The New York Jets have the second best completion percentage in the NFL through five weeks. That’s a shocking thing to say for many reasons, including the key fact that 38-year-old Josh McCown has taken every snap at quarterback for the team this season. The Jets are completing 71.6% of their passes, which is truly remarkable for this franchise.
Today I want to compare the 2017 Jets to their predecessors from 45 years earlier. The 1972 Jets were an interesting team. That year produced a low key entry for the best Joe Namath season: he went 7-6 (missing one game due to injury) but led the NFL in passing yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt, Net Yards per Attempt, and Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. Namath was the best QB in the NFL that year, and was named a first-team All-Pro by the Pro Football Writers, the NEA, and Pro Football Weekly.1 But Namath completed just 50% of his passes that year, and as a team, the Jets completed just 49.6% of their passes.
It’s easy to look at the 2017 Jets with their 71.6% completion rate — a whopping 22 points higher than the ’72 squad — and conclude that, era adjustments aside, the 2017 Jets passing offense is more efficient. To be clear, era adjustments are enormously important when comparing passers across eras. You almost never want to compare players from different eras without making those adjustments. But today is the rare day where that’s not where I want us to focus. Because as discussed yesterday, completion percentage ignores two key elements of a passing game.
- Sack Rate.
- Namath had a 3.3% sack rate that season, and the Jets as a team had a 4.7% sack rate (yes, the Jets backup quarterback was sacked 6 times and had just 22 pass attempts, while Namath took just 11 sacks in 13 starts. Namath remains underrated by the general public in part because of his legendary ability to avoid sacks (which, of course, tanked his completion percentage).
- The iteration of that Jets team 45 years later is not so adept: the 2017 Jets have a 9.2% sack rate. McCown has taken 15 sacks this year, many in situations where a better quarterback would have thrown it away (or completed a pass).
- First Downs per Completed Pass.
- When Namath was throwing passes, he was moving the chains. A whopping 68% of the completed passes thrown by the 1972 Jets went for first downs.
- Not so much under McCown: just 47% of completed passes have gone for first downs.
The 1972 Jets had 364 dropbacks (pass attempts plus sacks) and threw for 117 first downs. That translates to 32% of all pass plays turning into a first down. The 2017 Jets have had 163 dropbacks, and have thrown for 50 first downs. That translates to 31% of all pass plays turning into a first down.2
Make sure you re-read that again to see how remarkable that is: despite the 22% advantage in completion percentage, the 2017 Jets are actually picked up first downs at a lower overall rate than the 1972 Jets passing attack. This isn’t on a per completed pass basis, but a per pass play basis! That’s how much the NFL today is different than the NFL of 1972.
The 2017 Jets, as it turns out, are the team most focused on completing passes rather than throwing for first downs. I put together a quick table (prior to last night’s game between Minnesota and Chicago) of passing stats through five weeks. Here’s how to read the Jets line.
Through five games, the Jets have completed 71.6% of their passes. They have a Z-Score of 1.83, which means the Jets are completing passes at a rate that is 1.83 standard deviations higher than average. They also rank 2nd in completion percentage. But the Jets have taken 15 sacks and only have 50 passing first downs. The Jets “passing first downs per pass play” rate — the 1D% column — is 30.7%. That is 0.51 standard deviations below average, so they have a Z-Score of 1D% of -0.53. The Jets rank 21st in percentage of pass plays that have picked up a first down. Finally, to compare the two categories, I subtracted each team’s Z-Score in 1D% from its Z-Score in Cmp%: so for the Jets, you take 1.83 and subtract -0.51, which gives you a grade of 2.34, which shows how biased in the direction of completion percentage the Jets offense has been. That’s the strongest in the league.
|Rk||Team||G||Cmp||Att||Cmp%||Z-Score||Cmp% Rk||Sk||1D||1D %||Z-Score||1D% Rk||Comp Z|
|1||New York Jets||5||106||148||71.6%||1.83||2||15||50||30.7%||-0.51||21||2.34|
|3||New York Giants||5||137||202||67.8%||0.98||5||13||64||29.8%||-0.76||26||1.74|
|8||Kansas City Chiefs||5||121||158||76.6%||2.95||1||17||72||41.1%||2.42||1||0.53|
|9||Green Bay Packers||5||127||190||66.8%||0.76||6||19||71||34%||0.42||12.5||0.34|
|16||New Orleans Saints||4||105||152||69.1%||1.27||3||4||57||36.5%||1.13||6||0.14|
|19||San Francisco 49ers||5||115||194||59.3%||-0.92||29.5||15||61||29.2%||-0.93||27||0.01|
|23||New England Patriots||5||133||195||68.2%||1.07||4||16||79||37.4%||1.38||4||-0.31|
|29||Los Angeles Chargers||5||116||194||59.8%||-0.8||28||6||68||34%||0.42||12.5||-1.22|
|30||Los Angeles Rams||5||102||166||61.4%||-0.45||22.5||6||64||37.2%||1.32||5||-1.77|
|32||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||4||94||155||60.6%||-0.63||25||7||63||38.9%||1.8||2||-2.43|
The team most focused on picking up 1st downs rather than completing passes would be the Tampa Bay Bucs under Jameis Winston. The Bucs only rank 25th in completion percentage, which sounds pretty bad. But they rank 2nd in 1st down percentage, which sounds really good! The Chiefs are first in both categories — yeah, they’re having that sort of season — but Tampa Bay has been great at picking up first downs. In fact, 67% of Winston’s completions have gone for a first down, which is Namath-like. And Winston has a pretty good sack rate, too (4.3%). So when it comes to the Jets and the Bucs, completion percentage doesn’t tell a very useful story.
- Namath was a 2nd-team choice by the AP, which went with Earl Morrall, 9-0 QB of the undefeated Dolphins, as their first-team choice. But it’s not controversial to say that Namath was the best QB in the NFL that year, given that he led in ANY/A and won the majority vote for best QB, and also beat out Morrall in the organizations that made All-Conference (Sporting News and UPI) votes rather than All-Pro votes. Of the five organizations that chose between Namath and Morrall, only one went with Morrall. [↩]
- Note that this includes Namath’s backup, who was terrible, and a long completion by the Jets punter on a fake. Namath in ’72 probably picked up a first down on 33-34% of his pass plays, while McCown is at 30% this year. [↩]