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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Sure, he can run, but when he has to throw, he can't do anything"


Part I

Last weekend, when speaking with several friends, I was astounded by the lack of faith in Denard Robinson's abilities at the quarterback position. Though it's quite common for a quarterback to receive scrutiny from fans, it baffled me that people would blame one of the few players with a productive 2010 season.

The biggest criticisms of Denard seemed to rest upon his "inability" to throw accurate passes, "failure" to convert in the red-zone, and inability to compete against "good" teams. Though there is probably some elements of truth in each one of these criticisms, I'd like to analyze whether these criticisms actually hold real significance. I'm dividing my analysis into 3 sections, with the first focusing on his passing abilities.

"Sure, he can run, but when he has to throw, he can't do anything"

Since Denard took his first snap against Western, we've all heard the rants against his passing abilities. Everyone recognized Denard's instant ability to run and move the ball, but many criticized his accuracy and throwing. Though there's some truth to these claims, with further analysis, his passing abilities seem far more established than believed by many.

During the 2009 season, I don't think anybody would claim that Denard was even an average passer. Denard not only routinely missed open receivers and reads, but he almost constantly seemed to be pressured and in a panic-mode. Though he only attempted 31 passes in 2009, he completed just 14 passes, making his completion percentage 45.2%.

However, what's horrifying about Denard's 2009 debut was that in just 31 passes he threw 4 interceptions. That means almost 13% of his passes were intercepted. For example, Denard threw 291 passes in 2010. If he had held the same interception ratio from 2009 he would have thrown 37.55 interceptions. Just contemplating those statistics can make one realize how bad Denard was as a passer in 2009.

So after after the 2009 season, there was almost a unanimous agreement that Denard's passing was FAR behind his rushing abilities (if you even wanted to compare them at all). Denard did outstanding as a runner, 351 yards and 5 touchdowns, but performed horribly as a passer, throwing an interception in almost 13% of his passes. Although Denard seemed destined to be moved to another position on the field, though a lot of this was due to Tate Forcier's success as quarterback, he made a massive improvement over the off-season.

Denard went from completing just 45.2% of his passes to a much improved 62.5% in 2010. He ended up passing for 2570 yards and 18 touchdowns. However, his interception numbers still remained high at 11, but with 291 passes, this means that he brought his interception rate down from almost 13% to just 3.7% over one off-season.

So what does this mean? Denard's passing went through a major improvement, but this alone doesn't make Denard a solid passer. I mean Denard was so horrifying as a passer in 2009 that simply improving isn't saying much. It's like Eastern Michigan doubling their win total, they will be better, but still a losing team (sorry Eastern fans). So what makes Denard a legitimate passing quaterback? Well, let's look at his stats for a second.

The first thing that strikes out is Denard's 62.5% completion rate. Is this the top rate in the Big Ten? No, but that doesn't mean that Denard is a poor passer. In fact, look at the stats, out of the 5 quarterbacks with a higher completion percentage (Stanzi, Tolzien, and Pryor are no longer in the Big Ten) only Persa and Tolzien are more than 5% higher than Denard. Plus, Denard had less pass attempts than all of the Big Ten quarterbacks with a higher completion percentage. Granted, you cannot assume Denard's completion percentage would have improved, but I think it's fair to say that a quarterback that is less than 5% behind others who have almost 50 more pass attempts cannot be called a significantly weaker passer than the others.

An even deeper look was done by MGoBlog last season. Instead of using raw numbers for completion percentage, they actually went through and analyzed every pass. For example, if a pass is dropped, the numbers are not counted against Denard. If you recall, there were a number of dropped passes last season, which hurt Denard's stats. For instance, Denard had a 58% completion rate against Michigan State last year, but if you used the adjusted statistic, Denard's rate jumps to 68%. This implies that there is far more going on than Denard "missing passes."

So, passed on this information, it's safe to say that Denard is just about as good all the quarterbacks in the Big Ten in terms of completion percentage aside from Tolzien and Persa. So let's look at yards. Denard was 7th in passing yards in the Big Ten. Not very impressive, but let us remember that he only attempted 291 passes. When you calculate the average yards per pass, Denard averages 8.83 yards per pass which is actually 2nd in the Big Ten only behind Tolzien. This alone is quite impressive. Though yards alone make Denard seem to be a below-average passer, he seems to be much more productive when he actually passes than the majority of the Big Ten.

Next, I would move on to turnover ratio, but I think that is most relevant to Part II, which I hope to post very soon, regarding Denard's success in the Red Zone. So for now, ignore the turnover ratio until the next part.

The finals stats that relate to Denard's passing ability and pocket presence are passing efficiency and number of sacks allowed. In terms of pass efficiency, Denard was 6th best in the Big Ten, less than 1 point behind Kirk Cousins. Then in number of sacks allowed, Michigan was tied with Penn State for the fewest allowed last season, though this probably has a lot to do with Denard's rushing abilities.

So to sum Part I of my analysis of Denard's quarterback abilities, I think it's safe to assume that Denard is AT LEAST an average or above average passer in the Big Ten. His completion percentage is near or above most of the Big Ten, especially considering 3 of the quarterbacks above Denard's completion percentage have now left college football. His yardage also seems to show weakness, but when adjusted for his number of pass attempts, he had the 2nd highest yards per pass in the Big Ten, only trailing Tolzien, who graduated. Denard's efficiency rating was about average, but he was spectacular in number of sacks allowed, although this is not only controlled by him.

Look for Part II, where I'm going to break-down Denard in the end-zone and his turnover margin. Follow me on Twitter here: