Watt Happens: A Look At Tipped Passes
by Rivers McCown
This section contains charting data gathered from our friends at ESPN Stats and Information
There are many reasons why I thought the Defensive Player of the Year award should have been unanimously handed to J.J. Watt in a cakewalk. There was the obliteration of the Defeats record. There was the fact that he maintained a 98 percent Run Stop Rate and was generally a factor in the run game even when teams ran away from his side of the line.
But one of the driving forces behind his ridiculous year was his ability to tip passes at the line. This earned tacky plaudits like "another swat from Watt" time and time again. After tipping five passes by our count in 2011, ESPN Stats and Information credits Watt with batting down 17 different passes in 2012.
Let's focus on this number: does 17 tipped passes feel insane to you? There's a good reason for that. There were 373 tipped balls during the 2012 season, so almost five percent of all tipped balls in the NFL last year belonged to Watt. Corey Liuget finished second in the league in batted passes. He had eight. To fully put 17 tipped passes in context, that's more than all but two players have gathered in the five years that we've charted tipped passes combined. Only Calais Campbell and Kevin Williams tipped more passes in the last five years than Watt did last year on his own. Take me to the tables!
|Tipped Passes, 2012|
|Tipped Passes, 2008-2012|
Interesting mix of players here, and not quite what you'd expect. There are some sack masters, sure, but there are also a lot of guys I envisioned purely as run stuffers. Remember the Williams Wall? Turns out it has flying. For those of you that are curious: DeMarcus Ware had three tipped passes. Cameron Wake had one. This appears to be a skill that you either have (or focus on) or you don't.
You may be familiar with a concept that we've mentioned a time or a million called "regression to the mean." This was one of those seasons that, historically speaking, isn't even remotely repeatable. What's more, five of those 17 passes were intercepted by other Houston defenders. How unlikely was that? Of the 1883 tipped passes that we have charted since 2008, only 111, or roughly 5.9 percent, were intercepted. Unless you think Watt has some kind of magical witchcraft that makes his team roughly 24 percent more likely to catch the football when he tips it, that's one portion of the Houston defense you can file under "unsustainable."
It's fair to say that Watt's season was a historical outlier that has a small chance of being repeated. My question becomes: what is a normal J.J. Watt season? We don't exactly have a lot of data to go on. Do you cut his production in half and say he winds up near the league leaders again? Do you believe that he'll regress down closer to the five tips he had in his rookie year? Or, is he just some kind of superhuman who, along the lines of Adrian Peterson, is meant to defy regression at every turn?
Tom Gower spent a lot of time in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013's Texans chapter (available now!) talking about how Watt's 2013 season was hard to forecast. How close he can come to an encore of 2012 will answer a lot of questions about where the Texans are going this year.