When discussing quarterbacks, there’s something ineffable about their luckiness; some quality bestowed upon them from on high that aids in their predetermined destiny. A certain amount of luck seems to come into play. As a 49ers fan, I can’t help but think about Jaquiski Tartt’s dropped interception towards the end of the NFC Championship Game, which was lucky for Matthew Stafford, who then went on to win the Super Bowl.
But, I contend, we can quantify quarterback luck. This is an update to an article that I wrote in 2019, and, if you read that article, you can skip sections of this one. The process remains the same, but the results will be different. I will denote skippable portions that outline the process in italics, so you can skip those portions should you already understand the process. With that in mind let’s answer the question: who was the luckiest quarterback in 2021, and what does this mean for 2022?
The idea to quantify quarterback luck came with my discovery of the interceptable passes and expected touchdowns statistic on PlayerProfiler.com. With football, you generally measure what happened, rather than what should have happened. It’s hard to measure how many yards a running back should have had because each twitch of the ball carrier, of a blocker, of a would-be tackler sets off a butterfly effect that means you can’t really tell what would have happened if an RB hadn’t missed a lane, or if they’d slipped that ankle tackle. With quarterbacks, it’s a little bit different. A pass that hits a DB in the hands should be an interception and the same with a wide receiver. Still, you have to account for drops in both, which is why the interceptable catches statistic and drops can go a long way towards measuring quarterback luck. After all, you can measure a good pass and a bad pass, but what happens once the ball leaves a quarterback’s hand is completely out of his control.
The first thing I wanted to do was set up some baselines for different statistics for quarterback luck. I took the ratio of interceptable passes to interceptions and found that just about every other interceptable pass was picked off (42.5%, updated for the 2021 season). Then, I checked each quarterback against their interceptable passes to see how many they should have, and compared that to how many they did have:
(xINT is “expected interception rate,” the number of interceptable passes multiplied by the average rate of interceptable passes converting to interceptions, divided by pass attempts)
This one is an evolution from the 2019 article, where I looked at raw interception totals. In that piece, I was basically tracking who threw a lot of interceptions. By looking at the interception rate, a different picture starts to form. Also in the 2019 article, I looked at five quarterbacks. With obvious reasons (Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement and one or both of Teddy Bridgewater & Taylor Heinicke getting replaced last season), we take a look at a few more quarterbacks. The most impactful for 2022 fantasy football is, obviously, Jalen Hurts. Hurts had a 2.08% interception rate (2.08% of his passes turned into interceptions), but one of the worst expected interception rates in the league. 31 quarterbacks threw at least 250 passes last year, and Hurts’ 9 interceptions ranked as the eighth-fewest. He also had the fifth-most interceptable passes. That’s bad and due for massive regression in 2022.
The rest of the quarterbacks on this list follow a trend: middling-to-bad talent-level quarterbacks who lucked out with balls not ending up as interceptions. Most of these guys aren’t fantasy-relevant, but the one who might be in 2022 (Trevor Lawrence) also had an offseason of Urban Meyer, so who knows how that will go in 2022.
But, what about the flip side? Who were the unluckiest quarterbacks with regards to interceptions in 2021?
This shows you that the analysis works, or at least, that’s what I want to think. In the 2019 iteration of this article, Baker Mayfield showed up as the league’s luckiest quarterback. Now, he’s the leagues unluckiest. That tells you that this is all capriciousness and just pissing off the wrong elder god leading to your interception totals. Baker ended the season with 13 interceptions on 19 interceptable passes, the second-worst conversion rate behind Kyler Murray. Lamar Jackson also stands out here, mostly because the Ravens tasked him with pushing the ball more, and he responded by throwing a higher percentage of interceptable passes while also getting extremely unlucky with those passes.
The Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow expected interception rates both jump off the page, because they ranked third and sixth, respectively.
If you remember from the top, interceptions weren’t the only part of measuring quarterback luck. What about drops? Well, drops are generally a function of the wide receivers (they are 100% a function of the wide receivers), but if you’re trying to strip away everything from what a QB does, you need to account for the drops. If a pitcher has a shortstop behind him who has no range, it changes his BABIP (“luck”) measurement, something that is out of his control. If we are to measure quarterback luck, we too must account for the hands of the guys a quarterback throws to.
Using the same methodology as interceptable passes and expected interceptions, I figured out expected drops using catchable balls and drops. By the way, about 6.9% of QB passes get dropped by the would-be receivers. So, lay off them the next time it happens: it’s going to happen a couple of times a game. Again, all this data came from PlayerProfiler.com, so a huge shout out to them.
Unluckiest Quarterbacks (Drops)
Again, this saw an evolution in the process over the 2019 iteration of this article. I’ve thought a lot about what I did wrong, and this should be a function of their receivers versus an average group of receivers dropping the ball. Over the course of an average NFL season, wide receivers will drop about 6.9% of passes. This is a nice number to start with. From there, it’s simply subtracting the 6.9% from the QB’s drop rate. Most QBs hovered around that 6.9% number, but there are some groups at the extremes that are worth investigating.
|Full Name||Drop Rate||xDrop Rate||Difference|
First and foremost, there’s Baker Mayfield again, pissing off the wrong elder god en route to becoming one of the unluckier quarterbacks in the NFL. But, there are some other names on here worth looking at most notably Zach Wilson and Trevor Lawrence. Sorry to Sam Darnold, but we know who you are at this point, and I’m not buying it. Jalen Hurts, this is what happens when you throw to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Jalen Reagor. But for Wilson and Lawrence, it speaks volumes that the Jets and Jags, respectively, failed to put talented players around the #1 and #2 picks in the 2021 NFL draft.
But it’s the rate that gets me. Lawrence’s WRs dropped 43 balls, which led the league, but Wilson’s dropped 41… on 259 catchable passes, over 100 fewer attempts than Lawrence’s 388 catchable balls. Just an insane betrayal by Zach Wilson’s receivers. It’s troubling that we generally consider Wilson’s WR corps solved, and Lawrence’s a mess. But, a healthy Corey Davis and a step forward for Elijah Moore should help Wilson. But, who is coming to help Trevor Lawrence?
Luckiest Quarterbacks (Drops)
|Full Name||Drop Rate||xDrop Rate||Diff|
Nobody tell Patriots fans, but Mac Jones got the most help from his receivers last year… by not having them betray him when he threw the ball their way. His 3.7% drop rate was nearly half the league-average rate, putting Mac Jones among the most WR-assisted players in the league. As you can see outside of this, playing with a stud receiver (Brandin Cooks, Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase) goes a long way to helping out a quarterback’s receiving rate, something that isn’t that surprising. Davis Mills is a hot sleeper right now, and with good reason, should they retain Brandin Cooks. Cousins and Burrows have the good fortune of playing with multiple excellent receivers. Aaron Rodgers-to-Davante Adams is one of the most potent batteries in the NFL (as of now), so their inclusion shouldn’t surprise you.
The third way I found to measure quarterback luck is expected touchdowns in 2019. While I previously used the expected touchdowns metric on playerprofiler.com, that is not available. Instead, I constructed an expected (average) touchdown rate utilizing catchable passes and league-average touchdown rate on catchable passes. I then took that number and found the difference between that and the expected touchdown rate on catchable passes (6.02%). Unfortunately, this was just a list of quarterbacks who are really good at football, so I scrapped this portion of the equation for 2021.
The Final Takeaways
Once I had the statistics ready to go, I want to figure out a way to best weigh the statistics. After all: a dropped pass isn’t nearly as devastating as an interception, but it still sucks. Of course, the tried and true method is EPA. Unfortunately, I do not have granular data on these drops, so I had to figure out an “average” EPA lost by an incompletion. I kept trying to run pro-football-reference queries for play-by-play data on incomplete passes, but I repeatedly broke the website. So, in the end, I pulled a random sample of games to get an “average” EPA lost by a drop, which came out to an EPA of -0.923 points per incomplete pass. A drop is generally an incomplete pass, so I weighted the drops that way.
I followed the same methodology for interceptions, though running queries for interceptions didn’t lock up the website. I can tell you that the average interception led to an EPA change of 3.891 points per interception last season. What a player does with the football once it’s picked off is mostly independent of the QB, so I also lump the pick-sixes in there as random luck.
Obviously, I can tell you how many points a touchdown adds (six, not seven!), so I multiplied the difference between expected touchdowns and touchdowns by six. Then, it was as easy as adding up all the weighted values and dividing it by the number of pass attempts, giving you the… luck… quotient(?) of each quarterback. That gave me this list of luckiest and unluckiest quarterbacks (min. 250 pass attempts) on a per-pass basis:
In 2019, the methodology got a little hinky because the worst QBs in the league were just flat-out bad, but by looking at it with updated eyes, we can get a mix of potential studs and bad quarterbacks. #6, #7 and #8 unluckiest quarterbacks were also Lamar Jackson, Ryan Tannehill, and Tom Brady. This is a good indicator of positive regression for the unlucky quarterbacks, and I expect Tua and Trevor Lawrence to take a step forward in 2022. Unfortunately, I also expect Jalen Hurts to take a massive step back in the luck department, which might end up with him on the sidelines. The 49ers would also be smart to move Garoppolo on the heels of the third-luckiest season in the NFL.
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