Third Down Conversions: Quarterbacks

When dropping back to pass on third and fourth downs, which quarterbacks convert and which fall short? Khaled Elsayed offers numbers to break it down.

| 4 years ago

Third Down Conversions: Quarterbacks

They say a lot of things.

You should eat your vegetables. You should say your prayers. And you should judge a quarterback by the kind of work he does on third and fourth downs. You know, the ‘clutch’ downs.

Yet very little is made of it despite the information being right there. I didn’t want team conversion rates or quarterback completion percentage. I wanted to know when a quarterback drops back to pass on third and fourth down, what rate of those are converted for either a first down or a touchdown.

So I found out… and needless to say, the results were interesting.

Before I get into the best and worst, some notes:
–  This only includes regular season data.
–  When a quarterback scrambles on third or fourth down it is counted. Designed runs are not.
–  A quarterback needed to face at least 100 drop-backs in this situation to qualify.

Peerless Peyton

The playoffs didn’t turn out the way he wanted, but during the regular season there wasn’t a quarterback in the league who converted a higher percentage of third or fourth downs into first downs or touchdowns than Peyton Manning. In all, 79 of his 161 drop-backs in these situations ended in success for Denver; 49.07 percent, for comparisons sake.

That put Matt Ryan into second place with a score of 46.45 percent, and it will surprise some to see Tony Romo in fifth at 43.94. A bigger shock, however, comes with the guy who finished seventh and led all rookies.

Russell Wilson

Yes, just when you think you can’t say any more nice things about him, you discover a new stat that does just that for you. Still, he’s not the only rookie who can be proud of his performance with Andrew Luck 10th overall, though it’s worth noting that Robert Griffin III could only manage the 19th best score, with Ryan Tannehill 23rd and Brandon Weeden achieving the fourth-lowest score.

Heinous Henne

And, right at the bottom is none other than Chad Henne who had his opportunity to make the Jaguars’ fan base love him, and quite frankly failed. He turned just 31of his 117 third- or fourth-down drop-backs into first downs or touchdowns. Just not good enough.

A more shocking name is the guy who finished just above him. You see, while Andy Dalton made the playoffs he didn’t exactly do it by excelling in clutch situations. Indeed, his score is worryingly low for a franchise quarterback for whom many are wondering if he’s already reached his ceiling.

Here’s the full list:

Name1st DownShortTotalPercentage
Peyton Manning798216149.07%
Matt Ryan859818346.45%
Tom Brady789617444.83%
Drew Brees8711119843.94%
Tony Romo8210518743.85%
Matthew Stafford9812622443.75%
Russell Wilson709016043.75%
Ben Roethlisberger648314743.54%
Aaron Rodgers7910418343.17%
Andrew Luck8711620342.86%
Michael Vick517312441.13%
Ryan Fitzpatrick6610116739.52%
Christian Ponder6910817738.98%
Matt Schaub579515237.50%
Jay Cutler5910015937.11%
Philip Rivers6711418137.02%
Eli Manning5810015836.71%
Cam Newton5710015736.31%
Robert Griffin III499214134.75%
Sam Bradford6612519134.55%
Joe Flacco6111617734.46%
Carson Palmer5611016633.73%
Ryan Tannehill5611116733.53%
Josh Freeman6012218232.97%
Mark Sanchez5311116432.32%
Brandon Weeden5812318132.04%
Jake Locker388412231.15%
Andy Dalton4612116727.54%
Chad Henne318611726.50%

Obviously there’s more that goes into judging quarterback play than just one stat, and not all third and fourth down situations are created equal. But it’s an interesting look at an aspect of the game that is all too often left to gut feel, as opposed to deep study.


Follow Khaled on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled


  • That Man

    Can you add Smith/Kaepernick?

    • Suzi Conger

      CK7 is 5+% Below AS11,,, dont know total in relation to all QB’s, but know it’s way low

  • CoachBob

    Have you looked at this over time? Interested in who’s improving and who is regressing (Andy Dalton, gulp)

  • Joe

    Andy Dalton is so awful. I feel bad for Cinni fans who have fooled themselves into thinking he is good. 

    That team has everything but a QB.

  • Matt

    This is a good stat, but it still doesn’t replace game film, notes & personal judgement as the best way to evaluate this.  One problem with the stat, unless you just forgot to mention it, is you didn’t throw out the downs where there was a drop by the WR.   ANother big problem….it doesn’t account for the distance of the conversion.  What was the average distance the each QB faced?  SHouldn’t that be part of the equation. What if one guy faced 3.8 yards on average and another faced 6.2 yards?  SHouldn’t the guy with the lower distance have a higher rate of conversion?  This should be used to handicap the stat. Also failure to convert a 1st down is assumed to be the full responsibility of the QB in this stat.  Also shouldn’t instances where the QB throws the ball away be thrown out too? In addition to drops, missed blocks, wrong routes, bad routes, and other mistakes can cause a non-conversion.  Also even more intricate factors can effect it such as, play calling, the audible system installed by the OC, what the QB is coached to do in certain situations, execution & talent-level of one team vs the other, etc., etc.  Dalton for instance…while you give the Bengals OLine great pass blocking grades, they are responsible for some of Dalton’s 3rd down struggles.  Marvin Lewis just talked about it, and game tape confirms it.  On a high % of unsuccessful third down pass attempts, the interior Oline let the pocket collapse.  They didn’t give up a pressure or anything you would record.  Yet they let the pocket collapse and he couldn’t go anywhere when he needed to find a little space to buy time.  Plus they have a big issue with non-AJ Green WRs being bad route runners.  ON the other hand you can’t be too far off.  Because Marvin Lewis also talked about third down conversions being Dalton’s biggest thing to work with in the off season, along with deep ball accuracy.  I have my own theory why the team is not concerned.  Last year the focus was proper footwork.  There was talk he didn’t have the arm strength, and the team claimed it was his footwork, not getting the legs under the throw.  Left over stuff from him converting from a shotgun QB in college.  He fixed it, but now he has to clean the accuracy up, because it changed his throw a little.  They put a lot more on him this year too, and I think he struggled a little bit to command the full offense.  This is something you are going to see a QB make strides on in seasons 3-5, that’s why it’s called a sophomore slump.  A lot of these guys are having success but doing little of the work of grasping more the more complicated concepts of being an NFL QB. 

    • osoviejo

      If you’re going to throw out drops, do you also throw out bad passes redeemed by great receiver play?

  • Martin

    Interesting stat.
    Maybe you should break it down further into 3rd and short (say, less than 5 yards) and 3rd and long (5 yards or more) and maybe 3rd and “very” long (more than 10 yards)?

     I suspect guys like Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson were put into more manageable 3rd down situations by their teams’ good run games and good offensive lines (that prevent sacks), while guys like Chad Henne were stuck in 3rd and 10 situations more due to a poor run-game and taking sacks on second down. I’d love to have some stats to either back that up or disprove it.

  • LightsOut85

    I’d have to second “were drops not included as well?”. That’s a pretty pretty cut & dry statistical piece that shouldn’t be counted in the QB’s ability to convert.

    Random (but it never got attention on your FB page, and I’m not signing up for twitter solely to ask PFF a question) – will we ever see third-down pass-rushing in the premium stat-section?  The 2 times you had articles on it they were great, and I’d love to be able to see those stats for every player.

    • NFL_FanMan

       Good idea, that would have a lot to do with it. I wonder if PFF has those numbers readily available?

      • LightsOut85

        the drops? I’m almost certain they must. They have all the “aspects” of every play, so they’ve got to have them (maybe they even included them in conversion% already, and just neglected to mention it).

  • Attaturk2004

    I am again surprised that Christian Ponder has a respectable number. With his good finish to the year I am starting to think he might make it as a solid starter.

  • Gierto

    Where would Kolb/Skelton/Lindley/Hoyer or an AZ composite QB land?

    • DerDings

       Or more importantly: where would they be seperatly? Kolb had some pretty nice clutch throws with some 4th and loooooooongs while the other three… well, I promised myself not to think about them anymore.^^

  • batmanroxus

    Where is Kaepernick? Oh yeah, he’s an untested rookie who will want to quit after this Sunday.

    • Rvnight18

      He beat saints at saints. Patriots at patriots IN December. Destroyed the bears. And beat the packers in First playoff game. How lkng did it take “matty ice” Kaep has lead the team on a scoring drive after every turnover. That’s “ice” in the veins.

      • batmanroxus

        And he’s played… 8 games?

    • NFL_FanMan

       He’s in his 2nd year.

      • batmanroxus

        And he’s played… 8 games?

        • Blake Whitney

           Still got to be in the league for a year without any pressure to play. Option to take it all in, learn everything first before playing.

  • Anon7253

    Suggest you to adjust those numbers according to average yards to go. For all we know, Henne could be regularly facing 3 & 9 while Peyton was cruising on an average of 3 yards to go.

  • Jason Williams

    would love to see this for career among active starters