2016 Passing Plus-Minus
by Scott Kacsmar
When a record is set in a stat like completion percentage, we need some extra context to judge just how impressive that feat is in today's passing climate, where failed completions are on the rise. After all, the league-wide completion percentage was at an all-time high for the fourth year in a row in 2016, finishing at 63.0 percent. NFL passing totals are stunningly similar over the last two seasons, and we had to go out to three decimal places to show the tiny difference.
- 2015: 11,527 completions in 18,298 attempts (62.996 percent).
- 2016: 11,526 completions in 18,295 attempts (63.001 percent).
Things especially look suspicious when Sam Bradford is the one setting the record as he did last season with a 71.6 completion percentage on a middling Minnesota offense while finishing just 17th in DVOA. Drew Brees held the previous record at 71.2 percent in his stellar 2011 season for New Orleans.
Brees also had four of the top five seasons in the first decade's worth of passing plus-minus data, which we looked at a year ago. In case you forgot, passing plus-minus estimates how many passes a quarterback completed compared to what an average quarterback would have done, given the location of those passes. It does not consider passes listed as "Thrown Away," "Tipped at Line," or "Quarterback Hit in Motion." Player performance is compared to a historical baseline of how often a pass is completed based on the pass distance, the distance required for a first down, and whether it is on the left, middle, or right side of the field. Note that plus-minus is not scaled to a player’s total attempts.
Was Bradford's season really that underappreciated, or did the quarterback who ranked 28th in failed completion rate and 33rd in ALEX just dink-and-dunk his way to it?
2016 Passing Plus-Minus
These results are for the 2016 passers with at least 200 pass attempts. Again, the total number of passes will differ from the NFL total due to the removal of certain passes. To help express plus-minus as a rate stat, C%+ is also included. Numbers will be expressed with a + or - sign.
|2016 Passing Plus-Minus|
|1||Drew Brees||NO||630||+5.8%||+36.5||17||Alex Smith||KC||464||+0.2%||+0.8|
|2||Matt Ryan||ATL||504||+6.6%||+33.1||18||Trevor Siemian||DEN||430||+0.1%||+0.4|
|3||Sam Bradford||MIN||517||+5.5%||+28.4||19||Philip Rivers||SD||519||-0.1%||-0.4|
|4||Kirk Cousins||WAS||559||+4.9%||+27.1||20||Joe Flacco||BAL||621||-0.4%||-2.2|
|5||Aaron Rodgers||GB||565||+3.3%||+18.5||21||Matt Barkley||CHI||207||-2.6%||-5.5|
|6||Russell Wilson||SEA||497||+3.6%||+18.1||22||Ben Roethlisberger||PIT||491||-1.3%||-6.3|
|7||Dak Prescott||DAL||434||+3.5%||+15.4||23||Derek Carr||OAK||529||-1.4%||-7.5|
|8||Andy Dalton||CIN||506||+3.0%||+15.0||24||Carson Wentz||PHI||560||-1.8%||-10.0|
|9||Tom Brady||NE||400||+3.4%||+13.7||25||Case Keenum||LARM||301||-3.9%||-11.6|
|10||Ryan Tannehill||MIA||362||+3.4%||+12.3||26||Brock Osweiler||HOU||464||-2.7%||-12.5|
|11||Andrew Luck||IND||503||+1.3%||+6.3||27||Eli Manning||NYG||569||-2.7%||-15.4|
|12||Marcus Mariota||TEN||415||+1.2%||+4.9||28||Colin Kaepernick||SF||310||-5.2%||-16.2|
|13||Matthew Stafford||DET||551||+0.7%||+4.0||29||Ryan Fitzpatrick||NYJ||373||-5.6%||-21.0|
|14||Jameis Winston||TB||528||+0.6%||+3.2||30||Blake Bortles||JAC||581||-4.2%||-24.2|
|15||Tyrod Taylor||BUF||398||+0.7%||+2.9||31||Cam Newton||CAR||463||-6.1%||-28.3|
|16||Carson Palmer||ARI||553||+0.2%||+1.3||Minimum 200 passes to qualify|
Brees has led the league in passing plus-minus an impressive five times since 2010. His 2016 mark of plus-36.5 ranks No. 8 on the top seasons since 2006. Matt Ryan's MVP season unsurprisingly finished second, but that was mostly because he had 126 fewer aimed passes (i.e. passes that qualify for plus-minus) than Brees. It is important to note that Ryan had the highest C%+ of 2016.
Then we get to Bradford at No. 3 with a season that ranks 23rd since 2006. I have to admit, his numbers came out much better than expected. This is also true when you break down Bradford's plus-minus by the different ranges on the field.
|Sam Bradford: 2016 Passing Plus-Minus Splits|
|Pass Range||Bradford +/-||Rk||Note|
|Short (5 yards or less)||+22.6||1||Min. 100 passes to qualify (31 ranked)|
|Mid (6 to 15 yards)||-0.4||18||Min. 80 passes to qualify (31 ranked)|
|Deep (16 to 25 yards)||+3.1||11||Min. 25 passes to qualify (31 ranked)|
|Bomb (26 yards or more)||+3.0||9||Min. 15 passes to qualify (32 ranked)|
Not surprisingly, Bradford did most of his damage on the shortest throws from 5 yards or less, and it was the medium range that gave him the most trouble with a ranking of 18th in the league. However, his deep passing was still adequate, and it's not like he was afforded much help from his offensive line, running game, or receivers. We can view Bradford's season in a better light than, say, David Carr in 2006, when he mostly dinked and dunked his way to a plus-27.3 season, but Bradford's season still doesn't hold a candle to Brees in 2016 (or 2011 for that matter). This past season, Brees was only plus-14.9 on short passes and plus-21.6 on everything else, so you can see a big difference in how he operates compared to Bradford.
Last year we asked if Kirk Cousins could improve on his strong season (plus-24.6), and he actually did with a plus-27.1 to finish fourth. He remains an interesting quarterback with a lot of varying opinions as he heads into another season on the franchise tag in Washington.
Aaron Rodgers rebounded nicely to a top-five season, but it was not always that sharp. Rodgers was at minus-1.0 thru Week 11, but posted a red-hot plus-19.4 in the final six games of the season. Andy Dalton did not seem to be anywhere near as good last year as he was in 2015, but his plus-15.0 is a career high. He also was missing A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert for large stretches of the season. Dalton has actually outclassed Andrew Luck in plus-minus in each of the last five seasons, but Luck had his best numbers yet in 2016 in what is really an underappreciated effort by the fifth-year quarterback. Dak Prescott's plus-15.4 is very good for a rookie, but Russell Wilson (plus-23.3 in 2012) still holds the best plus-minus for a first-year player since 2006.
Some notable passers finished with a negative plus-minus this season, including the entire 2004 draft class of Philip Rivers (minus-0.4), Ben Roethlisberger (minus-6.3), and Eli Manning (minus-15.4). Manning has actually been minus-10.0 or worse in the last two seasons, but Rivers had never been lower than plus-3.5 (2007) before this season. Roethlisberger might be the most surprising given he had a career-high plus-26.2 in 2015 before posting his career low. His return from injury against the Ravens in Week 9 was a season-low minus-6.5 alone, but even before Roethlisberger tore his meniscus in Miami, he was at minus-2.8.
While those quarterbacks have had better years in the past, Derek Carr is still a quarterback whose best days lie in the future. He was next to last in plus-minus in 2015 at minus-16.5, and while he improved this past year, he still finished just 23rd at minus-7.5. California-based quarterbacks did not exactly shine in this table. Colin Kaepernick did not see that usual Chip Kelly boost in plus-minus, finishing at minus-16.2 on just 310 passes.
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He did not have enough attempts to qualify, but Jared Goff's rookie season is worth another (dis)honorable mention. Goff managed a minus-18.8 on just 186 aimed passes, which is good for a minus-10.1 C%+. Since 2006, only 2011 Blaine Gabbert (minus-10.5 C%+), 2008 Derek Anderson (minus-11.1 C%+), and 2009 JaMarcus Russell (minus-11.6 C%+) fared worse in C%+.
Carson Wentz only ranked 24th in his rookie season, but a lot of the blame has shifted towards his bad wide receivers. There is some merit to that as far as these numbers go. Wentz was minus-13.5 when targeting Nelson Agholor (minus-4.9) and Dorial Green-Beckham (minus-8.6), but had much better numbers to tight end Zach Ertz (plus-11.4) and slot receiver Jordan Matthews (plus-1.1). We'll see how the additions of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith go, but those receivers have historically been low-percentage vertical players.
Four of the bottom seven quarterbacks lost their starting jobs with their team. Blake Bortles could be joining them soon if things don't change quickly in Jacksonville. Bortles' 2014 rookie season (minus-29.9) was the third-worst plus-minus since 2006, but he seemed to be on the right track in 2015 (minus-8.9). Things regressed in a big way last year, and he had his worst numbers to what should have been his three best pass catchers: Allen Robinson (minus-10.4), Allen Hurns (minus-7.8), and Julius Thomas (minus-3.5).
Finally, Cam Newton was coming off an MVP season, but he posted his fourth negative season in plus-minus in six years. Newton only completed 52.9 percent of his passes in 2016, and not even an adjustment for his vertical approach does him any favors here. Newton's minus-28.3 is the fifth-lowest season since 2006, sandwiched between two seasons from teammate Derek Anderson, who actually had a plus-1.7 in relief of Newton in 2016. We'll see how willing Carolina is to incorporate short passes to rookie running back Christian McCaffrey this year, but Newton still has a long way to go in his development as a consistent passer.
Did Roethlisberger's struggles bring down Antonio Brown's numbers as well? Did Dak Prescott have trouble getting in sync with Dez Bryant? How deadly was Rob Gronkowski downfield in his injury-shortened season? Those questions and more will be answered next week when we look at receiving plus-minus.