Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Statistics and Pocket Passers

I recently wrote an article for Sports on Earth that ranked the best supporting casts in the NFL. The premise was simple, you take the quarterback out of his offense and measure the quality of what is left over to figure out how much help each quarterback gets. The process takes each part of the offense, gives it a weighted rating and adds those together to get an overall rating.

Structuring the article that way is necessary to keep the evaluations consistent and to present them as clearly as possible for the reader. It’s also a flawed approach.

The one major, as-of-yet unavoidable problem with that article is the rating system itself. It compartmentalizes each part of the offense, failing to account for how each part works together. This can be best explained with the Seattle Seahawks.

Generally, an offense in the NFL relies most on its quarterback and then on its offensive line. The offensive line plays a role in both the running and passing game, balancing the offense while also determining how much pressure the quarterback is forced to play under. If you have a bad offensive line, you can’t run a vertical passing game because your quarterback will get killed. The best quarterbacks will be able to work against and mitigate the presence of the pressure that his offensive line creates, but only if they are put in the right scheme to do so by their coaching staff.

So the Seahawks ranked 24th in the Supporting Cast Rankings. They had a top-ranked coaching staff, a highly ranked group of receivers and an average group of running backs. What pulled the Seahawks to the bottom third of the league was their horrendous offensive line.

That offensive line would plummet the efficiency, explosiveness and general effectiveness of most offenses. Most offenses don’t have the surrounding talent to work around it. Those that do would still need to have a coaching staff who allowed them to work around it. The Seahawks have the surrounding talent but, critically, they also have the coaching staff.

The Seahawks got a 10/10 for coaching in that article not only because of how Pete Carroll has turned the whole team around, but because of the scheme that Darrell Bevell employs.

Bevell sets Russell Wilson up for success by allowing him to get rid of the ball quickly behind a suspect line. This isn’t about run-pass ratio, that bizarre game manager label or the idea that the Seahawks keep him out of difficult situations, it’s about a smart scheme and smart play calling. In 2015, Wilson threw 48 percent of his passes fewer than five yards past the line of scrimmage. He was in an empty set (no running back) 11 percent of the time, a top-five rate in the league.

Those numbers are courtesy of Football Outsiders’ game charting.

For comparison, Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers threw 50 percent of their passes fewer than five yards past the line of scrimmage. Andy Dalton threw 49 percent of his, Drew Brees 54 percent and Derek Carr 48 percent. Each quarterback played in a different offense but employed elements that fit specific philosophies. Get rid of the ball.

On the other side of this spectrum there is Carson Palmer and Jameis Winston at 36 percent, Cam Newton and Marcus Mariota at 38 percent and Andrew Luck at 41 percent. Each of these players played in an offense that asked the quarterback to hold the ball and execute play fakes, turning their back on the coverage while their offensive line was trusted to execute at a higher level for a longer period.

Therefore, because of how good the Seahawks receivers and coaching staff is, the impact of the offensive line on Wilson has been dramatically lower than it would have been with another coaching staff. His supporting cast should rank much higher in that Sports on Earth article than it actually did.

Wilson remains a polarizing player because of his style of play and the quality of teams he has played on. He is proving to be a great, even if frustrating quarterback. Wilson proved his talent over the second half of last season when he caught fire as a passer, silencing even the harshest of critics even if only for a few weeks.

After Andrew Luck got his mega contract, Wilson’s name was inevitably brought up.

Luck and Wilson are tied together as the two best quarterbacks from their draft class. Such is the nature of sports coverage, we can’t just be happy that both are amazing players we are thirsty to compare and debate who is better of the two. The great Sheil Kapadia of ESPN offered some statistical fodder to poke the raging fire that is this debate after Luck signed his new deal.

Kapadia looked at the raw numbers for both quarterbacks and they, overwhelmingly, came out in favor of the Seahawks quarterback. The aspect of this article that interested me was the isolated numbers from the pocket. Kapadia wrote:

Wilson often gets labeled as a scrambler and an improviser, but when you look exclusively at throws from inside the pocket, he has been better than Luck.

Wilson ranks fifth in completion percentage on throws from inside the pocket, while Luck is 32nd. The only players who have completed a lower percentage of their attempts when inside the pocket the past four seasons are Jameis Winston, Hoyer and Freeman. Wilson’s YPA on throws from inside the pocket ranks first, while Luck is 23rd. Wilson’s passer rating is second to Rodgers, while Luck ranks 24th.

A further layer of context is required to determine whether Wilson has been better than Luck from the pocket.

Wilson has been the most frustrating good quarterback in the NFL since he entered the league because of how he fails. As early as 2013 he was playing at an MVP level because of his ability as a passer.  It wasn’t discussed because of the structure of that team and how often he was asked to throw the ball, but Wilson proved long ago that he can excel as a passer in the NFL. The frustration comes from the prolonged periods where Wilson has repeatedly beaten himself with hesitation from the pocket.

Too often he has run into sacks or drawn pressure onto himself because he looked directly at an open receiver and decided not to throw the ball, or missed the throwing lane because of his height. This doesn’t impact his statistics from the pocket but it does impact his overall effectiveness. In the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue, Wilson ranked second in the league in avoidable sacks, tied with Tyrod Taylor and Josh McCown while trailing only Blake Bortles.

Furthermore, Bevell has helped Wilson be more productive from the pocket with those quick throws. Let’s look at some typical plays for the two quarterbacks who are inevitably compared to each other to compare and contrast their responsibilities within their schemes.

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This play against the New York Jets from the 2015 season best encapsulates the situation that Luck has played in over the course of his career. Luck begins the play in shotgun but still takes a deep drop as the Colts keep seven players in protection and release three receivers into routes downfield. Last year, Luck threw 25 percent of his passes further than 16 yards downfield. For comparison, Wilson threw just 19 percent of his to that depth.

Luck is intercepted on this play, but it was a pass he essentially had to throw. There are fewer than five minutes left in the fourth quarter and his team is losing 17-7. Sure, he can take a sack and eat the play but at this point of the game that’s not really the mindset you want your quarterback to be in. Even if he does take the sack, the Colts offense will turn around and put him in the exact same position again on the following play.

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By design, this play doesn’t feature any routes that make horizontal movements before crossing the first down marker. All three receivers are releasing vertically downfield for at least 10 yards so they aren’t options on quick throws. Luck has to wait for these routes to develop. T.Y. Hilton’s route never develops because Darrelle Revis locks him up so badly at the line of scrimmage that he can’t get downfield before Luck has reached the top of his drop.

Regardless of where Luck throws the ball, he is pushing it downfield into a double-covered receiver. By design.

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In theory, the Colts would like Luck to hold the ball in this situation. Luck can’t hold the ball though because the Colts offensive line has been almost as bad as the Seahawks offensive line over recent years. The only difference is the Colts like to emphasize their weaknesses while the Seahawks like to hide theirs.

Luck’s production on its own hasn’t made him special over the early stages of his career. It’s his production in relation to what you would expect from a quarterback in the situations he has been put in.

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Wilson’s scheme doesn’t make producing from the pocket easy, it just makes it easier than Luck’s. The problem with comparing players is that you inevitably have to point out negatives and positives that make it seem like one player isn’t good when in reality both players are outstanding talents. They just succeed in different ways. The above play comes from the 2014 season and one of the more impressive games of Wilson’s career.

The Colts have a coaching staff that believes teams who run the ball automatically have a better chance of winning. That is the type of thought process you are dealing with, therefore it’s no surprise that they try to help their offensive line by keeping more blockers in. The Seahawks are smart enough to recognize that you can mitigate your weak offensive line by giving the quarterback more options. Instead of attacking the problem directly, they work around it smartly.

In the above play, all five receivers release into routes. They are comfortable with letting the unblocked defenders come because they understand their quarterback can get rid of the ball in time if he’s given options.

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Wilson has a clear read to make once the defense shows double A-Gap pressure. He will throw the ball outside, either to Luke Willson running the slant infield or to Marshawn Lynch who is leaving the backfield running towards the sideline. The outside cornerback playing off the line of scrimmage lets Wilson know that his tight end will have a free release so he is the obvious target. Wilson is able to get rid of the ball so quickly that Doug Baldwin never even runs his route. He releases and hesitates before coming to a stop.

Both of these plays highlight the principles that each quarterback’s scheme is built on. Wilson’s perfectly fits his skill set and the team he plays on, whereas the Colts are still trying to force an identity that over-stresses their quarterback. It’s fair to suggest that if you swapped situations for each player, their numbers would likely invert. That doesn’t mean that Wilson is a worse quarterback than Luck or that Luck is a worse quarterback than Wilson, it just means that scheme and supporting cast plays a huge role in creating the individual’s production regardless of how you chop it up.

The definition of a pocket passer is vaguer than it seems. What you believe the definition to be will go a long way to forming your opinions on specific quarterbacks.

If it’s all about production from within the confines of the pocket, then you can measure it statistically. If it’s about holding the ball, mitigating pressure with your movement while reading the coverage downfield through a full-field progression, it’s going to take a lot more depth to determine who is and isn’t a pocket passer.

Regardless, what matters most is if a quarterback is good or not. After four years, it’s obvious that both Wilson and Luck are stars.

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  1. Important points I think. This certainly emphasizes the importance of a coach that can self-scout the team, minimize relative weaknesses and attack through strengths. So often coaches seem to run their scheme, no matter the personnel they’re left with. It’s disappointing, and rarely results in positive results.

    Scheme is such an important part of measuring performance of the players. Results vs what they’re asked to do vs limitations of the supporting cast. Creates quite a few layers in the analysis, leaving it difficult to please a binary, good/bad crowd who needs everyone ranked to know if someone is good or not…

  2. “Last year, Luck threw 25 percent of his passes further than 16 yards downfield. For comparison, Wilson threw just 19 percent of his to that depth.” And yet, according to Sporting Charts, Wilson had 4.57 air yards/attempt while Luck had just 3.96 AY/A in 2015. In three of their four years in the league, Wilson has had more AY/A than Luck. The only year that Luck had more than Wilson was 2014 when the Seahawks were trying to get Percy Harvin involved in the passing game.

    If Luck had a higher percentage of passes more than 16 yards downfield but Wilson had a higher AY/A, then the Colts must also have been relying on a LOT of quick hitters either behind the LOS or just across the LOS to mitigate pressure. Maybe those short passes don’t pick up enough yards to push Luck’s passer rating up, but they ought to push his completion percentage up. Wilson has a much higher career completion percentage (64.73%) than Luck (58.12%). And Wilson’s higher completion percentage comes with the highest Y/A of any QB in the league. Wilson’s Y/A of 8.05 is a full yard more than Luck’s 7.05 Y/A.

    With respect to O-line comparisons, the Seahawks average adjusted sack rate from Football Outsiders is 26.5. The Colts average adjusted sack rate was 11.5. PFF average pass-pro rankings for the Seahawks and Colts are 22.0 and 18.3, respectively. The Seahawks have a worse O-line than the Colts. And playing in the NFC West, the Seahawks face a lot more defensive pressure than do the Colts. Using FO’s opponent defensive schedule statistics, the Seahawks have had the third most difficult schedule over the past four years with just SF and StL having more difficult schedules (average defensive opponent schedule ranking of 7.50). Arizona comes in at 4th. Defense has had it’s home in the NFC West these past four years. The Colts have had a much easier opponent defensive schedule (average opponent schedule ranking of 17.5). If there are stretches where Wilson leaves the pocket too soon, perhaps that is because he has no trust that he will have a pocket. Criticism of Wilson for abandoning a pocket should be understood in light of how bad his O-line has truly been AND a fierce schedule of opponent defenses. This seems to be lost in criticisms of Wilson.

    Wilson has the higher completion percentage with more Y/A behind a worse O-line while facing more defensive pressure. But having better stats while playing with a lot more pressure doesn’t suggest that Wilson has been the better QB? Obviously, something is getting lost in the comparison of Luck with Wilson.

    • “If Luck had a higher percentage of passes more than 16 yards downfield but Wilson had a higher AY/A, then the Colts must also have been relying on a LOT of quick hitters either behind the LOS or just across the LOS to mitigate pressure. Maybe those short passes don’t pick up enough yards to push Luck’s passer rating up, but they ought to push his completion percentage up. Wilson has a much higher career completion percentage (64.73%) than Luck (58.12%). And Wilson’s higher completion percentage comes with the highest Y/A of any QB in the league. Wilson’s Y/A of 8.05 is a full yard more than Luck’s 7.05 Y/A.”

      That’s a lot of bad logic. In fact the entire point of the article which you apparently didn’t bother to read was that the Seahawks cover their issues with their scheme while the Colts scheme does the opposite and exposes their weaknesses. You could just look at the numbers yourself and see that the Colts do not use “quick hitters” but I suppose that would be too hard eh? Just an example of the type of things you can find if you bothered to look: From Cian’s QB Catalog Luck had a simple YAC% of 14% while Wilsons was at 21%. Simple YAC are plays where the ball does not travel more than 2 yards in the air past the LOS. That does not mean that Wilson was bad or relied on those plays, he was middle of the pack there, but it does pretty easily disprove your terrible theory.