Interception Stories: The Least Appreciated Aspect of Quarterback Analysis

I don’t watch baseball, so I can’t speak about the comparison that many make between pitchers and quarterbacks, but in my opinion there is no other position in sports like the quarterback. Even the point guard in the NBA doesn’t have the same depth or responsibilities on most teams as your typical quarterback does at the professional level. Finding the right quarterback is often the difference between winning and losing, or even keeping your job and being fired, just ask the Oakland Raiders who stumbled onto Terrelle Pryor this season.

Finding the right quarterback is also very difficult because there are so many mental aspects of the position that are tough to evaluate, without even considering that quarterbacks do as much physically as any other position in the league even if it doesn’t appear to be the case on first viewing.

Any good evaluator will be able to explain how accurate a quarterback is, how much he does within his offense, how athletic he is with his feet and how strong his arm is. Better evaluators will be able to tell you how well he reads the defense before or after the snap, how well he adjusts to a collapsing pocket and how well he manipulates coverages. Evaluating what a quarterback does on the field is the most important part of the job. There is no debate about that.

Understanding when a quarterback does something is important too.

No, that doesn’t mean being a winner or being clutch. While it varies from person to person, there really shouldn’t be a difference in evaluating a quarterback during the playoffs opposed to during the regular season. Anyone who bases their opinion on Joe Flacco from last year’s playoff run is showing ignorance to what Flacco did during the regular season, because the current Flacco doesn’t look like the same quarterback who played in the post-season.

The when in quarterback evaluation refers to situational football and understanding at what point of the game certain decisions should be made.

Like any football analysis, it’s easy for such things to get convoluted and overly complicated for the sake of being overly complicated, but the reality of situational football is simple. On any given play, the quarterback must understand where the situation lies on a risk-reward balance. If your team is winning 21-10 with eight minutes left and it’s third and 20, it’s probably not a good idea to force a throw through a tight window to a receiver running down the sideline. Conversely, if your team is losing by 21-10 and you’re facing the same situation, that risk is definitely worth taking unless you have a safer throw for a good chunk of the yardage to set up a convertible fourth down.

In recent weeks, two throws have stood out to me in this regard.

The first comes from this past weekend as the Cincinnati Bengals beat the New York Jets by a scoreline of 49-9. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had a great statistical day and showed up well on the tape too. He showed the confidence and aggressiveness that had been lacking in his game at times in his career to this point. Dalton threw five touchdowns, two of which came on outstanding throws, but there is one negative throw that lingers from his performance.

Early in the second quarter, the Bengals are playing with a 14 point lead and their offense has the ball at their own 40 facing a third and 12.

Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden comes out with an aggressive formation as he puts Dalton alone in the backfield. Running back Giovani Bernard is in the slot to the right, while there are three receivers tight together to the top of the screen. Even though Gruden has sent out his offense in that formation, he runs a conservative play, a screen pass to Bernard.

When Dalton gets the ball, he is supposed to quickly throw it to Bernard in the slot. However, the defensive linemen to that side of the field immediately drop into the throwing lane. That gives Bernard no chance to catch any pass, so Dalton smartly doesn’t throw it to him. However, Dalton makes the mistake of holding onto the ball to try and make a play instead of immediately throwing it away.

Critically, the Bengals are committing two penalties at this point if Dalton throws the ball. To the bottom of the screen they would have ineligible players downfield, while there is clear pass interference being committed at the top of the screen if the ball is put in the air. Dalton has to run at this point, but there are three defenders closing towards him with his blockers too far upfield.

As he holds onto the ball, he is already past the point when he can throw it away without taking the ineligible men downfield penalty, so he must scramble and settle for a short loss before setting up the punt. Ideally, Dalton would have throw the ball away as soon as the defenders dropped into the passing lane, because it would have happened too quick for the offensive linemen to get too far down the field.

Instead, Dalton keeps moving into the slot before he throws back across his body trying to find Bernard underneath. Even if Dalton completes the pass, there is no way they will get away with that many ineligible players downfield. At the very best, Bernard takes it to the house but is called back and the Bengals are forced to attempt third and 20+. At the very worst, Muhammad Wilkerson makes an athletic play to tip the ball into the air before intercepting it in great field position for his offense.

The Bengals defense held the Jets offense to just a field goal, but at that point of the game a 14-7 scoreline could have completely changed the outcome of what eventually became a blowout. Dalton simply can’t make this play because it’s a play that any rookie would be slated for making. Every interception has a story and this was most certainly a story that was fitting for halloween week.

Two weeks ago, on Thursday night football, Carson Palmer was in a different situation.

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With less than five minutes left in the third quarter, the Cardinals were losing by 11 points, 24-13. It was third and five close to midfield and the Cardinals came out in an aggressive, passing formation.

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When evaluating any position, you need to be very aware of what is happening around the field. When evaluating the quarterback, you need to be even more aware. The worst situation for a quarterback in the NFL is when you play behind an offensive line that can’t block against four man rushes and there is no running threat. This allows the defense to play man coverage underneath with two safeties over the top and still get immediate pressure in the pocket. If you’re wondering what happened to Eli Manning this year, that is what has happened to him.

That is also what happens on this play. Palmer is immediately pressured up the middle and none of his receivers are open on their underneath routes. This is the point when Palmer must make a decision. In a 0-0 game, the only decision to make is whether you take the sack or throw the ball a mile over Larry Fitzgerald’s head for the incompletion.

When you’re playing on an offense that has struggled to move the ball all day and it’s getting late in a two score game, it’s time to try and make a play.

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Palmer forces the throw while the defender comes clean in front of him. His pass floats and goes to the outside shoulder of his receiver, but that receiver is Michael Floyd, who is big enough and strong enough to go up and get it against Brandon Browner who was trailing behind him. Of course, being big enough and strong enough and actually doing it are two different things. Floyd lazily comes out of his route while Browner attacks the football.

That’s not to say that Palmer hasn’t made some terrible interceptions this season, because he has, but when you contrast this one against Dalton’s, it’s clear who made the worse play.

Interceptions are seen as statistics because we count them, but realistically they are stories. Too much goes into each one for them to be measured equally against each other. Last season Tony Romo threw a jump ball to Dwayne Harris down the sideline against the Cincinnati Bengals that was intercepted. It was third and 10 and the quarterback had just evaded two pass rushers before heaving it over 60 yards down the field. If Harris caught the ball, the Cowboys would have been set up at the Bengals 14 yard line with 40 seconds left in the half. When Reggie Nelson caught it, the Bengals took over close to their own end zone and decided to take a knee to run out the clock.

Sure, that play contributed to Romo’s total interception numbers, but the risk-reward balance was in his favour. At worst, Nelson could have caught the ball and returned it, but that was unlikely because it was a jump ball where the two players were tight to each other from the start and it wouldn’t have been much different from the punt that the Cowboys would have to have done if the ball had fallen incomplete or if Romo had thrown it away. There was no added risk, in fact, Romo’s 60+ yard throw probably worked out better than any punt would have, because the Bengals were too close to their own line to try and score before the half.

Everyone wants to count interceptions in numbers. It makes sense because it is practical, no casual fan would spend the hours it takes to watch each interception, but to say it’s an accurate approach to evaluating any quarterback is simply not true.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

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