There has been a lot of consternation about the play of Deshaun Watson this year. After last year's Heisman finalist campaign, many assumed that Watson would come out against Auburn and just throw the ball around. The Clemson offense has certainly looked off. Inconsistency has plagued the team with struggles against Auburn, Troy, and NC State. Even the Louisville game saw some stops and starts from the Clemson offense. But the root of the cause isn’t Watson’s performance.
The table above compares Clemson’s first 7 games of this season with the first 7 games of the 2015 season. As you can see, the differences aren’t that stark.
In 2016 Clemson has actually thrown the ball much more than 2015, 69 more attempts this year. Unfortunately Watson has not been quite as accurate as last year with a 63.6% completion percentage, nearly 5% lower than 2015. My theory for this, and it is just a theory, has to do with the type of passes Clemson is calling. It seems like Clemson is calling fewer screens and sweep toss passes. Those are high completion percentage passes and a great way to inflate stats.
Yards per completion also bears out Clemson’s production. The passing game is less efficient than last year because of accuracy issues, but they are still putting out similar yardage statistics and production. In fact looking at TDs Clemson is actually a bit better at scoring while maintaining the same number of interceptions as last year.
So if Deshaun Watson isn’t the real reason for the inconsistency from the offense what could it be. The answer isn’t the running game. The running game is actually better than last year with an extra 0.15 yards per carry this year. Yes, there are fewer rushing attempts this year, but the team is slightly more efficient at running the ball. Watson himself isn’t running the ball as well as last year, but that has more to do with the types of calls he has to make on the Run Pass Option. Opposing defenses are forcing him to give the ball to the RBs rather than keep it, but Watson is making the correct call and that is the important thing.
The real reason for Clemson’s struggles is a bit vague. It is that Clemson just isn’t stringing drives together to result in scores. Some of that is because of turnovers deep in opponent territory, and some of it is poor playcalling in critical situations. But the top level stats are pretty similar to last year; it is just something isn’t working quite right.
Now to be clear, there are certainly some concerns. Watson’s footwork seems to be a bit off this year, especially on the deep ball. A lot of Watson’s long throws seem to be off because he isn’t stepping into the throw. He’s trying to use all arm and that leads to under and over throws. Even some of his successful throws, like Deon Cain’s catch against Louisville, haven’t been great. Going forward, improvement here may see this offense take the next step and fix some of Watson’s accuracy issues.
Watson could also do better with staring down receivers. Yes, interceptions are at a similar level to 2015, but Watson has gotten away with a few near misses as well. Continuing to stare down receivers is going to end very poorly for Clemson, especially against teams like Florida State and Pitt who can take advantage of such mistakes.
Ultimately though there is no reason to panic. Clemson fans have elevated Deshaun Watson to a mythical level that is even bigger than what his 2015 stats show. Through the first 7 games of 2016 it is clear that Deshaun Watson is ok. It is just a nebulous problem where things aren’t clicking quite right.