by Scott Kacsmar
The NFL's 2017 regular season came to a close shortly after a familiar sight: Joe Flacco checked down on fourth-and-14 to tight end Benjamin Watson for a 13-yard gain to end Baltimore's comeback (and playoff) hopes against the Bengals. That is the ultimate example of a failed completion, which includes any completed pass that fails to gain 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third or fourth down. You can see last year's study on the subject here.
Flacco's final toss was the league's 2,877th failed completion of the season, which isn't a new record (there were 2,894 failed completions in 2015), but overall completions were also down in 2017. The rate of failed completions league-wide was 26.5 percent, and that is the highest mark on record, beating out the 2015 season (25.1 percent).
So even though the postseason did not provide any glaring examples of failure in this manner, 2017 was indeed The Year of the Failed Completion. Besides Flacco, who were the biggest offenders, and who avoided checkdowns like the plague?
We compiled our annual study of failed completions for quarterbacks, receivers, and defenses for the 2017 regular season. The total number of completions is slightly higher than the official NFL total since Football Outsiders includes backward (lateral) passes. Not every failed completion is created equally, but for this article we make things binary, simply summing up successes and failures. For the purposes of DVOA, there are fractional points involved; for example, a 7-yard completion on third-and-10 would generate some partial success, especially in field goal range.
In the following table, the 35 qualified quarterbacks are ranked by ascending failed completion rate (FC%). We also included failed completions as a percentage of attempts (very little change in the rankings) as well as the average ALEX (all downs) for the season.
There is understandably a lot of inexperience with three of the bottom four quarterbacks. Brett Hundley had a rough go of things in trying to hold down the fort for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, while Mitchell Trubisky and DeShone Kizer were rookies without much help around them. Trubisky finished last in FC% (36.2 percent), which is the seventh-highest such figure for a single season since 1989.
|Highest Failed Completion Rate Since 1989 (Min. 100 Completions)|
Yes, newly-minted Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles is still the only player to have a FC% greater than 40.0 percent (minimum 100 completions), but that was with the 2015 Rams, which means it was a moribund Jeff Fisher offense. Jared Goff is another Fisher survivor -- he had horrific numbers as a rookie with Fisher's 2016 Rams before head coach Sean McVay and better offensive talent really helped him improve his game in 2017. Goff moved up from dead last in FC% a year ago to 12th this season. This is the first of many times this offseason that I will mention that Matt Nagy will try to have a McVay-like impact on Trubisky in Chicago after taking over for John Fox. However, Goff's statistical improvement was so large that no one should expect that type of leap. Nagy also comes from a Kansas City offense with Alex Smith that was still no stranger to failed completions. Even in his best overall season yet, Smith finished 29th in FC%.
In addition to the inexperienced quarterbacks crowding up the bottom, there's also that two-time highest-paid player in NFL history in Joe Flacco, who smashed the record a year ago with 144 failed completions. His 127 failed completions in 2017 are the second-most in a season. Flacco's 14 failed completions in Week 11 against the Packers were the most of any quarterback in a 2017 game.
|Seasons with 100+ Failed Completions Since 1989|
Have you ever looked at the single-season leaders in assists in NHL history? Wayne Gretzky dominates that list in absurd fashion. Gretzky has 11 of the 13 seasons with 100-plus assists, including the top eight marks. If the Ravens continue to let Flacco play the way he has
post-Rahim Moore post-Super Bowl, he's going to end up dominating this leaderboard of failed completions with all the determination of Gretzky, but none of the skill since this is of course a bad thing. It's especially bad when Flacco's rates are getting higher. Drew Brees frequently resets the record for total completions and appears on this table six times, but his FC% has never hit 29 percent. Baltimore has continued to switch offensive coordinators and has acquired intermediate-to-deep receivers such as Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman, and Jeremy Maclin, but this still remains one of the most checkdown-dependent offenses in the FO era. Hint to soon-to-be Baltimore general manager Eric DeCosta: you don't need to pay a quarterback much money to run this kind of offense.
One quarterback not featured that is making a ton of 2018 money: Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco. His FC% was 16.7 percent, which would have led the league if he had one more game's worth of passes to qualify for our rankings. That's probably another line you will frequently read in our quarterback studies this offseason. Garoppolo also would have had the highest passing DVOA (39.2%) if he had qualified for that statistic, so don't fret about his touchdown-to-interception ratio. He was creating successful plays at a high rate, and the placement of C.J. Beathard (27th) and Brian Hoyer (31st) in this table in the same offense shows just how big of an impact Garoppolo had late in the year. He should be a very good fit for Kyle Shanahan's offense.
From The Handsome One to The Bombardier, the book is starting to fill out on Jameis Winston's playing style. He loves to throw down the field; he has ranked in the top three in lowest FC% in each of his first three seasons. While his 2017 season was not a smashing success, he did quietly finish 11th in passing DYAR despite missing three full games.
Of course, a lot of quarterbacks missed time this year, including Deshaun Watson, who finished with the second-lowest FC% with an aggressive approach similar to Winston's. Winston (1.8) and Watson (1.8) were the only quarterbacks with an ALEX above +1.0 on all downs. The Texans tried to sustain some of that with Tom Savage, who finished seventh in FC% and ALEX, but obviously his passes were not as successful.
Carson Wentz was another one of the casualties to injury this year, and he finished fourth in FC% after finishing 26th as a much more timid rookie. Some of the usual suspects (Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Tom Brady) in passing proficiency rounded out the top 10.
The future Hall of Famer who did not shine so much in this table is Drew Brees, who ranked 26th in FC% and 32nd as a percentage of attempts. Notice that Brees also ranked 35th in ALEX, so he was throwing short of the sticks more than anyone in 2017. It makes a little bit of sense with the way that running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram contributed so much to the offense as runners and receivers, but it's still really surprising to see Brees this low.
Looking at someone like Brees by down is also useful. The next quarterback table compares FC% to ALEX (all passes) by down, with third and fourth down grouped together. Rankings are from best (green) to worse (red), and the darker the color, the more standard deviations that quarterback is from the average.
Failed completions obviously matter more on third and fourth down. A 4-yard gain on first-and-10 isn't a big failure, but a 4-yard gain on third-and-10 is rarely helpful. From this table, you can see how someone like Jay Cutler (Retired Miami Version) padded his stats with a very high FC% (78.9 percent) on money downs after being more aggressive on early downs. Hoyer was very similar in San Francisco with good success on first down, but the worst checkdown habits on third and fourth down. Someone like Flacco was very conservative on every down, while Winston was very aggressive on every down.
Still, Brees stands out here since he was 34th in ALEX on first down, which is usually first-and-10 for everyone. The only quarterback below him was actually Aaron Rodgers, and we saw a similar trend with Hundley's numbers. This looks to say more about Mike McCarthy's coaching than the quarterback play in Green Bay this past season. Despite that early-down conservative play, Rodgers still did what he always does on third down in attacking beyond the sticks. He easily had the best FC% (10.7 percent) and highest ALEX (+4.3) on third and fourth downs. That's where things get a little concerning with Brees, because he was still 30th in FC% and 33rd in ALEX on late downs. He'll be 39 this season and has an ungodly number of attempts on his arm. You can add "Father Time" as a weekly opponent for the Saints this season too.
Jumping back to Trubisky, he'll only be 24 this season and has plenty of time to grow. You can't put his failures entirely on the coaching staff, since Fox did watch Matt Barkley go bombs-away a year ago in his offense. In 2016, Barkley had the lowest FC% for each down and was always high in ALEX. Trubisky was bad on every down at avoiding failed completions, but the league's lowest ALEX on second (-4.7) and third or fourth down (-2.2) is the most troubling omen. Again, there was the Goff example last year, but we'll have to see if the Bears can add to a supporting cast that looks to feature Cameron Meredith, Kendall Wright, Josh Bellamy, and a pair of running backs discussed next that actually fueled a lot of Trubisky's conservative output.
Receivers: Failed Receptions
How about the players on the receiving end of these plays? I looked at the failed receptions for everyone with at least 30 receptions. The following table excludes running backs since they dominate these lists with all the short passes they catch. Chicago's rookie back Tarik Cohen led all running backs with 35 failed receptions and also had the highest FC% at a whopping 66.0 percent. He flashed some great talent at times, but may have been a crutch for Trubisky that the Bears will have to correct this year. Notice that teammate Jordan Howard and Flacco's main back Alex Collins joined Cohen as the bottom three backs in receiving DYAR last season. The checkdown tendencies for Flacco and Trubisky add a lot of context to those numbers. It's not that these players are bad receivers, but they are often put in hopeless situations to succeed with the ball in their hands. Hey, that sounds like a certain wide receiver's career.
|Most Failed Receptions (WR/TE)||Lowest Failed Reception Rate (WR/TE)||Highest Failed Reception Rate (WR/TE)|
|Minimum 30 receptions.|
Another year, another smorgasbord of failed receptions for Jarvis Landry. Sure, he led the NFL with 112 catches, but he also led all wide receivers and tight ends with 31 failed receptions. Landry became the first wide receiver in NFL history to catch 100 passes in a season for fewer than 1,000 yards. Landry's FC% was 27.7 percent for the second season in a row. He has had multiple coaching staffs and starting quarterbacks use him in the same manner, so it will be interesting to see what that new contract looks like. Miami may end up paying him big just because DeVante Parker has not developed as planned, and the team traded Jay Ajayi to the Eagles. There's not a real star in this offense right now, so Landry continues to be fed the ball.
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There aren't too many surprising names here. Dennis Pitta led the league with 31 failed receptions in 2016, but with his playing career over, Flacco turned to veteran tight end Benjamin Watson to pick up the pace with 20 failed receptions. That was as many as Austin Seferian-Jenkins had for the Jets in a season where he averaged just 7.1 yards per catch. ASJ turned in the league's highest FC% at 40.0 percent. It's also not surprising to see Martellus Bennett in second place (36.7 percent) after a miserable season with the Packers and (briefly) the Patriots.
The placement of the three main wide receivers in Philadelphia is interesting. Nelson Agholor was the slot receiver, so his high number of failed receptions makes sense since he was often a screen-play target. Alshon Jeffery had the second-lowest FC% in 2016, so it's not surprising to see his downfield playing style carry over to the Eagles where he ranked sixth this year. Torrey Smith is an odd choice for the highest FC% by a wide receiver at 36.1 percent, but with Jeffery available, Smith was more than just a vertical receiver in Doug Pederson's offense.
Other great players who work down the field had some of the lowest FC% numbers again, including Julio Jones, Rob Gronkowski, DeAndre Hopkins, and Mike Evans. Jeffery and Evans are the only players to rank in the top 12 in each of the last two seasons for lowest FC%. We also see Winston's influence on these numbers with third-round rookie Chris Godwin at 8.8 percent. Sammy Watkins (Rams) and Marquise Goodwin (49ers) also had effective debuts in the NFC West, with the two lowest FC% rates.
If you had to guess which player had the highest FC% on 10 to 29 catches, would you have guessed it was Tavon Austin? He only had 13 catches all season, but 10 of them were failed plays for a FC% of 76.9 percent. Part of Sean McVay's great debut was realizing that it just isn't worth throwing the ball to Austin, who is a likely candidate to be released.
Finally, let's look at the defenses' ability to create failed completions, with a comparison to how these units fared in 2016.
|Defenses: 2017 Failed Completions Compared to 2016|
|Rk||Team||Comp.||Failed||FC%||2016 Rk||2016 FC%||Diff||Rk|
|Rk||Team||Comp.||Failed||FC%||2016 Rk||2016 FC%||Diff||Rk|
This is a tricky stat for defenses since exceptional play would preferably lead to an incompletion instead of any type of completion. For example, the Jaguars were No. 1 at forcing failed completions in 2016, but fell to 14th this season for the second-largest drop of any defense. However, the pass coverage and ability to get sacks was much better, so Jacksonville's overall defense improved to No. 1 in the league. Meanwhile, Denver fell the farthest of any defense, dropping from No. 5 to No. 29 after a rough first season for head coach Vance Joseph. It was just a few seasons ago when the Broncos beat the Panthers in Super Bowl 50 after their defenses ranked first and second in FC%. This year, only the Vikings and Eagles made the playoffs while ranking in the top 10 in FC%.
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So is it odd that the top four defenses all had losing records? Those teams had plenty of offensive issues as well, but the Bengals (17th), Texans (23rd), Giants (24th), and Raiders (29th) all ranked in the bottom half in defensive DVOA as well. The Giants and Texans both finished in the top four in FC% for the second year in a row, but the bottom three teams (Patriots, Titans, and Chiefs) all made the playoffs in the AFC.
Buffalo also finally made a return to the AFC playoffs, albeit a short-lived one. Still, new coach Sean McDermott could take some pride in seeing his defense have the largest increase in FC% over Rex Ryan's 2016 defense. The Saints, Redskins, and Chargers also saw big improvements, which matches up with the overall improvement found in those units this season. Anything that has the Saints out of the bottom three looks good given their past standards.
Finally, take note that five of the bottom seven defenses in 2016 were also five of the bottom seven defenses in 2017. The Colts finally fired head coach Chuck Pagano, while veteran defensive coordinators Dick LeBeau (Titans) and Dom Capers (Packers) were also put out to pasture. Meanwhile, the Chiefs are keeping Bob Sutton as defensive coordinator after another playoff letdown, and the 49ers are sticking with first-year coordinator Robert Saleh.
Of course, the area of focus for those teams in 2018 will be on the other side of the ball with Patrick Mahomes and Jimmy Garoppolo officially taking over as franchise quarterbacks. It's still largely about the quarterback, isn't it? Foles was named Super Bowl MVP, and he produced some pretty stellar play in the two title games. Had he pulled a Flacco on third-and-7 in a 33-32 game instead of the touchdown to Zach Ertz in the Super Bowl, then the final outcome may have gone much differently.