Yesterday afternoon, the Cleveland Browns started Jason Campbell at quarterback, making him their 20th different starting QB since 1999. Rob Chudzinski's decision to go to Campbell after Brandon Weeden had one of the worst games of his career last week against the Packers all but ends Weeden's tenure as a Brown. He may get on the field again this season as the result of an injury or incompetent play from Campbell, but the writing is on the wall for the best quarterback in Oklahoma State history.
And it's been that way since this summer. With Michael Lombardi and his new regime coming in, it's understandable and obvious that he'd want to select his own quarterback to build around. If Lombardi's intentions to acquire his own QB weren't clear then, they definitely were when he traded Trent Richardson for a first round pick a few weeks ago. While the deal looks like a steal in hindsight (Richardson appears to be awful), it's no secret they've stocked up on first round selections to make sure they can get whatever signal caller Lombardi desires in the draft.
Browns fans and some national media members have turned Weeden in a lightning rod for jokes and loathing, and most are ready to write off his NFL career as a failure. But unlike when he realized that he didn't have a future in baseball, I don't think Weeden has reached that point as a quarterback.
While Weeden's completion rates and turnover numbers may seem similar to the gaudy ERAs he was posting in his final seasons as a professional pitcher, it's not as simple as Weeden throwing his best stuff and it getting hit out of the park. No, there are a number of things that have led to a disappointing season and a half of pro football for Weeden, and a lot of it has been out of his control.
First of all, let's establish what Weeden is. Though he ditched baseball to pursue a career in football, he's essentially still a pitcher in the pocket. Weeden is an effective thrower when he's sitting back in the shotgun, his foot on the hypothetical mound, taking the snap and moving very little off his spot. When he's not taking snaps from under center and he's able to make his drops from the shotgun, Weeden becomes an efficient thrower, properly settling into the pocket more quickly with a better view of the field.
Here is a reel of his throws from the shotgun against Buffalo in week five, which was one of the better games of his career:
The numbers also say that Weeden has been good when he's been protected this season. Pro Football Focus tracks how well QBs throw when under no pressure, when under pressure and against the blitz. While Weeden's numbers are a notch below some of the elite QBs in the game, he's still been solid this season when given time to throw.
Let's play a little Player A and Player B.
Player A is Brandon Weeden. Player B is Tom Brady (as of week 7). Though this is certainly one of Brady's worst starts of his career, the excuse folks will use for Brady's poor numbers (lack of receiving help) is not something that Weeden is immune to (far from it, and Weeden doesn't have the structural help that Brady receives from the system and the running game). Even without including a comparison, PFF grades Weeden's performance in the pocket when he's not pressured as good.
Where Weeden has struggled mightily is when he's under pressure. While Weeden has shown very poor pocket presence frequently during his NFL career (he has a tendency to hold onto the ball for a beat or two too long), the Browns offensive line does him no favors (the Browns' offensive line ranks 26th in the NFL in adjusted sack rate right now) and neither does scheme. On top of this, PFF's game charting data shows that Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and others struggle just as much if not more than Weeden with accuracy and turnovers when pressured, so he's not alone.
When looking at the brightside for Weeden, if there is something that an older prospect like him can actually get better at with time, it's blitz pick-ups and handling pressure.
When under ideal circumstances, Weeden can pick apart a defense. He has a cannon for an arm, capable of throwing fastballs to every area of the field and fitting the ball into tight windows. Critics will point to Weeden's below average 57.4% completion percentage last year as proof that he is not an accurate passer, but that's not a perfect stat. PFF also tracks a stat they've created called Accuracy Percentage, which is basically what a QB's completion percentage would be if you factor in drops and throwaways, so it gives a better idea of how accurate a QB actually is.
When using this metric, Weeden jumps up from 27th in the league in accuracy (using comp. %) to 12th in the league in accuracy at 72.4% based on last season's numbers. That number ranked him slightly behind Brady and Tony Romo and in front of guys like Ryan Tannehill, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, Eli Manning, Cam Newton, Joe Flacco and Andrew Luck.
It's worth noting that Weeden had the fifth highest drop percentage in football last season and is first by a full percent this season (10.3% of his pass attempts have been dropped). Three Browns receivers - Davone Bess, Greg Little and Josh Gordon - rank in the top 10 in football in drop rate this season.
As if we needed another example of how little offensive help Weeden has outside of tight end Jordan Cameron and, at times, Gordon, here's another crazy stat: 64.1% of Weeden's passing yardage comes before the catch, the second highest percentage in the league this season. This means that Weeden is getting very little help from his receivers after they catch the ball. This stat is indicative of a poor scheme (a lot of throws are to the sidelines, giving the receivers no room get yards after the catch) and Cleveland's receivers failing to get up field after securing the ball, and a review of the film confirms this.
Weeden was placed in a lose-lose situation the day he was drafted by the Browns. He's been working with one of the worst receiving corps in football, a poor offensive line, a non-existent running game, two different coaching staffs (and Shurmur was just awful) and he's been running an offense that doesn't suit him.
If you aren't going to give Weeden a ton of time in the pocket, then you need to run a quick hitting spread attack that allows him to get the ball out quickly as he did at OSU. Instead the Browns have put together a group of receivers that rarely beat man coverage while running the complete opposite of a spread attack most of the time (they do a lot of two tight end, bunch releases, essentially shrinking the field, to help their lackluster receivers get schematic separation). In fact, according to Football Outsiders, the Browns put their QB in the shotgun or pistol on just 30% of their plays last season, the second lowest amount in the league.
As Cleveland gets set to draft their next quarterback of the future, I think we all wish for Weeden to get put out of his misery. While it's never good to see someone lose their job (or, in this sense, the paycheck) and while there's no guarantee there's another chance waiting for him, I think it would be unfair to Weeden for Cleveland to keep him around as a back-up until 2016 when he's set to become a free agent. Perhaps that would make sense if this were 25-year old Christian Ponder, but I hope Lombardi realizes that Weeden's late start has limited his chances to make an impact in the league.
And I believe there's an opportunity out there that Weeden is suited to seize. If a team like Dallas or Detroit brought Weeden in to compete for the back-up job, I think he would fair extremely well. Those teams run shotgun heavy systems, have solid offensive lines and have a lot of playmakers at the skill positions, which is the perfect scenario for Weeden. Even a team like Washington could use Weeden; Weeden is the polar opposite of Robert Griffin III in a lot of ways, but the offenses they ran in college (and the one RGIII is running in the pros) were very similar (ditto with Philly and Chip Kelly's offense). If the Redskins were to deal Kirk Cousins sometime soon, Weeden would be a very good fit as a back-up in their spread system.
Look: Weeden is a system quarterback, and that's OK. While this term used to have a negative connotation, as more and more college schemes penetrate the NFL, the functionality of a quarterback with a specific skillset within an NFL offense has grown immensely. And Weeden has a specific skillset, one that meshes with the ideals of a handful of NFL teams. It just so happens that the Browns aren't one of them, and the combination of Weeden's age and the horrible situation he walked into has led to a very pessimistic view of his abilities when the truth is that the perception of Weeden as an awful player doesn't totally meet reality.