Analysis Notebook: Week 2
So just what the hell is with PFF’s quarterback rankings? Ryan Tannehill is No. 3 despite a passer rating in the 70’s while Peyton Manning (with a league-leading 126.9 passer rating, six touchdowns and no interceptions) is down in 15th. Clearly PFF has been sniffing glue, right?
Well, not exactly. The PFF grades and thus the rankings aren’t a metric. They’re not some complex formula taking into account fifteen various statistics but rather a play by play grading of that player. The grades are not founded on or dependent upon statistics, and that is because stats – especially for quarterbacks – lie all the time.
Let’s talk hypotheticals for a moment. Three quarterbacks can each complete a pass for 50 yards and a touchdown. In the box score each guy will read 1-for-1 for 50 yards, 1 TD and 0 INTs.
Player A looks off the safety, splits him and the corner and lands the ball in his receiver’s hands at the 5-yard line without the need to break stride. It’s a picture perfect pass, and to make it even better he did it with pressure steaming towards him.
Player B hits his best playmaker across the middle 5 yards downfield against soft coverage on 3rd-and-long. That athletic receiver breaks a tackle, jukes the safety out of his shoes and outruns the defense the rest of the way for six.
Player C misreads the coverage entirely, throws it straight to a linebacker who displays the kind of hands that got him put on defense in the first place, deflects the ball over his head where it lands in the hands of an uncovered receiver who has a quick sprint to the end zone for the score.
Remember – each guy has exactly the same statistics from the throw, but those passes span the spectrum from NFL Films highlight reel material to something that would show up on ESPN’s C’Mon Man. One is a fantastic throw, the other is a dumpoff that a receiver did the heavy lifting on, and the final throw is a terrible play that got lucky.
Passer rating, passer yards, touchdowns, interceptions – they are all, in essence, measures of how the passing offense as a whole did, not the quarterback. PFF’s grades are different. We grade throws, runs, plays the quarterbacks makes regardless of the outcome. If a quarterback fires a perfect pass that hits his receiver in the hands for what should be a first down, but that receiver drops it – we give the quarterback credit for that throw – statistics don’t.
Tannehill has suffered from seven dropped passes already this season (only Joe Flacco has experienced more). He has lost 113 yards of passes due to drops (at a minimum – that only counts the yards in the air the ball traveled, not the potential yards after the catch the receiver lost by dropping the ball). That is more than any other passer in the league, including Flacco. If you add those plays into his official stats his passer rating jumps twenty points into the 90s. Sure, you could do that for every quarterback, but as we have already pointed out, Tanneill has suffered more than most from his receivers not helping him out.
Let’s take a look at one such great play from Tannehill that went unrewarded by statistics but not by PFF’s grading.
New England @ Miami | Q4, 5:51
The Dolphins won this game comfortably in the end, but with 5:51 remaining in the game Miami was up by just three. With a first down at New England’s 28-yard line they decided it was time for a shot into the end zone, and they had the perfect play drawn up for it.
After a play action fake TE Dion Sims had been able to work his way across traffic and then turn up field towards the end zone. He had athletic linebacker Jamie Collins trailing him, but there was space there to make the throw. Tannehill let fly from the 38-yard line and dropped the pass perfectly into the waiting hands of Sims, who couldn’t bring it in before being taken to ground by Collins.
This was a touchdown pass, and a fantastic throw, that statistics don’t give Tannehill credit for. This pass alone would push Tannehill’s passer rating for the season into the 80s and make his raw statistics look healthier.
How about the deep pass to Mike Wallace against Darrelle Revis that Wallace couldn’t get both feet in before stepping out of bounds? At this point in the game the Dolphins were actually trailing by 10 points and Tannehill flicked the ball almost 50-yards in the air, over a trailing Revis and into the back of the end zone.
It’s important to make the point, however, that we’re not trying to say Tannehill has been fantastic. Tannehill has also had some very bad passes that have received heavy downgrades. Also against the Patriots he had a chance to hit another touchdown and instead threw an interception, handing the ball to the Patriots to begin a drive they later scored from.
New England @ Miami | Q2, 13:06
After a play-action fake Tannehill looked to his right, but Revis had blanketed his intended receiver, Brian Hartline, on the play up the right sideline. Tannehill came to his second read and saw Mike Wallace break free on a post pattern because the safety had abandoned the middle of the field while reading his eyes initially.
This is a relatively routine throw. As you can see, he has a large area of real estate into which he can put the ball and allow Wallace to run away from the coverage, but instead he underthrows it badly, allowing the corner Alfonzo Dennard to intercept it unchallenged.
There’s no denying this is a terrible pass, even with late pressure from Donta Hightower closing from his right, but he was heavily downgraded for it and yet still grades pretty well overall thanks to the balance of positive plays he has made this season.
After two weeks of the season the rankings are what they are – vulnerable to being influenced by a couple of big plays either way, or simply a run of good or bad form over two games that a player will not sustain over sixteen. The difference between being No. 3 in the rankings and No. 15 are probably three or four throws – we are dealing with very small sample sizes here, but we shouldn’t dismiss the play of Tannehill just because the raw numbers don’t match. Are we saying Ryan Tannehill is better than Peyton Manning because he has graded higher over two games? Of course not.
But Tannehill has made tougher throws more frequently and runs an offense far less predicated on three-step drop quick passes. While Manning has averaged less than two seconds per pass, the quickest in the league, Tannehill has the ball in his hands on average half a second longer per passing attempt. That’s a middle of the pack figure but more importantly it’s extra time that pass rush has to get to him and make his life tougher. Manning has felt pressure on just 10 snaps this season while Tannehill has had 25 plays where he has been pressured.
The point here isn’t to try and make out that Ryan Tannehill is in some way better than Peyton Manning. Nobody at PFF believes that and if you made each staff member GM for the day and asked them to pick one of those quarterbacks to win you a game, each and every one would choose Manning. The point is to illustrate that over two games there are reasons why Tannehill has received a higher grade than Manning and a higher grade than his passer rating suggests.
Football is a complex game, with a lot of moving parts and interdependent pieces all trying to come together with the same goal. The Miami passing attack hasn’t been firing on all cylinders – there have been miscues across the board that have resulted in some pretty pedestrian passing statistics for Tannehill, but it’s important that we realize how deceptive those statistics can be and actually look beyond them – to the tape.
When you grade Tannehill throw by throw and then compare him to the rest of the league’s quarterbacks by the same measure, he looks a lot better. Maybe he won’t sustain that over sixteen games, but let’s not dismiss the man’s performance because of his passer rating.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam