by Scott Kacsmar
Given their inability to kill clock and preserve a lead in the Super Bowl, a completed pass or two might sound really good to the Atlanta Falcons right now, even if they came up well short of the sticks. In general, though, the vast majority of the thousands of catches we see like that each year don't do much to help an offense out. Fans of PPR scoring and Tavon Austin's agent love these plays, but DVOA and general offensive success do not.
Unfamiliar with failed completions? They are one of the quickest statistics we can measure from the season's play-by-play data. A failed completion is defined as any completed pass that fails to gain 45 percent of needed yards on first down; 60 percent of needed yards on second down; or 100 percent of needed yards on third or fourth down. You can see last year's study here.
Not every failed completion is created equally -- some will move an offense into field goal range, for example -- but for this article we are making things binary, simply summing up successes and failures. For the purposes of DVOA, there are fractional points involved where a 9-yard completion on third-and-11 would generate some partial success.
Our data on failed completions currently goes back to 1989, but we can add 1986-88 next year. However, the NFL in that era featured a different brand of passing. In 1989, 18.3 percent of all completions were failures. That rate last dipped below 23.1 percent in 2007, and peaked at 25.1 percent in 2015 before falling to 24.5 percent in 2016, the third-highest season on record.
Failed completions have never been more common thanks to the overall increase in pass attempts and a metric like ALEX, which looks at where the ball is being thrown in relation to the first-down marker. In particular, ALEX's focus on third and fourth downs shows us where the most damaging failed completions are occurring. Some quarterbacks are simply more likely to complete a 2-yard pass on third-and-10 instead of trying to actually gain a first down. We tend to point out games with a high number of failed completions during the season in our weekly analysis articles. The data below is only for the regular season. The total number of completions is slightly higher than the official NFL total since Football Outsiders includes backward (lateral) passes.
In the following table, the 34 qualified quarterbacks are ranked by ascending failed completion rate (FC%). We also included failed completions as a percentage of attempts (there is very little change in these rankings), as well as the average ALEX (all downs) for the season.
We have a new record for failed completions in a single game since 1989. Oakland's Derek Carr had 16 failed completions in Week 8 against Tampa Bay. To be fair, that overtime game went nearly five full quarters, and Carr did go 40-of-59 passing for 513 yards. The previous record belonged to Peyton Manning, who had 15 failed completions (12 after halftime) in that miserable 2014 AFC divisional round loss by Denver to the Colts. But 2016 also saw that mark of 15 failed completions matched twice; first by Sam Bradford and the Vikings against Detroit (Week 12), and then by Joe Flacco and the Ravens in New England (Week 14).
Flacco actually smashed the record for most failed completions in a season with 144, breaking Matt Ryan's mark of 120 in 2013. It did not matter that the Ravens replaced offensive coordinator Marc Trestman with Marty Mornhinweg during the season. Flacco had nine of the 38 performances this season in which an offense had at least 10 failed completions, including four from Weeks 12 to 16. No other offense had more than three such games in 2016. Flacco also had five games in a row with double-digit failed completions from Weeks 3 to 7.
Here is every season with at least 100 failed completions since 1989.
|Seasons with 100+ Failed Completions Since 1989|
When we say "since 1989," we might as well say "in all of NFL history," since only one season on this list (Peyton Manning in 2002) occurred before 2010. At the time, Manning's 392 completions in a season ranked fourth in NFL history. It now ranks in a tie with Ryan Tannehill's 2014 campaign for 38th. This is a great example of how much the game has changed in recent years with the reliance on more passes in general and more short passes in particular, thus a greater frequency of failed completions.
However, Baltimore fans should feel some concern here, as Flacco ranked next to last in 2016 in FC%, and had the worst rate of failed completions per attempt. He also had the highest FC% (33.0 percent) among the 23 seasons with 100 or more failed completions. While someone like Drew Brees does appear on that list five times, he had five of the seven lowest FC% on the list, including the lowest one (22.2 percent in 2016). It is different when you efficiently break the NFL's single-season completion mark several times like Brees has. Flacco got to his first 4,000-yard passing season in cheap fashion. In fact, out of the 155 4,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history, Flacco had the lowest yards per attempt (6.42) and the second lowest touchdown rate (3.0 percent).
Let's stick with the lowlights. The Rams brought their depressing passing game from St. Louis to Los Angeles, and the result was fitting: another lousy sequel to 2015 when Nick Foles put up the highest FC% since 1989 (41.1 percent) before he was benched for Case Keenum. This year the Rams benched Keenum and finally sacked head coach Jeff Fisher, but rookie Jared Goff did his best to try matching Foles' futility. He only ended up with the fourth-highest FC% in a season since 1989 (minimum 100 completions).
|Highest Failed Completion Rate Since 1989 (Min. 100 Completions)|
Brees rebounded nicely with a breakout year in 2004, but based on this list, Goff has his work cut out for him. Maybe there is something about trying to throw to Tavon Austin (anywhere on the field) and Todd Gurley (without any blocking) that just fundamentally does not work. Maybe a new offensive-minded coach in Sean McVay will figure this out in 2017, but there has clearly been a lot wrong for a long time with the Rams' passing game.
When we look at the top of the 2016 results, we do not exactly see stellar overall performance from the passers with the best failed completion numbers. Sure, in 2015, Cam Newton and Carson Palmer were in the top three in FC%, FC%ATT, and ALEX, but things did not go so well in 2016. Of course, the same can be said of the Panthers and Cardinals in general a year after meeting in the NFC Championship Game. Jameis Winston also finished third in FC% for the second season in a row, but we'll do a more extensive statistical look at him this offseason. Let's just say the stylistic similarities to Newton are obvious.
You have to go down to the seven to nine range to start finding some of the major standouts in 2016 quarterback play with MVP Matt Ryan, Offensive Rookie of the Year Dak Prescott, and Aaron Rodgers. Ryan had a historic season with 9.3 yards per pass attempt, but his ranking of seventh in FC% made me wonder how the season's top quarterback has historically fared in this metric. So I looked at the seasonal rank in FC% (minimum 100 completions) for the AP's first-team All-Pro quarterback for each season since 1989.
|Failed Completions: 1st-Team All-Pro QB|
Five of the last 16 quarterbacks finished No. 1, but Ryan ranked the lowest since Tom Brady ranked 11th in 2010. Still, every season ranked in the top 20, even with players from a few of the more old-school West Coast offenses (Joe Montana and Steve Young) ranking 15th or lower. Drew Brees ranked 18th in 2006, though he wasn't a good choice by the voters that year over Peyton Manning, who ranked first in DVOA (doubling up Brees) and first in FC% (13.0 percent). In case you were wondering, Brees received 25 votes to 24 for Manning (with one for Marc Bulger).
Ryan was likely not expecting to get competition from Chicago's Matt Barkley, who had the third-lowest FC% (10.9 percent) since 1989. Yeah, that randomness really happened. Barkley also had the highest ALEX this season, and the correlation between FC% and ALEX was minus-0.73. We know Barkley still ranked 26th in DVOA and threw an interception on an unseemly 6.5 percent of his attempts, but his aggressive approach as a backup with nothing to lose was refreshing to see. Barkley's passes came with an average deficit of 8.6 points, the second-worst average deficit in 2016, so he had to dig the Bears out of some big holes. He nearly did so against the Packers, Lions, and Titans, but some bad drops, questionable holding penalties, and conservative coaching cost Chicago those games in the end. Combined with his low sack rate (2.7 percent), Barkley had a very interesting statistical season, and his relevance in 2016 sure is a compliment given how far he fell to the fourth round in the 2013 draft, and how horrific he looked as a rookie with the Eagles.
Looking at someone like Barkley by down is also useful. The next quarterback table compares FC% to ALEX (all passes) by down, where third and fourth down are grouped together. Rankings are from best (green) to worst (red), and the darker the color, the more standard deviations that quarterback is from the average.
Barkley had the lowest FC% for each down, and was always high in ALEX. Meanwhile, Goff was often very conservative despite dealing with the largest deficits (10.6 points on average) of any quarterback. A whopping 56.1 percent of his third-down completions were failed plays, the biggest outlier in the table. It should also be pointed out that Chicago's Brian Hoyer ranked next to last in FC% on third and fourth down, compared to Barkley ranking first. Hoyer completed 67.0 percent of his passes and did not throw an interception for the Bears, but they were still not scoring many points behind him with so many of his minimal gains, especially on money downs.
Perhaps the most fitting part of this table is that Alex Smith and Sam Bradford had the lowest ALEX on first-down passes, and the corresponding bad FC% numbers to match. Flacco was also pretty conservative on each down in racking up his record number of failed completions. Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger was surprisingly conservative on first down, ranked 32nd in ALEX compared to second on second down and first on the money downs. Aaron Rodgers also showed a similar split, though Rodgers and Roethlisberger are often among the most aggressive third-down passers in the NFL.
Before the Super Bowl, I pointed out that third down was not a strong point in Matt Ryan's otherwise stellar season. Here he was only 31st in ALEX and 23rd in FC%, but Ryan's failure to pull the trigger on third down may have cost him the most in Super Bowl LI. Four of his five sacks came on third down, including the game-changing fumble in the fourth quarter. The correlation between FC% and ALEX was much stronger on the money down (minus-0.74) than it was on first (minus-0.58) or second (minus-0.51) down.
How about the players on the receiving end of these plays? I looked at the failed receptions for all wide receivers and tight ends with at least 30 receptions. I excluded running backs since they dominate these lists with all the short passes they catch. DeMarco Murray led all running backs with 29 failed receptions in his first year in Tennessee, and the Giants' Rashad Jennings had the highest FC% (61.1 percent).
|Most Failed Receptions (WR/TE)||Lowest Failed Reception Rate (WR/TE)||Highest Failed Reception Rate (WR/TE)|
|Dennis Pitta||BAL||31||J.J. Nelson||ARI||34||1||2.9%||Tavon Austin||LARM||58||25||43.1%|
|Antonio Brown||PIT||28||Alshon Jeffery||CHI||52||2||3.8%||Albert Wilson||KC||31||13||41.9%|
|Jarvis Landry||MIA||26||Dez Bryant||DAL||50||2||4.0%||Eddie Royal||CHI||33||12||36.4%|
|Doug Baldwin||SEA||26||John Brown||ARI||39||2||5.1%||Clive Walford||OAK||33||12||36.4%|
|Golden Tate||DET||26||Mike Evans||TB||96||5||5.2%||Dennis Pitta||BAL||86||31||36.0%|
|Tavon Austin||LARM||25||Michael Floyd||ARI/NE
|Larry Fitzgerald||ARI||23||Dwayne Allen||IND||35||2||5.7%||Tyreek Hill||KC||61||21||34.4%|
|Amari Cooper||OAK||23||Kelvin Benjamin||CAR||63||4||6.3%||Ty Montgomery||GB||44||15||34.1%|
|Jason Witten||DAL||23||Tajae Sharpe||TEN||41||3||7.3%||Jason Witten||DAL||69||23||33.3%|
|Odell Beckham||NYG||21||Greg Olsen||CAR||80||6||7.5%||Charles Clay||BUF||57||18||31.6%|
|Jordan Matthews||PHI||21||Antonio Gates||SD||53||4||7.5%||Nelson Agholor||PHI||36||11||30.6%|
|Tyreek Hill||KC||21||Rishard Matthews||TEN||65||5||7.7%||Breshad Perriman||BAL||33||10||30.3%|
|Minimum 30 receptions.
Jarvis Landry has ranked in the top three in failed receptions in each of his three seasons, though he did have his lowest rate (27.7 percent) yet. Some of the other names are not surprising in that they are players who catch a lot of ball, period (such as Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr.), and some older players who may not be as fast as they used to be (such as Jason Witten and Larry Fitzgerald).
Then we have tight end Dennis Pitta and his league-leading 31 failed receptions. Someone had to be helping Flacco to that record, and it was his old buddy Pitta, who hadn't caught a pass since 2014 after some serious hip injuries. Pitta averaged 10.5 yards per reception through Baltimore's 2012 Super Bowl season, but those injuries have limited him to 23 games in the last four years, and slowed him down to just 8.4 yards per reception. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman was also not a real big-play threat in his recovery from a rookie season wiped out by injury. With the Ravens losing Steve Smith to retirement, a new weapon could be in order for this offense.
The players in the middle table with the lowest failed rate are used to making catches beyond the sticks. J.J. Nelson developed nicely as more than just a speed demon for the Cardinals this season. Michael Floyd became expendable in Arizona, largely due to his own stupidity, but you can see that the Cardinals had three of the top six players with the lowest failed completion rate. Meanwhile, Tajae Sharpe was not quite the fifth-round rookie phenom we thought he had a chance to be for Tennessee, but Rishard Matthews quietly had another efficient season. Matthews was 16th in DVOA after finishing second in Miami in 2015.
The table with the highest failed reception rates is chock-full of the NFL's notable gimmick players. Albert Wilson, Eddie Royal, and Cordarrelle Patterson are just a few players who seem to rarely catch anything but screens. Tyreek Hill is also at the mercy of Alex Smith in Kansas City, and Ty Montgomery converted from wide receiver to running back for the Packers. Then we have the league's most expensive gimmick. Tavon Austin ranking high with the worst rate is not a surprise due to his laughable usage with the Rams. Austin finished 93rd in DYAR and DVOA, which was dead last in both categories -- just like he nearly pulled off in 2015 as well.
Finally, let's look at the defenses' ability to create failed completions, with a comparison to how these units fared in 2015.
|Defenses: 2016 Failed Completions Compared to 2015|
|Rk||Team||Comp.||Failed||FC%||2015 Rk||2015 FC%||Diff||Rk|
|Rk||Team||Comp.||Failed||FC%||2015 Rk||2015 FC%||Diff||Rk|
Last year, Denver and Carolina finished as the top two teams, meeting in the Super Bowl with the two best defenses. Denver was still a top-five unit in 2016, but Carolina suffered the largest drop in percentage points (7.7) of any defense at forcing failed completions. Luke Kuechly's concussion, which knocked the linebacker out of the lineup for six games, certainly played a factor, but the Panthers just never looked right this year.
Tom Coughlin might be interested to know that the team he just returned to as executive vice president (the Jaguars) and the team he coached in 2015 (the Giants) made the two biggest leaps in 2016, securing the top two spots in the process. Both defenses were hindered by their struggling offenses, but both swarmed to the catch well this season. Both units also were hyped heavily in the offseason after acquiring a lot of premium talent. The Giants successfully purchased the core of a new defense with Oliver Vernon, Damon Harrison, and Janoris Jenkins. The Jaguars signed Malik Jackson in free agency, got high draft pick Dante Fowler back from injury, and pulled off a draft haul of Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack. While neither team experienced any playoff success like Denver and Carolina did the year before, both of these units are moving in the right direction. Now we just have to see if they can sustain their 2016 success, as the Jaguars have moved on from Gus Bradley at head coach to an offensive-minded Doug Marrone.
While we ended last year's study with a quasi-positive note about the Saints finishing 30th instead of 32nd, the defense went right back to 32nd even after firing defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Look at the other teams ranked near the bottom. The Bills finished 29th and fired head coach Rex Ryan (and his twin brother Rob). Colts fans have been calling for Chuck Pagano's job for a few years now, and similar things can be said about defensive coordinator Dom Capers' job in Green Bay. Given that the Saints have continued to waste the remaining years of Brees' prime with 7-9 seasons because of a lack of a defense, at some point the sword has to fall on Sean Payton too. For as prolific as his offense has been, opposing offense have been just as prolific in each o f the last three years.