Pitt’s previous two offensive coordinators have made plenty of news in the last week, with 2017 offensive boss Matt Canada getting bought out for the sum of $1.7 million by LSU and 2016 offensive coordinator Jim Chaney taking the Georgia Bulldogs to overtime of the College Football Playoff championship game before ultimately falling to Alabama.
The current leader of the offense, Shawn Watson, will be entering his second season with the Panthers in 2018 and has made fewer headlines than his predecessors. That’s because it wasn’t a particularly successful year for Watson and the Pitt offense, at least on the surface.
The Panthers finished 5-7, missing a bowl game for the first time in a decade and did so while the offense sputtered through a season of instability. The Panthers’ 2017 season featured three different starting quarterbacks and three starting running backs before finally settling on freshman Kenny Pickett and junior Darrin Hall as the preferred options at the most important positions on offense.
But was Pitt’s step back on offense out of character and a reflection of a poor performance by Watson, or was it just a reversion to the mean after a record-setting 2016?
In 2017, Pitt averaged 5.2 yards per play, which 87th in the 129-team Football Bowl Subdivision. But where does that compare to what Pitt’s typical offense has looked like and how much of a factor was the uncertainty at the quarterback position? Let’s take a look.
Dating back to 2005, Pitt has averaged 5.39 yards per play on offense, a figure that Watson’s unit fell just short of. But that average is skewed a great deal by Canada’s record-setting 6.9 yards per play in 2016. The median was exactly 5.2, meaning that Watson’s offense in 2016 performed exactly in the middle of the pack when comparing it to Pitt’s recent history.
One of the things that also stands out in that data is the effect of having a returning quarterback. Peterman’s 2017 was done in his second season of starting, as was the 6.1 yards per play turned in by Bill Stull in 2009 and the 5.9 by Tyler Palko in 2005.
Since 2005, when Pitt has a returning starting quarterback, they average 5.5 yards per play. Without an incumbent signal caller, the average falls to 5.3 yards per pay.
So in 2017, Watson’s unit performed to roughly the level of an average Pitt offense since 2005 and also performed rough to the level of an average Pitt offense that had a first-year starting quarterback.
But Pitt didn’t just have one first-year starting quarterback, they had three of them. The only other year comparable to what the Panthers went through at the quarterback position in 2017 was in 2007, when Stull, Kevan Smith and Pat Bostick only averaged 4.5 yards per play, the worst result of the sample period.
There was another factor at play in 2017, as well. Watson didn’t revamp the Pitt scheme when he took over, instead adapting Canada’s plays and system to suit his own preferences. That was designed to make the transition to a fourth offensive coordinator in four years an easy one for the Pitt players, but it put the brunt of the transition on Watson, who had to call plays from a playbook without having had the experience of designing them himself.
There was a nuance to the offense play-calling and learning what plays set up other plays well that seemed to improve as the season went on. That, combined with the emergence of Pickett as Pitt’s starting quarterback of the future and the natural tendency of stability to improve results should rosy the outlook for the Panthers in 2018. But that effect is hard to measure. Pitt has had a returning full-time quarterback and offensive coordinator combination just once, when Palko and Matt Cavanaugh combined to average 5.9 yards per play in 2006.