Thursday, February 2, 2012

Regarding Cam Cameron

Fans around the country might not be aware, but Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is a controversial figure. The Ravens still, 4 years into the Harbaugh era and 4 full seasons after drafting a "franchise quarterback", still win their games with defense and controlling the football. Ravens discussion boards are wallpapered with calls for him to be fired after each close nailbiter of a win. The furor when they lose is almost unbelievable.

The below is a reply to an email from Chris on this subject.

Chris wrote:

Flacco had a down year this year. ...
I feel like the Ravens passing game should be way more productive than it is.
... and I can't figure out where the blame belongs.
For the record, I basically agree that Cam needs to be replaced. To me it's not a matter of "fault" or him clearly sucking. It's a more pragmatic, amicable split: it's been 4 years, and it mostly hasn't worked, so a change has to be made. I can make a case for continuity; but I do have to make the case for it, and you also have to keep the confidence of the locker room. I wouldn't be mad, like most fans on the Ravens board, if the Ravens kept Cam. Especially after this weekend's game. But I recognize a change is probably necessary.

But what happens if we observe that the Ravens passing game should be more productive than it has been, and go thru the exercise of assuming that none of the problems were Cam's fault? This is a logic game like something you might use if you were trying to debug a computer system. Assume that one piece is working perfectly, even if you have reason to suspect it's not, so that you can capture other contributing errors in the other interacting pieces. We can use this game to make a list of the other issues affecting the offense, and see how convincing it is.

First, a description of the issue. Joe Flacco's yardage and TD numbers went down this season, on 53 *more* attempts than last year. His productivity rates declined: completion pct, yards-per, and TD pct. Yet the coaching staff maintained that Joe was having his best season as a pro, and it wasn't close. (Reported in interviews, I think mostly by gameday announcers.) Jaworski said he studied Flacco's plays vs the Texans in the divisional round, and found only 3 plays where he would give Joe a negative grade. Cameron, perhaps a harsher grader, said he found only 6. Both guys are professional graders of QBs, and both say Flacco played very well – on a day when he completed less than 52% of his passes for less than 7 yards-per, took 5 sacks and fumbled once. Just as the Ravens coaches are saying Joe played better this year, even thought he stats don't reflect it.

What are these guys seeing? Is it possible to play *better*, and have your completion pct and yards-per and TD pct all drop?

Well, sure.
  • First, we can see some residue of improvement in the stats. I've mentioned this all year, but it's worth repeating. Joe cut his sack pct by almost a third in 2011, setting a new personal best in that category. He was also on pace for a new career low in INT pct, which he has been steadily cutting every year since he got into the league, until he threw 2 picks against the Chargers in game 14. He still finished the season with the second-best INT pct of his career, right between his number for 2009 and 2010.
  • I assume that much of the other improvement the coaches are talking about have to do with things that fans can't really measure, like getting into the right play and making the right read and so forth. Let's just assume that Joe was better in these areas than he's ever been before -- I think it's probably a safe assumption, but we can't check it either way.
Ok, so if Joe was playing the quarterback position better than he ever had before, and if we operate under our test assumption that Cam was not the problem, then what have we seen that could have caused the overall productivity to drop?

  • Youth of the receiving corps.
This was undoubtedly an issue. The Ravens unloaded Joe's favorite targets, two extremely sure-handed receivers, and replaced them with inexperienced players. Derek Mason and Todd Heap could really catch the ball. Torrey Smith and Ed Dickson are faster, but they did not catch as well. Mason was also probably one of the best route-runners in the game, and Torrey Smith isn't. At the very least this impacted Joe's completion pct. I wonder if this ramified also. Did the Ravens have to stick with simpler formations and route combinations, to keep the offense manageable for Smith & Dickson? I don't know.

  • No offseason to work with the young receiving corps.
We said all season that the offenses that would handle the lockout well would be those on teams where the QB and receivers had already worked well together. It sounds like a fairly stupid thing to say: the QBs who would be good this year were the ones who were already good. This might not be a "strong finding", since it's what we'd normally expect to see. But the top 8 in passer rating were basically "the usual suspects" plus Stafford (Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Romo, Schaub, Eli, Matt Ryan). And Stafford had Calvin Johnson to throw to. Alex Smith snuck into the next spot on this list, but he did it on few attempts and avoiding INTs; then it's Big Ben and Rivers. That's EVERYBODY in the league with a rating over 88. There weren't anymore. The two rookies who had magnificent rookie seasons did not crack the top 14 or post a rating over 85. Ryan Fitzpatrick had high volume numbers, but a rating below 80.

The passing offenses who weren't already established as efficient prior to this season, did not crack the top third in efficiency this year. That's a non-finding, but it can be read to support the idea that teams needed the offseason to get their passing offense in sync if it wasn't already. The three most notable counter-examples might be Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Fitzpatrick. I'm not sure they invalidate the idea, because first of all it's not like they did any better than "average". "Average" constituted a stunning improvement for those squads, but it's not the same thing as greatness. And secondly, there might be extenuating circumstances in all three cases. Newton might be the Ultimate Weapon, Dalton is unusually skilled & composed for a rookie and has a tremendous receiving corps, Fitzpatrick wasn't that good taking the season as a whole.

Anyway: Ravens tried to integrate a young receiving corps in a year with no offseason. It didn't come together. Ultimately that doesn't seem shocking.

  • Lee Evans injury.
Huge. The Ravens turned this into a positive, by giving increased opportunity to Torrey Smith, and Smith really delivered. But Evans is a veteran receiver who presumably would have run better routes than Smith and had better hands, at least early in the season. The loss of Evans probably did away with much of the Ravens planned use of 3-WR sets. Additionally, if there was any effect of "keeping the offense" simple for Smith, that's a consequence of the injury to Evans.

Evans came back and was terrible. So terrible, it's hard for me to believe it's his actual level of performance. Remember he looked like a revelation in preseason; and even in game 1 vs the Steelers when he didn't register a catch, all the post-game reportage said he played a key role by drawing coverage etc. I choose to believe that late in the season Evans was dealing with after-effects of the injury all season. I might even find a way to forgive his TD drop, in time.

Remember, when all the writers harp on the Ravens failing to use 3-WR sets, they didn't have 3 WRs most of the year. Their #2 WR missed half the season with injury (and was horrible when he was back). Who were the Ravens supposed to trot out there? David Reed fumbled away the coach's confidence. LaQuan Williams got some snaps, looked like he could become a player but didn't really produce as a rookie. For almost the whole season, there weren't 3 solid WRs for the Ravens to use.

  • Anquan Boldin's knee.
Boldin had surgery late in the year, to clean out the torn cartilage in his knee. He said it had been bothering him all season. He was observably less explosive than in previous years, except for the game vs the Cardinals. Did this cartilage issue slow him all season? It's easy to believe the answer is yes. He made plays when he came back from the surgery.

  • Ben Grubbs injury.
The left side of the O-line was terrible when Grubbs was out, and it led directly to at least one loss (vs Jax, I think). He missed six games. That's a large chunk of the season. I haven't matched it up perfectly, but there was a stretch of games when Joe was getting pressured terribly and the running game wasn't working either. Does anything derail an offense worse than problems on the line? (other than a QB injury)

  • Personnel package issues, with a fullback on the field.
I wrote to you [Chris] about this last week, that the Ravens reliance on a FB adversely impacted the passing game. Bill Walsh always used 2 backs in the backfield, and to great effect, so it's not like a FB has to cripple the passing offense. But Walsh's guys could all catch and run. Vontae Leach caught about 55% of the passes thrown to him (stats from Football Outsiders), which is terrible for a back, and gained a measley 4.6 yards per reception (2.6 yards per pass attempt). He was not a positive in the passing game. And his presence on the field kept another good receiver, like Pitta (or theoretically Evans) off the field. But he had to stay in the game: he was one of the Ravens best players, and a key to the running game. We as fans insisted the Ravens run the damn ball; Leach was a key to that.

You linked the Greg Cosell comment about "isolation routes, no bunch sets or rub routes." I wonder how much of that is a factor of the personnel package. Can you even run bunch sets with a FB on the field? Say you want to do trips right. So who are the three receivers in the bunch? Boldin, Smith, and – Dickson? That seems ok; but then do you line up Leach at TE, with Rice the lone setback? Does Leach have the size to block inline like that? Do you leave Dickson at TE, put Rice in the trips formation, and leave Leach in the backfield to block? Won't defenses key on the bunch including Rice, and ignore the run?

FO wrote this about the Ravens offense:
"In this era of multiple receivers and shotgun spreads, the Ravens actually run a fairly conventional, old-fashioned offense. Our charting lists the Ravens using two wide receivers on 56 percent of plays, the highest rate in the league. They run more often than they pass on first down. They like their play-action passes..."
I'd be curious to know what Rice's rushing numbers were with Leach in and out of the formation. If the Ravens could only run effectively with Leach on the field, and he's a liability in the passing game and should come out when they want to throw; well that would seem to be a big tip-off to the defense.

* * *

Let me take a timeout to reference the AFCC.

The New England game was the clearest example I've ever seen in my life of what coaches are talking about when they say an offensive game plan is "designed to win the game" rather than "designed to score points".

That requires some explaining. I usually find it an oxymoron, to try to draw that distinction. I think we all agree that the best thing an offense can usually do to help a team win is "score points". The more the better. But we also know that there is a persistent school of thought that when you're playing against high-octane offenses, you want to "control the ball" and "control tempo" and "not get into a shootout", etc. It's a conservative brand of coaching that survives because it is fundamentally sound and works at all levels. It's "the right way to play" at the lower levels, and we've all seen teams win in the NFL with it. Even win Super Bowls; coaches as diverse as Bill Parcells and Brian Billick and Bill Cowher have won Super Bowls that way. The spokepeople who have to defend those offenses (including the coordinators who speak to reporters) all say that they weren't trying to look pretty or win style points. The offense was "designed to win the game".

The Ravens very clearly went into New England with a team-wide game plan to "keep the game close and win in the 4th quarter". The Ravens players & coaches obviously had a healthy respect for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick et al. So defense, spec teams, and offense were all geared to playing THAT game. On offense that meant a game-plan that did NOT stress a lot of throwing to attack the Pats weakness in pass defense. That would tend to increase the number of possessions in the game and contribute to a shootout. Instead the gameplan stressed balance and sustained drives.

Do you intentionally limit the number of points you yourself score? It seems crazy in football, but it's definitely true in basketball. In basketball, you score the most points by running the fast break, and maybe also pressing full court. But that picks up the tempo of the entire game. The other team scores more points too; the whole game is faster. The phenomenon should not be directly transferable to football, because every offensive possession has an isolated beginning. There's no fluid continuation of play. But football coaches always act as if there is a transfer; as if picking up the tempo on your own offense will have the effect of picking up the tempo for the other team's offense. I want to stress that I don't understand how that could possibly be true, BUT it is an observable fact that coaches act as if it's true: as if going "uptempo" in the passing game will have the effect of increasing the other team's tempo as well, and will tend toward "getting into a shootout".

So the Ravens went into the New England game with a clear plan to "keep the game close", and that includes prescribing a certain style on offense, which could/would have the effect of scoring fewer points than they might otherwise score. And the team executed that plan. And dammit if the plan didn't work! At least on offense. Flacco made one mistake, the D bailed him out, and Flacco in a one-score game threw the game-winning TD pass in the final 30 secs. Which didn't actually win the game, but that seems beside the point when looking at it from a planning & strategic perspective.

If you believe that there CAN BE such a thing as an offensive game plan that is "designed to win the game" rather than "designed to score points" – I'm not sure I believe it, but I have a lot more respect for that view after the AFCC than I did before – then Cam Cameron looks like an extremely capable tactician. You can start to see how the Ravens brain trust inside the building might value Cam and his gameplanning very highly, more highly than fans do.

End timeout.

* * *

That's a strong list.

Let's say this is all true:
  • your #1 receiver is slowed by chronic injury
  • your #2 receiver misses half the season with a knee injury, and is terrible when he gets back, basically worthless the whole year
  • your #s 3-4-5 receivers are all rookies and inconsistent (or fumblers and locked in the doghouse)
  • your top 2 TEs are 2nd-year players getting their first big playing time, and inconsistent
  • your FB is a terrible receiver
  • your O-line has major holes in pass-blocking for six games (and is not really that great the rest of the time)
If you're the coordinator in charge of generating a productive passing game out of that, what the hell do you do?!?

It seems to me that this list is quite sufficient to hold back the passing game. We don't need the assumption that Cam Cameron sucks. Do you see? If that list is largely true, then your coordinator could be Sean Payton or any other annointed genius you'd like to name, and we'd still see less-than-awesome numbers coming out of the passing game.

There may even be an additional allowance made, depending on where you stand on the notion of "game-planning to win" rather than "to score".

In real life, what Cam Cameron did with that situation is, he rode his RB to the league lead in yards-from-scrimmage, he developed his talented rookie #3 receiver into a quality deep threat, he got decent "possession receiver" numbers (a thousand-yard pace) from his dinged-up #1 receiver, and he leaned on his young & inconsistent TEs for 930 combined yards and 8 combined TDs. The Ravens improved to 12th in scoring, from 16th last year.

That's a strong result, in light of the issues listed.

It's also worth noting that the Ravens played 7 games vs teams who finished in the top 10 in defensive DVOA. Only 2 games (reg season) were against teams in the bottom 10. That's another boost to the idea that the Ravens offensive coordinator did a pretty decent job in 2011.

Flacco has actually produced in several half-ending 2-min drive situations, the last couple years. He's won the game in Pittsburgh on those drives each of the last 2 seasons. I put the AFCC as another plus in Flacco's column, even though the result wasn't there. When you talk about performance in the passing game, that situation is disproportionately important. Flacco seems to deliver when called upon. That's another boost to the idea that the Ravens OC is gameplanning well, possibly "to win games" rather than "to score points", but with good situational effectiveness.

* * *

As I said before, I see the argument for pushing Cam out the door. He's had 4 years, there's been an investment in the offense, and there still seems to be very little explosiveness or efficiency. Sometimes you have to make a change. Plus they do seem rather plodding when you watch them play. There are an awful lot of 3-and-outs.

But there is a case to be made for keeping Cam, and it's not insane. I would not be spitting with rage if Cam were retained, at all. It seems a reasonable option.

By the way, one argument is frequently made, I think by accident or out of laziness. People write, "Cam's offense has sucked for 4 years," or variations like that. Let's not forget that Cam looked AWESOME in 2008. He was an important part of the train we rode to the AFCC.

I might feel more strongly that dumping Cam was an utterly necessary move, if (a) we weren't so noticeably weak on the left side of the O-line, or if the tackles as a pair played better; (b) if the TEs could block better; and (c) if there weren't so goddam many drops by the receivers, on PERFECTLY thrown passes! It is no exaggeration to say that the team would be in the Super Bowl if not for a receiver failing to make the play on a perfectly thrown pass that hit him right in the chest. I'd be very interested in the drop rate of Flacco's receivers vs those of other QBs this year. I don't know what Drew Brees or Philip Rivers has to deal with; it feels to me that if Flacco got "normal" catch rates on his most accurate passes, the Ravens would have gone about 14-2 and hosted the AFCC. And Cam Cameron would look a whole lot smarter, to Ravens fans.

* * *

Random note: Dilfer and the guy who writes those "Five Things We Learned" columns for the Sun (Kevin Van Valkenburg) both brought up Aikman as an interesting comp for Flacco. Aikman also played for winning teams that emphasized the running game, and he NEVER threw more than 23 TDs (in his 4th season, in fact). And he's in the Hall of Fame.

My respect for Aikman grew as his career went on. He became a helluva passer; deadly in the 2-min.

* * *

Last note, here's another excerpt from FO's AFCC preview.
"...there are some interesting first half/second half trends when it comes to the Ravens receivers. In the second half of the season, Flacco threw to his tight ends less often but had more success when he did. Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta went from 10.6 targets per game in Weeks 1-9 to 7.5 targets per game in Weeks 10-17. However, together their catch rate improved from 60 percent to 72 percent, and their DVOA improved from -1.9% to 29.1%. The other split to note is that since midseason, the Ravens have ended up using Ray Rice more as a safety valve for dumpoffs than on planned passing routes. His catch rate has gone from 68 percent before Week 10 to 79 percent since Week 10, but his receiving DVOA has dropped from 51.0% to 6.2% and yards per reception have dropped frmo 10.9 to 7.6."

That whole piece is worth a read.

* * *

I like the Caldwell hire.

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to say I liked your article and you made a lot of great arguments. Keep up the good work.

    Also, maybe you should know that I found your site because of the sponsorship you had on Joe Flacco's page on pro-football-reference.


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