O'Brien and Fitzpatrick: A Match Made in Irish Heaven
The esteemed Patrick Thorman wrote a great piece this week on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s value now that he’s been named the starter in Houston. The social-sphere was quick to mock the decision by new head coach Bill O’Brien, but it would be unwise to brush off this announcement as insignificant. Certainly with weapons such as Arian Foster, Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, Fitzpatrick will play a big role on fantasy rosters even if he’s not actually starting on many of them.
Is it overkill to devote two articles to who is likely to be a fantasy backup QB? Perhaps, but we’re nothing if not comprehensive here at PFF Fantasy and it’s clear to us that Fitzpatrick represents great value on draft day. And if you follow my advice from last year about setting your team up to be at the center of many trades, you’ll know that obtaining value on draft day is the name of the game.
So as a follow up to Thorman’s work, there’s one more factor that I’d like to cover: the O’Brien effect.
New Head Coach Bill O’Brien may not have experience at the helm of an NFL team, but he was one of the hottest coaching candidates before he accepted the job in Houston. A five-year stint from 2007-2012 with the Patriots that saw him rise from offensive assistant to wide receivers coach to quarterbacks coach and finally to offensive coordinator saw him lead one of the most potent offenses of all time. His one year as OC was the same year New England lost Tom Brady in week one, so O’Brien should be credited for turning Matt Cassel into a competent QB. He then stepped into a volatile and potentially no-win situation at Penn State and went 15-9 over two seasons, earning national coach of the year honors after his first year.
His style can best be described as a tempo based offense, one that aims to keep the defense off balance and winded. It’s also complex and requires a great deal of pre-snap reads.
But look a little deeper into what he wants in a QB and it starts to become clear why Fitzy is his man. It’s not often we have such insight into the mind of a head coach, but in O’Brien’s case we do. At the 2013 Nike Coach of the Year Clinic, he gave a stirring overview of his philosophy. I’ll pull out the key points but if you’re interested in the entire speech, it’s here:
“These are just some things that I believe in. I think when you’re out there and you’re thinking about who the quarterback of your team is, they have to have a few things. Number one, and don’t laugh, they’ve got to be able to throw the ball accurately. If you tell them to put it somewhere, they’ve got to be able to put it there, and they’ve got to be able to work at it to improve their accuracy. In my opinion they don’t have to be the greatest athletes in the world. If they are, that’s fantastic, there’s a really great example of guys that are great athletes that are really good quarterbacks in the National Football League right now – Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, RG3. Those three guys can throw the football. Remember that first, they’re accurate passers. So they have to be able to throw.
As Thorman pointed out, Fitzpatrick’s accuracy last season was solid: 14th in completion percentage, 8th in accuracy percentage and 12th in PFF’s quarterback rating.
Let’s keep going:
They’ve got to be able to make good decisions. They have to be able to be good decision makers. And you can judge a lot of that off the field. You can watch how these guys do things and carry themselves off the field, and they’ll help you when you’re watching them on the field if they’re making good quick decisions or they’re making crappy decisions. Those are things you have to observe but they have to be able to make good decisions.
Decision-making is a tricky thing to measure, but we can do our best. Two areas that highlight decision-making ability are throws under pressure and throws in third and fourth down situations. His accuracy percentage under pressure, which measures the percentage of aimed passes a quarterback completes under pressure with drops counted as completions ranked fifth overall last year (based on QBs who played in at least 25% of their team’s snaps).
He also proved to be adept at avoiding taking a sack, finishing ninth in percentage of plays under pressure that resulted in a sack. In terms of third and fourth down conversions, Fitzpatrick finished 12th in the league in 2012 in percentage of passes that resulted in a first down or touchdown. I don’t have the individual stats for 2013, but Tennessee finished eighth overall in 3rd down conversions last season (note, this includes both running and passing plays and Fitzpatrick played in only 11 of 16 games).
This next one to me is really, really important. With all the multiplicity of the defenses these days, defenses at every level you’re seeing even, odd, we call it diamond, bear defense. You’re seeing bear. You’re seeing overload blitz. You’re seeing up the middle blitz. You’re seeing man-free, blitz zero. You’re seeing blitz zone, from the field, from the boundary. With all that, in my opinion, your quarterback has to be intelligent. He has to have a great football IQ. And if he doesn’t, if he can’t learn it, then he should play another position. I’m telling you, because nowadays that guy once he’s out on the field has got to be like a coach on the field. He has to understand what you want, how you want to attack the defense, and he’s got to understand football. In order to do it, he’s got to put work in.”
Guess where Fitzpatrick went to college? Harvard. If you already knew that, it would come as no surprise to you that he also posted one of the highest Wonderlic scores ever recorded by an NFL QB – a score of 48 in a record nine minute completion time. Now, it’s important to point out that a high score on the Wonderlic does not necessarily correlate to a successful career.
Brett Favre scored a 22, while Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw scored a 15, for example and Blaine Gabbert and Matt Leinart scored a 42 and 35, respectively. But at least in recent years, it seems that at least a moderately strong score is an asset, as Aaron Rodgers scored a 35, Tony Romo a 37, Matthew Stafford a 38, Colin Kaepernick a 38 and Eli Manning a 39.
It’s important to remember that we’re not trying to project the career of a rookie QB here. We know who Ryan Fitzpatrick is at this stage, and he’s not going to suddenly become a franchise QB. But we are looking for a productive fantasy season and for an O’Brien QB to be productive, he needs to have intelligence.
Finally, has O’Brien changed his tune since that clinic and perhaps adapted his style to suit the big league gig he now has? Well, it wouldn’t appear so judging by the following quote made after announcing that Fitzpatrick would be the starter this season:
“Ryan has come in here and learned well,” O’Brien said. “He’s a good guy. He’s a fun guy to coach. He works extremely hard. He’s thrown the ball accurately in these practices that we’ve had. He’s picked up the system well.”
Sounds to me like a guy that’s sticking to his philosophy and sees a good fit with his newly-named starter.
So just as Thorman suggested in his feature, overlook Fitzpatrick at your peril. He represents tremendous value as a backup or spot-starter QB and you’ll likely be able to pick him up long after the Jay Cutlers and Carson Palmers of the world are picked.