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Quarterback Passing Value and First Downs

Nine days ago, I looked at the leaders in passing value, measured as the difference between each quarterback’s ANY/A average and league average, multiplied by such passer’s number of dropbacks. This is the conventional method I have used to measure passing value, but that doesn’t make it the best.

Over the summer, Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics fame, helped me determine the value of first down. His research concluded that a first down was worth about 9 marginal yards. I was short on time, so I didn’t have the chance to incorporate that into my formula last week. But I will rectify that today.

In addition, I will provide -30 yards for each “net fumble” — defined as fumbles minus fumbles recovered. And since last week I calculated the numbers relative to average, this time around I will compare player production to replacement value, defined as 80% of league average.1

Let’s use Aaron Rodgers as an example. The Packers star has thrown 458 times for 3,837 yards, 35 touchdowns (+700), with 5 interceptions (-225), 9 fumbles, and 5 fumble recoveries (-120). He has also been sacked 27 times and lost 166 yards on those plays. Finally, Rodgers has picked up 188 first downs (+1692), which means he has a total of 5,718 adjusted net yards. Over his 485 dropbacks, that gives him an average of 11.79 “ANY/A”, while the league average is 8.91. That means Rodgers has produced 1,397 yards of value over average, and 2,261 yards of value over replacement.

1Aaron RodgersGB458188413837355271669511.7913972261
2Peyton ManningDEN51619938.641433711141044111.2912632208
3Ben RoethlisbergerPIT54521539.44415298321667210.8411142142
4Drew BreesNO5742243943583112221315410.569832045
5Andrew LuckIND57822338.6449238142616012410.318481924
6Tom BradyNE53120338.2384732816916110.448401815
7Tony RomoDAL38116242.53188288282045111.068781607
8Matt RyanATL54120237.34112271225170409.965981606
9Joe FlaccoBAL469169363479239161282210.166061470
10Philip RiversSD48218137.63639271327139659.935191426
11Ryan FitzpatrickHOU31211938.1248317821835410.274541048
12Matthew StaffordDET52218134.73797191039225738.93131013
13Alex SmithKC41915937.9295418639200429.2135951
14Eli ManningNYG516186363590261327182708.85-30937
15Brian HoyerCLE42516037.63192111221138429.22141935
16Russell WilsonSEA39613734.6289718638215958.9519792
17Ryan TannehillMIA50418737.13390221138273948.48-234732
18Carson PalmerARI2248236.616261139593210.13284699
19Andy DaltonCIN418138333008151418101318.62-125652
20Kirk CousinsWAS2047536.81710109870209.67161539
21Jay CutlerCHI52517433.136402818362161248.02-498502
22Kyle OrtonBUF37512533.3251314829165218.32-236484
23Derek AndersonCAR974445.4701504172211.68280460
24Charlie WhitehurstTEN1575333.81254621474219.69134438
25Nick FolesPHI31110132.521631310974418.49-133437
26Drew StantonARI2407732.11711751166108.86-13434
27Colin KaepernickSF42814834.63051161049307738.02-423426
28Mark SanchezPHI2238337.2175210916108638.77-33393
29Cam NewtonCAR40113734.22812161136292837.84-465314
30Mike GlennonTB2036431.514171061691238.5-89301
31Austin DavisSTL28410637.3200112929179528.05-267290
32Teddy BridgewaterMIN35111733.32451111032209317.85-407275
33Shaun HillSTL1605433.81124641267648.27-109197
34EJ ManuelBUF1313929.883853644118.1-110134
35Colt McCoyWAS1284434.410574317117628.01-131128
36Zach MettenbergerTEN1795631.314128718138407.63-25299
37Jimmy GaroppoloNE1055092102170011.673354
38Logan ThomasARI8112.58110211009.91028
39Blaine GabbertSF7228.63810000010.861426
40Ryan NassibNYG52406000211119.57517
41T.J. YatesATL43756401000011.51017
42Brandon WeedenDAL401537.52602219107.46-5914
43Ryan MallettHOU752330.74002215007.26-12510
44Matt MooreMIA4250210000009.75310
45Matt SimmsNYJ8225390000007.13-140
46Matt HasselbeckIND4125200000007.25-70
47Matt BarkleyPHI10000000000-9-7
48Chase DanielKC10000000000-9-7
49Kellen ClemensSD3133.3100019002.5-26-19
50Jimmy ClausenCHI9111.1420019004.2-47-29
51Ryan LindleyARI10110300000003.9-50-32
52Matt McGloinOAK19631.61291218005.25-73-38
53Tom SavageHOU19631.61270115215.05-77-42
54Brock OsweilerDEN800130000001.63-58-44
55Jake LockerTEN1464732.2993571485326.79-339-54
56Jason CampbellCIN19315.8740010103.55-107-72
57Derek CarrOAK52914527.42898181120116736.98-1059-81
58Josh McCownTB2788430.21944101226163956.83-631-90
59Matt FlynnGB15320600115100.44-136-107
60Matt CasselMIN712129.642534639325.52-261-124
61Chad HenneJAC781924.44923116105105.78-294-127
62Robert Griffin IIIWAS150453011383328185726.37-453-136
63Christian PonderMIN441329.522202634004.3-230-141
64Johnny ManzielCLE27518.514302326112.4-195-142
65Matt SchaubOAK10440570232431-6.23-197-174
66Geno SmithNYJ3159429.8195791225150756.57-796-190
67Michael VickNYJ1213327.3604321985524.97-551-302
68Blake BortlesJAC44212929.22791111750317636.1-1383-506
  • This year, quarterbacks have thrown for a first down on 35.2% of pass attempts (excluding sacks). Perhaps the quarterback who has been the most impressive this year when it comes to picking up first downs is…. Tony Romo? Yes, DeMarco Murray has taken the headlines, but Romo has thrown for a first down on an incredibble 42.5% of his pass attempts this year, the most of any full-time passer. On average, his first downs have come with the Cowboys needing to gain 7.35 yards; that’s slightly above average, and it’s reasonable to conclude that he’s been helped by Murray putting Dallas in favorable down and distances (and limiting his first down pass attempts).
  • Rodgers is your likely MVP this year, and for good reason. Not only does he easily lead all quarterbacks in value over average in this metric, but he’s also first in value over replacement, and second in first downs per pass attempt. It is not a historically great season, but Rodgers has been outstanding.
  • No quarterback has struggled to move the chains quite like Derek Carr. Just 27% of the Raiders rookie’s pass attempts have picked up a first down. Not surprisingly, he’s joined by fellow rookie Blake Bortles and second-year quarterback Geno Smith at the bottom of the first down standings.
  • If you don’t know how to analyze quarerback stats, you might wonder what’s going on with the Jay Cutler narrative. The Bears quarterback has thrown for 28 touchdowns and completed 66.1% of his passes! Doesn’t that mean he’s good? Well, not so much. His 18 interceptions and 12 fumbles (8 lost) are both league-leading figures, and his 10.5 yards-per-catch average is the lowest of his career. As a result, he gets graded as above replacement but below average, which seems to jive with what the eye test will tell you. But it’s certainly a reminder that passing numbers need to be era-adjusted when a player with 28 touchdowns and a 66% completion percentage gets benched.
  • Andrew Luck is having his finest season as a pro, but it’s worth noting he has struggled a bit with turnovers this year. The Colts quarterback ranked 6th in interception rate a year ago, but he has 22 turnovers in 2014. While he leads the NFL in passing yards and passing touchdowns, he ranks “only” 5th in value over replacement and sixth (behind Romo) in value over average.

Let me know your thoughts about this adjusted formula. It certainly takes a bit more time to calculate that standard ANY/A, but I am more confident in these results.

  1. Customarily, I use 75%, but I think with the first down bonus, 80% makes more sense here. []
  • Monte

    Would be great to regress these components onto future ANY/A. My gut is that 1st downs are more luck than the other components, would be interesting to see if that’s true.

  • E&J

    The “net fumbles” formula seems uncalled for, since you can find “fumbles lost” for modern players just as easily as you found “passing first downs.” For a player like Russell Wilson who has nine fumbles, but hasn’t lost any, how does crediting him with five net fumbles(four recoveries) and making the associated deduction give you an accurate picture of his production?

    • James

      I think it’s easy to argue that fumbles recovered by a teammate shouldn’t count towards the QB’s stats, since a teammate making up for a mistake by the QB is out of the QB’s control.

      • E&J

        Tipped interceptions and poorly run routes are out of a quarterback’s control as well, but we’re not making concessions for those.

  • Red

    I like this version better. First downs are a very good proxy for success rate, and show that a QB is consistently moving his offense down the field. However, I’d prefer you use total dropbacks in the denominator for 1stDown%, since a sack is a pass play that failed to pick up a first down.

    Monte, QB first downs are actually very stable from year to year. I haven’t done any regressions, but I have the data going back 20+ years, and 1stD% is a good predictor of future success. Unlike comp%, which is inflated by failed completions, and unlike Y/A which is distorted by long plays, 1stD% is a pretty “clean” statistic.

  • Pip

    Wow, wasnt expecting to see Cam as worse than Sanchez, Whitehurst, Kap, and Cousins.

    Going by the dreaded “eye test” it seemed like he was making better decisions and going through his reads far more consistently than in the past, but I guess that’s not the case as several of those yards and touchdowns have come in non competitive time