In baseball, the three true outcomes of any at bat are a walk, a strikeout, and a home run. These are plays where the results are determined solely by the pitcher and batter. The defense doesn't have an impact on the play. Outfielders don't chase after tailing line drives. Pitchers don't flip to first. A scorcher into left field doesn't roll past a diving infielder. Instead, there is a pure battle between two individuals.
In football, actions like these are almost impossible to find. Each play has 22 men of an infinite number of sizes and shapes squashing, and slapping, and pushing, to work together to stop or move the football. Kickoffs out of the end zone are the singular occasion where a player operates in isolation. Every other play requires someone working with someone else against someone else. Even a punt returner calling for a fair catch takes place after a snap that can be mismanaged before possession changes.
Isolated plays between two players don't exist in football, but what we can find in football, in a similar sense, are plays that have a final result like walks, strikeouts, and home runs do, that also occur between as few as players as possible. Fumbles lead to chaotic leaping. Like rushing attempts, completions give various players the opportunity to run with the ball. Incompletions are affected by an infinite expanse of variables. These plays don't fit this criteria.
Touchdowns and interceptions end drives. Tackles end plays, but sacks end a play before the burden is given to someone else. These plays bring finality and closure. For a quarterback, touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks are the closest equivalent to baseball's three true outcomes (TTOs).
Since 1920, there have been 1,855 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 200 pass attempts in a season, but lost yardage on passing attempts wasn't tracked until 1961, and sacks weren't tracked for individual defensive players until 1982. The only way to accumulate the three true quarterback outcomes accurately is by starting with 1982 since sack data from earlier seasons isn't comprehensive. After combining these three plays together, there's one quarterback who stands above them all.
Jameis Winston's 2019 season was historical for all the right and wrong reasons. He's infamous for being the first quarterback to throw at least 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a single season. After taking in account the number of times he was sacked, a hilarious 47, Winston set the single-season NFL record with 110 plays that ended in either a touchdown, an interception, or a sack.
33 touchdowns. He heaved fades down the sideline, squirted quick slants in the red zone, reaped the awards of Chris Godwin stampeding after the catch, and even tossed a softball to Vita Vea into the flat.
30 interceptions. He stared through linebackers cloistered under invisibility cloaks, floated extraterrestrial passes that somehow found themselves illuminating above perplexed defenders, attempted out routes against corners with outside leverage, and saw passes bounce off his receivers' hands right to a defender. All of it culminated in his final pass with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a walk-off overtime pick-six thrown to Atlanta's Deion Jones to end the 2019 regular season. It's beautiful when things end up perfect and square.
47 sacks. Winston was splattered from behind after living lifetimes searching for a throwing option, obliterated by pressure surrounding him immediately after the play-action fake was carried out, devoured by deep-sea death marches swirling around the pocket, failed to escape after a defender wrangled him around his heels, suffocated under the gluttonous weight of interior pressure, and was surprised by blind-side pass-rushers slapping the ball out of his suddenly empty throwing hand.
Winston's 2019 season was one of the most extraordinary seasons in the history of the NFL. Winston is the all-time single-season leader with 110 TTOs. There isn't a wide gap between his kingdom at the top of the leaderboard and second place though.
|Single-Season Three True Outcome Leaders, 1982-2019|
Jon Kitna finished with 106 TTOs while quarterbacking the Detroit Lions in 2006. He threw 21 touchdowns and 22 interceptions, and led the NFL by taking 63 sacks. He held his position at the top for 13 seasons. Behind him was Blake Bortles. In 2015 Bortles had the A-Team of Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns running up and down the sideline. Bortles threw 35 touchdowns and 18 interceptions while taking 51 sacks.
Only six quarterbacks managed to produce 100 TTOs in a single season, including Lynn Dickey, who held the record starting in 1983 until Steve Beuerlein tied him in 1993. And of course, David Carr, who made the leaderboard despite scant interception and touchdown numbers, all because he was sacked an NFL-record 76 times.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are quarterbacks who had the most banal and listless seasons. Among all passers with at least 200 pass attempts, Brian Hoyer's 10 TTOs with the Bears in 2016 are the lowest mark, followed by Ravens-era Steve McNair, Steve Walsh, Kerry Collins, and Doug Flutie. These were often game-managing backup quarterbacks who made a few spot starts.
|Fewest Three True Outcomes, Single Season, 1982-2019|
|Minimum 200 passes.|
The 2019 "leader" in this category was Washington's Case Keenum, who had 31 TTOs (11 touchdowns, five interceptions, 15 sacks) in 247 pass attempts.
This is a quirky yet incomplete list that doesn't encapsulate those quarterbacks diametrically opposed to Winston, Kitna, and Bortles. The average number of passing attempts in this data set is 379. This figure can be used as a baseline marker as a way to narrow the focus on quarterbacks who were their team's primary starter.
|Fewest Three True Outcomes, Starting QBs, Single Season, 1982-2019|
|Minimum 379 passes|
Kerry Collins is the conservative leader here for managing the 2008 Tennessee Titans to a league best 13-3 record that ended in a 13-10 divisional-round loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Among quarterbacks listed here, Collins, Jim Miller, Troy Aikman, Neil O'Donnell, and Steve McNair led their teams to the postseason. The 1995 Super Bowl showcased two quarterbacks on this list when Aikman and O'Donnell "dueled" in a 27-17 Cowboys victory. Each of these quarterbacks benefited from playing with a top-ten scoring defense; aside from O'Donnell, each of their defenses made the top three. The 1995 Cowboys were the only team with a top-ten scoring offense. They finished third because Emmitt Smith had 25 rushing touchdowns, which was eight more touchdowns than Aikman had passing.
The teams that finished with losing records all had below-average defenses except for Joey Harrington's 2006 Dolphins, who went 6-10 despite having a top-five scoring defense. These teams had a combined record of 25-55 and a win percentage of .312. They allowed an average of 380 points a season and ranked 23rd in points allowed on average.
Harrington and Joe Flacco are the only quarterbacks on this list twice. Harrington's teams had a record of 9-23. Even on a second go-around with a top-five defense he couldn't win. Flacco's 2018 age-33 season led to him being benched for Lamar Jackson after Baltimore started 4-5. Jackson led the Ravens to a 6-1 finish and secured Baltimore a postseason berth.
The 2019 "leader" in this category was Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, who had 48 TTOs (26 touchdowns, five interceptions, 17 sacks) in 484 pass attempts. We should also mention New Orleans' Drew Brees -- with 378 passes, he missed the cutoff by just one throw, but he only had 43 TTOs (27 touchdowns, four interceptions, 12 sacks).
The last batch of quarterbacks to review are those who played before sack statistics were clearly documented. These are quarterbacks that lived and died on touchdown passes and interceptions before 1982.
|Two True Outcome Leaders, pre-1982|
Both John Hadl and Babe Parilli were close to being the first members of the 30-30 club. Hadl missed it by three touchdowns short while Parilli fell three interceptions short of Winston's absurdist 2019 season. Sid Luckman is the only quarterback on this list to play before the 1960s. He was an All-Pro player who almost eclipsed a 10% interception rate, throwing 31 interceptions on only 323 attempts.
Blanda is the name that stands among all others on this list. He played football over the span of four decades. He sat out the 1959 season with Chicago because he felt he wasn't paid what he was worth, and started a second career in Houston in the 1960s. There the Oilers won two AFL championships. Blanda eventually moved to Oakland where he was the kicker and backup quarterback, but before that, he dominated the touchdown and interception categories. In 1961 he threw a then-record 36 touchdowns. The following season he followed that up with 27 touchdowns and 42 interceptions, which is still the single-season record to this day.
Blanda managed to break double-digits with an interception rate was 10.1%. With 200 pass attempts as a minimum threshold, this is the fifth-highest in the history of professional football. Eddie LeBaron had a 11.1% interception rate in with the expansion Dallas Cowboys in 1960 over 10 starts and 225 pass attempts. Sadly, Eddie only threw 12 touchdowns that season.
Winston isn't the first of his kind. He's the successor to quarterbacks such as Blanda, Lamonica, and Hadl, quarterbacks who found the center, who lived between the duality of success and failure, touchdowns and interceptions. Quarterbacks are made of quarterbacks. And of them, Winston can be seen as a spiritual successor to Blanda himself.
Now all Winston has to do is learn how to place kick.
Matt Weston writes about the Houston Texans, and the NFL in general, at Battle Red Blog, SB Nation's Houston Texans' site. You can follow him on Twitter @Matt__Weston.