Jameis Winston, Kyler Murray, and the Power of DIstortion
If you want to make any quarterback look outstanding, give him the lead and great field position.
Jameis Winston threw just one pass when the score was tied and zero passes with the New Orleans Saints trailing in Week 1. Kyler Murray threw five passes with the score tied and zero when the Arizona Cardinals were trailing.
Winston threw just nine passes in Saints territory in Week 1, only one of them inside his own 20-yard line. Murray threw 16 of his 32 passes from Cardinals territory but just one from inside his own 20; the Cardinals had fine field position for most of their rout of the Tennessee Titans.
NFL quarterbacks average 7.9 yards per attempt with a 67.7% completion rate and a 1.8% interception rate when leading, but 7.0 yards per attempt, a 64.2% completion rate, and 2.5% interception rate when trailing. You can check out the splits by field position at Pro Football Reference yourself; they show that adjusted net yards per attempt and other metrics improve steadily as the ball moves down the field until goal-to-go territory, where yards per attempt plunge for obvious reasons.
The leading/trailing distortion is exacerbated by the fact that quarterbacks throw about 54% of their passes when trailing in a typical year, 31% when leading, and the remaining 15% when tied. Nine quarterbacks threw more than 30 passes when trailing in Week 1; only Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts threw more than 30 while leading. The "averages" we are accustomed to when applying the eyeball test to a quarterback's raw numbers are largely the mathematics of circumstance, driven by quarterbacks forced to play from behind.
Even DVOA can't filter out everything when samples are this small and skewed. Winston currently leads the league at 80.8%, meaning he did extremely well given his almost ideal circumstances. Winston essentially did nothing at all wrong on Sunday, so the metrics have no choice but to love him. But the fact that he had the opportunity for such a flawless game is itself the reason for healthy skepticism.
(A little housekeeping: sack rates also increase when a team is trailing and generally decrease when field position improves; I wanted to focus on the box score stats that shape Week 1 perceptions. And yes, better quarterbacks tend to lead more often and drive into opponent's territory more frequently, building a feedback loop into the data. But even the best quarterbacks produce weaker statistics when trailing or backed up against their own end zones.)
Winston and Murray played well on Sunday. Murray and the Cardinals offense, in particular, looked sharper and more dynamic than they did last year. But both Winston and Murray were beneficiaries of one of the most powerful statistical distortions in football: the game where a team leads nearly all of the way and starts a bunch of drives near or beyond midfield. Even before we account for shovel-pass touchdowns that were essentially handoffs and other quirks in the numbers, their five-touchdown afternoons (four passes and a run, in Murray's case) are such a product of distortions that they are downright misleading.
You probably know much of this, and I have written on the subject a few times before, but it bears repeating every year. Passing statistics and results are so situational that it's wise to not draw any conclusions until we have seen a quarterback or offense in a variety of situations. We have only seen Winston and Murray in the best possible circumstances so far. In a few weeks, Week 1's completions and touchdowns will be joined in the data by all the stuff they were forced to do while trailing or from their own 10-yard lines.
Let's be optimistic, because 2021 will be more fun with Winston and Murray playing well. But let's also reserve judgment and keep watching.
Five to Watch
Your Thursday Walkthrough roundup of five players to keep an eye on in Week 2:
AJ Cole III, P, Las Vegas Raiders: Cole averaged 52.7 yards on six punts on Monday night. He outkicked the coverage a few times, but that's the coverage's problem. Is Cole a worthy successor to Ray Guy and Shane Lechler? Raiders fans must hope he's more of a Guy (field-position weapon for a perennial powerhouse) than Lechler (the Raiders' designated lone Pro Bowl representative for roughly a quarter-century).
Rondale Moore, WR, Arizona Cardinals: Murray got the attention. DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk got the touchdowns. But Moore looks like the type of slot YAC weapon that could make Kliff Kingsbury's offense fun again. Moore ranks fourth in DVOA after his four catches in Week 1 (in this case, you can take your small sample size caveat and serve it on toast!) and looks like he will have impact as a return man. I can't wait to see the Vikings try to cover him with Eric Kendricks!
(Oh, and a quick apology to my editors: the over-under on the number of times I mix Rondale Moore and Elijah Moore up this season is 122.5.)
Jalen Reagor, WR, Philadelphia Eagles: Reagor's six catches covered a total of 6 air yards in Week 1. That's not sustainable. But the Eagles should keep running the Reagor screen game until someone stops it. The 49ers are already dealing with injuries in the secondary (poor Jason Verrett), and it makes more sense to challenge their cornerbacks' tackling ability than their line's pass-rush ability.
Rashawn Slater, OT, Los Angeles Chargers: I was impressed by the Chargers offensive line for most of Sunday's win against Washington, and friend-of-Walkthrough Geoff Schwartz gushed about Slater on Twitter. Many Cowboys fans preferred Slater to Micah Parsons in the draft. They may get to see Slater stone Parsons as a pass-rusher a few times this week while they aren't fretting about how the Cowboys are coping with La'El Collins' absence on the other side of the ball.
Shaq Thompson, LB, Carolina Panthers: Thompson was everywhere against the New York Jets in Week 1: one interception, one sack, one near-interception, another pass defensed, 10 total tackles. The Panthers were playing a glorified America East Conference team, of course, but Thompson is an experienced starter and former first-round pick; if the Panthers defense is truly gelling, he could enjoy a mid-career breakout. We'll know more once we see if the Panthers can hold their own against the Saints.
Leaderboard of the Week
Every Thursday, Walkthrough will examine a random (and usually obscure) leaderboard from Football Outsiders, Sports Info Solutions, or elsewhere on the analytics Interwebs in search of deep truths and wisdom.
The kickoff leaderboard: most passing attempts with more than 10 yards to go, on any down:
Walkthrough loves any category that Kirk Cousins dominates!
The Vikings were plagued by false starts early in their loss to the Bengals; add "crowd noise" to the list of things that Cousins' heady veteran leadership doesn't actually help with. But any quarterback can end up in a few first-and-20 situations. The signature Cousins touch is turning first-and-20 into multiple completions without netting a first down several times in the same game (it happened twice by my count on Sunday), then adding a 7-yard pass on third-and-11 in overtime as the cherry on top.
The Jaguars also committed some dumb offensive penalties on Sunday. The Jets were just terrible on first downs, mixing sacks and negative plays with their penalties, plus lots of incomplete passes in what looked at times like an Adam Gase homage.
Most of Jones' attempts came on one long third-quarter drive in which the Patriots kept committing penalties or getting stuffed on first downs. Ryan's offensive line was melted down and sold for scrap. I don't have much of a takeaway for Mayfield. The fact that Allen mustered just 31 yards when the Bills needed him to do MVP candidate-type stuff is somewhat troubling.
The presence of Lawrence, Jones, and Wilson on the list above suggests a hidden drawback for starting a rookie quarterback: maybe his linemen are more inclined to hold or get crossed up with his cadence, or coaches call too many "safe" handoffs that result in second-and-12, or whatever. I scanned previous years and found no pattern, however. There are too many variables going in and not a big enough sample size coming out to responsibly draw conclusions from.
The table above does, however, help explain why the Vikings, Jaguars, and other teams whose quarterbacks are on the list lost in Week 1. Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady may be able to climb out of second-and-20 several times per game and produce wins. But Josh Allen might not be there yet. Matt Ryan isn't there anymore. The rookies didn't stand a chance. And Kirk Cousins was born, bred, and will die in that briar patch.
Thursday Night Sportsbook: New York Giants at Washington Football Team (-3)
When the Giants trail 17-7, it feels like they trail 27-7. And when they trail 27-7, it feels like they should just start getting ready for next year's draft. It may be too early to give up on the Giants, but it's also getting very late to keep giving them the benefit of the doubt and waiting for that magical developmental spurt where everything clicks.
New Washington starter Taylor Heinicke is inventive and daring when throwing on the run. He has a lively arm and zip code accuracy. He's a makes-things-happen type of backup that fans inevitably fall in love with, and he's the kind of quarterback the old handicapper adage about picking the backup in his first start was coined for. I took Washington straight to the bank at -3 on Wednesday before the house could come to its senses.
I'll need a little more action to stay awake for this one. Washington is 14-20 at clearing the over since 2019, the Giants 13-21, so I'm not nibbling at 41 points. Instead, let's bang the first quarter over at 7 (a push is an acceptable outcome). Finally, the over-under on Daniel Jones' longest pass is 35.5 yards: I am going over so I can cash in when he throws his one random bomb to Darius Slayton per game.