by Scott Kacsmar
Throughout the season we have looked at ALEX as an average, but one Hail Mary or a hopeless screen pass on third-and-forever can certainly skew those numbers. That is why this week I have added a column in our main table (shown below) that will look at the percentage of passes that were thrown short of the sticks (Short%), which is really just the percentage of negative ALEX throws on third down.
This percentage has slightly stronger correlation (in the -0.50 to -0.55 range) with conversion rate than average ALEX (0.43 to 0.48 range) does. That is not bad for a stat that just looks at how far the ball was thrown relative to the sticks, ignoring the quality of the passer or the ability of the receiver to gain yards after the catch. The difference, of course, is that you get a negative correlation with Short% -- the more often you throw short of the sticks, the lower your conversion rate will be on average.
In 2015, Ben Roethlisberger (28.2 percent) and Aaron Rodgers (28.3 percent) have the lowest Short% on third down; Blaine Gabbert (63.6 percent) and Alex Smith (59.1 percent) have the highest. That is very consistent with past results as well. That Gabbert number is on pace to be the highest on record since 2006, breaking the mark held by checkdown captain Trent Edwards in 2009 (62.3 percent). The Roethlisberger number would reside out of the top 10 lowest as he actually has two seasons (2007 and 2011) that rank higher.
Week 16's Most Conservative Plays
The Lowest ALEX
Teams: Dallas at Buffalo
Situation: third-and-21 at own 49, trailing 6-3 in second quarter with 11:38 left
Play: Kellen Moore pass complete to Jason Witten for 12 yards
Air yards: minus-5
For the second week in a row, the Cowboys show up here, and again it's in a game they trailed 6-3 on the first drive of the second quarter. The difference this time is the ball was at midfield and in the hands of Kellen Moore in his first start. The tight end screen gained some yards, but the Cowboys still had to punt. A deeper pass may have given Dan Bailey a shot at a tying field goal. Perhaps the most disappointing part of this play is it was Jason Witten's only catch on a day when Dez Bryant was inactive.
A Notable Failure of the Week
Teams: Miami vs. Indianapolis
Situation: third-and-15 at own 18, trailing 15-9 in fourth quarter with 14:55 left
Play: Ryan Tannehill pass complete to Damien Williams for 3 yards
Air yards: minus-5
Tannehill is no stranger to bad ALEX plays. It is hard to remember this offense once generated excitement with the additions of Jordan Cameron, Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker, and Greg Jennings to go along with Lamar Miller and Jarvis Landry. So what did they dial up on third-and-15 when a fourth-quarter comeback was needed? Miami put running back Damien Williams out wide with one blocker for a screen pass that would have lost yards if not for some good moves after the catch. Brilliant. Miami punted, Charlie Whitehurst actually threw beyond the line of scrimmage for his team, and the Colts added a field goal to increase their lead to 18-9. While Miami later blew a chance at the win, the importance of these drives cannot be understated. A punt from deep in your own end threatens to give the other team a good shot at a two-score lead, which is exactly what happened.
Week 16's Most Aggressive Plays
The Highest ALEX
Teams: Tampa Bay vs. Chicago
Situation: third-and-9 at own 31, trailing 20-14 in fourth quarter with 13:39 left
Play: Jameis Winston pass incomplete to Donteea Dye
Air yards: 54
This was basically the opposite of what Ryan Tannehill did in Miami in the aforementioned play. Jameis Winston did go for the deep ball, but it hung too long in the air and Kyle Fuller was able to break on it for an incompletion. Dye has caught just 7-of-23 targets this season.
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A Notable Success of the Week
Teams: Atlanta vs. Carolina
Situation: third-and-13 at own 30, trailing 10-7 in third quarter with 2:25 left
Play: Matt Ryan pass complete to Julio Jones for a 70-yard touchdown
Air yards: 52
You could be looking at the ALEX play of the year here as this helped beat the 14-0 Panthers. Why would you not throw a bomb on third-and-13 when trailing? That basically serves as a punt if it gets intercepted. With Julio Jones on the receiving end, it just makes too much sense. Kurt Coleman fell in coverage and Luke Kuechly is no match for Jones at the catch point. It's the highlight to an otherwise disappointing season for the Falcons.
2015 ALEX Rankings Thru Week 16
The following table shows where each qualified quarterback (minimum 40 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.
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.
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Speaking of Houston quarterbacks, Brian Hoyer has several respectable metrics this season. It is hard to believe Houston could end up starting Weeden in the playoffs, but then again, the first two playoff games in franchise history were started by T.J. Yates.
Note: these numbers are subject to change at season's end. The data from 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.