Failed Completions 2018
by Bryan Knowles
The Jacksonville Jaguars' long Bortles-ian nightmare is over. Nick Foles' new four-year deal gives the Jaguars not only a Super Bowl MVP, but also one of the most accurate quarterbacks of 2018. By our marks - excluding spikes -- Foles finished second among qualified quarterbacks with a 73.1 percent completion rate. That's a career high for Foles, albeit one set in a small sample size, and much higher than the 60.3 percent mark Blake Bortles put up, fourth-worst in the league. If there's one thing Foles excelled at in 2018, it was keeping the ball off the ground.
And if you didn't read the title of this article before you clicked on it, you'd probably believe that was a good thing.
Every year, we here at Football Outsiders study failed completions around the league. A failed completion is 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.
2018 saw quarterbacks do a better job at avoiding checkdowns and dump-offs, compared to the Year of the Failed Completion in 2017. Overall, the league had 2,842 failed completions; to put it another way, 24.8 percent of all completions were failures last season. Both of those numbers are improvements over last season, where we saw a record 26.5 percent failed completion rate. We're still in a historically high era of failed completions, of course -- 2018 would be the fourth highest season on record -- but, in general, teams did a little bit better at throwing appropriately deep and scheming receivers open last year. We'll have to see if this reversal becomes a trend going forward, or if this is just a blip.
Following is our annual study of failed completions for quarterbacks, receivers, and defenses in the 2018 season. Not every failed completion is created equally, but for this article we make things binary, simply summing up successes and failures. A 7-yard completion on third-and-10 is better than a 2-yard completion, especially in field goal range, and that is reflected in DVOA -- but for the purposes of this article, a failure is a failure.
In the following table, the 34 qualified quarterbacks of 2018 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.
|Quarterbacks, Failed Completions, 2018|
That's new Jaguars starting quarterback Nick Foles there in dead last, with a whopping 41.1 percent of his completions (and nearly 30 percent of his pass attempts) ending up as failures. Yes, the small sample size matters here, as Foles just barely had enough passes to qualify for our leaderboards, but that is still a tremendously high number. A ludicrously high number. A record-breakingly high number, as a matter of fact. Foles takes over the record for highest FC% we've ever recorded, beating out one Nicholas Edward Foles for the honors.
It's concerning enough that Foles, the only man to breach the 40 percent barrier, appears twice atop this list. Even more concerning is that these are Foles' last two qualified seasons -- yes, he has a Super Bowl MVP in between them, but he didn't have enough attempts to qualify for the leaderboards in 2017. Foles' FC% was 29.8 percent in the Super Bowl year, which would have ranked 30th that season. In fact, Foles has only had one season where he has had a FC% below 28 percent -- his 2013 Pro Bowl year, where he put up a 23.2 percent FC%.
Apart from that one outlier, Foles' career has been one for taking what opposing defenses give him, and he took that philosophy to a fault last season. Not only did he have the lowest ALEX last season, but a full 20 percent of his pass attempts in 2018 had at least -10.0 ALEX, the second-lowest rate in the league. Depending on your level of charity, he's either an excellent game manager, with the seventh-lowest interception rate among active quarterbacks, or a timid passer, reliant on scheme and YAC to produce any real value.
Of course, Jaguars fans would probably take a game manager at this point in time. When the Jaguars made their playoff run in 2017, their offense focused on limiting the damage Bortles could do, decreasing his passing attempts as much as feasible. Foles may be destroying the value of a completion like no other quarterback in NFL history (or at least none named "Joe Flacco"), but those plays are still completions.
Foles has a much better career sack rate (5.3 percent) and interception rate (2.1 percent) than Bortles (6.9 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively); some of Foles' failed completions actually came when Foles was avoiding those super-negative plays, or incomplete, inaccurately thrown balls. By the binary metric of success/failure, they're bad -- but at least his teams are still moving generally forward. A failed completion is, at the very least, not an incompletion.
In other words, Foles' playing style puts his teams in poor positions, setting them up in third-and-mediums and forcing punts more often than not, but at least he tends to get the ball to the players wearing the proper colored jersey. After eight years of Bortles, Blaine Gabbert, and Chad Henne, a little dink-and-dunk might sound great -- until fans get tired of seeing 1-yard passes on second-and-9.
Foles is one of three quarterbacks in the bottom five who will likely not be in the same place come 2019. The second of the three is Ryan Tannehill, as it seems eight times was not the charm for him to break out in Miami; he'll be backing up Marcus Mariota in Tennessee this season. The third is Josh Rosen, who it looks like has already soured his welcome in Arizona after just one season. Rosen's FC% was high, for sure, but he was working behind a disaster of an offensive line. It's not at all unheard of for passers to see a great jump in their second and third seasons as they become more comfortable at the NFL level. Jared Goff and Mitchell Trubisky both finished dead last in failure rate as rookies; each of them jumped up double-digit percentage points from Year 1 and Year 2, and Goff's now near the top of the list in Year 3. Carson Wentz had a 28.5 percent FC% as a rookie; he ended up fourth-best in the league in 2017 before slipping a little to midpack this year. A bad first year can easily end up resulting in a good second year, and if Rosen does end up leaving Arizona, there's still a chance he could turn things around elsewhere. In other words, if teams were high on him in 2017, they likely shouldn't throw all that out the window after one bad season.
Absent from that rookie list above is Dak Prescott. As a rookie, Prescott was an efficient passer, ranking eighth in the league with a 21.2 percent FC%. In each of the last two years, however, he has ranked near the very bottom of the table, setting a new career low this year. Prescott has now seen all of his advanced stats slide down two years in a row, which is worrisome as he enters the last year of his deal. There's very little doubt that the Cowboys will keep Prescott around, regardless of what happens in 2019, but fans have to be antsy, waiting for the quarterback who looked so stellar in his first 24 games to replace the one who has been so untrustworthy in his last 24.
It should come as no surprise that the name atop the list is Patrick Mahomes; you'd be hard-pressed to find many 2018 stat leaderboards where Mahomes doesn't appear near the top. Mahomes' 16.2 percent FC% is the best we've seen since Matt Barkley put up a 10.9 mark back in 2016, but Barkley had just 216 attempts. The last quarterback to beat Mahomes' mark with at least 600 attempts was Tom Brady back in 2012. For comparison, Alex Smith had a 29.0 percent FC% last season, so there was a wee bit of a paradigm shift for the Chiefs' offense a year ago. You didn't need advanced stats to tell you that, but it's always good to get a reminder of just how amazing Mahomes was.
Mahomes appearing near the top of the list is expected, but seeing a pair of Buccaneers quarterbacks finish second and third probably isn't. Neither Jameis Winston nor Ryan Fitzpatrick were all afraid to air the ball out in 2018, finishing first and third in ALEX and second and third in air yards in 2018. However, that isn't enough in and of itself to ensure a high spot in these rankings. Josh Allen is the other man in the top three in both of those stats, but he appears near the bottom in failed completion rate because he was so inaccurate that he simply didn't rack up many completions at all, failed or otherwise. But it certainly helps -- to have a failed completion, you must attempt a short pass. A shot down field can't be a failed completion -- either it's going to be a long gain, or it won't be caught.
Winston does very well on these tables, thanks in large part to his big arm and his willingness to use it, accurately or not. He has now finished in the top three in lowest FC% in each of his first four seasons. Winston has gone through many peaks and valleys in his career -- both on the field and off -- and he hasn't really improved on his weaknesses since he was a rookie. However, as long as he's sticking around in the top 10 in yards per pass attempt, someone is going to give him a shot behind center even after his contract expires in Tampa Bay.
While Winston has been consistent, FitzMagic has been historically unreliable. While he finished near the top in FC% in 2018, he finished 25th, 22nd, 17th and 18th from 2013 to 2016. In other words, the Dolphins shouldn't expect him to go on a tear like he did over the first three weeks of the 2018 season, but the greatest journeyman in NFL history is likely to be both better and more exciting than Ryan Tannehill has been in years.
2018 also saw a record tied for the most failed completions thrown by a man not named Joe Flacco; a prestigious award indeed.
This wasn't exactly the sort of season the Vikings were hoping to get out of Kirk Cousins, who becomes one of the seven men in NFL history to have more than one season with over 100 failed completions. To be fair, it's not as if Case Keenum had any more luck in his first season in Denver; he also joins the 100-failed-completion club.
Not all 100-fail seasons are made equal, as that list makes clear -- any list that has Drew Brees on it five times is going to include very good seasons. Still, racking up failed completions can give your statline some artificial inflation. Cousins had a 69.4 percent completion rate in 2018, third-best in the league. If you counted all failed completions as incomplete passes, Cousins would fall to 16th at 49.8 percent, a drop only topped by Foles. Meanwhile, players like Patrick Mahomes, Jameis Winston, and Jared Goff would all jump up at least 10 places in such a system; their numbers aren't inflated by empty passing calories.
|Successful Completion Percentage, 2018|
Yes, even though Drew Brees ranked near the bottom in failed completions per attempt, he would still have the highest completion percentage in the league if you threw out every failed completion. Failed completions don't hurt as much when you generally follow them up with a successful play on a consistent basis.
Receivers: Failed Receptions
What about the receivers on the other end of those failed completions? It's worth taking a look at that, even though appearances here generally have more to do with usage and scheme than a receiver's individual talents. We exclude running backs from these tables; they would otherwise dominate due to their roles as checkdowns and emergency outlets. For the record, however, Saquon Barkley led all receivers with 46 failed receptions; someone had to catch all of those Eli Manning failures. Ezekiel Elliott was right behind him with 44 failed receptions, contributing to Dak Prescott's 100-failure year. Also: Pat Shurmur, Jason Garrett, please stop calling running back screens on third-and-a-mile. Thank you.
Reception Rate (WR/TE)
Reception Rate (WR/TE)
|Minimum 30 receptions.|
Jarvis Landry, for the first time in his career, did not finish in the top three in failed receptions; he finished tied for sixth. It should also be noted that 16 of his 22 failed completions happened before Hue Jackson and Todd Haley were fired, and four more came the next week, before the dust had cleared and Freddie Kitchens really had time to install a new offensive philosophy. Has Landry finally found an offense that won't give him a dozen screen passes on third-and-a-mile? Will he finally be used as an actual downfield receiver? Will he get off this leaderboard in 2019? The answer's probably no, but it's something worth watching going forward.
Landry, Golden Tate, Michael Thomas, and Nelson Agholor all make return appearances on the most failed receptions table, but Stefon Diggs far and away laps the field this year. Diggs set a career high with 102 receptions this year, but his average reception came just 5.7 yards downfield, the shortest for any wideout with at least 80 receptions in 2018. Only Antonio Brown caught more passes at or behind the line of scrimmage in 2018. Most of those plays aren't going to end up being successful.
Diggs hasn't forgotten how to be a great receiver; he is just being used a lot in meaningless situations. In 2017, Diggs had a 15.6 FC% and just ten failed receptions. He also was targeted just five time on screen passes in 2017, and only nine percent of his passes were at or behind the line of scrimmage. Last year, those numbers jumped to 18 and 21.3 percent, respectively. The Vikings kept giving him the ball on some of the least valuable plays in football, and he didn't turn that into a miracle. It padded his reception total and padded Kirk Cousins' completion total -- and added very, very little to Minnesota's chances of winning actual football games.
Deep-ball specialists make up the fewest failed receptions table. Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, A.J. Green, and Marvin Jones are all in the top ten in air yards per reception, and all 12 had their average catch at least 9 yards downfield, placing them in the top 40 among qualified receivers and tight ends in that stat. These are deep threats who aren't going to be running quick screens and digs.
Conversely, Ryan Switzer, Bruce Ellington, Randall Cobb, Evan Engram, and Golden Tate were in the bottom ten in air yards per reception, and 11 out of the 12 players on the list finished in the bottom 30 in air yards per catch. Christian Kirk is the one exception, squeaking into the bottom of the table despite his average catch coming 8.5 yards downfield; Arizona was often trying to dig itself out from significantly longer downs and distances.
Finally, let's look at the defenses' ability to create failed completions, with a comparison to how these units fared in 2017.
|Defenses: 2018 Failed Completions Compared to 2017|
|Rk||Team||Comp.||Failed||FC%||2017 Rk||2017 FC%||Diff||Rk|
These tables can be a bit misleading. Take Kansas City, for instance. Their FC% improved the most of any team last season, shooting them from dead last to 22nd on these tables. In 2017, 10 percent of opponents passes against Kansas City were failed completions, compared to 15 percent last season. That all sounds great, but there's a catch. The problem is that Chiefs opponents went from completing 57 percent of their passes in 2017 to 64 percent last season. Those extra failed completions weren't successful receptions that became failures thanks to better coverage and tackling; they're passes that were hitting the ground a year ago turning into small gains. Those are still net "wins" for the defense, but better results for the offense than they were getting two years ago. So, yes, the Chiefs "improved" in creating failed completions, but only because they got worse at forcing incompletions. Woo.
So, this list pops up some odd results. The Panthers appear near the top of this table, despite ranking 24th in pass DVOA in 2018. The Browns are down in 31st, despite being seventh in pass DVOA. This is clearly not a stat that shows the absolute best in pass defense.
That's not to say that this list is garbage-in, garbage-out. There's still a correlation between high FC% rates and pass defense. This is in large part a list of the teams that force the most checkdowns, dump-offs, and low-ALEX plays. There's a decent correlation to a powerful pass rush; six of the top ten teams on this list also appear in the top ten in pressure rate, and five of the bottom ten appear at the bottom of the pressure rate list. Many of the teams that saw significant improvements in their pass rush between 2017 and 2018 are either near the top of this list (Chicago, Baltimore, Minnesota) or saw their ranking jump significantly (New England, L.A. Rams, Kansas City).
Teams that force opposing quarterbacks into making decisions before they really want to and take away long-developing routes do very well here. The top ten teams had an average ALEX per completion of -3.4; the bottom ten had an average ALEX of -2.6. If you can consistently take away the deep pass, you're basically gifting your linebackers and cornerbacks the chance to make tackles in key positions, pumping up your FC%.
There's only a 0.24 year-to-year correlation in this stat, so teams that are at the top shouldn't get too comfy, and teams at the bottom should have hope. That being said, the Packers are the exception to the rule -- the one consistently terrible team in this metric. We started doing this study on a yearly basis in 2013, and Green Bay has been ranked 20th or worse every single year, and in the bottom seven in all but one season. The last three years, especially, have been terrible times for the Packers' pass defense, as opposing receivers have been able to run more or less freely through them. Green Bay has made defense a priority during free agency so far, adding Adrian Amos, Za'Darius Smith, and Preston Smith to the roster. They could use an extra cornerback in the draft, but maybe, after years of sitting on their hands in free agency, the Packers will find the defensive improvements they so desperately need.