A Tale of Two Vandenbergs: Comparing 2011 and 2012 QB Play.

BUMP! Good read here. -- ross

Bye Week Boredom. What better thing to do than slog through the statistics archives at CFB Stats to uncover what's actually happening to James Vandenberg this season? Through 5 games, 4 of which are Kirk's "pre-season" games against lesser opponents, Vandenberg is a pedestrian 93 for 159 (58.5%) for 1000 yards. He's managed 2 TDs and 2 INTs, and a QB rating 112.95, 113th in the nation. But before we figure out where we are with Vandenberg, we need to remember where we've been.

Take me back to 2011!

2011 was a solid year for Vandenberg. 237 for 404 (58.7%) for 3022 yards, 25 TDs and 7 INTs. A QB rating of 138.44. He threw 136 first down throws, 71 passes for 15+ yards, and 21 passes for 25+ yards. And how we adored our Vandenberg while within the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium. **

But in the off season, Vandenberg was beset on all sides by change. Offensive coordinator and Just For Men Touch of Gray poster boy Ken O'Keefe departed, and with him went the boring middling offense we came to detest know. Marvin McNutt graduated, and took with him over one-third of Vandenberg's completed passes and passing yards (83 receptions for 1315 yards), and almost half his touchdown passes (12). It seemed everyone was prepared for the bumpy road ahead: implementing a new offensive system with players that might not be well-suited to executing it.

The transition from O'Keefe to Greg Davis began in Solider Field against NIU, and safe to say we were underwhelmed with the performance. But in the following weeks, Davis has reincorporated many of the familiar elements of traditional Iowa football: vertical passing/flag combinations; solid inside and outside zone running to set up play-action; the dauntingly generic 2 TE, 2 WR set from which the team can run almost any play. I (foolishly) thought Vandenberg's days of wandering in the desert were over, and that the familiar offensive system would rekindle what he had in 2011. But Lo, we are still searching for our QB of old.

What changed?

#1: 3rd Down Accuracy

In 2011, Vandenberg was 56 for 101 (55.4%) on third down, throwing 6 TDs and 1 INT. His QB rating on third down was 127.14, which is nowhere near great but respectful for an immobile pocket passer*. Moreover, 34 of his 56 throws went for first downs (60%).

Third down has haunted him this year. Vandenberg is one pass away from being an even 50% (22 of 43, 51.2%) for 183 yards and no TDs or INTs. A staggering QB Rating of 86.91. Only 11 of his throws (50%) have turned into first downs. Breaking it down even further makes his numbers looks gaudier, but don't tell us about meaningful throws: While he's 9 for 14 (64.3%) on 3rd and 10+, only 1 completion has actually converted the first down (11%).

#2: The Red Zone Ninja

While Vandenberg was not okay moving the ball down the field in 2011, he was a solid red zone QB. 26 for 46 (56.5%) for 220 yards, and a QB rating of 189.96. Half of his completions went for 1st downs (13). Most importantly? 13 TDs, zero INTs. With a running back like Marcus Coker, and a rangy TD machine like McNutt split out, Vandenberg was exactly what the staff wanted in the red zone. He made scoring throws when available, he ensured that Iowa could get a shot at 3 if the drive stalled, and he checked down moderately well and moved the chains within the red zone. These numbers are just slightly below Ricky Stanzi's 2010 red zone numbers (28 for 50 for 16 TDs and zero INTs; QB Rating 0f 201.08), and are far better than Ricky's first year as a lone QB in 2009 (17 for 29, 7 TDs, zero INTs, QB Rating 170.44).

Vandenberg's 2012 red zone numbers are not good: 5 for 14 (35.7%) for 39 yards. 1 TD, zero INTs, with 60% of his passes going moving the chains (3 for 5), giving him a QB Rating of 82.68. This is due, in part, to the coaching staff's determination to run the ball when approaching the goal line, and what appears to be a fanatical conservatism bolstered by the emergence of Mike Meyer as a dependable kicker. Additionally, players have dropped passes in the end zone (Wiesman vs. ISU), though he does throw fastballs in the end zone and it's certainly not the first time they've been dropped (see: Trey Stross vs. OSU 2009, KMM vs. NIU 2012; Additionally, one of Vandenberg's passes to Marvin McNutt in the 2009 OSU game was a pass that only Marvin could have caught; it was the hardest thrown ball I've seen). Nonetheless, the numbers can indicate a few things: first, Vandenberg is not making much of his opportunities in the red zone; second, it could show that he will always err on the side of caution by when throwing close to the goal line (a KF favorite, as evidenced by how few INTs his starting QBs throw in the red zone).

#3: Receivers

Allocating blame between a WR and a QB on a drop is a difficult thing to do, so I've tried to approach this problem from a few angles. Through almost all angles, however, it's pretty easy to conclude that Iowa's WRs are making Vandenberg's life quite a bit harder. While we've bemoaned the overthrows, underthrows, and bounce passes, Vandenberg's accuracy in 2012 (58.5%) mirrors his play in 2011 (58.7%). If we accounted for the 15 drops*** by Iowa receivers this season, Vandenberg's 2012 numbers are great (67.9%, besting Stanzi's 2010 season percentage of 64.1%). Even if we only give Vandenberg the benefit of the doubt for a little over half (8) of those drops, his completion percentage gets very respectable (63.5%).

Whatever you think of this little excerise in statistical chicanery, the point is that Vandenberg has done a serviceable job getting the ball to his receivers. In the first few weeks of the season, the staff tried to establish some rhythm for him by using more RB screens with Damon Bullock, but other than that the majority of his throws have been difficult ones. Could they be better? Certainly. The pass to KMM in the end zone against NIU needed just a little more touch on it for it to be catchable. But the drops of CJF and Shumpert against ISU (on 3rd and 4th down, no less) were heart breakers.

#4: Offense Implementation

It is said that when you change coordinators, all your seniors become freshman again. New terminology, new assignments, and new faces make the old obsolete and new invariably frustrating. Stats for this are hard to come by, so I'm venturing into "eye test" territory. There have been several incompletions this year that I would attribute to the growing pains of system implementation. Vandenberg throws the flag to the sticks as Keenan breaks inside the corner for a skinny post; Vandenberg throws a hot route dump off pass to the slot as KMM runs a slant; and so forth. As I write this, I'm sure the players are working out the kinks of new check downs and new reads. Eventually, these will disappear, but early on the impact to the QB cannot be understated.****

Overall, the stats show that while Vandenberg's production has suffered under Greg Davis, and without the assistance of Caulobacter crescentus secretes imitator Marvin McNutt. But many of these problems are not systemic, or inherently tied to Vandenberg (although SMA has written some interesting things on Vandenberg's mechanical flaws, which I am not qualified to address). They can be fixed. In the mean time, however, both he and the coaching staff are determined to limit the numbers of errors that become turnovers, it seems.

*To contrast, mobile QBs present nightmarish situations on third down for defenses. Russell Wilson completed 75% of his passes on third down (64 of 85) for 757 yards, 16 TDs (!!) and only 2 INTs. QB Rating? 207.51. 47 of those 64 completions went for first downs (73%). For a less gaudy example, consider Taylor Martinez: While only 19 of 34 (55.9%) on third down, 15 of those 19 passes (78.9%) have converted for a first down, and he has a QB Rating of 138.61 in this situation. While not deadly, Martinez accomplishes the most important goal: keeping his team on the field.

**The elephant in the room is, of course, Vandenberg's performance on the road during the 2011 season (2011 QB Rating of 158.51 at home; a meager 117.37 on the road). However, without more data for this year, I did not think a comparison was possible and will supplement this article with another later in the season.

*** Drops are not an officially recorded statistic, so this is entirely off of my memory from the games. I count: ISU: 8 drops, UNI: 3 drops, CMU: 1 drop, MN: 3 drops. It's fair to criticize this count, and I know there is a good deal of subjectivity regarding whether a player "should" have caught the ball.

**** These hiccups lead some coaches to adopt super-specialized offenses, with impressive results.

Unless otherwise expressly indicated by BHGP editors, this FanPost is strictly the viewpoint of the author and is not endorsed by BHGP in any way.

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