No offense has had it easier this year than the Denver Broncos. What do I mean by that? Denver ranks 4th in points allowed, at 276, but that’s a little misleading. The Broncos have thrown three pick sixes, all from Peyton Manning, and those have put 20 points on the scoreboard (one pick six was followed by a failed two-point attempt). In addition, Denver’s defense/special teams has scored six touchdowns. Those obviously go in the “Points Scored” column for Denver, but in terms of the offense, they didn’t earn those points. So instead, let’s subtract all non-offensive touchdowns scored by the Broncos by the points allowed by Denver. Do that, and the Broncos defense has allowed 214 net points, after excluding pick sixes and crediting the defense for non-offensive touchdowns.
That’s the fewest in the NFL. Last offseason, I wrote an article about Andrew Luck and quarterback help. It was pretty basic, but I found it interesting enough to recreate today. Here is the methodology:
1) Calculate how many standard deviations from average each team is in net points allowed (negative means fewer points allowed).1 For example, the standard deviation in net points allowed is 51.6, and the average is 310.4; that means the Broncos have been 1.87 standard deviations better than average in net points.
The Saints, meanwhile, have allowed 425 net points, which is 2.22 standard deviations worse than average.
2) Calculate the percentage of offensive plays that involve the quarterback.2 In other words, this is quarterback pass attempts + sacks + quarterback runs, divided by total offensive plays. Jacksonville leads the way here, as Jaguars quarterbacks (which is entirely made up of Blake Bortles) have been involved on 69.9% of all Jaguars offensive plays.
The average team’s quarterback is involved on 64.1% of plays, and the standard deviation is 3.74%. This means the Jaguars quarterbacks are involved very frequently — in fact, 1.56 standard deviations above average. Conversely, Rams quarterbacks have been involved on only 56.5% of plays, which is 2.03 standard deviations below average.
3) Add the two standard deviations to see how much each team relied on each quarterback the most. For these purposes, a bad defense gets a positive number — for allowing more points than average — which a heavy reliance on the quarterback also gets a positive number. So the larger the total number, the more that is asked of that quarterback.
Let’s use three teams as an example: as it turns out, there’s a three-way tie at the top. We already noted that the Jaguars offense leans heavily on Bortles (+1.56); well, Jacksonville’s defense isn’t very good, as it is 1.16 standard deviations below average. Add those numbers, and you get +2.72.
The Saints defense is terrible, checking in at 2.22 standard deviations below average. And New Orleans relies on the quarterback — generally Drew Brees — more than the average team, 0.49 standard deviations above average. Together, those numbers also add up to +2.72. Finally, let’s look at the Cleveland Browns, who have similar numbers to Jacksonville. The Browns have involved their quarterbacks (mostly Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel) in 69.4% of plays (+1.43) and play alongside a defense that has allowed 377 net points (+1.29).
The table below shows this information for all 32 teams:
|Rk||Team||Net PA||QB Perc||Z-Score NPA||Z-Score QBP||Total|
You may have noticed that the titular character in today’s post has yet to make an appearance. Well, scroll to the bottom of the table above. Minnesota quarterbacks (almost entirely Teddy Bridgewater) has been involved on only 56.7% of all Vikings plays. That’s 1.98 standard deviations below average. In addition, Minnesota’s got a very good defense that ranks 1.07 standard deviations better than average in net points allowed. Add those two numbers together, and you get -3.06. That number doesn’t mean much in the abstract, of course, but it is a pretty significant outlier, as only three teams are within one standard deviation of that number.
What does this mean? Well, I think the simplest takeaway is that Teddy Bridgewater has it pretty good. He has a lot of help, in the form of Adrian Peterson. So, too, does whoever is playing quarterback for the Rams, courtesy of Todd Gurley and a very good defense.3 I don’t think it’s “surprising” to see Minnesota and St. Louis at the bottom of this list. Again, the goal here is not to reinvent the wheel, but to quantify what we know: and we know that the quarterbacks on those teams have a lot of help.
More peculiar is the presence of Arizona, in between those two teams. Carson Palmer is having an MVP-caliber season for the Cardinals, and he’s been the most valuable passer in the NFL this year. So you wouldn’t think of him as someone who “needs” a lot of help. He’s not a “game manager” in any sense of the word. But he happens to be on a great team: Arizona’s defense is phenomenal — and as a result of the six defensive touchdowns and one kickoff return touchdown, the Cardinals rank third in net points allowed, and just one point behind the second-place Chiefs.
In addition, his “usage” rate is pretty low, for a couple of reasons. One, he’s really, really efficient: his high ANY/A average means he will take fewer plays than an average quarterback to build a lead. And that brings us to the next reason: because the Cardinals lead the NFL in points differential, Arizona winds up running a lot. The Cardinals actually rank 8th in rushing attempts this year. So this formula sees a quarterback with a great defense and a run-heavy offense, and concludes that Palmer’s life is pretty easy. That’s a half-truth: more accurately stated, Palmer’s life is easy because of a great defense and Palmer (and the rest of the passing offense) make Palmer’s days pretty simple.
One quarterback I was curious about was Alex Smith. The Chiefs rank 2nd in net points allowed, which does jive with the eye test. But Smith’s usage rate is perfectly average.
There have been 15 games this season where a team has thrown for fewer than 150 yards and won, and Smith’s Chiefs have three of those games. That sort of statistic is why it’s easy to think Smith would rank high in the QB Help Index. But here’s something I didn’t know until today: Kansas City has run the second fewest plays in the NFL. That’s because the Chiefs play at the slowest or second-slowest pace in the NFL, depending on your preferred choice of metric.
So perhaps Smith is underrated by conventional stats that look at his low number of attempts. Once you factor in the slow pace at which the Chiefs offense deliberately operates, and Smith’s running — 8.4% of all Kansas City plays are Smith runs4 — he doesn’t stand out as quite a game manager. Thought of another way (and I realize I’m stacking the deck here), Kansas City running backs rank just 26th in carries by running backs! (And Arizona running backs rank 2nd in carries.) How much of a game manager can Smith be if his running backs have just 303 carries?
Finally, did you notice that none of the top 10 teams in quarterback help are going to make the playoffs? That’s not too surprising, given what goes into the formula, but it’s still interesting to note. In fact, New England is the only team with a positive QB Help Index that is going to make the playoffs. Given Tom Brady’s 68% usage rate, that’s not surprising, but it is noteworthy.
What do you think? What stands out to you? How would you tweak the formula?
- Last time, I did not go through the exercise of converting Points Allowed into net points allowed, so score one for not being a good enougher! [↩]
- Last time around, I used pass ratio, but this is a better — and more precise — methodology. [↩]
- St. Louis ranks 13th in points allowed, but jumps to 8th in net points allowed. That’s because the Rams have four return touchdowns and the offense threw two pick sixes. [↩]
- Of course, this does include kneels. [↩]