This week, we’re continuing our annual review of the passing game with our passing plus-minus stats. And, as is becoming custom, it’s our annual statement that the Saints’ passing game is pretty darn good.
Drew Brees has now held the passing plus-minus championship for four consecutive years. He has been the champion for six of the past seven seasons, and eight of the past ten. No quarterback in the past decade has been able to match his combination of volume and accuracy. With the entire 2010s now in our database, we can put Brees’ dominance in this stat into some historical context.
Passing plus-minus is a stat we annually track to help provide context to completion percentage. Given the location of a quarterback’s passes, it compares his completion percentage in each area to historical baselines. This stat does not consider passes listed as “Thrown Away,” “Tipped at Line,” “Miscommunication,” or “Quarterback Hit in Motion” by Sports Info Solutions charting. Metrics are based on how often a pass is completed based on the pass distance, the distance required for a first down, and whether the ball was thrown to the left, middle, or right side of the field. This is a counting stat, so more attempts are obviously a great thing for the purposes of what we’re talking about here. Completion Percentage Over Expectation (CPOE) numbers may differ from other models around the Internet.
Take away those throwaways and tipped passes and the average quarterback would have completed 71.3% of the passes that Drew Brees threw in 2019. Brees, however, managed to complete 79.8% of them. Work that over 352 attempts, and you get a plus-minus of +29.9. That’s his lowest total since 2015, but again, this is a counting stat. Even missing five games due to injury, Brees still managed to defend his crown.
All 34 quarterbacks who qualified for our regular passing leaderboards are included in this table, even the couple who fell under the 200-attempt threshold when certain attempts were removed; we figured Washington and Carolina fans would appreciate knowing how Dwayne Haskins and Teddy Bridgewater performed.
Brees’ five-game stint on the sidelines nursing a torn UCL gave several players a chance to knock him off his perch, but none could quite pull it off. Derek Carr came closest in what has continued to be a career resurgence under Jon Gruden. In his first four NFL seasons, Carr averaged a plus-minus of -12.1 and a CPOE of -2.3%; that has jumped to +23.0 and 4.8% over the past two years. Some of that is philosophy-driven, as Carr has become much more of a game manager under Gruden — his aDOT has dropped by over a yard, his ALEX has dropped by nearly as much, and his expected completion percentage has risen by more than 3%. Like last year, much of Carr’s success here came on short passes; he led the league with a +16.3 plus-minus on passes that traveled 5 or fewer yards through the air. It should be noted, however, that Carr rose from ninth to third on passes beyond 5 yards; he didn’t show off much in terms of a deep ball last year, but his intermediate passing improved significantly in 2019. That high volume of short passes means that Carr did rack up 93 failed completions in 2019, but those short passes weren’t entirely empty calories; he finished fifth in successful completion percentage. It will be interesting to see if the addition of Henry Ruggs tempts Carr to throw a bit deeper in Las Vegas, and if he can apply his newfound accuracy back to deeper targets.
Ryan Tannehill also deserves significant mention for hitting the top five despite only playing a half-season. His 7.7% C%+ was second in the league behind only Brees, as he shattered his previous career highs of +12.3 and 3.4%. No matter which passing stat you look at this season, Tannehill was at or near the top and far above any of his career benchmarks, which is both an amazing breakout season and something that triggers the red flashing REGRESSION light in our main office. How much of Tannehill’s success is due to moving to a new system? Probably some; he has always had a nice deep ball and the ability to make reads when given time, and that meshed really well with Arthur Smith’s play-action focused offense. Then again, history has not been kind to established quarterbacks who suddenly have a great season seemingly out of nowhere. We go into this a lot more in Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 (on sale soon!), so for now, we’ll just again point at yet another tremendous Tannehill stat and ignore its place in history.
But that brings us back to Brees. With any passing stat, it can be hard to separate the passer from his receivers, or from the system at large. That’s why it’s really useful for our purposes that Brees missed five games and was replaced by Teddy Bridgewater; we got to see what the Saints offense looked like with someone other than Brees under center. Bridgewater’s numbers were good enough, but Brees blows them out of the water, just as he has done to everyone for a decade.
As we reach the end of the Decade of Brees, we can run tables for the best and worst passing plus-minus of the decade, just to show you how far Brees was ahead of any of his contemporaries.
|2010s Passing Plus-Minus Top 20|
|2010s Passing Plus-Minus Bottom 20|
Brees is also the only quarterback with at least 30 passes and a CPOE above 5.0%, and the only quarterback with more than 150 passes to hit 4.5%. Passing plus-minus is basically Brees’ home stat, and we’ve run out superlatives to describe him. It remains baffling that he was passed over for the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade Team.
Moving down the table, we can fire off some quick-hit observations on the middle of the pack. Patrick Mahomes is the Anti-Derek Carr, in many, many ways. He led the league with a +7.0 plus-minus on deep passes. Sam Darnold was last at -6.7, while Gardner Minshew’s -23.0 was the worst plus-minus on short passes.
Ryan Tannehill wasn’t the only one to see massive improvement from 2018 to 2019. Lamar Jackson went from -8.7 in 2018 to +9.1 a year ago and saw his CPOE improve from -5.5% to 2.4%; not bad for a running back. Both Josh Allen and Sam Darnold also saw their CPOE jump by at least five percentage points last season as they continue to develop. For Darnold, that got him on the positive side of plus-minus. Not so much for Allen, who improved from never accurate to rarely accurate; his -5.5 plus/minus on passes traveling 25 or more yards through the air was dead last in the league. Still, improvements are improvements, and if Allen can make even half that leap in 2020, he’ll end up on the positive side of the ledger as well.
Along with Brees, Tannehill, and Carr, Kirk Cousins also topped a 5.0% CPOE. Unlike Tannehill and Carr, that’s a streak for Cousins, who topped 5.0% in 2018 as well. That makes five years in a row the Vikings have had a quarterback with topping 5.0% CPOE, with Cousins following Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, and Teddy Bridgewater. Even the Saints can’t match that, as 2015 was a down year for Brees at “only” 3.3%.
Kyler Murray’s +2.7 led all qualified rookies by a sizeable margin as none of the trio of Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, or Gardner Minshew could break into the top 25. Devlin Hodges, who did not qualify for the main tables, did pip him to the line with a +3.3, however.
Speaking of Haskins, he ended the season with the lowest CPOE in the league at -6.7%. That’s actually a pretty decent number for worst in the league; the last time the league’s worst CPOE was better than that was Brandon Weeden’s -5.7% in 2013, so Haskins getting highlighted here is more a fact that no one else was terrible more than his season being particularly horrendous. It’s also worth noting that Haskins got better as the season went along. He had a -11.0 plus/minus in his first 100 attempts, but just a -1.6 plus/minus in his last 90. You can read too much into splits like this, but the improvement is matched on film by Haskins getting more comfortable cycling through his reads. He still needs plenty of work, but there was more potential in his rookie season than the stats perhaps show.
One More Thing…
Alright, that about covers things, let’s just take a quick look at the bottom of the table to make sure we haven’t forgotten anyone. Haskins, check; we mentioned Gardner Minshew’s terrible short plus/minus; Baker Mayfield’s year didn’t go so well, yes, yes, all fine. Andy Dalton’s a backup now, Mitch Trubisky’s probably joining him, and…
Oh. Oh, I see.
While he has never led the league, Tom Brady frequently finished in the upper third of passing plus/minus. He was third as recently as 2017; he’s a very good quarterback with a history of very good results. That’s not to say he never had a down season, mind you. His plus/minus was a dead-even 0.0 in 2018; he hit -3.2 in 2015, and he had a career-low -14.9 in 2013 in his worst season to date.
His worst season until 2019, that is.
Brady and his receivers were simply not on the same page in 2019; Brady’s -17.7 plus/minus to his wideouts was the worst in the league. And we can’t just blame that on receiver quality, either, though the lack of any superstars in the lineup didn’t help. Mohammed Sanu had a +3.3 receiving plus/minus with Matt Ryan in Atlanta; that fell to -5.8 in New England on roughly the same number of targets. Brady had a negative plus/minus throwing to Sanu, to Julian Edelman, to Phillip Dorsett, to Josh Gordon, to Rex Burkhead — to basically every pass-catcher on the team not named either Jakobi Meyers or James White. A lot of this came from a lack of connection on shorter passes, with Brady’s -13.6 plus/minus on passes thrown 5 or fewer yards downfield was dead last. You definitely have to give him some credit dealing with arguably the worst collection of skill position talent in his career, but he also just had too many passes thrown too low for his receiver to pick up, or way ahead of his receivers to a point where they had no chance to catch it. Sports Info Solutions had Brady eighth from the bottom with a 73.4% catchable pass rate and fifth-worst with a 65.7% on-target rate. That, in our professional estimation, is not good. Those are the worst numbers Brady has put up in either category in the database, despite his average depth of target dropping, theoretically making his passes easier to complete.
It got worse as the season went along, too. Brady had a -0.7 plus/minus over the first eight weeks of the season, which isn’t great but isn’t particularly noteworthy either. That plummeted to -20.6 over the back half of the season, with a CPOE of -7.5%. Again, you can read too much into splits like this, but if you’re running on the theory that a 42-year-old quarterback might tire as the season goes on, well, you have a data point.
This is not a death sentence. Brett Favre had the worst plus/minus in the league in 2006 at -35.5; he rebounded to make the Pro Bowl in each of his next three seasons. Andrew Luck and Cam Newton have both appeared at the bottom of the table. Brady still had a positive DVOA last season, as when he did complete passes, they were very effective. He’s getting a massive upgrade in the quality of his skill position players in Tampa Bay, as well as a new offensive philosophy to work with. I highly doubt that Brady will be at the bottom of this table next year — but then again, we’re trying to project a quarterback well beyond any aging curve that has ever been measured. Our projections do not have Brady turning into Chargers-era Johnny Unitas or anything, but these numbers will have to go up if the Buccaneers are going to meet their high expectations for 2020.