Mountaineers: Between the Numbers
Dana Holgorsen, Skyler Howard, and Completion Percentage.
By Jeff Postus
Junior Skyler Howard seems to have all but locked up the starting spot at QB for the Mountaineers in 2015, aided by the experience gained in his three starts in 2014.
Howard hit the ground running, often literally, this off-season. He also earned a public vote of confidence from Head Coach Dana Holgorsen earlier this spring.
However, it is what many saw or failed to see in those three starts that has caused concern about the prospect of Howard leading the offense for a full season.
He is different from what Holgorsen’s offense has usually employed at the position. Howard provides athleticism and broken-play-explosion that was lacking in his former signal callers, many of whom operated from the pocket only.
The Air Raid offense is built to create space, find mismatches, and dictate to the QB where the ball should go. Those that run it at peak efficiency have often flirted with aerial perfection. None more so that WVU’s own Geno Smith, who owns the three highest single game completion % marks in Holgorsen’s 10 year career as an FBS offensive coordinator or head coach.
Skyler Howard has yet to show he can operate on this level. His current career completion % of 50.9%, albeit built over a very small sample size, certainly won’t get anyone excited and the game tape earns no forgiveness. Overthrown receivers and frantic mechanics seem to be part of the package with #3, and very little improvement in that regard was evident in the spring game.
In order to understand what a new challenge this will be for Holgorsen, consider this: He has served as offensive coordinator in 78 games before coming to WVU and only three times has his quarterback turned in a completion percentage as low or lower than Howard’s career average of 50.9%.
It has already happened six times in his 51 games as WVU’s head coach, although five of them came in 2013 (the longer I am here, the more tired you will become of hearing what an outlier season 2013 was). The point is, Holgorsen runs an offense that is designed to collect completions, and it very rarely fails in that regard. When it does fail, however, the results are usually disastrous.
See below for a Holgorsen win/loss percentage within certain completion percentage ranges. You will see a coach that is uniquely successful when the passing offense is clicking, and uniquely woeful when it is not:[table “13” not found /]
Not only is Howard’s 50.9% completion percentage a dangerous way to live in Holgorsen’s offense, it is football suicide. The Air Raid is simply not built for what is called a “High Variance Quarterback”. This is exactly what Howard is. On any given play with Howard you can expect one of two outcomes: a big gain, or an incompletion. This type of high variance and low consistency creates third and longs, stalled drives, and an inability to stay balanced. This is highlighted by the fact that despite his very low completion %, Howard’s 7.5 yards per attempt remains in line with Holgorsen’s 10 year average of 7.9 and surpasses the 2014 national average of 7.3. He gets yards, you just don’t know when they will come. That presents a problem for WVU and Coach Holgorsen.
I am certain none of this is news to the coach, and hidden within the numbers is a hint as to how he can be expected to deal with it. His teams are a paltry 7-25 when completing less than 60% of their passes, and if Howard gets 12 starts a similar result is likely to happen. A lot. How will Coach Holgorsen deal with it? See below for the data:[table “14” not found /]
It is important to focus only on wins here, because in losses teams often try so many things that it becomes hard to tell if something was a Hail Mary or a strategy. At least in wins we can assume he ‘meant to do that’. Notice the extreme increase in volume and production from the running game that Holgorsen has needed to succeed with a passing attack struggling to find rhythm.
When compared to the national averages you see just how unique this version of the Air Raid is. When it is clicking it performs to levels unseen elsewhere. But when it stumbles it needs a lot of help to be productive enough to win.
Can Holgorsen and Howard be successful together? There is no clear answer to this. It would be totally unprecedented in the coach’s 10 years for him to stick with and win with such an inefficient quarterback. For the Mountaineers to be successful it is reasonable to require a completion % improvement of at least 15 points. That is just to give the team a fighting chance. Holgorsen is 34-15 in games with a completion % between 60% and 70%, equating to approximately 8 wins in a 12 game season.
But how much improvement can be expected? Let’s check the Mountaineer head coach’s previous quarterbacks. Holgorsen coached games vs FBS teams only:[table “15” not found /]
As you see, only one player significantly improved. Much like Howard, Clint Trickett had nowhere to go but up. Otherwise, it appears that Holgorsen’s quarterbacks generally are who they are from the start. Is it possible for Howard to make a 15% improvement? It has been done before, but would it be enough?
It is quite likely that it would not. The level of improvement Howard would need to show in order to run this offense successfully is so high that it is almost unfair to ask the young man to make it.
The numbers here paint a grim picture.You see an inaccurate quarterback, unlikely to improve in that regard to a substantial degree, in an offense built on the assumption that its quarterback is accurate and is unable to operate when it is not.
One final way to look at the relationship between completion % and success is through points and yards. See below for team performance under Holgorsen from 2005 to 2014:[table “16” not found /]
Again, no good news.
As long as Skyler Howard is the quarterback of the West Virginia Mountaineers, and unless he shows significant and nearly unprecedented improvement in efficiency, the offense will struggle. Unless, of course, we see a new side of the Air Raid this year.
Will Howard’s unique athleticism allow the offense to flourish in a different way? I am willing to bet that Holgorsen hopes so, as he is far too smart to not see what is coming.
Holgorsen and Howard – a match made in heaven? Not even almost….
Feature photo credit USA Today