Tracking 3rd & 4th Down QB Completion Rate

Ryan McKee looks at which QBs last season performed best in 3rd and 4th down passing plays.

| 2 years ago
Cam Newton - 1st Down

Tracking 3rd & 4th Down QB Completion Rate


Cam Newton - 1st DownIn fantasy we often talk about the scoring plays. What happened that led to the touchdown? Was it a big run, a deep crossing route, an end zone fade or a goal line punch? We applaud players that have a nose for scoring, creating terms such as goal line backs, TD vultures and end zone targets. We develop red zone stats to learn whether a team is more likely to run or pass, how often they score a touchdown versus settle for a field goal and who gets targeted most.

But while red zone and goal line decisions are critical to the score, there are many equally important moments that lead up to these. Third down conversion is just such a moment, a critical step in any drive that either prolongs the drive or halts it entirely. A quarterback with a good 3rd down conversion rate keeps the ball – and the game – in his hands, increasing his chance for more yards and scores (and of course, fantasy points).

So I looked at all QB passing plays on 3rd and 4th down (since going for it on 4th down is akin to a 3rd down in most other instances) to determine who has the best and worst completion percentage. I removed any players that fell into the bottom 25% of 3rd/4th down pass attempts to eliminate the small sample size cases.

It is worth noting that we’re not comparing apples to apples necessarily. There are many factors at play such as the quality of receivers a QB has, the quality of the defense, the distance to a 1st down and the score and time remaining in the game. But we can still gain insight into how a QB performs so let’s start with the most basic stat and work our way up.

TOP 10

ATT

COMP

COMP %

Jake Locker

67

43

64.2%

Nick Foles

88

56

63.6%

Philip Rivers

173

110

63.6%

Drew Brees

189

120

63.5%

Matt Flynn

52

33

63.5%

Colin Kaepernick

147

92

62.6%

Ben Roethlisberger

154

96

62.3%

Christian Ponder

69

43

62.3%

Brian Hoyer

29

18

62.1%

Josh McCown

58

36

62.1%

BOTTOM 10

ATT

COMP

COMP %

Matt Cassel

77

41

53.2%

Andrew Luck

168

88

52.4%

Tony Romo

129

66

51.2%

Sam Bradford

77

38

49.4%

Case Keenum

78

38

48.7%

E.J. Manuel

101

48

47.5%

Josh Freeman

57

27

47.4%

Matthew McGloin

70

31

44.3%

Blaine Gabbert

29

12

41.4%

Michael Vick

37

15

40.5%

A big surprise at the top spot, Jake Locker completed 43 of 67 passes on 3rd/4th down last season. He’s followed by a few more obvious names, including Nick Foles, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Colin KaepernickJosh McCown filled in admirably when the guys ahead of them went down to injury; Brian Hoyer barely made the minimum attempts threshold but did well in the limited time he had before succumbing to his own injury; and Christian Ponder and Matt Flynn join Locker as the more surprising entries (foreshadow alert!).

At the other end, Andrew Luck and Tony Romo were big disappointments at barely over 50% completion rate (and as a Cowboys fan, I feel like I already knew this about Romo). Sam Bradford is perhaps a mild surprise to be this low and Vick was just a lost cause on many accounts but especially 3rd/4th down. Oh and in case you’re wondering, Peyton Manning finished middle of the road at 61.46% and most of the other star QBs were in that high 50’s to low 60’s range.

Another way we can look at 3rd/4th down passing performance is how their completion percentage compares to their overall completion percentage. Who had the biggest swings positively or negatively? Let’s crunch the numbers:

TOP 10

COMP %

OVERALL COMP%

DIFF

Josh Freeman

47.4%

42.90%

4.47%

Colin Kaepernick

62.6%

58.40%

4.19%

Jake Locker

64.2%

60.70%

3.48%

Brian Hoyer

62.1%

59.40%

2.67%

Kirk Cousins

54.3%

52.30%

2.05%

Kellen Clemens

60.7%

58.70%

2.01%

Matt Flynn

63.5%

62.00%

1.46%

Thaddeus Lewis

60.4%

59.20%

1.18%

Brandon Weeden

53.7%

52.80%

0.86%

Geno Smith

56.3%

55.80%

0.54%

BOTTOM 10

COMP %

OVERALL COMP%

DIFF

Carson Palmer

56.5%

63.30%

-6.75%

Peyton Manning

61.5%

68.30%

-6.84%

Matt Cassel

53.2%

60.20%

-6.95%

Blaine Gabbert

41.4%

48.80%

-7.42%

Andrew Luck

52.4%

60.20%

-7.82%

E.J. Manuel

47.5%

58.80%

-11.28%

Sam Bradford

49.4%

60.70%

-11.35%

Matthew McGloin

44.3%

55.90%

-11.61%

Tony Romo

51.2%

63.90%

-12.74%

Michael Vick

40.5%

54.60%

-14.06%

 Josh Freeman takes the top spot, but in a ‘kiss from your sister’ sort of way, as neither of his completion percentages were something to boast about. Kaepernick’s number is more impressive and suggests not just that he’s a gamer – which we’re well aware of – but that his rather pedestrian overall completion percentage has room to grow. Locker and Hoyer gave us glimpses of their talent last season but we need to see more to determine if there is any legitimacy to it. At the other end, Romo was particularly disappointing from a 3rd/4th down perspective and Luck wasn’t much better. Most interesting is Manning sitting at 9th worst; clearly forcing him to pass on 3rd/4th down was one of the only effective strategies against him in 2013.

Another noteworthy albeit intuitive point is that on the aggregate, QBs have a lower completion rate on 3rd/4th down, evidenced by only 11 passers (Cam Newton came in 11th) with a better completion rate than their overall rate.

What we really want to know, however, is success rate. Getting a completion is nice, but throwing a one-yard screen on 3rd and 17 is unlikely to do you much good. And we’ve all watched our teams fail on 3rd down because a WR had to track back and catch an underthrown ball. Looking at success rate, we get quite a different picture than the earlier tables:

TOP 10

ATT

INC

COMP SHORT

COMP. FOR 1ST

SUCCESS %

Philip Rivers

173

63

23

87

50.29%

Peyton Manning

192

74

22

96

50.00%

Aaron Rodgers

95

37

13

45

47.37%

Ryan Fitzpatrick

105

40

16

49

46.67%

Josh McCown

58

22

9

27

46.55%

Nick Foles

88

32

16

40

45.45%

Brian Hoyer

29

11

5

13

44.83%

Colin Kaepernick

147

55

27

65

44.22%

Drew Brees

189

69

37

83

43.92%

Cam Newton

121

46

22

53

43.80%

BOTTOM 10

ATT

INC

COMP SHORT

COMP. FOR 1ST

SUCCESS %

Josh Freeman

57

30

8

19

33.33%

Mike Glennon

135

61

29

45

33.33%

Case Keenum

78

40

12

26

33.33%

Jason Campbell

88

39

20

29

32.95%

Matthew McGloin

70

39

8

23

32.86%

E.J. Manuel

101

53

17

31

30.69%

Kirk Cousins

46

21

11

14

30.43%

Brandon Weeden

82

38

20

24

29.27%

Michael Vick

37

22

6

9

24.32%

Blaine Gabbert

29

17

5

7

24.14%

So while the other metrics had our usual top QBs scattered at the top and bottom, this metric shows more of the cream rising to the top. Rivers, Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Foles, Kaepernick, Brees and Newton are all in the top 10 and other stars like Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Robert Griffin III, Ben Roethlisberger and Jay Cutler aren’t too far behind. We covered McCown and Hoyer earlier and I wrote about Ryan Fitzpatrick’s sneaky good performance in 2013 elsewhere .

At the other end, it’s a veritable smorgasbord of underperforming QBs. As a result, this table appears to show us an accurate representation of the good and bad QBs, while shedding some light on a few of the surprises.

In fact, if we look at one last table, which measures the difference between completion percentage and success rate, we see that those with the largest difference are less successful QBs:

TOP 10

COMP %

SUCCESS %

DIFF

Chad Henne

58.8%

33.99%

24.84%

Christian Ponder

62.3%

37.68%

24.64%

Brandon Weeden

53.7%

29.27%

24.39%

Kirk Cousins

54.3%

30.43%

23.91%

Matt Flynn

63.5%

40.38%

23.08%

Jason Campbell

55.7%

32.95%

22.73%

Jake Locker

64.2%

41.79%

22.39%

Matt Schaub

57.6%

35.35%

22.22%

Mike Glennon

54.8%

33.33%

21.48%

Alex D. Smith

58.2%

37.25%

20.92%

TOP 10

COMP %

SUCCESS %

DIFF

Josh McCown

62.1%

46.55%

15.52%

Andrew Luck

52.4%

36.90%

15.48%

Case Keenum

48.7%

33.33%

15.38%

Ryan Fitzpatrick

61.9%

46.67%

15.24%

Terrelle Pryor

53.8%

38.71%

15.05%

Matthew Stafford

55.4%

40.41%

15.03%

Josh Freeman

47.4%

33.33%

14.04%

Aaron Rodgers

61.1%

47.37%

13.68%

Philip Rivers

63.6%

50.29%

13.29%

Tony Romo

51.2%

38.76%

12.40%

Sam Bradford

49.4%

37.66%

11.69%

Peyton Manning

61.5%

50.00%

11.46%

Matthew McGloin

44.3%

32.86%

11.43%

Put a little more bluntly, these guys are effectively ‘padding their stats’ by completing passes shorter than the 1st down marker and likely in positions that don’t offer much RAC for the receiver. This explains some of the surprises at the top of the completion percentage list, including Locker, Ponder and perhaps Flynn.

So in the end, they were who we thought they were. The best QBs in the league are the best at getting first downs on 3rd/4th down. Some QBs can hang with the big boys, but only in a superficial way. Romo and Luck struggled with prolonging drives. And McCown and Fitzpatrick have a reasonable shot of surprising us in 2014 with their new employers.

Oh and Vick was an abomination.

____

A Canadian living in Australia and writing about American football, Ryan McKee might be the only person on the planet to work in all three forms of football. In addition to writing fantasy football articles for Pro Football Focus Fantasy, Ryan works for the Aussie Rules football club Essendon FC in Melbourne and previously worked for Vancouver Whitecaps FC of Major League Soccer. He is the author of Trade Wins: The Final Untapped Advantage in Fantasy Football. He cannot understand why he’s still a Cowboys fan after all these years and can be followed on Twitter @ryanmckee.

  • Robin

    The purpose of this study was looking at QBs ability to extend drives, right? In that case, rushes by QBs should be added in the conversion stats.