2014 Incomplete Pass Breakdown: Passers
by Scott Kacsmar
The 2014 NFL season was another historic year for passers. The league-wide completion rate climbed to 62.6 percent, breaking the previous record of 61.2 percent set in 2013. That's the largest percentage increase to break the record since year three of the "Blount Rule" took place in 1980. Not only did the ball hit the ground at a record-low rate, but last year's defenders intercepted a record-low 2.52 percent of passes thrown.
Vincent Verhei recently looked at adjusted interceptions, but today we are looking at all types of incompletions for passers from the 2014 regular season. The only types of plays we are setting aside are laterals and spikes. If you were curious, Ben Roethlisberger had a league-high nine of the season's 72 spikes, and yes, most were probably ill-advised decisions. Spike efficiency may be a topic for another day.
Thanks to our game charting and data from ESPN Stats & Information, we have a category for every incomplete pass. For instance, we know there were 33 intentional grounding penalties last year, with one declined and two negated for offsetting penalties. Listing these would make for a pretty dull table, since no quarterback had more than two grounding penalties.
That is why for the purposes of this study we will be combining as many incompletion categories as possible. For this column, those intentional grounding plays are counted as throwaways by the quarterback. This is why the data presented here may differ slightly from what we publish in the future in places like Football Outsiders Almanac 2015.
For another example, this year we tracked Dropped/Defensed plays, which are drops by a receiver caused by a defender's contact. The best example of this type of play is what Sterling Moore did to Lee Evans in the 2011 AFC Championship Game. For this study, we merged these drops in with regular drops. One Dropped/Defensed play turned into a completion from Derek Carr to guard Gabe Jackson after Marcel Reece lost control of the ball on a big hit. While Reece should get a drop there, we are just looking at this as a (crazy) completion in this article.
There were 14 passes that were tipped at the line, but still caught by the offense in 2014. Alex Smith even gained a touchdown on such a play to Anthony Fasano against the Jets. The defender gets credit for the tip, but we are just marking these plays as completions for this particular study.
To save space, there are a few categories that won't be included in tables here.
Hail Mary: In an obvious Hail Mary situation, why focus on a quarterback's accuracy when he's really just throwing into a mass of humanity? We charted 14 such incompletions and only Cam Newton (two) had multiple plays.
Release slipped: These are rare and awkward plays. Sometimes the quarterback just loses his grip on the ball and it comes out funny. These plays fall somewhere visually between accidental spike and intentional grounding. There were only three of them last season with Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and Russell Wilson the guilty parties. So it's not something that just happens to bad players.
Tipped by teammate: Another rare play, this is when a pass hits a teammate who was not the intended receiver. This could be a quarterback hitting his lineman with a pass on accident. This only happened seven times last year to seven different passers.
All tables presented here only rank the 36 quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts in 2014. Generally, the rankings are from best (first) to worst (36th) for each category. A high drop rate is still a positive for a quarterback, because it means he's hitting his mark. A high rate of overthrown passes is not a good thing.
Overthrows & Underthrows
While it's true that a receiver can always adjust to and catch a poorly thrown ball (for evidence of this, watch any Terry Bradshaw highlight reel), that is not the norm in the NFL. Everything tabulated here for overthrown and underthrown passes relates only to incompletions. We combine the two totals together to calculate a "Bad Pass" percentage.
New Orleans may have drafted his successor, but Drew Brees was pretty damn accurate last season, with the second-lowest rate of overthrows and third-lowest rate of underthrows. Matt Ryan was the only other quarterback to rank in the top 10 in both categories. Brees' "demise" has been a topic of interest at Football Outsiders, because the numbers continue to show he was still very good last season. He just made some very costly mistakes in high-leverage situations that cost the Saints dearly. Those always tend to stand out more even with a high volume of quality plays.
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Robert Griffin did not seem to make many good plays last season, but throwing accurate passes was not his problem. He averaged 7.9 yards per attempt and completed 68.7 percent of his passes. The problems were that a third of his completions were unsuccessful plays, and he struggled with sacks and turnovers behind a bad offensive line.
Playing in an offense similar to Griffin's in his rookie year, Brian Hoyer had the highest Bad Throw rate at 24.5 percent. He was really the anti-Brees: third-worst in overthrow rate, second-worst in underthrow rate. His reliance on deception to generate big plays was exposed as the season wore on and film and injuries accumulated. Kirk Cousins was next in line in Washington thanks to his league-high rate of underthrown passes. Guess it's pretty hard to overthrow DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. Note that Griffin had the lowest rate of overthrown passes and Colt McCoy (not featured) similarly had a 6.3 percent overthrow rate.
Things are a little different when the receivers are big and slower and the quarterback is not very accurate. Cam Newton overthrew 17 percent of his passes, the highest rate in the league. Some may cite the injuries he suffered last season for this, but a healthier Newton in 2013 was at 15 percent overthrows -- which would have been the third-highest rate in 2014. Carolina added another big target in the draft with Devin Funchess, but that might not be the type of receiver Newton needs more of with Kelvin Benjamin already there.
Just based on this one season of data, there was very little correlation -- less than 0.100 -- between overthrow and underthrow rates. Should there really be something stronger (and inverse) there? If we're being honest, it makes a ton of sense that Alex Smith rarely overthrew receivers but was one of the leaders in underthrows. However, someone like Ryan Tannehill, who had the lowest underthrow rate, was dead average in overthrows last year. One theory is that some quarterbacks tend to miss in one manner far more often than the other, but we need some more seasons to test that better or find those players. Newton, Colin Kaepernick, and Teddy Bridgewater all overthrew the ball at least 10 percent more often than they underthrew it. The overthrows have been a common criticism of Bridgewater in his young career, and the other two passers have been known for letting the ball rip as well. Maybe adding players like Mike Wallace (Vikings) and Torrey Smith (49ers) can help in that department in 2015.
A Bit of the Randomness
The following table has four categories of incompletions that are not very frequent, but we chart them and need to share this data somewhere.
|Quarterback||Passes||Hit in Motion||MISCOMM||OOB||RECTRP|
|Quarterback||Passes||Hit in Motion||MISCOMM||OOB||RECTRP|
Hit in Motion: This is when the quarterback is hit during his throwing motion. Any hit after the ball was released does not count. This is the terrifying stat for Tampa Bay and Jameis Winston fans, because last year's two Buccaneers quarterbacks had 19 of these plays on 525 passes. Notice that Peyton Manning did not have a single one, and even Washington only allowed three with Cousins and Griffin behind center. Tampa Bay's offensive line truly was horrible, but hopefully a few draft picks will change that.
Miscommunication (MISCOMM): Obviously a very subjective call, we try to note when there was confusion between the quarterback and his receiver. These plays can be deadly since they could result in easy interceptions when someone runs a route completely different from where the quarterback was throwing. So it might make sense that rookie Derek Carr had a league-high 14 of these plays with his insignificant receiving corps, but how do you explain Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers as the other quarterbacks in double digits? How do you explain rookie Blake Bortles and the youngest offense in the league having two such plays? It's just a bunch of "my bad" randomness.
Out of Bounds (OOB): When a receiver catches a ball out of bounds, we add it to this category. Sometimes the throw could be fine, but the receiver fails to get his second foot in bounds. Sometimes the throw led the receiver out of bounds, so it's more on the quarterback. That's why this is grouped together with miscommunication, because there is likely some shared blame to be had on these plays. No one had more than four of these plays last year.
Receiver Tripped (RECTRP): Sometimes the receiver just falls on his route and the quarterback has to hope the pass is not intercepted. Sometimes you play on a crappy field and this may be more likely to occur. Joe Flacco had five of these incompletions last year (10 percent of the league total) while no one else had more than two. For the record, none of Baltimore's "receiver tripped" plays happened at Heinz Field.
Out of all the categories of incompletions, I would expect the rate of intentional throwaways to show some of the highest year-to-year correlation. This is part of defining a quarterback's playing style. How often does he want to take a risk?
Russell Wilson had four times as many throwaways as Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning combined. That might be a little surprising for Wilson, but he has led the league in scrambles three years in a row. He plays out of the pocket as much as any quarterback in the NFL. Based on my own past research, the bottom makes sense. Roethlisberger hates to give up on a play and Manning always thinks he can find a receiver to target without taking a sack or running. We also see Philip Rivers waddle his way to the fourth-highest rate of throwaways, which is something he commonly does with as little athleticism as possible.
Batted Down & Defensed
The next grouping focuses on plays where the defense gets a hand on the football. "Batted" is for passes batted at the line of scrimmage, while "defensed" plays happen anywhere else on the field. This is a very gray area for the blame game. Sometimes the pass gets batted at the line because the lineman doesn't block his assignment properly. Some passes are defensed because the receiver lost the one-on-one battle, but other times the quarterback throws a poor pass that should have been picked off.
There's a great study to be done if someone wants to look at height versus batted pass rate. If we don't get around to it, I'm sure someone else will. Nick Foles was the only primary quarterback not to have a pass batted at the line last year, but Mike "El Gigante" Glennon had the second-lowest rate. Mark Sanchez was third, which suggests Chip Kelly's flyswatter techniques are working in practice as he doesn't believe height is a factor in batted balls. Rookie Blake Bortles had the highest rate of batted passes behind an overwhelmed Jacksonville offensive line.
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Even as the founding member of the Shaun Hill fan club, I'm not sure what we really learn from his league-low rate of defensed passes. Is this really the "put the ball in play with some risk" stat it sounds like, or do we need to break defensed down into more categories? Perhaps we could say passes were defensed because they were underthrown (PD/Underthrown) or overthrown (PD/Overthrown). We actually have some entries like that in the main charting file, but categories were simplified for this study.
We see some of the quarterbacks associated with a safe "dink and dunk" approach near the top here like Alex Smith, Tom Brady, and Kyle Orton. Then we see some gunslingers like Geno Smith and Joe Flacco right there with them. One thing is certain: once you get to the Manning brothers, you start to see a steady stream of quarterbacks known for taking chances with the ball. Based on our interception study, it's no surprise to see the lucky Drew Stanton as the only quarterback above 10 percent defensed.
Looking at which receivers most often get involved in defensed plays may help clear this up tomorrow.
Drops would be (should be?) an official NFL stat if they weren't so damn subjective. As a charter, I like to use the standard of getting two hands on the ball for a catch. If a guy makes a one-handed stab at a pass, that's not a drop. We came up with 791 drops for the 2014 season, but I'm sure you could hand this project over to any other group and they would find different results. That is why drops will continue to be an unofficial stat.
This table displays the number of Dropped/Defensed plays, and the drop rate is based on total drops.
Andrew Luck and Brian Hoyer had the most Dropped/Defensed plays with seven each. Luck had the most total drops and the highest rate of drops. He also had eight dropped interceptions, so he's pretty good at putting the ball in a position to be caught by a human.
Tony Romo had a career year in Dallas, but it helps when your teammates are playing at a high level too. Romo had the lowest drop rate in the league. Chalk it up to an odd coincidence, but 11 of the 12 quarterbacks with the lowest drop rate played in the NFC while seven of the eight highest were in the AFC.
Remember the Titans
Tennessee fans may have been bored since none of last year's quarterbacks reached 200 pass attempts, hence none have been featured in any of the tables. Maybe that's a good thing if you are excited about Marcus Mariota and want to forget that last year's holy trinity of Charlie Whitehurst, Zach Mettenberger and Jake Locker ever happened. But I made one big table for those three players (click here to enlarge) so you can check out how they stacked up.
Tomorrow we will look at the incompletion breakdown for receivers.