The Short Middle

Riding immense success on the field, Russell Wilson has become one of the most recognizable NFL players off of it. Married to R&B star Ciara, Russell Wilson has been featured in commercials, graced magazine covers, been a guest on late night television, had a cameo in a movie, and hosted award shows. And yet, there are still aspects of Russell Wilson that have gone largely unnoticed. For example, did you know that, relative to other professional quarterbacks, Russell Wilson is quite short?

While this fact may not be known by your average Joe Fan, at 5’10 and 5/8th inches, Wilson is considerably below average for his position. This has lead many to speculate about Wilson’s ability to see and use certain parts of the field. Specifically, the short middle part of the field.

To look at whether this is true, whether Russell struggles in or simply doesn’t use that area of the field, we’ll need to define that area of the field. To determine whether a pass was to the middle of the field, we’ll simply use the NFL box score’s classification of middle. I’m not sure how they determine whether to classify an area of the field as the middle, but they do, so we’ll use it.

Short is a little more difficult. Arbitrarily, we’ll consider any pass that travels less than 7 yards from the line of scrimmage as short. Since we want to look at how far a pass traveled we’ll effectively use air yards, but we won’t actually use air yards because that stat depends on the depth of the quarterback’s drop. A ball thrown 10 yards in the air from a 3 step drop will end up further downfield than a ball thrown 10 yards from a 7 step drop. So what we’ll actually use is the difference between yards gain and yards after the catch to determine where a ball was caught.

Now that we know where the short middle part of the field is, lets look at how NFL quarterbacks use the different parts of the field in 2016.

Medium length is between 7 and 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, and long is anything past 15 yards. Throw% is the percentage of throws to that area of the field.

There’s little shocking here. Quarterbacks throw mostly short, complete a lot of those passes, throwing few interceptions, but also gaining few yards and some of the lowest rates of successful plays. Quarterbacks throw long the least, completing the lowest percentage of passes, throwing more interceptions, but also getting more yards and scoring more touchdowns. Pretty straightforward.

So, what does this table look like for Russ?

Looking just at the relative trends, Russ matches the averages fairly well. Russ throws short most often, throwing less to the short middle than average but not by much, and completes a high percentage of passes. He throws few interceptions to that area, but also throws fewer touchdowns, gains fewer yards on average, and has a lower success rate, the same as other NFL QBs.

Comparing the numbers, Russ’ proficiency as a down field passer stands out. While all NFL quarterbacks tended to be successful when attacking the medium middle of the field, Russ blows the NFL averages out of the water in comp%, AvgEPA, TD%, and YPA. Russ also does much better in all of the long distances, especially in comp%, AvgEPA, YPA, and success rate.

But Russ’s struggles in the short middle of the field also stand out. Russ is roughly league average throwing short right, and considerably outperforms the league average  throwing short left, but is well below NFL averages throwing to the short middle. Russ’s AvgEPA and AvgWPA are both negative, his TD% is 1/4th the league average, and his success rate is 3/4th that of the league average.

By nearly every measure, Russell is worse throwing to the short middle of the field than the average NFL quarterback. But how does he compare to other, individual quarterbacks?

This is the list of the 39 quarterbacks who threw at least 100 passes in 2016. Wilson ranks in the bottom half every category except yards per attempt. He’s in the bottom 10 of four categories: AvgEPA, AvgWPA, TD%, and success rate. Other quarterbacks with low ranking while throwing to the middle of the field include: Blaine Gabbert, Bryce Petty, Ben Roesthlisberger, Case Keenum, and Jared Goff. Quarterbacks who do particularly well in the short middle of the field include: Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and the undisputed king of the short middle, Cody Kessler.

Boy, the list of quarterbacks who perform well in the short middle sure looks a lot better than the list of quarterbacks who struggle in the short middle! Is that because the short middle portion of the field is special somehow? An area where quarterbacks can exploit defenses? An area that, because of his height or some other reason, Russell doesn’t have access to?

Or it simply a case of good quarterbacks being better than bad quarterbacks, regardless of where they are throwing to?

To answer that question, lets look at the delta between these stats when a quarterback targets the short middle vs each quarterbacks overall stats.

Wilson’s completion percentage was 6% higher when targeting the short middle than his overall completion% (68.6% vs 64.7%).  That difference is still well below average, but Wilson finds himself in some pretty good company. Russ is one spot below Aaron Rodgers and above Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Tom Brady (whose completion percentage targeting the short middle of the field was actually lower than his overall completion percentage). Meanwhile the top of this list is far from illustrious with Kessler, McCown, Griffin, Flacco, and Osweiler  all in the top 10.

Russell’s AvgEPA and AvgWPA targeting the short middle are terrible no matter how you slice them. He’s bottom 5 by raw totals and by delta.

Negative numbers are good here, as that means the QB threw fewer picks to the short middle than their average. Russell is neither negative nor above average, but still ranks better than Cousins, Ryan, Prescott, Smith, and Rodgers.

Rodgers and Ryan are the only top tier quarterbacks who throw a higher percentage of touchdowns targeting the short middle. That said, only Dak is the only high performing QB who has a lower relative TD% than Russell.

 

Not surprisingly, passes to the short middle of the field gain less yards on average for most quarterbacks. While it may be tempting to try to pick up yards after the catch by throwing short, most quarterbacks are able to pick up more yards by simply throwing the ball further down the field. Rodgers and a few other respectable QBs manage to average more yards targeting the short middle, but the top 5 of this list is truly a nightmare.

Russell’s success rate is much lower when targeting the middle of the field, but he’s not alone.  Drew Bress and Matt Ryan are only a few spots ahead of Wilson and both have worse success rates when targeting the short middle. And both Dak and Roesthlisber have relative success rate’s that are even worse.

Here’s all of that data in a single table.

While Russ still rates in the bottom half of every category except YPA diff, and ranks in the bottom 10 in now 5 categories, other quarterbacks also rank significantly lower. Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers are all considerably worse throwing to the short middle part of the field than their averages. Only Joe Flacco and Cody Kessler remain from the original list and are joined by Colin Kaepernick, Eli Manning, and Carson Palmer.

From this, it’s clear that Russell is much less efficient than other quarterbacks when targeting the short middle part of the field, and is much worse targeting that portion of the field than when targeting other portions of the field. This data doesn’t help us answer the question of whether those struggles are due to his height, but I will note that Drew Brees, 1.5 inches taller than Wilson, ranks fairly well relative to the league when targeting the short middle. But there also doesn’t appear to be anything particularly special about the short middle. Good quarterbacks perform better in that area than bad quarterbacks do, but they tend to perform worse in that area than they do in other areas of the field. So whatever the reason Russell Wilson struggles in the short middle, and playcalling certainly has a place in that discussion, those struggles shouldn’t be seen as disproportionately damaging to his and the offense’s success.

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