NFL Performance Evaluations: Winners and Losers

All teams have no played at least eight games, and the NFL has officially completed one half of the season. To say that this season has been inconsistent so far would be an understatement. Some teams have been considerably better, some have been worse, but, for most teams, it has been impossible to tell how good they actually are. The same goes for players, though it depends on the position. It seems like most quarterbacks have gotten slightly better, running backs have gotten slightly worse, and, in regard to receivers, the high-profile ones have been under par, but the ones who receive less media coverage have greatly improved. Who are all these players? In this blog, I will analyze two players that have improved in the first half of the season as opposed to the first half of last season and two players that have gotten worse for quarterbacks and running backs.

The story of the quarterback in 2014 has been a bit bizarre. The ones in the spotlight for being great have either, in actuality, been worse from last season, or their teams have not fared particularly well. The players that have been most severely criticized this year have either been phenomenal or abysmal. The criteria on which I will be judging these quarterbacks is average completion percentage, passing yards per game, passing touchdowns per game, and average number of interceptions. One player that has been absolutely amazing as compared to last year is Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. After the Patriots were destroyed in Kansas City by the Chiefs, every pundit and journalist was basically holding a funeral for the career of the dearly beloved Brady. Ever since that Week 4 loss, Brady has been unbelievable. He has not had a game since then with less than 260 yards passing. This year, Brady’s completion percentage of 65.33 percent is up 9 percent as compared to last year’s 56.36 percent. Likewise, his passing yards are up by 30 per game, his touchdowns are up by over 1 full touchdown, and his interceptions are down by about half an interception. All of these increases were some of the largest by any quarterback, and Brady was one of the only quarterbacks to have an increase in all four categories.

In regard to players that have done worse, it has become a national pastime to criticize Geno Smith of the New York Jets, and for good reason. Geno has been worse than he was a year ago, which is pretty difficult to do. His completion percentage has dropped 9 percent, all the way to 51.85 percent. Only Blaine Gabbert has a lower percentage this season, and he’s benched. Smith’s yards have dropped by 60 and his touchdowns by 0.125. Shockingly, his interception rate is actually better this season.  The fact that Smith was benched for Vick should come as no surprise given that in his last game against the Bills, Smith threw more interceptions than he did completions.

The most intriguing quarterback statistics this season come from the two Manning brothers. Peyton has been all over the news this season, considering that he broke the record for career passing touchdowns and has been, in general, fantastic as usual. However, the strange thing is that Peyton is actually doing worse than he was a year ago at this time. Manning is, like Smith, performing worse in every category except interceptions. Yes, his numbers are still amazing and any other quarterback would kill for these numbers, but his 70.54 completion percentage is down 1 percent from last season, his 304.86 yards per game is 60 yards off last season’s pace, and his touchdowns are down by 0.5, though he still leads the league in touchdowns per game. His numbers could be lower simply because his 2013 season was so incredible, but it is still fascinating that Peyton Manning is having a worse season this year.

Contrarily, Eli Manning, who has been flying under the radar this year, is doing much better than he was last year. Eli’s 2013 was a little bit of an anomaly; his completion percentage (55.67 percent) and interception rate were absolutely terrible. He led the league in interceptions per game with 1.875. This year, predictably, his completion percentage shot up 9 percent, he increased his touchdowns by 0.75 per game, and his interceptions dropped by over one per game. It is understandable that Eli Manning has greatly improved from last season and that Peyton Manning’s numbers have dropped, yet it is still bizarre to think that, by comparison to 2013, Eli is having a better season than his older brother.

In respect to running backs, the players that seemed poised to be the best in the league for many years to come and the players that have had their careers undermined by injuries have stayed healthy enough to prove why they are so highly regarded. LeSean McCoy, last season’s rushing leader both after Week 8 and at the end of the year, has been reasonably pedestrian by his standards. His yards per carry per game have dropped more than a full yard, from 4.55 to 3.49. His yards per game have taken a significant hit, dropping a full 20 yards. Even his rushing touchdowns have taken a hit. Overall, he is just having a rough year, which is strange considering how, in the off-season, he was claiming he was the best back in the game.

Similarly, it seemed like Reggie Bush had his coming-out party last season, posting his first legitimately good year since he’s been in the NFL and finally showing why he was so highly touted coming out of USC. This season, Bush has been terrible, not just by his standards, but by any back’s standards. His yards per carry have dropped a full yard. More importantly, his yards per game fell from 74 rushing yards per game at this point last season to a lowly 28.5 yards this year. His touchdowns have also dropped. It is interesting to see him struggle so much, especially given the proficiency of the Detroit offense. Though it could be argued that he has been hurt by Calvin Johnson’s injury, his numbers should not have dropped this much from last season.

Two oft-injured RBs have stolen the spotlight from McCoy and Bush: DeMarco Murray and Arian Foster. Last season, Murray was supposed to be the next big thing. Instead, he fell flat as a major disappointment. In 2014, he has been absolutely unstoppable. Last weekend was the first game in which Murray has gained less than 100 yards all season. His yards per carry are up 1 yard, but the most impressive facet of this season is that he is averaging 131.75 yards per game, as opposed to last year’s 71.33. His rushing touchdowns have also significantly increased by 0.375. At this point, DeMarco Murray is on pace for 2,108 yards this season, 3 yards more than Eric Dickerson’s famed rushing record. Unsurprisingly, Murray is currently a strong mid-season MVP candidate.

Arian Foster has long been regarded as a great back that cannot stay healthy, but he is certainly proving his skill this year. Foster increased his yards per carry by 0.6 yards, and his yards per game are all the way up to 109.43, over 30 yards more than last season. Murray has also increased his touchdowns per game by a whopping 0.86 this season, a massive increase. Foster is on track to rush for well over 1,000 yards, the mark of a good season. While McCoy and Bush have faltered this season, Murray and Foster have thrived.

Many players are having different successes from how they performed last season. In most cases, or at least the ones I analyzed, improvement from last year in individual play has led to improved performance from the team, though that is not the case with all players in the league. Likewise, poorer performances from the players have not always hurt their teams. Regardless, Brady, Eli Manning, Murray and Foster have shown the largest positive gain from last year, and Smith, Peyton Manning, McCoy and Bush have suffered some of the most interesting setbacks from this point last season.

Follow Zak on Twitter @zakberliner1 and listen to him on “The War Room” Fridays from 6-7pm