RunPass3rdReg

Quarterbacks on Third Down: Andrew Luck is a Magician

Many people have said this year that Andrew Luck's year has been special. It has been.

Many people have said that Andrew Luck's traditional stats are lacking. They are.

How do we reconcile that? How has Luck been so special if his traditional stats simply aren't that good? Well, as much smarter people have said before me, this is a case in which the traditional stats are not telling the story accurately. The vertical offense, the lack of talent around him, and the sheer magnitude of the responsibility he bears cannot be told through traditional stats, nor advanced metrics. He truly is a player that must be seen to be understood. 

But not every stat paints Luck as a bottom ten quarterback in the NFL. In fact, some of the very important, telling stats tell us the exact opposite

One such statistic that is not widely available is 3rd down conversion percentage. When a quarterback absolutely needs to get yards to keep a drive moving, can he get them? Well, from what I've seen from Andrew Luck, I'd say he's pretty darn good on third down. So I used Pro-Football-Reference's handy-dandy game-play finder, threw out any spikes or kneel-downs, and ran the numbers for every starting quarterback in the league. 

The results surprised even me.

First, let's look at the simple numbers: Quarterbacks passing on third/fourth downs. (click to enlarge)

Some notables here: 

  • Obviously, Andrew Luck at 7th in the league is pretty remarkable for a rookie quarterback. Look at the other rookie quarterbacks: Wilson- 15th, Foles- 23, RG3- 25, Weeden- 28, Tannehill- 31. ALL of the rest of the top 10 are seasoned veterans. 
  • Tom Brady  converting more than 50% of his third downs is pretty remarkable. As a Colts fan, it pains me to say it, but that's ridiculous. 
  • Oh hi Peyton, it's nice to have you back in football. 
  • One reason why the Packers have struggled: Aaron Rodgers was exactly 50% on third downs last season, this season he's dropped a little. 
  • Jay Cutler doesn't look bad at 14th, just over 40%. But he doesn't look great either. Of course, when you take into account that Jason Campbell is 2-20 on third downs this year, you understand why Chicago is relieved to have Cutler back in the lineup. 
  • Jacksonville quarterbacks are bad and should feel bad. 
  • People thought Joe Flacco was going to "take the next step" this season. He hasn't. He's in the company of Mark Sanchez, Kevin Kolb, and Brandon Weeden. 
  • So far, Colin Kaepernick has been a little bit better than Alex Smith on 3rd down. Not a ton, but enough to matter. 
  • Michael Vick actually was converting 3rd downs at a decent rate. If only he could have stopped embracing defenders in the backfield and throwing the ball to their teammates. 
  • Spikes are excluded in this data. So far this season, there have only been three spikes on third or fourth down, which makes sense. Luck had one (against Buffalo), as well as Roethlisberger and Palmer. 

Now, this doesn't take into account runs/scrambles. So, for mobile quarterbacks, that's a big part of their game that we're missing. We're missing the ELECTRIC factor! So, here is how adding rushes and scrambles to the totals changes things: 

Notes here:

  • I highlighted the top six running quarterbacks on third down. The ones in green benefited heavily from the addition of runs, the ones in red did not. Luck was the most efficient with his runs (82%), then Newton (61%), Wilson (55%), Griffin (50%), Freeman (46%), and finally Vick (41%).
  • Aaron Rodgers also moves up quite a bit with the running, although he still is about 5% short of last seasons' mark. 
  • The least efficient runners on third down, with at least five carries? Fitzpatrick (29%), Sanchez (33%), Ponder (38%), and Kaepernick (40%). 
  • These numbers do not include kneeldowns, in case you were wondering. Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler are the only quarterbacks with three, the rest have two or less. 

Now, this is all fine and dandy, but what I'm really interested in is how quarterbacks fare when passing on long 3rd downs, which is generally defined as eight yards to go or more. So, for that, I go back to the handy-dandy PFR game play finder. 

This is where things start to get interesting.

Notes: 

  • Andrew Luck is beyond anything we've ever seen as a rookie. Scott Kacsmar pretty much said this yesterday, and now I'm saying it (solely relying on Scott's wonderfully brilliant historical/statistical knowledge). There is no reason why he should be second in the league. And it's not just because he's built like Big Ben. Roethlisberger (who is now known for his ability to make big plays on third down) was just 9 of 51 on long third downs during his rookie year. 
  • That being said, the big bodied, athletic quarterbacks like Roethlisberger and Luck succeed partially because their body type allows them to create things. Against Detroit, there were two separate plays where Luck literally just bounced off of defensive tackles. It was great. 
  • Peyton Manning used to be the king of this stat. I did a little bit of research into this last season, and it was clear that Manning was the unquestioned king of long third downs, among active quarterbacks (Roethlisberger was second, I believe). 2010 was one of his worst years in a long time, and even then he was 36%, which would be third in the league this year. 
  • That being said, he's clearly struggling there this season. We all think that his arm must be fine, since he's playing fantastically. But, there's no question that he's older, and not as strong in that arm. I think that shows here. 
  • Kaepernick may have Smith beat in 3rd downs overall, but Smith crushes him on long third downs. Interesting conundrum for the 49ers. 
  • This is why Henne brings something to the table for Jacksonville. His 26% vs Gabbert's 16% is very significant.
  • Robert Griffin III is downright awful on long third downs. Terribly, horribly, putridly awful. Just 5 conversions all year. To put this in perspective, Blaine Gabbert more than doubled Griffin's conversion rate during his rookie year (22%). To put this into even more perspective, Curtis Painter's rate from 2011 triples Griffin's 2012 rate. Here are a few more things that are better than RG3 on long third downs: oatmeal raisin cookies, The Phantom Menace, this guy, any movie with Shaq in it, and public buses. 

Again, before any Washington fans get hissy, I did do a chart that includes rushes, and yes, it helps RG3. 

Yeah, it helps RG3 move all the way up to 2nd worst! Seriously though, Griffin's numbers on third and long are fascinatingly bad, and if it wasn't for the rushes, they'd be historically bad. 

  • Andrew Luck is an alien. I don't think he belongs with the rest of us on earth. We knew that he was really special for a rookie, but this goes beyond that. Leading the league in long third downs as a rookie? Unreal. One of the most incredible things about Luck is how intelligent he is. He doesn't scramble unless he thinks he can get it. He's converted four out of five long third downs with his legs, the best ratio for quarterbacks with multiple attempts on the ground. Meanwhile, Griffin is six of fifteen, Freeman is one of six, and Vick is one of eight. 
  • Locker is up there by virtue of not having many attempts, and then having a very good run ratio (tied Luck with 4 of 5). If you just look at his pass numbers, he's 22nd, which makes more sense. 
  • Fitzpatrick is a little surprising, as is Cassel, but there rest isn't all that different than we would expect. 
  • Luck not only leads the league, but is the only rookie inside the top 15: Foles-18, Wilson- 22, Kaepernick- 31, Weeden- 34, Tannehill- 35, and RG3- 37. 

Look, 3rd downs and long 3rd downs are not the only part of quarterbacking. Afterall, the quarterback is often a part of the reason why the team is in a long third down in the first place. Nevertheless, teams WILL get in those scenarios occasionally, and it's important for a team to be able to trust their quarterback, even in situations when the defense knows what's coming. 

When it comes to the Colts, opposing defenses know what's going to happen. The ball is going to be in Andrew Luck's hands. 

The only question is: Can you stop him? 

So far, the answer has been no. 

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.

Quantcast