Failed Completions 2020
As we begin to roll out our detailed stat reviews of the 2020 season, it's important to remember just how strange last year actually was. No offseason to speak of, socially distanced practices, games moved all willy-nilly around the calendar as everyone struggled to deal with the global pandemic. Under these conditions, it's entirely possible that strange results or reversal of trends are at least partially caused by that more than anything else. It's possible that, when we look back historically, 2020 will stick out like 2011 or 1987, other years impacted by effects off the field.
Take the passing game, for instance. 2020 was, by many metrics, the most efficient passing year in league history. The NFL set new records for completions, touchdowns, passing first downs, and ANY/A, to name just a few. Part of that is the continued evolution of the passing game, of course, but 2020 had some factors to it that could artificially boost passing numbers. The lack of offseason practice seems to disproportionally impact defenses, as we saw after the 2011 lockout. The lack of crowd noise made it easier for offenses to function, particularly on the road. Offensive holding and pass interference calls dipped dramatically, allowing quarterbacks more time to work in the pocket. The cards aligned themselves for a positive passing season.
With that environment in place, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to see the NFL's failed completion numbers drop to levels we haven't seen in a decade.
Every year, we here at Football Outsiders study failed completions around the league. A failed completion is any completed pass that fails to gain 45% of needed yards on first down, 60% on second down, or 100% on third or fourth down. You can see last year's study on the subject here.
In 2020, quarterbacks completed 11,756 passes, with 2,804 failed completions. That ends up being a rate of 23.9%. It's the lowest mark since we began writing these yearly articles in 2013, and over a percentage point drop from where it was in 2019. The league's failed completion rate has risen over time as dumpoffs and screens have replaced slamming a fullback into a loaded box as the give-up play du jour, but 2020's numbers have much more in common with the late 2000s than anything we've seen in recent years.
I suspect that 2020 will prove to be an outlier for all the reasons mentioned above, but if quarterbacks in 2021 want to keep pushing the ball a little further downfield on each play, I certainly would not complain.
This is normally where we put the disclaimer that not every failed completion is created equally, that for this article we make things binary, simply summing up successes and failures. A 7-yard completion on third-and-10 is better than a 2-yard completion, especially in field goal range, and that is reflected in DVOA—but for the purposes of this article, a failure is a failure. That remains true for all of the statistics and tables coming up, but there's no way to talk about the top of 2020's table without talking about degrees of success and failure. Let's get to the charts.
In the following table, the 36 qualified quarterbacks of 2020 are ranked by ascending failed completion rate (FC%). We also included failed completions as a percentage of attempts (very little change in the rankings) as well as the average ALEX (all downs) for the season. "Passes" here refers to all passing plays, including sacks.
|Quarterbacks, Failed Completions, 2020|
Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger led the league with 109 failed completions, just beating Justin Herbert and Teddy Bridgewater (106 each) to the line. This is partially a factor of volume, as only Tom Brady and Matt Ryan had more dropbacks than Roethlisberger in 2020. Still, a failed completion rate of 27.3% is not at all good. Roethlisberger was near the league lead with 110 failed completions in 2018, but with a healthier 24.3% failed completion rate, leaving him much closer to the middle of the table. His failed completion rate actually improved as the season went along, but that's more of a factor of Roethlisberger simply completing fewer passes down the stretch. These are very concerning numbers for a 39-year-old passer without a quality backup behind him at the moment.
And we say "quality" for a reason. This offseason, Pittsburgh went out and acquired Dwayne Haskins for their quarterback room. Haskins ended up with the worst failed completion rate in the league at 35.1%. At the moment, Haskins would be the third-string passer behind Mason Rudolph … who was worst in the league with a 33.5% failed completion rate in 2019. Pittsburgh right now is the absolute center of the universe for dink-and-dunk passers; it may not be the worst quarterback room in the league, but it is at least in the discussion.
It's nowhere near as bad as Washington was in 2020, mind you. Not only did Haskins have the highest failed completion rate in the league, but he only just finished ahead of teammate Alex Smith; the two flop places if you sort by failed completions as a percentage of attempts as opposed to a percentage of completions. That has never happened before; no team has managed to get both of the bottom two passers at the same time. It has been close—Case Keenum and Jared Goff had two of the bottom three slots in 2016 for Jeff Fisher's Rams—but ending up with the worst two passers at the same time is impressive in a perverse sort of way. It's fitting that Smith would be last in the league in ALEX, considering the stat was named for him; his -3.8 mark was the worst in over half a decade, and you can see the direct line from lack of arm strength to low ALEX to failed completions right there. Haskins' ALEX wasn't anything to write home about either, though it was his poor accuracy more than anything else that deflated both his completion total and his receivers' ability to turn some of those failures into successes with yards after the catch. Either way, both players are gone now, and the Football Team had a losing record, meaning they're in decent position to pick up a new franchise quarterback in the draft … oh. Well, there's always next year.
The rest of the bottom of the list is more or less what you would expect. Teddy Bridgewater learned well from his time in New Orleans, never finding a dumpoff or checkdown he wouldn't throw to. Sam Darnold regressed some even from his mononucleosis-affected 2019 season; you can blame Adam Gase for some of this but not all. And then there's Nick Foles, the only man ever to cross the 40% failed completions rate barrier, bringing his patented brand of football to Chicago. And speaking of the Windy City…
There is, as you might suspect, a solid correlation between a low failed completion rate and a high DVOA. While a failed completion is far from the worst outcome of a play, too many of them will kill drives and squash your efficiency scores. You have MVPs, All-Pros, and recent Pro Bowlers flooding the top 10 in this year's rankings, and deservedly so.
The best failed completion rates don't always go to the very best players, but it's not a spot you expect to see many scrubs in. Since 1983, the average DVOA for the player with the best failed completion rate is 18.9%. Since 2001, that has gone up to 22.8%, as the failed completion has become more of a thing. Tom Brady has had the league's lowest failed completion rate three times, Peyton Manning twice. Hall of Famers such as Kurt Warner, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, and Dan Fouts have all been on top of the world at one point or another. Even the lesser names to top this table generally do so in career seasons—Matt Cassel led the league in 2010, his one Pro Bowl season; Jay Schroeder led the league in 1990, when he also topped all passers in DVOA. At the very least, the leader in this category generally is a plus for their team.
So how on Earth did Mitchell Trubisky end up perched atop this year's table? In his first three seasons, Trubisky has put up failed completion rates of 36.2%, 24.6%, and 28.8%, only to nearly completely cut them out of his game in 2020. It's not a factor of him replacing failed completions with incomplete passes, either; he ranks third in successful completion percentage. It's not a factor of him pushing the ball deeper; his average depth of target on completions dropped to 5.3, the lowest mark of his career. It wasn't a factor of a change in the offense; we saw Nick Foles run out with basically the same team and the same playcallers and double Trubisky's failed completion rate.
And it wasn't a factor of him suddenly becoming a solid quarterback, either. Trubisky's -7.5% DVOA makes him the sixth quarterback in our 38-year database to have both the best failed completion rate and a negative DVOA. It's a difficult duo to pull off!
|Worst DVOA for Failed Completion Rate Leaders, 1983-2020|
Trubisky did see his ALEX rise from -1.2 last year to -0.1 this year, and that does help a lot. There's a significant correlation between ALEX and successful completions; when you throw the ball closer to the sticks, it's easier for those plays to gain significant yardage. And Trubisky did show a bit of improvement from 2019, so it's not a surprise that his numbers saw some increase. But no, what we're seeing here has less to do with Trubisky than it does with the binary nature of failed completions.
A bomb from the shadow of your own goalposts on third-and-forever that results in a fourth-quarter go-ahead score is an exceptionally valuable play, and it counts as one success in these rankings. A 2-yard reception on second-and-3 is not a particularly valuable play, but it counts as one success in these rankings. For the purposes of DVOA and DYAR and everything else, there's a world of difference between those two outcomes, but failed completions are determined by a binary yes-and-no check. And Trubisky had far more of the latter than the former.
On successful completions, Trubisky had a 125.6% DVOA. That's the second-worst total in the league among qualified passers, just barely squeezing above Alex Smith's 120.4%. Trubisky's average successful pass came with 7.8 yards to go, tied for shortest in the league, and picked up an average of 11.6 yards, second-least in the league behind Tua Tagovailoa. In short, Trubisky was the same dink-and-dunker he has been during his career; he just ended up throwing the ball in better situations and just barely getting past the success mark more often than not. Seventeen of his 168 successful completions gained exactly as much yardage as they needed to count; 16 more were 1 yard over the mark. Essentially, Trubisky worked his butt off for a C- average. That's a passing grade, but a disappointing one.
For the record, the players with the highest DVOA on successful completions were all in San Francisco. Nick Mullens led all qualified passers with a 169.6% DVOA; Jimmy Garoppolo would have topped that with 172.2%, and C.J. Beathard's 157.5% would have finished just outside of the top 10, but they both failed to qualify. In a world where every pass was a success, the 49ers would have done quite well. It's just a shame about all those incompletions, sacks, and interceptions.
While Trubisky's jump from 28.8% to 15.6% was the best in the league, five other passers improved their failed completion rate by at least 5% between 2019 and 2020. Patrick Mahomes' numbers took a slight hit in 2019 due to injury but rebounded in 2020 to where he had been before that. A strong running game and play-action focus helped Baker Mayfield to the best season of his career. Kirk Cousins set career highs for touchdowns and touchdown rate. Gardner Minshew put up league-average numbers and should find a role as a backup somewhere next season. And then there's Josh Allen.
Here's a look at successful completion percentage—the percentage of all pass attempts that end as successful completions. This is where we count all failed completions as incomplete passes, removing some of the empty passing calories from completion percentage around the league:
|Successful Completion Percentage, 2020|
We have only run this table twice before, and Drew Brees was atop it each time. Brees' arm turning into a pumpkin ends that reign, which is not overly surprising. What would have been surprising before the year began was the man who replaced him.
Josh Allen has had decent failed completion numbers throughout his career; we joked in 2018 that he was so inaccurate that he simply didn't rack up many completions at all, short or otherwise. His perennially high average depth of target and ALEX also contributed; Allen has never been the kind to throw the sort of checkdown that leads to a failed completion. But no more mockery, at least for now—Allen more than shut up all his critics last year with one of the most dramatic improvements we have ever seen from a quarterback. Allen's successful completion percentage jumped from 44.3% in 2019 to 57.9% last season, by a wide margin the biggest improvement of the year. Considering their respective playstyles, Allen sitting in Brees' throne feels wrong on several fundamental levels, but he didn't just replace Brees, he surpassed him—his successful completion percentage tops what Brees was able to do in 2018 or 2019. Josh Allen, accurate quarterback. Who woulda thought?
Some final quick hits:
- Trubisky, Mahomes, Mayfield, and Ryan Tannehill each jump double-digit spots in completion percentage once you remove the unsuccessful completions from each quarterback. Conversely, Bridgewater, Smith, and Herbert go plummeting down the rankings as their standard stats get a bit exposed.
- Speaking of Herbert, he comes out the worst of the three primary rookies from 2020. Joe Burrow squeaks just ahead of Tua Tagovailoa in both failed completion rate and successful completion rate, with Herbert bringing up the rear each time. Things may not be looking up for Herbert next season, as new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi comes out of the Saints' system. Expect plenty of dumpoffs to Austin Ekeler in the future.
- Aaron Rodgers would like to remind you that he's back. The MVP saw his successful completion rate jump 10 points last season; his league-leading completion percentage was a little inflated by the Packers' offensive system, but he still finishes in the top five.
- Not strictly related to failed completions, but last year's article spent a long time comparing Tom Brady to Jameis Winston as the Buccaneers changed quarterbacks. We mentioned that Brady had more failed completions than Winston thanks in part to throwing the ball deep less often. Well, Brady's ALEX increased from -1.1 to a league-leading 0.9 this year, and he saw his failed completion rate fall from 27.9% to 23.2%. It turns out receivers help a quarterback, and that Brady will never, ever age.
What about the receivers on the other end of those failed completions? It's worth taking a look at that, even though appearances here generally have more to do with usage and scheme than a receiver's individual talents. We exclude running backs from these tables; they would otherwise dominate due to their roles on checkdowns and emergency outlets. For the record, however, Alvin Kamara led all players with 35 failed receptions (Drew Brees lost the ability to throw beyond the line of scrimmage in 2020). Mike Davis, J.D. McKissic, and Nyheim Hines also topped 25.
Reception Rate (WR/TE)
Reception Rate (WR/TE)
|Robby Anderson||CAR||29||Sammy Watkins||KC||37||1||2.7%||Evan Engram||NYG||63||24||38.1%|
|Curtis Samuel||CAR||25||Rashard Higgins||CLE||37||1||2.7%||Anthony Miller||CHI||49||17||34.7%|
|Logan Thomas||WAS||24||Gabriel Davis||BUF||35||2||5.7%||Golden Tate||NYG||35||12||34.3%|
|Evan Engram||NYG||24||Darius Slayton||NYG||50||3||6.0%||Logan Thomas||WAS||72||24||33.3%|
|DeAndre Hopkins||ARI||24||D.J. Moore||CAR||66||4||6.1%||KJ Hamler||DEN||30||10||33.3%|
|Robert Woods||LAR||23||Allen Lazard||GB||33||2||6.1%||Curtis Samuel||CAR||77||25||32.5%|
|Keenan Allen||LAC||23||Will Fuller||HOU||53||4||7.5%||Larry Fitzgerald||ARI||54||17||31.5%|
|Diontae Johnson||PIT||23||Travis Fulgham||PHI||38||3||7.9%||Jamison Crowder||NYJ||59||18||30.5%|
|J.Smith-Schuster||PIT||22||Travis Kelce||KC||105||9||8.6%||Robby Anderson||CAR||96||29||30.2%|
|Terry McLaurin||WAS||20||A.J. Brown||TEN||70||6||8.6%||Isaiah McKenzie||BUF||30||9||30.0%|
|Stefon Diggs||BUF||20||Keelan Cole||JAX||55||5||9.1%||Laviska Shenault||JAX||58||17||29.3%|
|Davante Adams||GB||19||John Brown||BUF||33||3||9.1%||David Moore||SEA||35||10||28.6%|
|Cooper Kupp||LAR||19||M.Valdes-Scantling||GB||33||3||9.1%||Zach Ertz||PHI||36||10||27.8%|
|Min. 30 receptions|
Between Davis, Robby Anderson, and Curtis Samuel, it's amazing the Panthers had any successful completions in 2020; I don't believe we've ever had a team with three players hit 25 failed receptions before. Sometimes players end up on this leaderboard out of sheer volume; players such as DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen, Stefon Diggs, and Davante Adams end up with failed completions because they all catch a zillion passes and are the go-to guys when a play breaks down. Not Anderson and Samuel, however, who each appear on the highest failed reception rate table as well. This has more to do with Teddy Bridgewater's arm talent than Anderson or Samuel's skills; seeing Joe Brady's offense run by a quarterback with a live arm would be interesting indeed.
Hopkins returns to the failed receptions leaderboard for the second year in a row despite switching teams. He's joined by Cooper Kupp (last year's leader) and Robert Woods as returnees as the NFC West knew how to throw a checkdown. Whether Kupp or Woods will return next year now that the Rams have swapped Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford will be interesting to watch; Stafford has consistently had a lower failed completion rate than Goff, though it was very close this year.
Travis Kelce deserves some sort of award for having single-digit failed receptions on 105 catches; he's the first receiver since DeAndre Hopkins in 2015 to hit the lowest failed rate table with over 100 catches. Working with Patrick Mahomes does make it easier, as Sammy Watkins will attest, but to be that effective on that volume is rarified air. Putting up great numbers with Bridgewater is a taller task, so congratulations to DJ Moore being the only player to repeat on this leaderboard from last season.
We shall also use this opportunity to once again complain about Evan Engram making the Pro Bowl over Robert Tonyan. The top non-running back in highest failed reception rate is almost always going to be a tight end, but this is the third year in a row Engram has been among the league leaders. Engram's raw numbers are some of the most inflated in the league, padded by meaningless catches in failed situations.
Finally, let's look at the defenses' ability to create failed completions, with a comparison to how these units fared in 2019.
|Defenses: 2020 Failed Completions Compared to 2019|
|Rk||Team||Comp||Failed||FC%||2019 Rk||2019 FC%||Diff||Rk|
As a reminder, defensive numbers are far less sticky from year-to-year than the quarterback stats. This year, there was a surprising 0.41 correlation, but that number's typically down closer to the 0.25 range. A lot of this depends on the types of quarterback on the schedule before you even get to year-over-year turnover.
That being said, we can still learn something from this table; it's still correlated with good pass defense in general. What you're seeing here is a list of teams that force the most dumpoffs, checkdowns, and low-ALEX plays.
You're also seeing the end of the Matt Patricia era in Detroit. The "defensive guru" had his defenses finish 32nd, 31st, and 29th in his three years with the Lions, and 30th the year before in New England. For a stat that tends to fluctuate wildly, that's a damning indictment. Plenty of teams have trotted out bad defenses. Few have trotted out some as consistently bad as Patricia has over the past four years.