Major Kyle (Coming Home): The 2009 Broncos passing game & why Eddie Royal isn’t lost in space

4...3...2..1...Kyle behind us...

passing, hurling....floating weightless
calling, calling...(Denver) home...

When I put these weekly columns together, I have so much 80s music to chose from it's almost criminal.  This week it was a close competition between Motley Crue's Shout at the Royal or Falco's Rock Me Kyle Orton.  But ultimately I decided there simply wasn't a better way to introduce the 2009-passing game of the Denver Broncos than with reference to this song by Peter Schilling in 1984, which was also covered in 2009 by Shiny Toy Guns.  I personally could listen to either version 50 times in succession--the equivalent to the number of seasons the Raiders will wait for the playoffs--and never grow bored.

The song is about an astronaut (hey, man, David Bowie originated the story, so don't look at me) who ends up drifting into space forever.  This isn't exactly how the Broncos passing game looked in 2009, but it often seemed this way.  On the surface, it appeared as if bubble screens drifted into the play-book at the expense other more production routes. The standard thinking--that Eddie Royal would become the 2009 version of Wes Welker--never materialized.  Royal became more well-known for his returning prowess than for anything resembling a successful sophomore campaign at wide receiver.

Kyle Orton, for his part, represented a microcosm of the entire season for the Broncos.  Depending on who you believed, Orton was either starting to grow into McDaniels' complex offense over time or he was a less mobile version of Chad Pennington.  He couldn't stretch the field particularly well.  He couldn't make a big play in the clutch.  And he didn't move in the pocket, despite putting up a decent stats.   As many pundits have said, we should consider Kyle Orton an "average quarterback."

That debate will continue to rage until Orton is no longer the quarterback of the Denver Broncos, or he leads the Broncos deep into the playoffs.   So we won't settle the issue now.   But we can be sure of a few things. First, Al Davis eats children on Halloween.  Second, Kyle Orton is coming back for another year (at least) as the QB for the Broncos.

So let's do our part and break down the Broncos passing offense from 2009 like you've never seen it before--through the use of expected points.  By the time you are done with this article, you'll know more about the trends of the Broncos passing offense than many of its own players.  We'll break down Orton, and finally, we'll solve the enigma that was Eddie Royal, my favorite current Bronco.  

For those that are new to MHR (in the last week), or want a quick refresher, let me again say that I have looked at every play of the 2009 Broncos season.  I've assigned a points value to each play using the concept of expected points value, which is explained here.  This allows us to value any single play in the context of how many points it generates. Most useful, however, is its ability to help us understand value in the context of downs, distance, and direction.  With that aside, let's get right to it.

Kyle Orton - Out of Orbit?

I suppose I should start by comparing Kyle Orton to Chris Simms in detail.  But that would be a waste of your precious time. This simple two-line table tells the whole story.

Play Passer Count Average Points Per Pass Attempt
Pass Kyle Orton 532 0.314
Pass Chris Simms 16 -0.349

The numbers reflect the entire body of the work of each quarterback.  Touchdowns, completions, interceptions, and incompletions (outside of spikes) are included in these numbers.  So the two pick-six interceptions that Orton threw against Kansas City are in there as well.  In fact, Orton's last interception on the year was worth -8.796 points.  As you can imagine, throwing a pick-six is like a weekly trip to the Black Hole.  It lowers everything across the board.

But without digressing too far, let's get back to (dispose of) Simms quickly.  Simms didn't have a large sample size, but the trend already emerged.  Your quarterback can't average negative points with his passes and do much in this league.  So the first lesson that emerges from this brief analysis is one that your eyes already saw without numbers: Chris Simms will have a tough time staying with the Broncos going into 2010. 

Orton, on the other hand, had a respectable average-points-per-passing attempt.  But I wouldn't proclaim these numbers to be All-Pro.  To me they appear average.  Unfortunately, until I finish this kind of analysis for every quarterback in 2009, I can't claim this with certainty.  If you'd like a quick comparison, however, I'll give it to you.  During the 2006 season, in which Peyton Manning passed for almost 3,400 yards, had a quarterback rating of 101.0, threw 31 touchdowns to 9 interceptions, his average-expected-points value per pass was .423.   Sure, Manning had a great season, but that's an almost 38% improvement over Orton's number from 2009.  Much of this has to do with Manning's ability on 3rd down, but I think we can all agree that Kyle needs to experience a growth curve this year in order to put more points on the board.

Let's take a look at Orton's values by distance and direction (note: deep passes are those passes that travel 15 yards or more through the air):

Pass Direction Frequency Average Pass Per Play
Short Left 190 0.251
Short Middle 111 0.428
Short Right 165 0.134
Deep Left 30 0.848
Deep Middle 25 0.495
Deep Right 26 0.351

What is the first thing that jumps out at you?  For me, with just a cursory glance, it's the strong tendency of the Broncos to throw the ball to the left side of the field.  Now, anyone that has played quarterback or has pitched in baseball can tell you that for a right-handed thrower, it's easier to throw accurately to the side of the field/plate where you naturally step.  So I'll cede the point that throwing to the left right is naturally more comfortable for Orton. However, the number of times they threw to the left side was simply overwhelming.  Denver threw the ball to the left side of the field 16% more than they threw the ball to the right side, and a full 62% more than they threw the ball to the middle of the field.  In fact, the Broncos threw the ball to the short-left side of the field the 2nd most in the entire league.

This tendency is frightening because if a guy with a penchant for slacker movies and glam-metal can catch this tendency, I'm guessing that even the Oakland Raiders coaches caught it.  But even more frightening is the fact that the average-expected-points value for Orton's passes to the short-left side of the field were 1.7 times less than those passes to the short middle of the field.

This value decrease is even more pronounced when looking at passes to the short right.  The average value of these passes were .134 points per pass, or 3 times less than those passes Orton threw over the middle.  So even though the Broncos threw over the middle much less, they had much more value throwing over the middle when they did.  

Quick, now that you know this, answer my two important multiple choice questions:

What kinds of passes do the Broncos need to throw more of in 2010?

A. Short Middle

B. Short Middle

C. Short Middle

What kinds of passes does Kyle Orton need more practice?

A. Right Side

B. Right Side

C. Right Side

If you picked A, B, or C in either question, you are correct.  You are now qualified to replace Tom Cable.

Before we move away from this table, a word about the deep passes.  It appears that throwing to the deep left part of the field was much more successful for the Broncos in 2009.  This is generally true, but remember, 3 of these plays were broken 60-to-70 yard bombs from Orton to Stokley and to Marshall.  So I wouldn't necessarily believe (given the smaller sample size) that throwing to the deep left will yield twice the results in the future.  We can much easier make generalizations about the short passes due to the much larger sample size (4 times as large). 

This doesn't mean we can't gleam some useful data, however.  First, the value of throwing the ball to the right side of the field was significantly less than the deep middle and the deep left.  This is a similar to what we saw in the short passing game. Second, notice that the value of the short middle passes was near that of the value of throwing to the deep middle.  This probably means that when a receiver or back were getting the ball in the short middle of the field, they were gaining a lot of yards after the catch, which was driving up the value of these plays to the same level as if Orton took more risk by throwing long.    

I could be wrong (I'm doubting it), but this gives us an important bit of information that can be of use for the Broncos in the future. Throwing the ball over the middle using crossing routes and letting the Broncos receivers do the dirty work for Orton is something that they should consider.  To this we will return in a moment when discussing Eddie Royal.

We can also break down the 2009 Denver Broncos passing game by down:

Play Type Down Count Average
Pass 1st 183 0.297
Pass 2nd 204 0.291
Pass 3rd 156 0.205
Pass 4th 5 3.16

Last week, we looked at length at the Broncos struggles on 3rd downs when running.  They don't exhibit a similar tendency in the passing game, although they can always improve significantly.   

Are All Systems a Go?

One question I get asked from time-to-time via email is whether this McDaniels-led offense in Denver is the same McDaniels-led offense he was running with the Patriots. Or is it watered down?   After all, McDaniels said himself that we would see something that we hadn't seen before in 2009.  Well, the answer is that it depends on which Patriots offense we compare it to. I decided to look at the Matt Cassel led Patriots from 2008 and the Tom Brady led Patriots from 2007, possibly the most stunning aerial attack ever witnessed in the NFL.  I simply looked at the percentage of pass plays called in each aerial direction.  Below were the results:

Team Short Left Short Middle Short Right Deep Left Deep Middle Deep Right
2009 Broncos 35% 20% 30% 5% 5% 5%
2008 Patriots 33% 21% 31% 5% 3% 7%
2007 Patriots 30% 20% 33% 7% 4% 6%

It's clear that McDaniels, given his druthers, would prefer to pass the ball deep more often than he did in 2009.  In the successful year of 2007, his offense passed the ball deep 17% of the time.  This translates into about 20 to 22 more deep passes per year.  It's also striking again how unbalanced the 2009-Denver offense was, even for McDaniels, when throwing the ball to the short left.  In 2007 McDaniels only threw to the short left 30% of the time.  In 2008, this number was 33%.  It's obvious he would like more balance, although I still believe he ought to head to the middle of the field more often given the value of these passes.

Josh McDaniels was recently quoted as saying (courtesy of Brian Shrout) this about Kyle Orton.:

I think the fact that he's got a great foundation, a great base of understanding of the terms and the things we ask him to do from a mental stand point, I think he'll be able to start running. Last year, it was kind of a walk, walk, maybe crawl first and then walk, and then start running . . .

I think this quote, when looked at within the context of the above data, says it all.  McDaniels, if we are to believe Kyle Orton is now ready to progress to the next level of this offense, is going to challenge defenses more often in the deep part of the field. Both with Cassel and with Orton, it appears as if McDaniels played to the ease and accuracy of throwing short passes to the left side (again, the easiest of throws for right-handers).  Expect 2010 to be different.  Those who want to find out if Orton can really throw deep are going to get their answer--for better or for worse.

The Count Goes On - A Brief Mention of the Shotgun

When I broke down the Denver passing game another interesting statistic emerged.  Denver's passing attack was more valuable when using the Shotgun.  This is typical with respect to most passing attacks in the NFL, but I wanted to show you the data anyway.  Here is what emerged:

Play Formation Count Average
Pass Shotgun 357 0.369
Pass Under Center 191 0.155
Run Overall 423 0.093
Run Shotgun 63 0.034

While passing out of the shotgun, Denver's passing attack was over 2 times more valuable than under center.  However, I also threw in the data for running out of the shotgun formation as well.  That's because it gives you a sense for just how often Denver chose to run out of the shotgun and how poorly they really did.

McDaniels likes to run almost 50% of his plays out of the shotgun.  The fact that Denver struggled to run out of this formation speaks again for the need to draft and stockpile power-running linemen.  Running out of the shotgun isn't for lightweights.  It's for very large men with tribal tattoos, large biceps, and who live in Moscow, Idaho (oops, I just gave you my mock draft in one sentence).  

Eddie Royal - Space Oddity

Two weeks ago, I wrote a long piece on Brandon Marshall, Tony Scheffler, and the other wide receivers.  You can access that piece here, so there's no need to go over the data again.   However, your those that want to see the big picture, here are the expected points values of the Denver receiving corp:

Play Receiver Count Average Play Receiver Count Average
Pass Brandon Marshall 148 0.509 Pass Brandon Stokley 31 0.805
Pass Eddie Royal 77 0.044 Pass Knowshon Moreno 37 0.243
Pass Jabar Gaffney 85 0.536 Pass Correll Buckhalter 38 0.270
Pass Tony Scheffler 48 0.585 Pass Peyton Hillis 6 -0.112
Pass Daniel Graham 41 0.438 Pass Brandon Llyod 17 0.327

Royal's expected points value is barely above zero.  Much has been speculated about Royal and why this is.  Perhaps the best treatise on the subject was written recently by our own Emmett Smith here.  It's worth a re-read, or if you haven't read it, it's probably as comprehensive a look at Royal as you are going to find anywhere.  As the good doctor points out, Royal has suffered from some confidence issues and last year, his percentage of balls-caught slipped to 53% from a masterful 71% in 2008.   This is imminently fixable.   

Some of us have surmised that the return game has been exhausting Royal and taking away from his focus at wide receiver. There is probably some truth to that.  Others have pointed out that, with the arrival and number of targets that Jabar Gaffney received in 2009, there simply wasn't that many opportunities.  There's truth in this as well.  According to Pro Football Focus, Royal was targeted 127 times in 2008.  Imagine you're Eddie Royal and in 2009, the number of times the team looks your way drops to 77.  And Brandon Marshall wanted to complain?  Even if Royal catches the same percentage as he did in 2008, he still only ends up with 54 catches.  Others have lamented that Royal has been having difficulties with press coverage, and, therefore, has been less effective.  This is where I disagree.  

Eddie Royal didn't suddenly lose his 4.3 speed.  He didn't suddenly forget how to run crisp routes.  And he sure as David Bowie didn't forget how to get open off the line of scrimmage.  I went back to the NFL Rewind tapes and I didn't find that Royal had any more or less trouble getting off the line than he did in 2008, when he caught 91 balls.  If someone has proof of Royal being dominated consistently by cornerbacks in bump-and-run, I'd love to see it.  Perhaps I'll switch to listening to country music for being wrong.  But I'm afraid such video evidence doesn't exist.  

I certainly don't need to remind Broncos fans that this is the same guy who Mike Shanahan said was the best receiver in his draft class at beating press coverage.  And I don't need to mention how he turned an a certain Raiders cornerback into a soft pretzel in his rookie debut.

Josh McDaniels recently weighed in on Royal (Courtesy of Emmett Smith): 

"Absolutely, I know that I'm frustrated and disappointed that we couldn't do more in terms of using (WR) Eddie Royal. I've been asked that question a bunch. I know Eddie is frustrated with it, too. I'm not happy with that, and I don't want that to be the case. That's not stereotypical of Eddie this year. We're going to work hard to try to fix that and get that to change dramatically going into next season."

So if Royal is the same guy, what's the difference between 2008 and 2009?   And just how should McDaniels utilize Royal more productively.  The simply answer, I believe, is in the numbers.  And if McDaniels looks at them closely, we'll see a different Eddie Royal in 2010.

So what do the numbers say? Here are Royal's expected point values both by direction and by down in 2009:

Eddie Royal                
Average Points - Direction Direction Count Average   Average Points - Down Down Count Average
Pass Short Left 28 0.291   Pass 1 19 0.302
Pass Short Middle 7 -0.536   Pass 2 31 0.143
Pass Short Right 34 -0.016   Pass 3 27 -0.251
Pass Deep Left 5 0.260   Pass 4 0 .000
Pass Deep Middle 1 -0.599   Total Points      
Pass Deep Right 2 -0.569   ER 1 -0.99 Running
Pass Shotgun 50 0.005   ER 77 3.421 Receiving

Let's begin with the obvious.  Even with some of the smaller samples sizes, throwing the ball to Royal on third down or to the middle or the right side of the field was the equivalent to losing points for the Broncos last season.  Royal had his highest value on 1st down and when the ball was thrown to him on the short left of the field.  In many ways, he was simply a victim of a larger trend in the Broncos passing game (and that of Kyle Orton), which is a lower expected points value of passing to the right side.  

But what strikes me even more about this data is the lack of touches in the middle for Royal in general.  He was targeted only 7 times all year!  It's obvious that when Royal was the primary receiver in a given formation, the routes rarely called for him to run over the middle.  To drive this point home even further, consider that Brandon Marshall, Jabar Gaffney, Daniel Graham, Tony Scheffler, and Brandon Stokley were all targeted more often than Royal over the short middle of the field.  Even Buckhalter and Moreno were targeted 6 times apiece.  

I find this statistic disconcerning, as I'm sure does Josh McDaniels.  Royal was supposedly going to be utilized much like Wes Welker out of the slot in New England.  Eddie Royal is a guy that the Broncos trusted with their return game, a guy who can create space in a phone booth, a guy who, in 2008, made a ton of plays over the middle of the field out of the slot, and he is only targeted 7 times all year?  Given that the some of highest expected points value from the Broncos passing game came from passes over the short middle, it would seem the Broncos probably under-or-mis-utilized Royal in this area.  

I fully expect to see Josh McDaniels remedy this in 2010 if he has seen this data.  We're likely to see Royal in many more crossing or delayed routes over the middle in 2010.  This will help Eddie and this will help Denver.  

As always, I invite your perspective on this data.  I'm always intrigued by two things.  First, that there continues to be a large and receptive audience here at MHR for statistical-based analysis (and 80s music).  Second, that people see the data in different ways than I do.  But I welcome this.

Next week, I hope to begin taking a look at the defense through the lens of expected points values.  We'll see you there.  But one thing.  Could you lose the space suit?

Originally posted at MHR

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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