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Which Passers Were Most Effective on Third Down in 2012?

Scott Kacsmar recently wrote about Robert Griffin III’s struggles on third downs last season. Despite Griffin’s otherworldly rate stats, that was one area where he really struggled in 2012. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how all quarterbacks fared on “third downs” last season. I put that in quotes because I’m including fourth down data, but don’t want to write third and fourth down throughout this post. Regular readers may recall I did something similar last November, but now we can work with full 2012 season numbers.

To grade third down performance, I included sacks but threw out all rushing data (not for any moral reason, just in the interest of time). The first step in evaluating third down performance is to calculate the league average conversion rate on third downs for each distance. Next, I came up with a best-fit smoothed line based on the data, which is based off the following formula:

Conversion Rate = -0.0001 * Distance^2 – 0.0224 * Distance + 0.5301

Take a look at the table below. For example, there were 309 passes (i.e., pass attempts or sacks — scrambles are not included) and the league-wide conversion rate was 51.1%. Using the best-fit formula, the smoothed rate is 50.8%. There is nothing groundbreaking here — the conversion rates drop as the “to go” number increases, but it helps to quantify what we already know.

To Go
Passes
First Downs
Rate
Smoothed Rate
130915851.1%50.8%
241520850.1%48.5%
348720742.5%46.2%
451222744.3%43.9%
555922640.4%41.6%
654122842.1%39.2%
752118134.7%36.8%
842614333.6%34.5%
936511631.8%32%
1072822030.2%29.6%
112137133.3%27.2%
121533925.5%24.7%
131352417.8%22.2%
141072220.6%19.7%
151432215.4%17.2%
166258.1%14.6%
17681217.6%12%
185036%9.5%
195335.7%6.8%
204836.3%5%


Once we know the expected conversion rate for each distance, it’s easy to grade the quarterbacks. The next table is a bit complicated, so let me just walk you through the best third down quarterback in the league last year. Peyton Manning had 176 third down pass plays in 2012. On average, those third down passes came with 8.00 yards to go, and a league-average quarterback would have been expected to convert 37.7% of those third downs (based on the above chart). That translates to 66.3 Expected 1st Down Conversions by Manning (176 * 37.7%). Instead, Manning actually converted 83 first downs, for a 47.2% 1st Down conversion rate. That gives him 16.7 1st Downs over Expectation (i.e., 83 – 66.3), and he had a 9.5% higher rate (47.2-37.7) than the league average quarterback would have given the same situations. That 9.5% number is what the table is sorted by, each quarterback’s per-attempt differential over expectation. The last column is each quarterback’s Net Yards per Attempt on third downs.

Rk
QB
3D Pass
Avg To Go
Exp. Conv Rate
Exp Conv
1D
1D Rate
1D Ov Exp
1D Rt Ov Exp
NY/A
1Peyton Manning176837.7%66.38347.2%16.79.5%7.66
2Tom Brady1868.4136%66.98244.1%15.18.1%6.27
3Matt Ryan1867.7736.9%68.78344.6%14.37.7%6.04
4Tony Romo1888.7235.4%66.58042.6%13.57.2%6.09
5Matt Hasselbeck808.9935.4%28.33442.5%5.77.1%5.8
6Michael Vick1168.7834.6%40.14841.4%7.96.8%6.07
7Matthew Stafford2268.0436.6%82.69843.4%15.46.8%6.05
8Drew Brees2028.5636.9%74.58743.1%12.56.2%7.18
9Ben Roethlisberger1447.8436.5%52.56142.4%8.55.9%5.8
10Andrew Luck2058.7434.9%71.67938.5%7.43.6%6.19
11Russell Wilson1527.8237.2%56.56240.8%5.53.6%6.6
12Ryan Fitzpatrick1637.9735.7%58.26439.3%5.83.5%6.15
13Aaron Rodgers1888.2136.4%68.47338.8%4.62.4%6.8
14Matt Cassel958.4334.4%32.73536.8%2.32.4%5.97
15Christian Ponder1747.5236.3%63.16537.4%1.91.1%5.56
16Colin Kaepernick748.1634.1%25.22635.1%0.81%6.32
17Josh Freeman1808.0134.3%61.86234.4%0.20.1%6.81
18Philip Rivers1948.5135.2%68.36835.1%-0.3-0.2%5.81
19Jay Cutler1608.3734.9%55.85534.4%-0.8-0.5%5.74
20Kevin Kolb709.1433.6%23.52332.9%-0.5-0.7%4.27
21Matt Schaub1617.936.3%58.55735.4%-1.5-0.9%5.37
22Nick Foles878.4832.6%28.42731%-1.4-1.6%6.38
23Robert Griffin III1268.5234.3%43.24132.5%-2.2-1.7%4.67
24Cam Newton1609.0333.1%52.95031.3%-2.9-1.8%5.3
25Joe Flacco1899.0234.1%64.56031.7%-4.5-2.4%5.42
26Carson Palmer1738.1634.8%60.25632.4%-4.2-2.4%5.58
27Alex Smith707.3935.6%24.92332.9%-1.9-2.8%5.26
28Brandon Weeden1848.0636%66.16133.2%-5.1-2.8%5.55
29Sam Bradford1958.2136.2%70.66533.3%-5.6-2.9%4.61
30Ryan Tannehill1738.5334.9%60.45531.8%-5.4-3.1%5.14
31Eli Manning1727.7236.9%63.55833.7%-5.5-3.2%6.26
32Mark Sanchez1727.9437.5%64.45431.4%-10.4-6.1%4.2
33Jake Locker1178.5434.3%40.23126.5%-9.2-7.9%5.05
34Chad Henne1188.3135.1%41.43227.1%-9.4-8%4.97
35Andy Dalton1707.6135.3%604627.1%-14-8.2%5.23
36Blaine Gabbert988.5834.4%33.72222.4%-11.7-11.9%3.74
37John Skelton728.3234.9%25.11622.2%-9.1-12.7%3.57
38Ryan Lindley679.3131.5%21.11217.9%-9.1-13.5%2.52
39Brady Quinn917.8934.9%31.81819.8%-13.8-15.1%3.51

There’s probably little predictive data to this, but that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to examine.1 No quarterback produced fewer first downs relative to expectation than Andy Dalton (-14.0). Matthew Stafford, who is quickly becoming a very polarizing quarterback, slotted between Manning and Tom Brady in first downs above expectation. Tony Romo, another quarterback/Bullseye, was pretty “clutch” on third downs, too.

As for last year’s rookies, Griffin lagged way behind Andrew Luck in this metric (Russell Wilson, of course, continues to be the man). If you’re looking for a criticism of Griffin’s game, it may be that he struggles to beat the defense in obvious passing situations. According to Football Outsiders, Washington’s offense ranked 1st in DVOA on play-action plays, but below league average on all other pass plays. You know that when we’ve gone from “he threw 5 interceptions in a game, no big deal, he’s a rookie” to “you know that rookie star was a slightly below-average passer on non-play action pass plays,” that we’re picking nits. But hey, it’s July.

Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams

  1. For example, in November, Ben Roethlisberger was #2. []

{ 9 comments… add one }

  • James July 23, 2013, 12:10 pm

    This is amazing. I wish everyone else would normalize their data to control for yardage distances, it makes everything so much better and more meaningful. Three comments:

    1. I know you based this decision on time but it seems particularly unfair to Griffin to exclude running plays since he had more rushing yards on 3rd down than any *player* in the league, doubling the #3 player and #1 RB Arian Foster’s 168 yards. 31 carries for 338 yards (10.9 YPC!!) probably converted a lot of third downs!

    2. For some reason the negative values for 1st down rate over expected aren’t sorting properly. I get -0.2 to -1.8 as the “lowest”, then -11.9 to -15.1, and then -2.4 to -8.2. All the other columns work properly.

    • Chase Stuart July 23, 2013, 3:21 pm

      Thanks James. Yes, definitely wish I has the time to do the running stats, but I had to schedule a week’s worth of posts before I left. Happy to pull the “good enougher” card from time to time.

  • Richie July 23, 2013, 12:18 pm

    If you’re looking for a criticism of Griffin’s game, it may be that he struggles to beat the defense in obvious passing situations.

    I think this may help support my theory that part of the reason RGIII had such good passing stats in 2012 was that teams were so afraid of him running, that they defended him a little soft against the pass.

    • Chase Stuart July 23, 2013, 3:22 pm

      Certainly seems like a reasonable interpretation.

      • JeremyDe July 24, 2013, 9:45 am

        Having watched all of their games last year, I can attest to Richie’s theory. Plus, he’s a pretty accurate passer. I need to look in the archives here, but I remember a chart showing the predictability of college stats on pro careers, and one of the factors that correlated highest with a pro career was completion percentage in college, which I believe RG3 was one of the higher ranked on the graph.

        I wonder how much the ‘struggles to beat defense in obvious passing situations’ is due to the surrounding talent. I know that is difficult, if not impossible, to tease out. Consider the Redskins offense last year outside of RG3 being RG3 and Alfred Morris running. They has an o-line, who aside from Trent Williams, with a dual specialty of run blocking and getting injured. (Miraculously they only missed 1 start all year) His best receiver tore his plantar(sp) plate in his right foot before halftime of game 1, came back too early, re-injured his foot, then played the last 7 games on a still injured foot. His 2nd most dynamic receiver tore his achilles and was out for the last 9 games. And none of the RBs or remaining TEs are really any help in the passing game. For their second half run, RG3’s targets were an injured Garcon, Leonard Hankerson, Santana Moss, Josh Morgan, Niles Paulsen, and Darrel Young. Not exactly the Smurfs, the Posse, or the Fun Bunch.

        Granted, that criticism could be accurate and it could be him, but I do think some part of that is his surrounding talent.

  • mrh July 23, 2013, 3:02 pm

    When I use pfr’s play finder, I get only 165 pass plays for Denver on 3rd or 4th down last year, vs. 176 for Peyton alone.

    “In 2012, Denver Broncos vs. any team, in the regular season, play type is pass, on 3rd or 4th down”
    http://pfref.com/tiny/PM7n8

    On 4 of those, Osweiler was the QB. Even if I change the query to include the playoffs I only get 174 plays (still 4 for Osweiler).

    What am I missing?

    • Chase Stuart July 23, 2013, 3:17 pm

      Good question. I’m actually on vacation (but don’t worry–I’ve got posts lined up while I’m gone) so unfortunately I can’t help. But I also used PFRs data, just on the back end.

    • Richie July 23, 2013, 4:06 pm

      I think his stats might include “non-plays.” (Matt Prater also had an attempt for Denver on “third” down.) But if you include non-plays, the number of converted 1st downs still doesn’t match up.

  • JoeyH July 24, 2013, 11:44 am

    Very interesting data. As a Lions fan, I know Matthew Stafford has a lot of problems, but some of his advanced stats (specifically referring to Football Outsiders DVOA/DYAR, in addition to this table) give me hope that he has a good foundation to build on (if can just clean up some of his mechanics and decision-making).

    I’m also once again struck by how much Tony Romo is underappreciated. Michael Vick also comes out looking much better than I’d expect on this table.

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