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Good vs. bad passing offenses: Who’s responsible?

Quarterback, offensive line, receivers: Which are the chickens and which are the eggs in the NFL?

New York Giants v Miami Dolphins Photo by Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images

The New York Giants’ anemic offense thus far in 2023 has been the primary culprit in the team’s 1-5 start. The defense has to shoulder part of the responsibility, since it has forced few turnovers and allowed opponents to run effectively against them. In several games it has more than held its own, though. The offense is the real sore point. It was expected to take at least baby steps in the direction of the explosive Buffalo and Kansas City offenses that are the pedigree of Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka. It’s not been anything like that to date.

The problem with diagnosing offensive ineptitude is that every part affects every other part. Some fans like to point fingers at the quarterback, who is the most visible manifestation of a bad offense. Others blame poor pass blocking, which is acutely obvious at times (see the Dallas, San Francisco, and Miami games) but which also can mask poor awareness by the quarterback. Rarely can a fan watching on television know whether the receivers are running their routes well or poorly unless they are targeted and drop a pass.

Unless you do your own all-22 film analysis of each play every week, there’s no way for you or me to have a knowledgeable opinion. Even if you do, without training you’re likely to draw incorrect conclusions sometimes. It’s amusing to see Twitter experts try to tell Kurt Warner, Dan Orlovsky, and other former NFL QBs that they’re wrong about some film analysis they post involving quarterback play.)

Pro Football Focus hires people to watch every player on every play and grade their performance on the play, whether or not a specific player was involved in the action around the ball. That last part is important. Fans often disagree with PFF grades, but usually that’s based on just what they can see, not what’s happening away from the ball. No one outside the coaches knows what the play call is and what is supposed to happen on a given play, so blown assignments, read progressions or lack thereof, etc., are not easy for anyone to diagnose from the outside. In general, though, PFF does a decent job of highlighting who’s playing well and who isn’t. So let’s look at PFF grades for 2023 at the team level and see what things stick out.

Here are the team passing grades plotted against team pass blocking and receiving grades for the first six weeks of the 2023 season:

Data from Pro Football Focus

If quarterback play (which is what PFF passing grade attempts to quantify) were independent of pass blocking and receiving, we might expect these diagrams to be just a random distribution of points. Obviously they’re not. There is a .36 correlation between team passing grade and pass blocking grade, and an even stronger .54 correlation between passing grade and receiving grade, so to some extent these things affect each other. One big difference is that all NFL teams have at least an adequate receiver group, and some even have an elite group, while many NFL teams (almost half by PFF’s reckoning) have subpar pass blockers, and no one has a truly elite blocking group (although there are individual elite linemen). Blocking is harder than catching.

Despite the correlations, the departures from the general trends (albeit for a small six-week sample so far) are substantial, and this might contain clues about whether it was Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a candlestick, or Miss Scarlet with a lead pipe in the dining room. I’ve labeled the specific teams that are outliers to think about what these can tell us.

Teams that excel at passing, blocking, and receiving

Miami, Detroit, and Buffalo are having great offensive seasons: They are three of the top four teams in points scored per game. It shows in their PFF grades: All three are elite (> 80) in passing and at least above average in pass blocking and receiving. (Put some respect on that Giants defense that held Buffalo to 14 points on Sunday night.) Miami has been elite in all three. There’s no easy way to separate one aspect of these offenses from the others. When it’s working, it’s working. In the immortal words of Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel:

You may be surprised not to see the Eagles in this group. They have had above average, or close to it, passing (75.6), pass blocking (73.3), and receiving (69.3), but have not been elite in any category. Offensive line starting to age? Missing Shane Steichen? Just regression to the mean? Who knows?

Elite passing teams without great blocking or receiving

The Rams’ Matthew Stafford has had a great start to his season (83.3 passing grade) considering that he is operating behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league (47.1 pass block grade). Part of the reason is that he has very good receivers (73.3), but not necessarily in the way you’d expect. Cooper Kupp has been his usual amazing self (89.8) but he’s only played two games due to injury. Stafford is making it work with fifth-round rookie Puca Nacua (80.9, 50 catches already) and diminutive Tutu Atwell (69.1), who didn’t even see the field as a rookie in 2021. Nacua and Atwell are playing well, but it’s hard not to give Stafford the lion’s share of the credit. He had passing grades over 80 several times with the poor Lions teams of his youth.

The story is not too different in Baltimore, where Lamar Jackson is having an outstanding season so far (86.2). He’s doing it, though, with only an average offensive line (65.6) and receiving group (66.0). The names are there in the receiving corps - Rookie Zay Flowers (72.6), Mark Andrews (72.1), Odell Beckham Jr. (65.1) - but none have been elite this year. Considering that Jackson has been pressured 70 times and sacked 11 times, he is performing at a very high level.

An elite scoring team without an elite passer or pass blocking

The only one of the top four scoring teams that doesn’t have all cylinders firing is San Francisco. Brock Purdy has been a revelation at quarterback, but PFF sees his passing performance this season as only average (67.7). I’m not sure if I agree with that - Purdy seems to throw with anticipation and accuracy, and he is good at sensing pressure and moving the pocket to my (untrained) eye. He needs it, because his offensive line has been one of the worst in the league (48.1).

What Purdy does have, though, are (a) one of the most innovative play callers in the NFL in Kyle Shanahan, and (b) the best (by a hair in PFF grade) receiving group in the NFL. It’s clear that the 49ers’ combination of Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle, working in Shanahan’s scheme, make that offense go.

Mediocre passing teams with poor pass blocking lines

This is the Giants’ category, and if misery loves company, the Giants can be consoled since Pittsburgh, New England, and Carolina are in the same (sinking) boat. The Giants’ 33.2 pass blocking grade, if maintained over a full season, will be by far the worst pass blocking grade that PFF has ever assigned to a team. Amazingly, they are neck-and-neck with Pittsburgh (34.3) in that race to the bottom, with dark horses New England (46.1) and Carolina (46.9) not far behind.

The difference between these teams and the Rams is quarterback play. The Giants have gotten mediocre results overall from Daniel Jones and Tyrod Taylor, although their play has been the definition of inconsistency, with Jones going from ridiculous to sublime and back from week to week (43.1, 86.1, 52.1, 31.3, 78.6 passing grades in his five games) and Taylor going from 51.8 in his only substantial relief appearance in Miami to 75.8 in his start in Buffalo.

Another thing all four teams have in common is mediocre (60-70) play by receivers. The Giants’ receivers are not bad; in fact they have promise. They have not distinguished themselves on a regular basis, though, to the point that opposing defenses have to specifically plan for them.

There are some hopeful signs. Here is a plot by Judah Fortgang of PFF charting the individual wide receiver separation grade (how well the receiver separates from his defender before the ball is thrown) on the x-axis vs. how well he catches the ball and produces yards after the catch on the y-axis:

Courtesy of Jrfortgang (@throwthedamball)

Drool over having Brandon Aiyuk, Tyreek Hill, or even the Lions’ Josh Reynolds if you wish. However, Darius Slayton has been in the upper echelon in separation and a little above average in catching the ball and YAC. Meanwhile Jalin Hyatt (admittedly with only nine targets) has been in the elite group in catching the ball and getting yards after the catch (mostly the former, he only has 16 YAC in 7 catches) and slightly above average in separation. The other Giants receivers, not so much. With better pass protection and a quarterback willing to take deep shots when he gets the chance, there is the potential for a better offense.

Poor passing teams

If you want proof that an NFL quarterback can be bad, go to Atlanta, Cleveland, or Indianapolis. These teams are getting at least average pass blocking and receiving (the Falcons’ receivers are even a little above average) yet all have low passing grades. That has to be either on the quarterback himself, or on the design of the offense.

In Atlanta, Desmond Ridder operates in Arthur Smith’s run-heavy offense. He has Drake London (71.5) and Kyle Pitts (71.4) to throw to, yet it’s not working. Ridder has 14 turnover-worthy plays (TWPs) this season. The other two teams have suffered injuries to their starting quarterback:

Data from Pro Football Focus

Deshaun Watson was borderline above average before getting hurt. Dorian Thompson-Robinson and P.J. Walker have not been the answer for the Browns so far (despite the latter being on the winning side vs. the 49ers last Sunday), each with five turnover-worthy plays (TWPs) in one game. Both of them completed only 53% of their passes in their one appearance.

Anthony Richardson created a lot of excitement before getting hurt (multiple times), but he couldn’t manage a 60% completion rate. Veteran Gardner Minshew has replaced him but hasn’t been very good either, with 10 TWPs.

Just above them are three teams with above-average pass blocking and average to above-average receivers, but mediocre passing grades (Las Vegas, Green Bay, and the Giants’ Sunday opponent, Washington). If any of their quarterbacks were really good, we could imagine that they would elevate the play of their team. Jordan Love and Sam Howell are in their first full starting seasons; they may become that type of quarterback with experience, it’s too early to tell. It’s probably too late to expect that from Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo has had several above-average seasons as a starter in Kyle Shanahan’s system; he even made it to a Super Bowl and almost won it. He probably cannot elevate the play of his team, though.

Where do the Giants’ quarterbacks fit?

Both Tyrod Taylor and Daniel Jones have led their teams to playoff berths, so we know that they have at least that much in them. Taylor had a 74.5 passing grade in that playoff season (2017), but the Bills that year had excellent pass blocking (81.4) and a very good defense (77.9), with elite pass coverage (91.2). The receivers were barely average (59.5). The Giants’ team that went to the playoffs last season wasn’t especially good at anything except running the ball (90.0), although Jones improved systematically over the second half of the season and had a number of very good to elite performances.

Neither Jones nor Taylor are likely to ever become Matthew Stafford (although it would help if the Giants could find another Cooper Kupp). What we can say from the chart at the beginning of this piece is that in general, increasingly good pass blocking is accompanied by increasingly good quarterback play, whichever the chicken and the egg are. If the addition of Justin Pugh, the return of Andrew Thomas, and (fingers crossed) some improvement from Evan Neal can raise the Giants’ pass blocking grade into the 60s, maybe we might see the Giants’ quarterbacks start to perform the way they were supposed to this year.

Does that seem impossible? There’s always hope. In 2022, the Giants’ much-maligned OL had a pass block grade of 62.0. In 2019, Jones’ rookie year, it was 71.5.