficiency, using it to pullout win probability correlations).
|Year||Attempts*||INT||INT per attempt||Yards||Yds/attempt||sacks||sack yards|
Interceptions weren't Bulger's biggest problem last year, according to the "INT per attempt" number. Bulger threw 0.0271 INTs per attempt last year, or he threw INTs on 2.7% of his pass attempts. That's just about a full percentage point better than his awful 2007 season, and slighty better than his career average INT per attempt of 0.028. There's some relief to be found here as we wonder whether or not Bulger can regain the passing accuracy that gives him value as a QB.
What's more of a concern for Bulger is his "true passing efficiency," as measured in yards per attempt (including sacks). This is important because the more effective a QB is at making gains with the pass, the higher the correlation with winning (again, for more in depth look at passing efficiency visit Advanced NFL Stats, this post and this one). For Bulger, that number has declined every year since 2004, with a significant, one yard per attempt drop between 2006 and 2007.
Of course, there are numerous other factors at play when looking at passing efficiency beside the QB himself. In the Rams case, personnel factors heavily into the number as pass blocking as well as receiver's ability to run routes and get open impact the success of passing plays. Of course, the turmoil the Rams have experienced with play calling in the last two seasons matters as well. For example in 2006, Steven Jackson caught 90 passes, second most on the team, but less than half that number in the next two seasons. Some of that has to do with the fact that he missed time to injury, but it also demonstrates some changes in the play calling. Bulger's numbers prior to 2006 also highlight the success Martz's offense had moving the ball downfield...the sack numbers highlight something else about the Turf Show. And, quite frankly, you've got to look to Bulger himself. Even when he wasn't hurried he still made lots of throws off poor footing and looked generally gunshy at times. Sure, he may have been able to avoid some INTs in those situations but he still missed receivers. It's a collective effort; everyone has to get better.
I tend to think that Pat Shumur's offense helps Bulger. Sure, he's still got to learn a new playbook and timing, but he'll be finding receivers on shorter, underneath passes and using his accuracy and quick release on short drops in the pocket to get the ball in their hands. Utlizing the running backs' receiving ability helps tremendously also, and you may recall Bulger's best season coinciding with runners like Faulk and Jackson getting a significant amount of receptions.
That there's evidence that Bulger still has his accuracy is the good news, and conditions around him seem to be lining up in his favor. He still has a lot to prove though, with fewer excuses for failure.