Lamar Jackson: Breaking Stats, Hearts, and Minds

While the talk surrounding Baltimore’s 23-7 win in Denver on Sunday is about Lamar Jackson’s late run to extend the team’s record streak of 100-yard rushing games, it has been quiet on the NFL media front that he threw 37 passes and registered his third 300-yard passing game in his career. It is only the fifth game in Jackson’s career where he threw the ball at least 35 times.

Jackson recently broke 1,000 pass attempts in his regular season career, which must have prompted this Deadspin article last week about how Jackson has the “NFL’s greatest QB start ever.” I’ll get into multiple things from the article below, but it ends by saying, “Lamar Jackson is only 24 years old, and just posted the greatest FIRST 1,000 Pass start in modern quarterback history. Now write about it.”

Challenge accepted, because I already subtweeted about this article the other day, but it and Lamar’s unique career deserve a more in-depth look. I have neither any beef nor familiarity with the author (Chuck Modiano) of the piece. I just think Lamar’s career is the right place to talk about quarterback statistics in a game that is evolving.

Yes, Running QBs Make Life Harder on Statistics

The premise of the Deadspin article is that stat companies such as PFF and Football Outsiders continue to miss the mark on running quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson (and Cam Newton). The author concludes that if you combine Lamar’s elite passing production through 1,000 attempts, his historic rushing production, and his team impact (high winning percentage), then he’s had the greatest first 1,000 pass start in modern history for an NFL quarterback.

I have certainly read worse arguments over the years, but I disagree with this one on the obviousness of Patrick Mahomes dominating the league and rewriting the record books at the same time as Jackson’s rise.

Not to mention Mahomes is still 3-1 in the head-to-head matchups. While Jackson unanimously won MVP in 2019, Mahomes ended that season with the Super Bowl MVP and had another stellar run last season. 2020 also brought the return of Peak Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and the breakout of Josh Allen in Buffalo. Of course, we also live in a world where Tom Brady reverse ages and annually hits the “EASY” button he sold his soul for each postseason to add to his ring collection. So given Lamar’s playoff struggles, it is no surprise that the media does not revolve around Jackson in this era.

But one thing I won’t argue is that Jackson is indisputably the most prolific rushing quarterback in NFL history. He proved that after back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and leading the NFL in yards per carry both years. He has also shown he can be durable doing it (so far) as only COVID-19 has kept him out of one game, plus that night in Cleveland where he had to take a shit and missed a few plays.

However, this rushing part of his game that makes him so unique also makes him harder to evaluate statistically. While the author is correct that the stat companies have struggled in this area, his remedy to fix it also misses the mark.

Any time you see someone try to combine rushing with passing in a quarterback metric, it tends to overvalue the running quarterback. ESPN’s QBR is notorious for having a hard-on for rushing quarterbacks, especially when they scramble for a big gain on a third down. You can see it in the way that Mitchell Trubisky (71.0) was their No. 3 quarterback in 2018, or how David Garrard’s 2007 with Jacksonville is still the No. 8 season since 2006. You also should note that Lamar’s 2019 (83.0) is the fourth highest season in QBR.

I cannot find the link now, but about 15 years ago I saw a guy rank the top ~50 quarterbacks of all time, and he used a formula that put a bonus for rushing. It ended up having Mark Brunell in the top 30 if I’m not mistaken. Yeah, adding rushing is problematic. Football Outsiders has not figured out a good way of doing it in two decades, so rushing is still kept separate from passing.

While the author wants to include Jackson’s rushing, there are parts early in the article where he keeps it separate. But by not thinking about Jackson’s attempts on the ground, you’re presenting what are misleading figures for Jackson’s touchdown passes. Through 1,000 passes, Jackson (70) has the fourth-most touchdown passes, trailing only Dan Marino (75), Kurt Warner (73), and Mahomes (71).

This looks great for Jackson but think about what the average touchdown drive looks like for these quarterbacks. The other three were going to throw a lot of passes while Marino and Warner would rarely ever run. Mahomes scrambles at times, but most of the offense is him passing. For Lamar, his Ravens run a lot and so does he, so he can keep his pass attempts lower while still ending drives with touchdown passes. This is why we need to stop fixating on that number of 1,000 passes and start focusing on things like an equal number of games played and rate stats.

On Pro Football Reference, you can search a quarterback’s first four seasons and find their Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt index (ANY/A), which will factor in sacks (but not rushing) and the era the quarterback played in. When you run that search for quarterbacks with 1,000-plus attempts, Jackson comes in 14th at 112 ANY/A+, right behind the likes of Russell Wilson (115), Peyton Manning (113), and Deshaun Watson (113). Warner (133), Marino (132), and Mahomes (129) are the only players above 120, and it is hard to argue with anyone having better starts to their careers than those three.

But that does not include rushing, which means it also does not look at fumbles, or something that Jackson does a fair amount since he handles the ball so much with defenders coming after him. The author talks about interception totals by decade, but again, that can be misleading as mobile quarterbacks often have lower interceptions due to their love of scrambling and taking more sacks than pocket passers. We should be looking at total turnovers by including fumbles lost.

The author makes an argument for combining rush and pass stats instead of segregating them. “When Lamar ran for two 4th-quarter TDs to beat the Chiefs, it counted for the same exact points as if he threw those TDs. So why don’t we show that PRODUCTION?”

By making that argument, and earlier saying that he favors substance over style and will not reward style points, then he must agree that we should be treating a 6-yard completion on a curl route the same as a quarterback escaping a blitzing linebacker and scrambling for a 6-yard gain. That simple pass play still counts for the same yards as if he ran the ball, right?

So here is what I did. I gathered data for the first 45 starts (playoffs included) of the 60 quarterbacks who have made their starting debut since 2001. Jackson just made his 45th start on Sunday in Denver in case you’re confused why I picked 45. I looked at their passes, sacks, runs, and fumbles and combined those stats to figure out their total number of plays, total yards gained, total touchdowns, and total turnovers. From there I can figure out their yards per play and touchdown rate (TD%) per play.

Finally, I took the ANY/A formula and tweaked it to include fumbles and rushes. I thought this was better than tweaking passer rating for rushing as the author did at the end to get a 109.5 Production Rating for Lamar. I’ve just never liked the idea of giving a quarterback completion bonuses for every run, so I stuck with ANY/A.

Here are some of the findings on where Lamar stacks up among the 60 quarterbacks thru 45 starts:

Win% and Average Points Scored: Jackson is 34-11 (.756) as a starter, second only to Mahomes (36-9, .800). Brady, Roethlisberger, and Wilson were all 33-12 (.733), or just one game behind Jackson. Scoring has gone up in recent years, so it is not a big surprise to see Mahomes (32.4) and Jackson (28.7) average the most team points per start.

Jackson’s Passing Ranks and Rushing:

  • 14th in completion percentage (62.8%)
  • 49th in passing yards (8,975)
  • 15th in yards per attempt (7.51)
  • 11th in touchdown passes (74; tied with Kirk Cousins)
  • 2nd in touchdown pass rate (6.19%)
  • 12th in lowest interception rate (2.18%)
  • 5th in passer rating (97.3)
  • 7th in ANY/A (6.80; passes only).

In rushing, Jackson is easily No. 1 in attempts (550) and rushing yards (3,413), and he is No. 4 in YPC (6.21) and No. 3 in TD runs (21). Jackson’s 38 fumbles trail only Josh McCown (42) and Michael Vick (39). His 14 lost fumbles are tied for the seventh most. Jackson’s 40 total turnovers are tied for the ninth fewest.

Advanced Metrics to Include All Play Types: Jackson is No. 7 in total yards (11,891) and tied with Josh Allen for No. 4 in total touchdowns (95). That’s good company, but on a per-play basis, Jackson falls as the increased choice to be a 6.2 YPC runner instead of a 7.5 YPA passer hurts his numbers. Jackson ranks 15th in yards per play (6.46) and 6th in TD% (5.16%). When I include everything into ANY/A, he ranks No. 6 in that too (6.51).

Here is a graph of all 60 quarterbacks through their first 45 starts since 2001. The x-axis is their total TD% and the y-axis is their ANY/A with all plays included.

Yep, Jackson is doing very well, but Mahomes is killing the league. Running for over 100 yards as a team every week is cool and the Ravens have been historic with that under Lamar, but it still does not produce the results of being a lethal passing team like the Chiefs.

Jackson Is Still Developing

You can appreciate Jackson’s unique greatness while still having valid questions and criticisms about his ability to perform in certain situations or what his long-term success will be.

The four playoff games bring Jackson down a bit, but shouldn’t we have some higher expectations for him there? Most of the players who come up in comparison to him here (Mahomes, Wilson, Marino, Warner, Roethlisberger, Brady) all won or were in a Super Bowl within two seasons as a starter. Jackson is 1-3 with his best game being a low-scoring wild card win in Tennessee last year.

While we talk about Jackson’s unique place in history, his postseason history leaves so much to be desired. 2020 was the third postseason in a row where the Ravens scored their season-low in points with Jackson at quarterback. Safe to say that stat will not come up in his contract negotiations. When you compare that to some other recent quarterbacks for how often they scored their season-low in a playoff game, Jackson’s three-for-three is a huge eyesore. It is as many times as Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger combined.

  • Lamar Jackson (100%): three times in three postseasons (2018, 2019, 2020)
  • Patrick Mahomes (33.3%): once in three postseasons (2020)
  • Philip Rivers (28.6%): two times in seven postseasons (2007, 2009)
  • Tom Brady (27.8%): five times in 18 postseasons (2005, 2007, 2011-T, 2012, 2019-T)
  • Cam Newton (25.0%): once in four postseasons (2015)
  • Peyton Manning (20.0%): three times in 15 postseasons (2002, 2004, 2013)
  • Joe Flacco (16.7%): once in six postseasons (2009)
  • Matt Ryan (16.7%): once in six postseasons (2011)
  • Russell Wilson (12.5%): once in eight postseasons (2015)
  • Drew Brees (10.0%): once in 10 postseasons (2020)
  • Aaron Rodgers (0.0%): zero times in 10 postseasons
  • Ben Roethlisberger (0.0%): zero times in 11 postseasons

The other thing I saw in that article was a link to another piece saying that Jackson has debunked that he can’t be clutch because of the Detroit finish in Week 3. I also saw Ryan Clark on Twitter ask why people weren’t talking about Lamar’s play on 4th-and-19 to Sammy Watkins to set up the game-winning field goal.

Well, I think it’s pretty obvious why a record-setting 66-yard field goal by the great Justin Tucker stole all the headlines. Especially with the way it bounced in good. Just an incredible, history-making play.

But this is another situation where if Jackson played the position better, he’d get more of the attention. No one was expecting the Ravens to be down late in that game. Drops by Marquise Brown aside, it was Jackson who forced an interception on third down in Detroit territory, which the Lions turned into a go-ahead scoring drive. On the last drive, it was a 4th-and-19 after Jackson took two sacks on the drive. If he plays the drive better and sets Tucker up for a shorter, easier field goal, then Jackson gets more credit. He didn’t, so we go nuts over what Tucker did to bail the team out. Simple as that.

Similar things with the Chiefs win the week before. While Jackson did his part in the fourth quarter, most people can see that it took a really bad fumble by Clyde Edwards-Helaire in field goal range to decide that game. Jackson put them away on the ground, but he was only in that position after a rare fumble. Had the Ravens lost 38-36, Jackson would have still been credited for having his best game yet against the Chiefs, but those early interceptions, including a pick-six to start the game, would have stood out too.

If that CEH fumble and 66-yard field goal are the new proof that Jackson is clutch, well then that’s just not a good argument either.  Jackson has six game-winning drives in his career and five of them were field goals by Tucker from distances of 24, 46, 49, 55, and 66 yards. Oof. He did at least have the touchdown drives against the Chiefs and the long touchdown on fourth down to Hollywood Brown in the Cleveland Poop Game (47-42), but to say Jackson is proven in this department is just not true at all.

While Jackson is absolutely unique and fun to watch, let’s roll back the hyperbole that he’s off to the greatest start in NFL history by a quarterback. No metric, no matter how much you want to overvalue his runs, is going to support that.

It’s not even the best start by someone drafted in the last five years.

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