Leaving white space is the current trend in web design, but not so much for passing charts.
The best passing offenses are the ones that can fill up the page with attempts all over the field. Pull up Jameis Winston’s, and you’ll immediately see what’s missing from this offense.
There is way too much white space in the shorter areas of the field, especially over the middle.
The way the field is getting attacked has been the most shocking change for the Saints’ offense looking at the trends from last year to this year. Only 14% of Winston’s total passing attempts have come over the middle on passes traveling 0-10 yards through the air (green dots are completions, white dots are incompletions, blue dots are touchdowns and red dots are interceptions in the above image). That works out to an average of 3.4 attempts per game. By comparison, last year, Drew Brees threw 29% of his passes in that area of the field for an average of 6.9 attempts per game.
Now, we should see differences in how Winston goes about his job compared to Brees. The newcomer has a bigger arm and an ability to attack the field more aggressively than his predecessor, who was running out of gas last season.
So, what happens when you open up the scope to the entire NFL and compare Winston to the rest of the NFL when throwing any pass that traveled 0-10 yards through the air? He ranks 31st in attempts. The Saints quarterback ranks 29th in overall passing attempts, but that is partly due to not having easy options over the middle. Both of those marks are likely to change soon.
The deficiencies in this area of the field are almost certainly due to the personnel New Orleans has had available at wide receiver the first five weeks and less to do with the quarterback. In 2019, Winston threw 85 passes to the middle third of the field that traveled 0-10 yards. When opening up all areas of the field on passes traveling this distance, Winston ranked 11th in the NFL that season.
You can see where this is heading. Getting someone like Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith should open up this area of the field, and both are eligible to return to action as soon as this week. Smith said two weeks ago that he should be back in two weeks, so, there is some expectation that he should be good to go soon. Things have been quieter around Thomas, so we’ll have to see how he progresses once he begins practicing. Seems possible he’ll miss some more time.
Thomas is obviously the bigger piece here. There has been no better short-area wide receiver in the NFL the last few seasons before he got hurt last season.
You can look at his catch chart from 2019 (pictured above), the last season in which Thomas was healthy, and easily envision how he will help this team. Drop his chart on top of Winston’s, and all of that white space turns green.
The image below shows how this could happen. The chart is a combined image of Thomas’ first five games from 2019 combined with Winston’s first five games from this season. You can see a lot of the white space already filling in.
Thomas’ ability on slant routes has become one of the most misguided memes on the internet. Being the best at any one thing in athletic competition is always good and something that should get used repeatedly until the opposition proves it can stop it, which isn’t something that has happened to Thomas on slants.
There are many ways that Thomas will help this team, and there is an expectation that his role will become more varied with Winston playing quarterback, but the team is always going to play the hits. The following stat might be the easiest way to illustrate how Thomas will provide what is missing from this offense: Winston has connected on only four slants this season. Thomas caught 33 by himself in 2019.
Another shocking example of what’s missing: Winston has connected on two crossing routes this season. Thomas caught 15 of those in 2019. While it won’t be as simple as dropping Thomas in and asking him to cure everything, it also shouldn’t be hard to find ways for him to improve the offense. If Thomas is healthy, New Orleans shouldn’t have much trouble getting him back in the positions where he has succeeded throughout his career.
How Tre’Quan Smith will fit this offense isn’t quite as clear as it is with Thomas since we still aren’t entirely clear on the type of player Smith is and can be with a different quarterback. Smith has succeeded down the field at times throughout his career in the same manner that Marquez Callaway has this season on intermediate and deeper routes and should add some more of that with Winston at quarterback. The difference is, Smith has also won in the shorter areas of the field and over the middle.
You can again see how the field starts to fill in more with Smith’s ability to attack various areas of the field (full 2020 catch chart above). In the image below, Smith’s first five games from 2020 are added with Winston’s first five from this season and the first five from Thomas’ 2019 season. The field starts to fill in well.
Smith should be a more versatile presence than anyone else on the roster. Getting Callaway in a position where he can focus on doing the things he does well instead of trying to do a little bit of everything and carry the load should also help him succeed at a higher level. The main thing with Smith is keeping him on the field. The current version of the offense, which features more stuff down the field, should suit his game better than the condensed version of this offense he’s played in the last few years, but he needs to stay healthy to take advantage of the situation.
Help is on the way, and it looks like the players who are coming back should fit in exactly where they’re needed. Now, they just need to make it look as good in reality as it does on paper.