by Scott Kacsmar
A quarter of the way through the 2017 NFL season, it is time to check in on ALEX. No, not Alex Smith, quarterback of the league's last undefeated team and No. 1 offense. We'll definitely get to him, since he is the most fascinating case of the early season, but we're talking about 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 3-yard pass on third-and-10, then that would be -7 ALEX. A pass thrown beyond the first-down marker would earn a positive ALEX figure. Most quarterbacks are wise enough to attack the sticks on fourth down, which is why ALEX is best applied on third downs to gauge the aggressiveness of a quarterback. As you will see, we have identified some quarterbacks with a strong year-to-year tendency for aggressive or ultra-conservative play.
So far this season, we have observed an increased tendency to throw short of the sticks on third down. I looked at the league-wide ALEX numbers on third down going back to the 2006 season, split up by Weeks 1 to 4 and then the entire season. These 2017 numbers are subject to change upon review of game charting and the removal of passes thrown away or batted down at the line.
|ALEX: Third Down (2006-2017)|
The league's third-down ALEX is currently +0.7, the lowest it has been through Week 4 since the 2009 season. These numbers usually don't change too much by season's end too, as each season since 2006 has remained within half a yard of the season's early ALEX. But it is quite possible that this season finishes with the lowest ALEX on record.
At least Alex Smith is throwing deep this year to help the Chiefs get to 4-0 -- or is he? Let's get right to the data. The following table looks at every quarterback this season with at least 20 third-down passes. The quarterbacks are ranked from highest to lowest ALEX. Also included are their conversion rate, DVOA, and average need yards for a first down. Finally, Short% is the percentage of third-down attempts that were thrown short of the sticks (negative ALEX). ALEX and Short% generally have strong correlation (-0.89), but Short% is a good way to account for outlier plays like screens on third-and-forever or bombs on third-and-1. This is especially important early in the season when no quarterback has more than 50 third-down passes. For that reason, we will not include a split-by-distance table until the midseason report.
Alex Smith: Tale as Old as Time
Perception is a hell of a drug, right? Despite his perceived newfound love for the deep ball, Alex Smith is currently dead last in ALEX at -4.7 yards, a full 2.5 yards below any other quarterback. That would smash the record-low ALEX he set in 2015 at -3.4. Smith's strategy has not been very successful either this year, as he ranks just 23rd (37.0 percent) in converting his third-down passes into first downs. Now, he is seventh in DVOA, the largest difference of any quarterback here between conversion rate and DVOA. Part of that is because Smith's average third-down attempt has come with 8.9 yards to go for a first down, the second-longest average behind only DeShone Kizer (9.2 yards).
So what gives here? We think we have seen Smith take more aggressive shots in 2017, but the data sure suggests otherwise. What if he was being more aggressive on first and second down, since ALEX is looking at only third down? Well, on first downs, Smith's ALEX is -1.2, a perfectly average rank of 16th out of 32 passers. On second downs, Smith's ALEX (-1.6) ranks 20th, so he hasn't been too aggressive on early downs either. Overall, Smith's average air yards per attempt this season is 6.8 yards, which ranks 27th. It's basically where he has been for years now. Smith has thrown eight passes on third-and-10 or longer, and only once did one of those passes travel more than 4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
The new perception is really just highlight syndrome. Smith's standout plays this season have been on some deep balls in big situations, such as the game-winning touchdown pass to Kareem Hunt in New England, or the scrambled throw he made to Albert Wilson on Monday night against Washington on the game-winning drive. Those were plays in crunch time in games shown to a national audience. Smith also threw a 35-yard dagger to Chris Conley in the fourth quarter against the Eagles. So the fact that he is hitting these plays in memorable fashion has crafted the change in his story, but we're unlikely to see a big change in third-down ALEX for Kansas City's passing game until Patrick Mahomes takes over, which may not be for quite a while now.
Jay Cutler Turned into Blaine Gabbert in Retirement
Believe it or not, Miami paid Jay Cutler $10 million to come out of retirement, and he has provided Blaine Gabbert-caliber quarterback play so far. That's not a joke. Through three games, Cutler has thrown 65.2 percent of his third-down passes short of the sticks. The record since 2006 is 65.0 percent, achieved by Gabbert with the 49ers in 2015. Much like Gabbert, Cutler has also been terrible at converting third downs (league-low 21.7 percent), and save for a garbage-time touchdown against the Jets on the game's final play, his offense would have back-to-back 20-0 shutout losses to the Jets and Saints. Cutler's average ALEX would be the second-lowest in the league right now if he didn't have the largest +ALEX pass of the season. Against the Jets, Cutler threw a 44-yard bomb to DeVante Parker on a third-and-3 for a +41 ALEX pass. It fell incomplete.
Apparently Cutler has not fully come out of retirement yet. It is hard to understand why Matt Moore just didn't get the job after Ryan Tannehill went down for the year, but the fallback plan was that head coach Adam Gase was familiar with Cutler from their time together with the 2015 Bears. That season, Cutler ranked seventh in ALEX (+3.11) and ninth in conversion rate (46.7 percent) for one of his best seasons. Cutler usually ranks below average in ALEX, but 2015 was a definite high point for him.
While there is still plenty of time for Cutler to get things moving in the right direction here, it has been one terrible start. Playing it this safe on third down to avoid throwing picks isn't helping Cutler or Miami in any way. If he can't lead any scoring drives, then he needs to hit the bench -- or a FOX announcing booth like originally planned.
Sorting out the Bottom
Drew Brees may come as a surprising name at 31st in ALEX, but he has been throwing a lot of shorter passes the last two seasons. He also has four seasons where he ranked 22nd or lower in ALEX since 2006, so it's not that unusual for him. As long as he's still converting at a decent rate (seventh this year so far), it's not a big problem for him in that offense.
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Tyrod Taylor was a high-ALEX quarterback (top seven) in 2015 and 2016, but he's like a kid who had his toys taken away from him this year. In the last couple of offseasons, Taylor has notably lost Chris Hogan, Sammy Watkins, and Robert Woods. Jordan Matthews is a slot receiver, and rookie Zay Jones has been a bit of a mess so far. Taylor is just 4-of-17 for 57 yards on targets to Jones. So he's taking a dink-and-dunk approach this year, but the lack of a strong passing game could end up keeping Buffalo out of the playoffs again. OK, that last part is one of the least surprising things we could ever write, but things have changed drastically around Taylor this year.
Assuming his benching is permanent, Mike Glennon finished 29th in ALEX, but surprisingly wasn't doing too badly in conversion rate (12th) and DVOA (14th) thanks to some moves after the catch by rookie Tarik Cohen. Still, Glennon's season should be over now that the Bears have turned to rookie Mitchell Trubisky. Glennon was tied with Eli Manning for the most failed completions (34) in the NFL. Glennon was a low-ALEX passer in Tampa Bay too, but took conservative to a different level this past month. He led the NFL with 22 negative-ALEX passes on third down, only producing 3 DYAR on those plays. Oddly enough, Kirk Cousins (106 DYAR), Dak Prescott (75 DYAR), and Carson Wentz (49 DYAR) are the leaders in DYAR on negative-ALEX passes, and all happen to play in the NFC East.
Let's hope the Bears are a bit more aggressive with their latest attempt at a franchise quarterback.
Like with most 2016 quarterback stats, Goff was dead last in ALEX (-2.6), Short% (63.1 percent), and conversion rate (23.1 percent). So far under Sean McVay, Goff is still 28th in ALEX (-1.3) and 30th in Short% (56.8 percent), but the superior design of the offense also sees him 10th in conversion rate (43.2 percent). We'll have to see if his success continues with a strategy that's still not overly aggressive.
Wentz finished 2016 ranked 27th in ALEX (0.0), but has certainly taken a more aggressive approach to this season. While he is barely completing 50 percent of his passes to new targets Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, Wentz has had a great start with tight end Zach Ertz and an improved connection with Nelson Agholor. Wentz currently ranks first in conversion rate (52.5 percent) and seventh in ALEX (+2.3).
Prescott was pretty middle-of-the-road in this category last season, ranked 17th in ALEX (+1.2) and 12th in conversion rate (43.7 percent). This year he has gone more conservative, ranked 27th in ALEX (-1.2), and it has only produced a conversion rate of 37.5 percent (ranked 21st). On the bright side, Jerry Jones may be aware of ALEX.
I don't think it gets any better than this. pic.twitter.com/PR39rkj9Ui
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) October 4, 2017
The 2017 Rookies
Deshaun Watson has really stepped up the last two weeks, and now ranks fifth in conversion rate (50.0 percent). His ALEX is right in line with Cleveland rookie DeShone Kizer, but Kizer has thrown the longest third-down passes of any quarterback at 9.2 yards. Watson's attempts have come with 6.8 yards to go, shorter than anyone not named Jameis Winston (6.6 yards).
But it hasn't been a promising start for Kizer in this regard. His conversion rate (27.8 percent) is only better than Cutler's, and his DVOA is last. Cody Kessler was very conservative last season (31st in ALEX) for Cleveland, and that did not work out. So far, Kizer isn't working out too well either for Hue Jackson's offense.
Stability of the Top
Let's finish by focusing on some of the quarterbacks at the top of ALEX right now. Marcus Mariota has not gotten off to a great start, but he looks to increase his ALEX again after finishing 23rd as a rookie and 10th a year ago. He just needs to stay healthy. Jameis Winston was fifth a year ago, and has been one of the most aggressive quarterbacks (on any down) in the league the last two years. He just has to start connecting better with new addition DeSean Jackson.
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Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Cam Newton are basically the trio of ALEX mainstays, always ranking high year after year. Rodgers has been in the top six in every season since 2008. Roethlisberger has led the league three times since 2011, including each of the last two seasons. He just hasn't been converting as well to start this season. Roethlisberger also had a league-low -26 ALEX pass on a glorified screen pass to Antonio Brown on a third-and-25 against the Browns in Week 1. That play gained 9 yards. As for Newton, he has been in the top 10 in ALEX in four of the last five seasons, though he has never ranked higher than 14th in conversion rate. He is currently sixth (46.4 percent) after having his best game of the season in New England.
Tom Brady is currently 11th in ALEX, third in conversion rate, and first in DVOA on third down. Last season was his first time in the top 10 in ALEX since his 2009 season, so there has been a return to more vertical passing for him at 40 years old of all things. We'll see where he stands at midseason if he has to keep firing to make up for his defense after this surprising start to the season.
As far as Alex "ALEX" Smith goes, not everything is a real surprise this year.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention that Sam Bradford would rank next-to-last above Smith if he had enough attempts to qualify. Bradford was at -2.3 ALEX against the Saints in Week 1, arguably the best game of his career.
The more things change…