Last off-season, I looked at passing performance on “third downs”, and I thought it would be fun to revisit that idea this summer. As before, I am putting that term in quotes because I’m including fourth down data in the analysis, but don’t want to write third and fourth down throughout this post.
To grade third down performance, I included sacks but discarded rushing data (again, 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. Here were the conversion rates I calculated last year.
|To Go||Passes||First Downs||Rate||Smoothed Rate|
In the interest of time, I’m going to just use those same rates again.1 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 169 third down passing plays (either pass attempts or sacks); the average distance to be gained on those plays was 6.8 yards, and the expected conversion rate (based on the table above for each play) was 37.2%, that means Manning would be expected, if he was an average quarterback, to convert 62.9 first downs. In reality, he converted 81 first downs, a 47.9% conversion rate. This means Manning produced 18.1 more first downs than expected, and had a 1st down rate over expectation of 10.7%, the highest in the NFL (that’s the column by which the table is ranked). On third downs, Manning averaged 6.6 Net Yards per Attempt and 7.43 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt.
|Rk||Passer||Tm||3D||Avg To Go||Exp. Rt||Exp Conv||Act 1D||1D Rate||1D Ov Exp||1D Rt Ov Exp||NY/A||ANY/A|
|10||Robert Griffin III||WAS||151||7.5||35.5%||53.6||61||40.4%||7.4||4.9%||5.26||5.13|
- Manning was really, really good on third downs. But I guess we’re past the point of being surprised by that. Philip Rivers was second in both 1st downs and 1st down rate over expectation (and first in NY/A), and his ability to keep the chains moving was one of the biggest reasons for San Diego’s success in 2013.
- Josh McCown had a magical season — or third of a season — and it showed on third downs, too. Despite facing an average distance of over 7 yards, he converted on 46% of his third down opportunities. He also produced the highest ANY/A on third downs of any passer in the above table.
- Nick Foles was consistently throwing in unfavorable third down situations (on average, with 8.7 yards to do). Presumably this is because the Eagles were much more likely than other teams to run on third and short, but based on the average distance, Foles was expected to convert just 32.7% of his first downs. In reality, he had a 40.4% rate, which vaults him into the top five.
- Andy Dalton was very good on third downs last year, while Russell Wilson was just average. Don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger.
- Andrew Luck really, really struggled on third downs. Now we know that Luck adds a ton of value on the ground, particularly on third downs, and he draws a lot of penalties for the Colts. But from a pure passing perspective, he was terrible on 3rd downs in 2013. Despite his reputation as a very “clutch” performer, a 32% conversion rate simply won’t cut it considering that Luck only passed on some of the most favorable distances.2 Sure, including his scrambles would help, but Luck was consistently throwing in favorable third down situations but ended up with the 2nd most negative number of passing first downs added relative to average. Luck was much better in 2012, so this could just be a one-year blip (Dalton was also terrible on third downs in 2012, which is more evidence that third down performance is more random than some would like to believe).
- The only quarterback to provide fewer first downs relative to expectation was EJ Manuel. He was terrible on third downs with a 28.4% conversion rate. Of the other rookie quarterbacks, Mike Glennon was similarly bad, but Geno Smith was actually above average.
- Smith, Eli Manning, and Joe Flacco provided the most below-average passing value in 2013, but all were around average on third downs last year. I’m not quite sure what that means.
What stands out to you about third down performance?
- Third down conversion rates went up ever so slightly in 2013, but hey, I’m a good enougher. I’ve also been really busy on non-FP related activities, so cutting corners is a must. [↩]
- Note: If you put these numbers into the PFR Play Finder, they match up, but it takes a minute to reconcile them. The Colts had 161 passing plays on 3rd or 4th downs in 2013, with three of them coming from Matt Hasselbeck. Indianapolis gained 54 first downs on those plays, but two of them came via penalty against Kansas City (horse collar, taunting) and an unnecessary roughness penalty in Houston. So for these purposes, Luck gets credit for only 51 out of 158 third down passing plays. [↩]