High Highs and Low Lows with Justin Fields and Tom Brady
NFL Week 11 - Over the past month and change, you could argue that the most interesting quarterback in football has been Justin Fields—and it has been a long, long time since we have been able to say anything close to that about the quarterback for the Chicago Bears.
Fields' rushing stats speak for themselves. His 555 rushing yards since Week 6 are the most for any quarterback in a five-game stretch in the Super Bowl era. He has every shot at cracking Lamar Jackson's single-season record of 1,206 yards, or at least joining Jackson and Michael Vick as the only 1,000-yard rushing quarterbacks in NFL history. His advanced rushing numbers aren't quite as high, but he's sitting in third place with 168 DYAR in basically a statistical dead heat with Jackson and Josh Allen. All three quarterbacks are threatening 1990 Randall Cunningham's record of 297 rushing DYAR in what should be a fun race to watch down the stretch.
But Fields' passing numbers have improved dramatically, too. Fields started the year as arguably the worst passer in football, with a -50.5% passing DVOA over the first six weeks of the season. Then the Bears have started using his mobility as a weapon, and that has opened up the Chicago passing offense dramatically, to the point where we're seeing some NFL commentators argue that Fields has played himself into MVP consideration, with Dan Orlovsky citing his growth as a passer as one of the primary reasons that Fields has vaulted himself to the upper echelon of quarterbacks. And indeed, Fields' passing numbers have improved, all the way to…
Uh … a -8.8% DVOA over the past four weeks, 22nd among qualified passers. Huh.
Our own Derrik Klassen sums it up the best, honestly:
I don't think we need to make Justin Fields an MVP candidate to be excited about what he's done this year. Clear progress and we're finally seeing him be the best athlete on the field. That's cool!
— Derrik Klassen (@QBKlass) November 14, 2022
But, of course, calm rational analysis isn't the point of morning shows; they exist to make Bold, Declarative Statements! and to feed off the reactions they generate. It isn't really possible to back up Justin Fields, MVP talk with any sort of rational analysis—just as, say, ranking the Vikings top overall in a power rankings isn't backed up if you even take the slightest glance beyond the final scores in one week. But Bold, Declarative Statements generate conversation and opinions and, uh, articles when someone is scraping the barrel for content in a week.
What these sorts of shows really need, then, isn't Dan Orlovsky or Mike Florio. The ideal morning show duo would naturally be Pangloss and Chicken Little, to share nothing but the most optimistic and pessimistic takes even remotely supportable. Pangloss, there to share his unshakable optimism, singing the praises of Fields to the high heavens. (Did you know that if you just take out that one little game-losing interception against the Lions, Fields had a positive passing DVOA last week?) Chicken Little, there to provide the prophecies of impending disaster, bemoaning the decaying state of Tom Brady's game and saying he was playing bad even though he was third in passing DYAR even before the get-right German game.
Anyone who talks about football for a living has a little bit of Pangloss or Chicken Little in them, to be used appropriately, but why settle for the diluted version when we can go full strength! Let's turn over our statistical database to the two of them and see what they can't dig up.
Highs and Lows with Justin Fields
What do our new experts see when they look at Fields? If you look at the actual passing DVOA rankings, Fields is currently dead last with a -32.4% DVOA and -323 DYAR—he has clawed back some of the distance between himself and Baker Mayfield, but he had dug himself a huge hole to try to get out of to begin with.
But that hardly seems fair, does it? Of course Fields looks bad if you look at all the bad plays that have happened while he was playing quarterback! You can make anyone look bad if you focus on sacks and interceptions and other nasty plays like that. But Fields is young, he's developing! Pangloss would argue that you have to focus on the positive—the touchdown passes he throws, the big conversions he makes! Why, the DVOA table would look a lot different if you just focused on the times when Fields doesn't get into trouble. I mean, it's just mean to point out interceptions, sacks, incompletions, and failed completions. When you're evaluating a developing player, you want to consider him in the best of all possible worlds, right?
We actually can do that, silly premise aside. As a passer, only 36% of Fields dropbacks have been deemed successful, second-lowest in the league ahead of Russell Wilson. (As a reminder, a successful play is one that gains 45% of needed yards on first down, 60% on second down, and 100% on third or fourth down.) A success rate of 36% is … terrible. The league average is 45%, and Fields has even failed to hit that mark in two of his last four games. The top passers in the league all top 50%—rarified air shared by Patrick Mahomes, Tua Tagovailoa, Josh Allen, Geno Smith, and Jimmy Garoppolo.
… it's not strictly on the quarterback, I suppose.
But anyway. On those 36% of plays when Fields has gotten the job done? He has a 195.3% DVOA, the highest in the league of any passer on successful plays. Is that a goofy stat to highlight? Yes, of course it is. But it does help explain to why some people are so excited by Fields despite his objectively terrible numbers as a passer. When it does work, the results are great! No wonder Orlovsky has fallen in love. If you ignore all the sacks (where Fields has -611 DYAR, worst in the league) and the interceptions (-333 DYAR) and just look at the highlight reel, there may not be a more exciting quarterback in the NFL today!
Justin Fields has been ballin' the last few weeks. Starting to put it all together.pic.twitter.com/1KVxhAB5zC
— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) November 6, 2022
And, on the flip side, when things don't work out? Oh, boy, do they ever not work out.
Chicken Little would like to remind you that Fields was so poor of a passer to begin the season that we had an ongoing watch to see if he could complete as many passes as Cooper Kupp could have receptions. Mr. Little would also like to point out that, even after a more positive month, Fields still has a sack rate of 14.8% (highest in the league and most since Jake Plummer in 1997) and an interception rate of 3.4%. Because of all those sacks and interceptions, Fields has a passing DVOA of -174.8% on unsuccessful plays—which, again, are 64% of his dropbacks. Only Matt Ryan has had things go so badly when things fail. And it should be noted that this hasn't changed, even over the past month. Fields is still at -172.6% over the last four games, which, while not as bad as Josh Allen has been, is still in the bottom five among qualified passers.
JEFF OKUDAH PICK SIX
— Barstool Detroit (@BSMotorCity) November 13, 2022
Basically, when something goes right for Fields, it's generally stunning to watch. And when something goes wrong, it's a disaster. On Tuesday's FO DVOA Data Show, Vince Verhei said that Fields was becoming a must-watch player if you have a Sunday Ticket or RedZone package, because Fields is almost always going to do something huge—it's just a question as to which team it will actually benefit. Fields has had 30 of the dropbacks in the top 10% of DYAR this season, and 36 in the bottom 10%. That means 26.8% of Fields' dropbacks have been among the very best or very worst passing plays of the season, more than any other qualified passer. Add in his highlight-reel running plays and no, there is no better quarterback to watch if you're rooting for chaos of one sort or another.
But, of course, there are other quarterbacks in the league aside from Justin Fields. We can do this analysis for everyone! In fact, here's the table of all 33 qualified passers with their actual DYAR/DVOA, their Panglossian DYAR/DVOA on only successful plays, and their Chicken Little DYAR/DVOA on failures.
|Quarterbacks, Successful and Failed Passing Plays, 2022|
That's right, we're pretending this is actual stat analysis now, so look out.
Slow and Steady With Tom Brady
The polar opposite to Fields is Tom Brady, which is true statement on a vast number of levels.
JUSTIN FIELDS CAN'T BE STOPPED 💪
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 13, 2022
— NFL Deutschland (@NFLDeutschland) November 13, 2022
In this particular case, however, we're talking about successful plays versus failed plays. Brady is third in DYAR behind Tagovailoa and Mahomes this season, despite literally tens of thousands of articles this season written about how he's washed. It's not just his much better performance this week in Germany, either; after a slow start to the season, Brady entered the top five in passing DYAR three weeks ago and has only been climbing since. And why? Brady has the best DVOA in the league on failed dropbacks, sitting at -116.8%. Brady is coming off of nearly 400 consecutive pass attempts without an interception and still leads the league with a 0.5% interception rate. He also has the third-lowest sack rate at 3.2%. As Pangloss would point out, Brady's biggest strength this season has been avoiding disasters and living to play another down—a huge skill in close football games. Take Josh Allen, for instance. Among the top passers in the league, Allen has the most negative DYAR and DVOA on his failed plays, and wouldn't the Bills have beaten the Vikings or Jets had Allen just thrown a pass or two into the dirt? Avoiding killer mistakes has kept the Buccaneers in the playoff chase and competitive in games lesser quarterbacks would have thrown away.
But, as Chicken Little is quick to counter, Brady has the third-worst DVOA on successful dropbacks, only beating out Matthew Stafford and Kenny Pickett. So he's avoiding negative plays. So what? Even his best plays aren't knockout blows. Chain-moving conversions are great, of course, but where's the dagger over the top to knock someone out? The back-breaking 50-yard gain that immediately turns a drive into points? Playing competently down after down will beat the Rams and the Falcons of the world, but what about when you get into a shootout with someone who can flip the field in one go? Take Josh Allen, for instance. Allen's rocket arm and mobility have propelled the Bills to the top of the DVOA tables because he gives them the ability to score on nearly every play from anywhere on the field. Brady's dink-and-dunking going to match that? No, Chicken Little says. Brady's third-place DYAR is just lulling people into a false sense of security; the sky will fall when the chips are down!
If Fields is the player you most want to watch on highlights, Brady has been the opposite this season. Only 13.3% of his dropbacks have been in the top or bottom 10% this season, the lowest in the league by a substantial margin. Any given Brady play this year seems more likely to break yet another all-time record than it is to send the win probability graphs flying.
Which is better, Fields' boom-or-bust style or Brady's steady consistency? That's not a fair question, because Fields is still busting far, far too much compared to how often he booms. There's a bold take for you; the passer with the third-most DYAR in football is better than the passer with the 33rd-most DYAR, another of the trenchant analyses you have come to expect from the experts at Football Outsiders.
But what about more fair comparisons—the boom-and-bust Fields versus the less dramatic swings of a Kenny Pickett? Or the slow-and-steady Brady against the rollercoaster ride of the Josh Allen experience?
I don't think there's an objectively right or wrong answer there; it's all down to context about where a player is in their developmental curve and where a team is in their contending window and so on and so forth.
Personally, given two passers of roughly equal performance in terms of our advanced stats, I'd prefer to have a boom-and-bust guy if I'm developing a prospect. Show a skill that makes you special and trust the coaching staff to help shore up the areas of weakness you start out with. It gives you something to build towards. I'd be much happier as a Bears fan watching Fields than I would as a Steelers fan watching Pickett, even though Pickett has far more DYAR even after adding Fields' rushing value. So while, yeah, it's beyond crazy to be calling for Fields to be in the MVP conversation after a month of highlight runs and below-average passing, I get the optimism. Justin Fields is the best quarterback in football if you view the world solely through rose-colored glasses, and dreaming of what could be if they're able to build him up to even an average passer? Exciting stuff.
But if I'm contending right now? That's a much harder call. If my goals are just to get into the playoffs, I want me a slow-and-steady guy who will not throw the game away, and that's Brady to a tee. But if I have bigger aspirations and want to bring home a banner to fly forever, I think I want to put my chips in with the guys with the highest heights. The 2022 version of Brady is not going to win a game like last year's Bills-Chiefs playoff shootout, where Allen and Mahomes were trading haymakers all day long. In a must-win situation, I want one of those guys, even if they occasionally end up throwing the game away.
Odds and Ends and MVPs
Oh, why not? While I have all the spreadsheets open and active, let's take a quick look-see at the other major splits to follow as the season winds down, shall we?
Patrick Mahomes and Tua Tagovailoa are neck-and-neck in the passing DYAR race, not to mention less important things such as the race for the MVP award. Tagovailoa still has a hefty advantage in DVOA, but Mahomes has the volume to catch him, having missed less time and averaged a good seven more pass attempts per game than Tagovailoa. It should be a good race down the stretch; I'm intrigued to see how long Tagovailoa can keep his scorching pace.
Our breakdown of successful-versus-failed DYAR is an interesting way to look at the two. Mahomes is dominating Tagovailoa—and, indeed, the league in general—in DYAR generated on successful dropbacks, with 2,580 to his name. Tagovailoa, admittedly in part because he missed time, is only in ninth place there. But Tua also only has -834 DYAR lost on failed dropbacks, third-lowest among qualified starters. And neither Cooper Rush nor Joe Flacco are likely to be qualifiers when the season is over, barring injury, so Tagovailoa may well end up taking home the crown of Least Damage Done.
But we can break that down even further, and see the sorts of plays where Mahomes and Tagovailoa are building up their DYAR.
|Mahomes vs. Tagovailoa|
The narrative is that Tua is just living on the deep ball to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, and that they're the ones really driving his stats. And obviously it helps to have talent like that to throw the ball to. But Tagovailoa and Mahomes are basically in a dead heat in value generated off of deep shots—Tagovailoa is averaging about 0.8 more deep completions than Mahomes does and has a whopping 14-DYAR advantage to show for it. Meanwhile, Mahomes dwarfs Tagovailoa when it comes to value on the short passing game; he's averaging 24.3 short completions per game compared to Tagovailoa's 19.7 and has both a higher DVOA and higher success rate on them, so he's generating tons of value above and beyond Tagovailoa there. If you only look at plays where passes are completed, Mahomes has been the best passer in football bar none. Your Panglossian MVP, as it were.
But not all passes are completed, as it turns out, and it's there where Tua has really shined this season. Tagovailoa has the second-lowest sack rate at 3.1%, the fourth-lowest interception rate at 1.2%, and the second-highest completion rate at 71.0%. Add it all together, and only 30.9% of Tagovilaoa's dropbacks have not ended in a completed pass, compared to 35.7% for Mahomes. That's not an insignificant difference! Tagovailoa also has a better DVOA on those non-completions at -146.2% to -162.3%, mostly because Mahomes not only has thrown more interceptions, but they have been in costlier situations.
The average Tua interception comes on a pseudo-Hail Mary deep shot; two of his three picks were thrown at least 34 yards downfield, and one was on fourth down. For the most part, they're bad punts. Conversely, six of Mahomes' seven interceptions were listed as short, with four of them travelling less than 10 yards through the air and two of them being short of the first-down marker anyway. Take interceptions out of the equation and nearly half of the gap between the DVOAs of the two players vanishes—and that's just 10 plays over ten weeks.
So that's the $64,000 question, isn't it? Can Tagoaviloa keep avoiding negative plays at rates beyond not only what he has been able to do in the NFL to this point, but also better than he was able to do at Alabama? It seems unlikely, doesn't it? But then again, MVP seasons are, by their very nature, unlikely. Maybe it's just my inner Chicken Little coming out when I assume Tagovailoa will regress some over the back half of the season. Because if he doesn't, it will be hard to argue against him when it comes time to hand out awards.