2018 Passing Plus-Minus
by Rivers McCown
We have run passing plus-minus as a seasonal overview every offseason since 2015. In both 2016 and 2017, Drew Brees was the best quarterback in the NFL in passing plus-minus. This year was no exception.
Passing plus-minus is a stat we annually track to help provide context to completion percentage. Given the location of a quarterback's passes, it compares his completion percentage in each area to historical baselines. This stat does not consider passes listed as "Thrown Away," "Tipped at Line," or "Quarterback Hit in Motion" by Sports Info Solutions charting. How often a pass is completed based on the pass distance, the distance required for a first down, and whether the ball was thrown to the left, middle, or right side of the field. This is a counting stat, so more attempts are obviously a great thing for the purposes of what we're talking about here.
For example, the average quarterback would have completed 69.9 percent of the passes that Drew Brees threw in 2018. Brees completed a single-season record 74.4 percent of his passes. That calculus, plus 464 attempts, put Brees at a plus-minus of +39.6. Updating research that FO did in 2015, Brees now has the following seasons in the top 10:
|Best Single-Season Passing +/-, 2006-2018|
Not only is Brees in possession of seven of the top 10 plus-minus seasons, his 10th-place spot is 2.6 plus-minus points ahead of Aaron Rodgers' 2011 season in eleventh. This is a statistic that Brees has dominated, and it hasn't even been close.
2018 Passing Plus-Minus
These results run 35-deep: I picked every player with 200 or more attempts, and then added Lamar Jackson and Nick Foles because they'll be starters next season and I figured people would be curious. I apologize to Brock Osweiler's fans, but I figured that we know plenty about Brock Osweiler at this stage of all of our lives. I offer similar apologies to Jeff Driskel and C.J. Beathard.
|2018 Passing +/- Leaders|
|Minimum 200 passes, plus Nick Foles and Lamar Jackson.|
This season was an interesting result for Brees because he played up to the highs that he had in the past, but for once, he didn't combine that historic efficiency with an overwhelming number of attempts. This was the first time in Brees' entire career in New Orleans that he had fewer than 500 pass attempts. I'm sure Brees will take the tradeoff considering the 13-3 record and the whole "probably should have been in the Super Bowl if officiating buts were made of candy and nuts" thing. I think he'll be OK with these results.
Baker Mayfield's plus-minus of +1.9 may not seem all that impressive on first blush, but when you compare it to other rookies, it was pretty stellar. Marcus Mariota and Deshaun Watson earned +3.0 and +2.9, respectively, in their rookie seasons. Nick Mullens was not technically a rookie -- he was a 2017 UDFA -- but he did have pretty surprising results! However, it was a smaller sample size. Still, pretty good, and this stat probably won't quiet down the 49ers fans who believe that he deserves a real chance to start over Jimmy Garoppolo.
Two of the weirder results to come out of the 2017 season's plus-minus were the big years enjoyed by journeymen Case Keenum and Josh McCown. McCown did not qualify for last year's leaderboard, but was a -9.0 in just 98 attempts. Keenum regressed handily in Denver under a different game plan, and without Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Meanwhile, given the same infrastructure Keenum had, Kirk Cousins stepped right in and finished second to Brees in plus-minus. That's a result that feels weird to the eye test, because the Vikings had games where they simply couldn't score: Monday night against Seattle and the game where they spotted Buffalo a 27-point lead to name two. Yet, Cousins completed 70.1 percent of his passes and the passing attack was generally pretty efficient when Cousins wasn't getting pressured (and fumbling afterwards). Good news for Jaguars fans who recruited offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and who will probably see "only a few games where the team can't score" as an improvement.
However, this year's weirdest-feeling plus-minus has to go Derek Carr. Carr's Raiders took 52 sacks -- those don't count in this stat -- and he was coming off a 2017 season where he finished -1.6 in 491 attempts. Even in Carr's breakout 2016 season, he was in negative territory. So what exactly did Jon Gruden do here? It was partly a huge spike in actual completion percentage -- up to 68.9 percent from a prior career high of 63.8 percent -- but almost all of Carr's plus-minus came on throws that went 10 yards or less past the line of scrimmage. And by "almost all," I mean 12.0 of 17.3. Who drove that? Tune in next week when we run receiving plus-minus!
Tom Brady falling to even on plus-minus surprisingly has a lot of precedent. Brady's 2015 season was actually in negative territory. The shape of the offense changed entirely with Brandin Cooks gone, and given Rob Gronkowski's retirement and the lack of much of anything settled in the passing game besides Julian Edelman, Brady might find himself right back in this territory next season. Then again, Brady has never done particularly well by plus-minus anyway. We have data going back to 2006, and Brady barely cracks the top 10 in plus-minus:
|Career Plus-Minus Leaders, 2006-2018|
That's right, folks! Brady is barely better in this statistic than the immortal Matt Schaub.
The opposite of Derek Carr's year is this year's big outlier: Ryan Fitzpatrick! +7.9 in 236 attempts, but he had +10.0 on his 100 attempts that went 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. Remove those, and Fitzpatrick was actually a below-average starter in the eyes of this statistic. That arm was built for chucking and letting Mike Evans go get it. Or, now in 2019 terms ... DeVante Parker? Yeah, well, uh, the Dolphins will probably try to start Josh Rosen ahead of Fitzpatrick if they can anyway.
Speaking of Fitzpatrick, let's finish this with one more table: the lowest of the low. The worst players by plus-minus since 2006:
|Career Plus-Minus Trailers, 2006-2018|
There aren't many days where you get to use the sentence "and if Fitzpatrick can turn in one more good year, he can pass Cam Newton," but here we are. 2018 already got him past Eli Manning! It seems unlikely that anyone will catch Blaine Gabbert to be the worst quarterback in modern NFL history, but Blake Bortles definitely has a lot on his side for the chase: he's real bad, he's just off his rookie deal, and he's still tall enough to convince dumb teams that he could be a good quarterback. On the downside, he did sign with the Rams, and they actually have a good offensive philosophy.