Downfield completions almost always make the highlight reel of an NFL game, and they’re sure to be among the most vivid memories any fan takes away from the stadium. So it’s not surprising that, following an afternoon on which Josh Freeman notched two of the six longest completions of his young career, people would be talking about his downfield accuracy as a primary strength of his game.
Freeman has always been known for his big arm and his mobility in and out of the pocket, and for good reason. Those are fair assessments, and he showed on his 65-yard completion to Mike Williams and his 54-yarder to Vincent Jackson on Sunday that he can indeed put the ball on the money half a football field away. The Bucs insist that there are many more strengths to Freeman’s game, and they are currently working to streamline their play-calling to take better advantage of them.
Still, it’s unlikely that the deep ball will become less prominent in the Bucs’ passing attack moving forward, especially if the running game improves, thus providing more play-action options and less over-the-top coverage. That part of the Bucs’ attack is already returning good results, as is evident in Freeman’s situational passer ratings on passes that travel certain distances in the air. Here’s what those numbers look like (note that the first column refers to how many yards beyond the line of scrimmage the ball is in the air, not the actual yards gained on a play):
It’s probably worth discussing some context here, as the reality of the situation isn’t necessarily as stark as those numbers suggest. No coach is going to look at that table and conclude the best course of action is simply to chuck it downfield as far as possible every play.
For instance, passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage (screens, essentially) are obviously less likely to result in touchdowns, and a low TD percentage will hurt an overall passer rating quickly. Just as obviously, if you’re completing your deep throws, you’re almost certainly going to get huge returns in yards per attempt and touchdowns. A completed 20-yard out to the far side of the field is probably just as impressive of a throw as a 40-yard fly down the sideline, but it usually won’t ring up the passer rating numbers as significantly.
As for the least successful row in that table, the throws that travel 11-20 yards, the passer rating is badly hurt by the two interceptions, which represent half of Freeman’s total this year. That’s not a good thing, obviously, but a yards-per-attempt figure of 8.50 in that range is actually quite good and is indication of promise in that range.
And, of course, there is the sample-size issue. The season is just one-quarter old and there is time for all of these numbers to move up or down a significant amount. Note that in 2010, Freeman’s most successful season to date, he had a passer rating of 105.3 on balls thrown 1-10 yards and 102.2 in the 11-20 range. Clearly, he has the skills to succeed on throws to any part of the gridiron.