Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

14 Dec 2015

ALEX: Week 14 and Touchdown Passes

by Scott Kacsmar

Last week we looked at the largest ALEX on all passes since 2006 and found that Aaron Rodgers' Hail Mary touchdown in Detroit (plus-51 ALEX) was the longest touchdown in that timeframe. What about touchdown passes in general for all downs? The following table looks at the averages around the league since 2006 (there may be a few minor discrepancies with the official totals right now):

Season TD Passes ALEX
2006 647 6.6
2007 718 5.6
2008 643 5.3
2009 709 5.3
2010 751 5.4
2011 746 5.3
2012 756 5.3
2013 804 5.0
2014 807 5.1
2015 682 5.1

The average touchdown pass has been consistently thrown just a little more than 5 yards beyond the sticks in the last decade. What about from individual quarterbacks? This table looks at the 40 passers with at least 50 touchdown throws from 2006 to 2014. The players are ranked by descending ALEX, and there is also data for the percentage of air yards on their touchdown passes.

We see some mad bombers at the top and some checkdown captains at the bottom, but also some crossover. Jake Delhomme threw the longest touchdowns (23.1 average) in this group, so while he was often going the deepest beyond the sticks, he still got plenty of YAC from his receivers (often Steve Smith) on these touchdowns. Sam Bradford is the opposite as he throws some of the shortest touchdowns here (14.8 average), but doesn't need much YAC on them. Alex Smith is just about where you expect him, with only Chad Henne going shorter.

Cam Newton's numbers have a surprising lack of verticality to them, but that might be changing this season. Here are the 2015 numbers for everyone with at least eight touchdown passes.

Tyrod Taylor has completed less than 56 percent of his passes in four straight games, but he has still had an unusually successful season at throwing deep, especially for someone with such little experience coming into the season. This also highlights just how short Matthew Stafford's touchdowns have been, as none have been longer than 25 yards. Finally, Matt Hasselbeck is pulling off what I have to imagine is the rare feat of negative ALEX on his touchdown passes. All eight have been in the red zone, and all but one came inside the 10-yard line.

Week 14's Most Conservative Plays

The Lowest ALEX

Teams: Detroit at St. Louis
Situation: third-and-33 at own 33, trailing 7-0 in second quarter with 2:00 left
Play: Matthew Stafford pass complete to Theo Riddick for 8 yards
Air yards: minus-1
ALEX: minus-34

The strangest thing about this week's give-up screen on third-and-forever was what happened after it was over. The Rams could have called their first timeout at the 1:53 mark to have plenty of time for a drive to end the first half. With the punt units on, Jeff Fisher stood close to the referee before calling the timeout at 1:26. What was the delay that wasted 27 seconds? St. Louis even tried to score, going to the no-huddle offense and throwing on second down from its own 22. The drive ended with Case Keenum's interception from midfield as he was trying to force something in the last 20 seconds. It is game management like this that makes it a real mystery how Fisher keeps his job every year.

Week 14's Most Aggressive Plays

The Highest ALEX

Teams: New England at Houston
Situation: third-and-10 at own 34, scoreless in first quarter with 11:44 left
Play: Tom Brady pass incomplete to Brandon LaFell
Air yards: 55
ALEX: plus-45

This was some déjà vu. Just like last week against the Eagles, Brady's first pass of the game was a 55-yard bomb to Brandon LaFell that fell incomplete. Johnathan Joseph made a good play on the ball.

A Notable Success of the Week

Teams: Houston vs. New England
Situation: third-and-7 at own 19, trailing 27-6 in fourth quarter with 11:11 left
Play: Brian Hoyer to DeAndre Hopkins for 40 yards
Air yards: 37
ALEX: plus-30

This actually was not my first choice, but I realized too late that I filtered only completions from this week, and this was tied for the longest on third or fourth down. The Texans just fell behind by three touchdowns with most of the fourth quarter left, so why not take a shot to your best receiver on third-and-7? Hopkins finally got by Logan Ryan for the 40-yard gain, then watched his offense try the Wildcat and take bad sacks the rest of the way as he never caught another ball.

There was actually a plus-27 ALEX play earlier in this game that I liked the most this week, with Hoyer letting one rip on third-and-18 to Nate Washington for a 49-yard gain. Outside of these two plays, the Houston passing game had almost nothing going for it on the night.

2015 ALEX Rankings Thru Week 14

The following table shows where each qualified quarterback (minimum 44 passes) ranks in ALEX on third down only. There are also rankings for DVOA, average need yards (ranked from highest to lowest) and conversion rate.

Rk Quarterback Team ALEX CONV% Rk DVOA Rk Passes Avg. Need Rk
1 Ben Roethlisberger PIT 7.0 49.4% 3 67.8% 6 83 6.6 36
2 Tyrod Taylor BUF 4.5 39.2% 22 46.5% 14 97 8.0 13
3 Carson Palmer ARI 3.8 52.9% 1 99.9% 2 119 7.3 28
4 Aaron Rodgers GB 3.2 37.3% 26 44.9% 16 102 7.7 18
5 Brian Hoyer HOU 3.1 43.0% 12 50.9% 11 93 7.7 19
6 Cam Newton CAR 3.0 39.8% 21 46.1% 15 103 7.9 14
7 Jay Cutler CHI 3.0 46.2% 7 66.0% 8 117 6.9 34
8 Ryan Fitzpatrick NYJ 2.7 42.5% 14 47.4% 13 127 7.4 25
9 Blake Bortles JAC 2.7 41.1% 19 34.3% 20 129 7.5 24
10 Andrew Luck IND 2.6 42.0% 16 48.8% 12 69 7.6 21
11 Johnny Manziel CLE 2.3 43.2% 11 87.9% 3 44 8.3 5
12 Andy Dalton CIN 2.1 44.7% 9 68.3% 5 94 7.8 16
13 Joe Flacco BAL 1.8 34.0% 29 -10.2% 32 103 7.0 33
14 Russell Wilson SEA 1.6 46.6% 4 70.7% 4 103 7.0 32
15 Peyton Manning DEN 1.6 32.7% 32 -32.9% 35 98 8.2 9
16 Josh McCown CLE 1.5 51.3% 2 106.8% 1 78 7.2 30
17 Tom Brady NE 1.2 46.2% 6 66.9% 7 119 7.5 23
18 Marcus Mariota TEN 1.2 41.0% 20 17.6% 24 100 8.1 12
Rk Quarterback Team ALEX CONV% Rk DVOA Rk Passes Avg. Need Rk
19 Derek Carr OAK 1.0 42.3% 15 51.6% 10 130 7.8 17
20 Eli Manning NYG 0.8 41.3% 18 21.5% 23 126 7.3 27
21 Matt Cassel DAL 0.8 33.3% 31 11.3% 25 57 7.5 22
22 Matt Ryan ATL 0.8 46.3% 5 26.4% 22 136 6.8 35
23 Jameis Winston TB 0.8 41.9% 17 9.4% 26 124 8.1 11
24 Kirk Cousins WAS 0.8 44.1% 10 36.4% 18 136 7.4 26
25 Matt Hasselbeck IND 0.7 39.0% 23 -31.6% 34 59 7.2 29
26 Colin Kaepernick SF 0.7 33.8% 30 8.8% 27 74 7.7 20
27 Drew Brees NO 0.6 45.7% 8 55.0% 9 138 8.2 10
28 Ryan Tannehill MIA 0.4 28.3% 33 -12.0% 33 113 8.6 2
29 Philip Rivers SD 0.4 42.9% 13 35.1% 19 133 8.5 4
30 Nick Foles STL 0.3 24.4% 35 -36.9% 36 119 8.3 6
31 Brock Osweiler DEN 0.1 36.7% 27 -3.1% 29 49 7.1 31
32 Teddy Bridgewater MIN -0.5 38.3% 24 42.8% 17 107 7.9 15
33 Matthew Stafford DET -0.6 37.3% 25 -6.8% 31 126 8.2 8
34 Sam Bradford PHI -0.9 28.2% 34 -3.3% 30 110 8.3 7
35 Blaine Gabbert SF -1.3 21.7% 36 -0.7% 28 46 8.5 3
36 Alex Smith KC -3.3 34.6% 28 26.7% 21 104 8.6 1

Next, ALEX is presented in splits by distance: short (1 to 3 yards), medium (4 to 7 yards) and long (8-plus yards). The colors indicate where a player is well above average (darker green) versus below average (darker red). Those conversion rates are also shown with a ranking.

Aaron Rodgers continues to be as consistent with ALEX as anyone, but his throws just have not been connecting as often this season. As mentioned above, Stafford has been very conservative this season. That's nothing new for Ryan Tannehill in Miami. Eli Manning is having a mediocre season on third down for the Giants.

Note: these numbers are subject to change at season's end. The data on 2006-2014 is the same as what we use for stats like receiving plus-minus and YAC+, which excludes passes that are thrown away, batted at the line or when the quarterback was hit in motion. The 2015 data currently includes all passes, but game charting will filter out those passes that were not truly aimed or intentional.

For those new to this metric, it is called Air Less Expected, or ALEX for short. ALEX measures the average difference between how far a quarterback threw a pass (air yards) and how many yards he needed for a first down. If a quarterback throws a pass five yards behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-15, that would be minus-20 ALEX. The best application of ALEX is to look at third and fourth down when it's really crucial to get 100 percent of the need yards to extend the drive.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 14 Dec 2015

6 comments, Last at 16 Dec 2015, 8:56pm by LionInAZ

Comments

1
by Jimmy Oz :: Mon, 12/14/2015 - 10:28pm

"It is game management like this that makes it a real mystery how Fisher keeps his job every year"

Rams were up 7-0 thanks to a pick-six, had done jack offensively, had Case Keenum as the QB, likely to start on their own 20, and you expect them to run a two minute drill like a competent team...

What's wrong with giving themselves a chance at a FG while simultaneously limiting Lions' time of possession in the event of a turnover? It's a pretty strong statement to say Fisher deserves to get fired for his game management, so I assume you've got more to back up your point than some experience playing Madden.

2
by LionInAZ :: Tue, 12/15/2015 - 12:33am

Nothing, except that Fisher has an entire career built on very conservative offense, contrary to trend of successful modern teams.

3
by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 12/15/2015 - 2:28am

Actually I expected them to run the ball three times and punt, but they did come out and try to run a hurry-up drive with Keenum. They just left themselves less time than they could have had.

Coaching to plan for a possible turnover is pretty much the definition of conservative, scared coaching. If you're that worried about a turnover, then don't even throw on second or third down.

4
by Jimmy Oz :: Tue, 12/15/2015 - 4:59am

They also left the Lions less time than they could have. That's the interesting thing about this instance of clock management.

3rd and 8 at STL 22
(0:47 - 2nd) C.Keenum pass short right to J.Cook to SL 33 for 11 yards (N.Lawson)
(0:39 - 2nd) Timeout #2 by SL at 00:39.

If the 3rd down pass is incomplete & Rams have to turn it over (and nothing special happens on the punt), the Lions would be lucky to have 30 seconds to get 60-ish yards for the TD, instead of 50+ seconds. The Lions had all of their time-outs.

The Rams were up by a TD, and there's a whole half still to play so he really doesn't need to go for a TD, but he doesn't completely eschew the opportunity to score points. I think Fisher's clock management meant the Lions wouldn't be able to score more than a FG, while trying to get their own FG.

6
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 12/16/2015 - 8:56pm

This is a laughable argument when consider that Case Keenum is the QB. What if that INT had gone for a pick-6? Either be truly aggressive and go for the score, or run down the clock. Don't waffle between the two.

5
by Mountainhawk :: Tue, 12/15/2015 - 4:08pm

Shouldn't hail marys be dropped from this data, or at least the 'EX' should be the goal line, not the first down.