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Quarterback performance on third and fourth downs

So far this season, teams have converted on 37.2% of all pass plays on third or fourth downs. Looking at success rates on these downs helps to identify which quarterbacks are keeping drives alive for their teams and coming through in the most important situations. For example, Peyton Manning leads the league with an impressive 52.6% rate. How impressive is that?

The table below lists the conversion rates for quarterbacks on passing plays (excluding scrambles) on third and fourth downs; the table is sorted by the far right column, which shows how many third downs over average each quarterback converted. This is calculated by subtracting from the number of actual conversions the number of expected conversions (which is 37.2% multiplied by the number of third down plays):

1Peyton Manning784152.6%12
2Ben Roethlisberger974647.4%9.9
3Matt Ryan793949.4%9.6
4Drew Brees1044745.2%8.3
5Andrew Luck994444.4%7.1
6Matthew Stafford1024544.1%7
7Tom Brady863844.2%6
8Matt Schaub723244.4%5.2
9Matt Hasselbeck783443.6%5
10Matt Cassel713143.7%4.6
11Ryan Fitzpatrick803442.5%4.2
12Tony Romo913841.8%4.1
13Michael Vick953941.1%3.6
14Aaron Rodgers943739.4%2
15Jay Cutler843339.3%1.7
16Christian Ponder943537.2%0
17Philip Rivers843035.7%-1.3
18Ryan Tannehill782734.6%-2
19Eli Manning893134.8%-2.1
20Alex Smith612032.8%-2.7
21Josh Freeman802733.8%-2.8
22Kevin Kolb682232.4%-3.3
23Sam Bradford872933.3%-3.4
24Mark Sanchez963233.3%-3.7
25Russell Wilson832732.5%-3.9
26Brandon Weeden1113733.3%-4.3
27John Skelton591627.1%-6
28Robert Griffin III782329.5%-6
29Carson Palmer922830.4%-6.3
30Cam Newton681927.9%-6.3
31Joe Flacco782126.9%-8
32Blaine Gabbert842226.2%-9.3
33Andy Dalton771620.8%-12.7

Peyton Manning has been exceptional on third downs, with Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan not far behind him. On the other side of the coin, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, and Cam Newton have struggled with higher expectations in 2012, particularly on third downs.

But not all third downs are created equally. The number of yards needed is obviously strongly correlated with the success rate:

1-2 yds34518453.3%
3-4 yds46122448.6%
5-6 yds53923142.9%
7-10 yds96533034.2%
11-14 yds2857024.6%
15-20 yds2132712.7%
21+ yds5500%

It makes no sense to group all third down conversions together when the amount of yards needed is such a critical element. So here’s what I did. For each quarterback’s third or fourth down passing play, I credited him with the expected number of first downs based on the amount of yards to go. So if a quarterback had a 3rd and 5, I credited him with 0.429 expected first downs. If he threw for a first down, he gets credit for +0.571 first downs above average; if he fails, he gets credited with being 0.429 first downs below average. Add that up for each quarterback in each situation, and you can get a true measure of how each quarterback fared on third downs.

For each quarterback, the table below lists his number of third/fourth down pass plays, number of converted third/fourth downs, his expected first down rate based on the yards to go in each situation, his actual first down conversion rate, and the difference between those two numbers. The final two columns show the number of expected first downs (based on the amount of yards to do in each third/fourth down) and the far right column shows the number of first downs converted over average.

1Peyton Manning784139.3%52.6%13.330.610.4
2Ben Roethlisberger974637.1%47.4%10.43610
3Matt Ryan793938.8%49.4%10.630.68.4
4Andrew Luck994437%44.4%7.536.67.4
5Tom Brady863836%44.2%
6Matt Cassel713135.3%43.7%8.325.15.9
7Matthew Stafford1024538.5%44.1%5.639.35.7
8Drew Brees1044740.3%45.2%4.941.95.1
9Matt Hasselbeck783437.3%43.6%6.329.14.9
10Michael Vick953936%41.1%534.24.8
11Tony Romo913836.9%41.8%4.933.54.5
12Matt Schaub723239.4%44.4%
13Jay Cutler843334.9%39.3%4.329.43.6
14Ryan Fitzpatrick803438.3%42.5%
15Aaron Rodgers943737.2%39.4%2.2352
16Ryan Tannehill782735.5%34.6%-0.927.7-0.7
17Philip Rivers843036.8%35.7%-1.130.9-0.9
18Josh Freeman802735.6%33.8%-1.828.5-1.5
19Christian Ponder943539.2%37.2%-236.8-1.8
20Kevin Kolb682235.2%32.4%-2.823.9-1.9
21Alex Smith612036.9%32.8%-4.122.5-2.5
22Cam Newton681933.6%27.9%-5.722.8-3.8
23Carson Palmer922835%30.4%-4.632.2-4.2
24Sam Bradford872938.3%33.3%-533.3-4.3
25Robert Griffin III782335.1%29.5%-5.627.4-4.4
26Mark Sanchez963238.3%33.3%-4.936.7-4.7
27Eli Manning893140.6%34.8%-5.836.1-5.1
28John Skelton591636.2%27.1%-921.3-5.3
29Brandon Weeden1113738.3%33.3%-542.6-5.6
30Russell Wilson832739.8%32.5%-7.333-6
31Joe Flacco782136.2%26.9%-9.228.2-7.2
32Blaine Gabbert842235.7%26.2%-9.530-8
33Andy Dalton771636.5%20.8%-15.828.1-12.1

If you sort by the “Exp1D_Rt” column you get a sense of which quarterbacks throw most frequently on third/fourth down in easy situations. Drew Brees ranked 4th in raw third down conversion percentage, but after adjusting for distance, he drops to 8th. Eli Manning takes an even more severe hit, and he ranks just 27th in adjusted third down success. On the other hand, Cam Newton has been placed in the worst third down position, which I noted a couple of weeks ago.

The AFC North holds the #2 quarterback in third/fourth down performance, Ben Roethlisberger, and then three of the worst five quarterbacks in these situations. Andrew Luck has been magnificent on third down, one of the reasons he ranks highly in ESPN’s Total QBR. But for now, Peyton Manning remains the king.

  • Bob

    Good article as usual. There’s a typo: RGIII is listed as Robert Griffith.

    • Chase Stuart

      Thanks Bob. Fixed.

  • Independent George

    Hmmm. That Peyton Manning fellow just might be pretty good, eh?

    I don’t have a link, but I remember FO discussed the Manning effect a while back. It was from the early days, where they were explaining their methodoogy in on how teams with unusually good or bad DVOA on third downs tend to regress towards their 1st & 2nd down averages the next year. The exception to this was always the Indianapolis Colts offense, whose third-down DVOA was consistently higher than expected.