Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, Brock Osweiler and the Gaps in Evaluating Efficiency
Only one quarterback since 1960 has thrown 45 or more passes in a game for 300 or fewer yards with a completion percentage of 75 or greater. Derek Carr fit that criteria with his performance against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2 and Pro Football Reference confirmed that made him unique.
Unique performances for quarterbacks in the NFL aren’t unusual nowadays. As Robert Mays wrote for The Ringer recently, the NFL continues to move further away from run-oriented offenses. That is because coaches now see the value in relying more on a short-throw based, efficient passing game that takes advantage of modern rules that limit defensive backs.
Every quarterback appears more efficient now than he would have 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
That doesn’t mean that every quarterback is more efficient now than those who played 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
Efficiency can be a misleading term. It’s most often represented by completion percentage or yards per attempt. Or a combination of the two. You can also incorporate touchdown-to-interception ratio to get an even bigger picture of how the quarterback, or rather the quarterback’s passing game, performed in a given game.
Measuring efficiency on tape allows you to add in a couple more factors.
While the league has become more efficient on the whole, the increased workload for quarterbacks has also exposed some trends in the lesser starters in the league. So far this season, there have been a significant number of performances that featured quarterbacks repeatedly running out of or checking down from clean pockets. These plays are debilitating to an offense because they take away opportunities for receivers who run downfield regardless of the coverage.
In short: All scrambles and checkdowns aren’t created equal.
Three performances have stood out more than others so far this year. One in Week 1, one in Week 2 and one in Week 3. Kirk Cousins had the emptiest 329 yard, 69.8 completion percent game in the history of the NFL in Week 1. Cousins averaged 7.7 yards per attempt but only had one drive where he competently ran his offense. The primetime audience watching Monday Night Football saw Cousins repeatedly check the ball down early in the play despite rarely ever being under any pressure.
Keith Butler’s gameplan for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense wanted Cousins to continually check the ball down, he obliged and Washington’s chances at winning the game eroded away on every play.
Carr’s historical performance in Week 2 wasn’t shown to a national audience. It was a 04:25 ET game on Sunday evening. From the outside looking in, Carr threw for three touchdowns and didn’t have an interception while his defense gave up 35 points. It’s easy to come to the conclusion that Carr played well and the defense let the offense down. Even if you just look a little deeper statistically, you can see signs that Carr wasn’t exactly at his best.
The third-year starter averaged 6.6 yards per attempt for the game, 25 quarterbacks averaged more yards per attempt that week and 75 of Carr’s yards came on a drive late in the fourth quarter when the Falcons were sitting passively on a 14-point lead. Without that drive, Carr averaged 6.1 yards per attempt in the game.
While those numbers can still be misleading, the tape reinforces the idea that Carr wasn’t executing the offense to its potential.
Brock Osweiler didn’t have the same flattering stats that Carr and Cousins had during his Week 3 performance on Thursday Night Football. A national audience got to watch the $72 million quarterback completely collapse in on himself over and over again as the Houston Texans were shut out by the New England Patriots. Even though Bill Belichick’s genius deserves all the stroking it gets and playing on a short week is always tough, this display from Osweiler was simply inexcusable.
Osweiler’s performance looks bad statistically, it becomes horrendous when the All-22 tape was released.
A lot of quarterback evaluation can be boiled down to one simple question: Did you do what the defense wanted you to do? As a quarterback, it’s your responsibility to punish the defense for how it approaches the game. You need to exploit its weaknesses or, if the defense doesn’t have obvious weaknesses, at least give each play the best opportunity to succeed by reacting appropriately to the type of coverage/pass rush that is called.
To be an efficient quarterback, you have to be proficient at feeling pressure so you understand the best point in the play to release the ball and you have to consistently see the field so you’re not missing uncovered receivers, letting mistakes in the secondary go unpunished.
Cousins, Carr and Osweiler each failed in these areas in their specific games.
There isn’t a real need to break down Cousins’ Week 1 game. It was the first Monday Night Football game of the season so it got huge viewership. Everyone saw him check down in the flat to a covered Jordan Reed late in the game when losing and facing a Second-and-Forever also.
Cousins was unfortunate to come away with two interceptions in this game because James Harrison clearly didn’t catch his second interception late on. However, his first interception captured Cousins’ performance in one play.
First, the play run through from All-22 tape. You don’t need the All-22 angle to see that this was an awful decision and throw from Cousins. The broadcast angle showed us how he threw the ball directly to Ryan Shazier while trying to hit Jordan Reed on a deep crossing route. Cousins doesn’t have an impressive arm so he is reliant on making the right read.
Arm talent wouldn’t have helped this play but Cousins’ lack of arm talent plays a factor in creating his mindset.
The majority of Cousins’ pass attempts come when he hits his back foot and immediately releases the ball. When he does hold the ball, it’s normally because the offense has used a creative play action with a deep drop or bootleg that requires him to hold it. If he holds the ball in a tight pocket he is going to be sacked. He won’t deliver against pressure or adjust his body to work in tight areas a la Philip Rivers. Everything has to be perfectly on time for Cousins to complete passes.
Had Cousins been efficient against the pass rush on this play, he would have been able to exploit the coverage for a touchdown.
The Steelers’ pass rush wasn’t very good in this game. It hasn’t been for a few years in truth. Any team that can’t get pressure with a four-man rush will be vulnerable playing Cover-3. It’s why the Seahawks’ success with a Cover-3 heavy scheme was so surprising when Pete Carroll’s defense first established itself. To attack Cover-3 you need to pressure both seams.
Reed doesn’t run down a seam but he crosses both behind the linebackers’ underneath coverage. This draws the attention of the deep safety.
Washington had the perfect play call to exploit the Steelers’ coverage. Reed drew the deep safety, leaving Jamison Crowder running free down the opposite seam. The outside cornerback is trying to recover but as the play develops it’s clear that Crowder has a step. With a well-placed pass, Crowder could run under the ball and potentially run away from the pursuit for a touchdown.
Even if the outside cornerback was in better position to cover Crowder down the seam, Cousins had DeSean Jackson working towards the sideline on that side of the field. One of Jackson or Crowder were assured to be open.
Cousins regularly gets pockets that most quarterbacks can only dream of. This was one of those plays. Having stared down Reed through his route, the quarterback is still standing in his original position with time and space when he begins his throwing motion. With this time and space, the quarterback should NEVER throw the ball straight to a linebacker in a coverage that wasn’t disguised.
The Steelers didn’t bait Cousins into a bad throw or get him off balance throughout the game by constantly changing up their coverages. They offered him time in the pocket to hold the ball and trusted that he would beat himself.
A lack of poise leads to a lack of efficiency that leads to a lack of awareness in the pocket. Cousins never recognizes how many players are rushing the passer and how many players are dropping into coverage.
He will inevitably leave yards on the field and make errors such as this one because of that inefficiency.
Derek Carr has been a somewhat polarizing quarterback over the course of his career. That is because he possesses a narrow skill set where his greatest strengths are truly great. Carr has one of the best arms in the NFL when it comes to making difficult throws. Anyone who saw his Pro Bowl touchdown last year won’t have any questions about his arm.
It appears to be a more old-school method at this point but arm talent is often used as a measuring stick for a player’s ceiling/diversity. The idea that someone can make all the throws.
Having a great arm is a much smaller aspect of being a great quarterback than that phrase suggests. Carr undoubtedly has a great arm, but he’s got inconsistent accuracy and is prone to wasting the consistently excellent pass protection he is given. Carr’s skill set is narrow not because of his arm but because of his reliance on winning before the ball is snapped.
The Raiders starter diagnoses coverages before the snap very well. When he’s got less clarity and needs to adjust post-snap or mitigate pressure in a tight pocket, his weaknesses are put under the microscope.
This play comes from midway through the first quarter. It’s Third-and-6 at the Raiders 26-yard line. Neither team has scored. Carr is widely celebrated for his work rate so it’s unlikely that he doesn’t know the strengths and weaknesses of the Atlanta Falcons defense. The Falcons have the worst pass rush in the NFL. Vic Beasley has busted and the rest of the line doesn’t appear to have any legitimate explosiveness.
On the other side, the Raiders have arguably the best offensive line in the NFL and it’s hard argue for another line being a better pass-blocking unit.
In the above gif, Carr checks down to tight end Clive Walford for a gain of two yards. Walford is open in terms of getting the opportunity to catch the ball but there are multiple defenders waiting to make sure that he won’t be open for a first down. Carr got rid of this ball as if he was trying to beat a blitz, rushing the play because the pocket was collapsing around him.
There wasn’t any pressure. The only hint of pressure was coming from Carr’s right, where the running back had stood up the only defensive lineman who had even come close to getting downfield. Carr didn’t need to move. He could have held the ball in the same spot for another moment. If he wanted to move, he had a wide open pocket of space to his left that he could step into and throw. That would have bought time for his two receivers on that side of the field.
Making that maneuver wouldn’t have been considered a difficult one. It’s not like both of his guards fell over or his tackle and guard completely missed a stunt.
On this Third-and-6 that soon followed the previous Third-and-6, Carr destroys the design of the play by running from a clean pocket almost immediately. He has no reason to leave the pocket when he does. The above gif initially shows the route combinations against the coverage when the receiver stops. With his arm talent, Carr could have looked at Michael Crabtree’s comeback route to the top of the screen or he could have held the ball so his slot receiver got a one-on-one with the deep safety cutting across the safety’s face and Amari Cooper would have been an option over the middle on his crossing route.
Instead, Carr immediately panics without a defender within five yards of him. Or even threatening to get within five yards of him. When he leaves the pocket he makes it easier for the coverage and harder for himself as he now has to throw the ball on the run.
Once Carr leaves the pocket, the point of attack is altered. Desmond Trufant, the cornerback trailing Amari Cooper’s crossing route, now knows that Cooper can’t reverse his route back to the other side of the field. He immediately becomes more aggressive and works to undercut the pass that Carr ultimately throws. Trufant is a great cornerback but has bad hands. He should intercept this pass and punish Carr for his poor pocket awareness, but he drops it.
This was one of Carr’s better plays in terms of staying in the pocket for the appropriate amount of time. The problem with this play is it appears Carr’s eyes only go to his checkdown option before dropping completely to scramble. One of his receivers had made a great adjustment to the coverage downfield to work back into wide open space over the middle of the field. Had Carr looked for him, he would have had a relatively easy throw for a first down and a big gain.
He still gained five yards on the scramble but he left yardage on the play by not seeing the field.
Not seeing the field is a problem for Carr. He has too many plays throughout his career where he has thrown out of clean pockets to covered receivers underneath. Often those plays have worked out because his very talented supporting cast features players who can make multiple defenders miss in space but those decisions still reflect poorly on the quarterback.
Quarterbacks who sustain success in the NFL see the field and manage the pocket well. If you have a very strong supporting cast, such as the one Oakland has, you can still be a productive quarterback while struggling in those areas, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you will measure up well to your peers as an individual. If Carr played behind even a league-average offensive line his pocket presence, footwork and decision making would be more severely scrutinised.
Carr completed 34 completions in this game. He wasn’t under consistent pressure and the Falcons didn’t play lock down coverage. His receivers didn’t drop a huge number of passes. He had one impressive big play that was marked off for a penalty, but he also had one bad interception that was marked off for a penalty. Of his 34 completions, 13 gained five or fewer yards. Seven gained three or fewer. It should be noted that one of those was a two-yard touchdown to Michael Crabtree.
Almost one third of Carr’s yardage came against a prevent defense in the final quarter when the Falcons were trying to sit on a 14-point lead. As the gif below shows, Carr’s checkdowns gained chunk plays very easily on that drive.
The New England Patriots have a good defense. A really good defense. Even when the Miami Dolphins and Ryan Tannehill scored 24 points in Week 2, the defense forced Tannehill to make precision throws and operate quickly against pressure. Nothing was handed to the quarterback just because the Patriots were playing with a lead.
Facing the Patriots defense on a short week offers you some leeway in terms of criticism. Nobody should be expected to light up the Patriots defense in that situation unless it plays below its usual standards.
With that said, you also won’t get a pass for your offense getting shutout when you are the biggest reason why.
Now the Texans offensive line wasn’t good in this game. They were routinely getting beaten and there were a handful of plays where Brock Osweiler had no opportunity to get rid of the ball. They weren’t so bad that Osweiler never had chances though. Too many times Osweiler nuked plays with his very first action. Whether it was poor footwork in the pocket, looking off a receiver who was open or about to come open or dropping his eyes so he basically waited to be sacked rather than trying to execute the play, Osweiler was primarily at fault for the Texans anaemic passing game.
This play occurs on Second-and-8. Osweiler gets to the top of his drop and is somewhat off balance. He throws a high pass to his receiver in the flat who can’t adjust to pull it in at full extension. Osweiler had time to settle in the pocket and read the defense. Had he done that, he would have seen Will Fuller come open the curl route to that side of the field. Fuller was past the first down marker for a relatively easy first down.
Instead, Osweiler rushed a simpler throw for a shorter gain and couldn’t execute it because of his poor process in the pocket.
Exactly the same route for Fuller. Exactly the same result. On this play from later in the game, Osweiler looked to Fuller’s side of the field and turned his eyes towards the opposite sideline almost immediately. He never gave Fuller a chance and didn’t have a good reason to turn away from the coverage early. These are simple plays, they wouldn’t have been big gains but they would have been important for keeping the offense on track. When you can’t execute these types of plays, it shouldn’t be a surprise that you didn’t cross the 50-yard line in the first half.
And you barely did throughout the whole game.
DeAndre Hopkins is a top-three receiver in the NFL and the easiest receiver to throw to. He has a gravitational pull that allows his quarterbacks to be imprecise. On this play, he’s not necessarily open but there is an opportunity to give him a chance at a big play by throwing the ball to the right spot. He created that chance by beating the cornerback off the line of scrimmage when the cornerback tried to jam him before dropping into a zone.
Regardless of whether Hopkins or anyone else is open on this play, it doesn’t matter. Brock’s eyes dropped as soon as he got the ball. He waited for the pressure to come and only got rid of the ball at the last possible moment.
He did the same to his wide receivers on this play but this time he threw the ball straight to a linebacker who was sitting on his tight end’s crossing route underneath from a completely clean pocket.
If Osweiler fit a different stereotype, we’d use this game as evidence to show how he can’t run an NFL offense.
There are countless plays that show off the atrociousness of Osweiler’s process in the pocket and his inability to see receivers downfield
despite his 6’8″ frame. More interestingly, one of Osweiler’s poorer plays presented an opportunity to highlight the different ways quarterbacks can function in the pocket.
What Brock does is close to the worst possible option. He drops back in the pocket and establishes himself at the top of his drop. Pressure arrives but only from one spot. That means he has the opportunity to mitigate that pressure with his movement. It’s not a difficult play. He just needs to step up into the space in front of him. Osweiler is oblivious to the pressure. He tries to throw the ball to his running back underneath (Who of course has two defenders waiting on him).
Osweiler’s elongated motion almost allows Chris Long to knock the ball out for a fumble. Instead his low release points sees the ball collide with an offensive lineman’s helmet before it reaches Miller. This proved to be a high-risk, low-reward play.
Let’s hypothetically exist in a world where there are bad quarterbacks, good quarterbacks and great quarterbacks. The above play was a bad quarterback play. The below play is a good quarterback play.
Three responses to this play would have been good. One, Osweiler could have found his number one receiver, Hopkins, wide open for a first down on the left side of the field. Two, Osweiler could have stepped up to avoid pressure, buying time for his receivers and for the play itself. He could have even done that before looking for Hopkins. Three, he could have stepped up in the pocket just to create a throwing lane before lofting the ball to Miller underneath. That would have let Miller catch and turn more easily to possibly generate YAC.
At the very least, it would have afforded Miller an opportunity to catch an accurate pass.
Now, the great quarterback. The great quarterback knows where his receivers are and recognizes the coverage by the first movement each defender makes. He doesn’t see the incoming pressure, he feels it and steps forward before it ever arrives. While doing that, he uses his eyes to manipulate the linebacker watching him over the middle of the field. That creates a window for him to deliver the ball to his in-breaking tight end.
That’s a Philip Rivers, Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger play. That’s not a Brock Osweiler play.
Efficiency is about taking advantages of opportunities you are presented or opportunities that you can create. Osweiler can’t create any. The Texans need him to take advantage of the ones his talented supporting cast presents, otherwise they have no chance of competing with good teams, never mind beating good teams.
Not all checkdowns and scrambles are created equally. Even though announcers default to saying there is nobody open when the quarterback leaves the pocket or gets sacked it doesn’t mean that it’s true. Quarterbacks who have better supporting casts have a greater margin for error on these types of plays because how fast pressure comes and how easily your receivers win will impact how quick you have to be mentally.
If you’re Ryan Tannehill, Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford, your margin for error is a lot smaller than if you’re Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr or Brock Osweiler.