Kirk Cousins and the Legends of the Arbitrary Benchmarks
NFL Week 8 - Did you know that Kirk Cousins joined Peyton Manning and Dan Marino last week as the only quarterbacks in history to throw for over 30,000 yards and 200 touchdowns in their first 115 NFL games?
The folks from the Vikings public relations department tweeted that pearl of a factoid last week. It's a remarkable accomplishment. Not by Cousins, mind you, but by the PR department, whose work belongs in the Arbitrary Benchmarks Hall of Fame.
You are a stat-savvy audience, so I won't over-explain the concept of arbitrary benchmarks. There's nothing all that special about the 30,000-yard or 200-touchdown plateaus; they just happen to be nice round milestones that Cousins recently reached. And those 115 games are an obvious tell that there's something fishy at work. If you set benchmarks precisely at the thresholds that a player recently passed, if that player has done anything at all of note in his career, and you are really good at using the sorting filters at Stathead, you can create an impressive list with some superstars or Hall of Famers at the top and just about anyone you like sitting smack dab at the bottom.
Let's play the arbitrary benchmarks game with Dak Prescott, whose Cowboys face Cousins' Vikings in Week 8. Did you know that Prescott and Aaron Rodgers are the only quarterbacks in history to start their careers with 19,000 or more passing yards, more than 120 touchdowns, and fewer than 50 interceptions in their first 75 games? Here's the proof!
Benchmarks like 19,000 and 120 look a little silly, but "75 games" looks a lot less silly than "115 games," so I don't feel guilty about using them. For younger quarterbacks, adding some extra criteria helps narrow the list; in particular, a low interception total weeds out most guys from 20 or more years ago. Think of it as another trick of the trade: the more filters used to place someone on a short list with Dan Marino, Sir Isaac Newton, and Alexander the Great, the less impressive their accomplishments really are.
Let's increase the degree of difficulty with Josh Allen, a quarterback with a weak rookie season and a so-so sophomore campaign on his 3.375-year resume!
My initial effort for Allen was a list of quarterbacks with 11,000-plus passing yards, 80-plus touchdowns, and fewer than 50 interceptions in their first 50 games. The list was fine but unspectacular: Allen, Deshaun Watson, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, Patrick Mahomes, Mark Rypien, Carson Wentz, and Derek Carr. No way that list goes viral among Bills Mafia! So let's refine the list to 11,000-plus passing yards, 80-plus touchdowns, fewer than 50 interceptions, AND 1,000-plus rushing yards. As you can see, Allen and Watson are the only players ever to accomplish this very, very specific feat.
As you might imagine, using rushing statistics is an easy way to select for mobile quarterbacks. It also selects for recent quarterbacks to a degree, since designed runs are more common now than they were 10 years ago.
There's another devil lurking among the arbitrary benchmarks we have used so far: using "games" instead of "starts." Many quarterbacks of yesteryear were active as placekick holders when they were young backups. Steve Young played in a lot of games that he didn't start early in his career. Joe Montana attempted just 23 passes in his first 16 games. Tony Romo played 30 games before attempting a pass; Romo's impressive numbers once he took over as the Cowboys quarterback would make him a threat to crack many of these "X yards and Y touchdowns in T amount of time" lists if we used starts instead of games. Any criteria that excludes lots of Hall of Famers and some recent stars due to a technicality is excellent criteria for someone like Cousins.
Let's crank up the difficulty again for Baker Mayfield, a young quarterback who rarely blows up the stat sheet. Only seven quarterbacks in history have thrown for 12,500-plus passing yards, 80-plus touchdowns, and fewer than 50 interceptions over their first 52 games, and Mayfield is one of them. PAY HIM HIS $200-MILLION CONTRACT!
The Mayfield list looks a little like the Allen list, with guys such as Watson and Wentz showing up both times. All of these lists self-select for very recent quarterbacks because passing rates and touchdown rates are still increasing gradually every year. The reason Tom Brady doesn't appear on these lists is because he threw for a relatively normal 230 yards or so per game early in his career. He can't compete with Jared Goff at 250 to 290 yards per year.
Matthew Stafford just reached the 300-touchdown plateau, but there is little challenge in creating an arbitrary benchmark list for him. Ditto for someone such as Russell Wilson or Matt Ryan. Instead, let's tackle journeyman backup Case Keenum, who is one of only seven quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for 14,000-plus yards, 75-plus touchdowns, and fewer than 50 interceptions with a completion rate higher than 62% in his first 72 starts. C'mon Browns PR department: Keenum reached milestones that only the likes of Mahomes, Rodgers, Wilson, and Philip Rivers reached before him. You gotta let the public know about stuff like this!
Cousins actually moved into 50th place in all-time passing yards last week. That's not only an easy-to-comprehend-and-promote accomplishment, but it's also a Cousins-worthy one. Arbitrary benchmarks tend to backfire when they sound like they were concocted to fool the rubes. Trying to set Cousins atop a pedestal next to Peyton and Marino only emphasizes how unlike Peyton and Marino Cousins really is. On the other hand, the all-time passing yardage leaderboard now places Cousins ahead of Jake Plummer and Joe Ferguson, not far behind Norm Snead and Mark Brunell, in the same general category as Roman Gabriel, Steve McNair, and John Brodie. There are still era distortions in the data, but the company feels right: Cousins is among quarterbacks who played for a long time and had success with strong supporting casts in their best years.
Oh well, that's all from me, the greatest NFL writer in history with 15-plus years of public high school math teaching experience and 200-plus hours logged playing Civilization VI.
Coming off the Bye: Pittsburgh Steelers
Hey, a new feature! Occasionally throughout the midseason, Walkthrough will spotlight a team coming out of its bye week. But you probably figured that out from reading the header.
The Steelers Story So Far: The 2021 Steelers are replaying their 2020 season in reverse.
The Steelers cruised out to an 11-0 start in 2020, hammering multiple opponents in the midst of quarterback crises in a way that masked Ben Roethlisberger's decline and hid the deficiencies of their own offense. Everything fell apart when their schedule got tougher and opponents realized that Big Ben's shoulder was a rusty gate hinge late last year.
The Steelers started the 2021 season 1-3, but they are coming off a pair of wins against Broncos and Seahawks teams coping with severe offensive injuries and have found temporary workarounds for Roethlisberger's mounting limitations.
What's Going Right? Some things we expected, some we did not.
- The Steelers pass rush is as vicious as ever. Among other impressive metrics, they're third in the NFL with a 28.8% pressure rate according to Pro Football Reference.
- Their offensive line has been bad, but not historically bad. Roethlisberger's league-low time to throw of 2.36 seconds (per Next Gen Stats) helps hide some shortcomings.
- The Big Ol' Bucket O' Screens game plans that allowed Roethlisberger to get rid of the ball moments after the snap yielded diminishing returns over the first month of the season. The Steelers have dared to allow Roethlisberger to drive on the interstates in recent weeks. While he looks more like a Matt Cassel or Chad Henne than a future Hall of Famer, the results aren't totally embarrassing.
- The Steelers still act like they belong. That's not Football Outsiders-style analysis, but there's something to be said for the fact that they know how to manufacture a win against an opponent with Geno Smith at quarterback, and the Steelers aren't likely to wilt under the spotlight in a prime-time game.
What's Going Wrong? Some things we expected, some we did not.
- The Steelers offense is currently "critical but stable," not "satisfactory."
- JuJu Smith-Schuster's shoulder injury leaves an offense that relies largely on YAC after micropasses short on playmakers.
- Injuries to Tyson Alualu and Stephon Truitt weakened the run defense. Opponents can neutralize the Steelers pass rush by running between the tackles effectively in close games or when sitting on leads.
Where They Stand in the Playoff Picture: The Steelers have a 32.4% chance of making the playoffs. Like their offense, their playoff odds are weak but stable: wins by the Bengals and Browns may be pushing the AFC North title out of reach, but losses by the Broncos and Chiefs open up potential wild-card opportunities. The Steelers' victories over the Bills and Broncos may help their eventual head-to-head or conference-record tiebreaker scenarios.
What's Next: Sunday's meeting with the Browns is another chance to exploit an opponent's offensive injury woes. It's also practically a must-win game: the Steelers cannot afford to start 0-2 in their division. A three-game at-Chargers/at-Bengals/Ravens slate from Weeks 11 through 13 will ultimately seal the Steelers' destiny.
Walkthrough Tank Watch: New York Jets
Every Wednesday, Walkthrough checks in on one of the NFL's worst teams to determine what's going wrong, what (if anything) is going right, and what (if anything) they can do to start heading in the right direction.
Somehow, we almost made it to Halloween without catching up with the Jets.
The Jets Story So Far: Adam Gase doesn't just destroy franchises, he reroutes nearby rivers to flood his former team's headquarters so future generations will be unable to find traces of their existence. The Jets, like the 2019 Dolphins, were forced to bulldoze their entire roster and start fresh under Robert Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas. Other than a stunning upset over the Titans, the Jets have spent two months playing behind a "Pardon Our Appearance: Franchise under Construction" sign.
What's Going Wrong? Let's keep things brief.
- Zach Wilson tore a PCL on Sunday and is out a while. Mike White is now their starter, with newly reacquired Joe Flacco backing him up.
- Even before his injury, Wilson wasn't exactly winning the rookie quarterback storyline sweepstakes. Trevor Lawrence has been impressive despite Urban Meyer, Trey Lance is at least better than Jimmy Garoppolo, Mac Jones is a souffle baked out of intangibles, and we're all politely ignoring Justin Fields until the Bears fire some coaches/execs. Wilson was just looking busy and trying not to get hurt until he got hurt.
- Mekhi Becton, the team's best offensive lineman, has been on the IR for weeks. LaMarcus Joyner and Carl Lawson, two of the veterans who were signed to stabilize Saleh's defense and jumpstart the rebuild, have also been out for weeks.
- As a result of all the injuries, the Jets field the roster of a 1970s expansion team built out of other teams' 17th-round draft picks.
- There has been no breakout star. Usually, a rebuilding team can point to a James Robinson-type running back, a slick slot receiver with a few touchdowns, or a small-school edge rusher with a half-dozen sacks after seven games. The Jets haven't even had that kind of luck.
Is Anything Going Right? Not much.
- A few youngsters such as guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and edge rusher John Franklin-Myers have played well enough to be penciled in as building blocks.
- The Titans upset proved that the Jets can have a flicker of a pulse if they aren't trailing 17-0 by the middle of the second quarter.
What Needs to be Done? The Jets knew they would be terrible this year and are building for 2023 at the earliest, so these recommendations are designed to give both more hope for the future and a little dignity right now.
- Trade Marcus Maye. Maye said he wants to stay with the Jets, but he's facing legal issues and dealing with an ankle injury. If Gase did one thing right in his sordid little career, it was nabbing two first-round picks from the Seahawks for World's Tiniest Defensive End Jamal Adams last year.
- Be more like the Lions. The reason the Jets have been outscored 44-0 in first quarters is that they run a preseason offense at the beginning of every game. Meanwhile, the Lions attack with surprise onside kicks and fake punts, then try to run the ball straight through the defense's ribcage while clearing their playbook of every tight end screen ever imagined.
In other words, the Lions have an identity, while the Jets start every game reteaching themselves how to run inside zone and the boot pass.
- Get Elijah Moore involved. One way the Jets can establish their own identity is to better integrate second-round pick Elijah Moore into the offense. Moore scored a touchdown on his first carry of the season against the Patriots. Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur needs to stop treating reverses and slot screens like some form of newfangled sorcery.
— NFL (@NFL) October 24, 2021
In fact, slot weapons (Moore, Jamison Crowder, Braxton Berrios) are the relative strength of the Jets offense. LaFleur and Saleh may want to load up some old Patriots film for some ideas, or just go run 'n' shoot once Wilson is healthy and let the chips fall where they may.
- Keep an eye on Douglas. Joe Douglas has a sterling reputation among the Twitter intelligentsia, which in itself raises Walkthrough's suspicions. (When the loudest name-droppers on the Internet all agree on something, they're usually wrong.) Everything that has gone wrong so far during his Jets tenure has been blamed on Gase, just as the collapse of the Eagles was blamed almost entirely on Howie Roseman. That's another yellow flag. Trading a draft pick for Flacco instead of yanking some Kyle Sloter-type off the waiver wire is a third: the Jets need to horde every future resource right now, and Douglas should realize that.
Douglas' Eagles drafts were rather weak, and his 2020 Jets draft already features a few critical misses (Denzel Mims, La'Mical Perine). Granting a general manager multiple years of benefit of the doubt is a great way to end up with another affable, approachable, clueless Mike Maccagnan type.
How Bad are the Jets? The Jets have the worst roster in the NFL. Saleh and his staff are capable of coaching them up to be better than the Jaguars and Texans.
What's Next? The Jets host the Bengals next week. They have a winnable stretch of games starting in Week 11: Dolphins, at Texans, Eagles. A pair of wins in those three games would provide at least a little evidence that the organization is coming out of its Gase coma.