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2012 Red Zone Performance: Quarterbacks

One of the projects I’ve decided to undertake this off season is a comprehensive look at red zone performances by both teams and individual players. While the importance of red zone performance, like anything, can be over stated, the reality is that the compressed field within the opposing team’s 20-yard line does create a set of parameters unlike the rest of the field.

For Colts fans, this was apparent as the team had 71 drives that accumulated over 40 yards, but only 32 of those (45%) ended in touchdowns. While the team had the 7th most long drives, the Colts’ TD rate was 12th worst, leading to an overall “underachieving” feel.

On the flip side, the Colts’ defense allowed 74 such drives, 3rd most in the league. But by only allowing 45% to end in touchdowns (9th lowest rate in the league), they kept their points allowed total relatively low and kept games close.

Long story short, performance in the red zone is important. We’ve looked at comparative team performance so far, and dug a little deeper into the Colts’ team numbers.

Today we step back again and look at the league as a whole, and delve into the numbers for individual quarterbacks. Which quarterbacks ran, passed and drew penalties at the best rates in 2012, and why?

To start, let’s look at the raw passing statistics in the red zone (for QBs with at least 10 attempts), brought to you by Pro Football Reference (sorted by Passer Rating).

Just a couple interesting things of note from this table:

  • Two players stick out in the Top 20 that have noticeably poor Y/A numbers: Robert Griffin III and Blaine Gabbert. A high rating but low YPA hints at an inflated rating due to playing safe and protecting the quarterback. This is a solid strategy in the sense that it keeps turnovers down, but it can lead to a lower conversion rate as well (something we saw for RG3 in third down numbers earlier last season).
  • A few big-name quarterbacks litter the bottom of this chart, notably Joe Flacco, Colin Kaepernick, Matt Stafford, and Cam Newton. Andrew Luck also finds himself below average in Passer Rating.

Now, while these statistics can be useful, the raw data doesn’t actually tell us a whole lot about the quarterbacks’ performances in the red zone, where touchdowns are key. If a quarterback completes a couple passes and doesn’t turn the ball over, that’s great, but if it doesn’t net a touchdown, it’s usually a win for the defense.

Since 2000, only 10% of the drives to get into the red zone end in a turnover. Nine times out of 10, the offense will score (or at least attempt a field goal, whether that’s missed or blocked is not the offense’s fault or the responsibility of the defense).

So, the battle, while defensive coordinators may say differently, changes once the offense gets into the red zone. It is the battle for the end zone, the battle for four points.

Whether a QB can complete passes or not is somewhat indifferent. The question is, can they get first downs and score points?

To measure that, we’ll look at what I call “Success” in the red zone. Success here will be defined as a play that gains a first down or a touchdown. We’ll look at it in several different contexts for quarterbacks, starting with passing.

Now things are starting to shake out.

But, just like I mentioned when we looked at 3rd downs in December, the evolution of the quarterback position forces us to also include rushing plays for quarterbacks, whether that is designed runs or scrambles. So to introduce that concept, here is the most successful quarterbacks when running the ball in the red zone (at least 5 attempts).

For Colts fans, it’s refreshing to see Luck’s efficient rushing numbers on paper like this. Luck wasn’t used in high volume to run the ball last season, but he picked his spots extremely well, gaining a first down or touchdown in the red zone on every attempt but one (a scramble that fell just short on 3rd down against Tennessee).

Brady has a high success rate due to his success sneaking the ball at the goal line or in 3rd/4th and short situations. He had just one sneak attempt that was not successful in the red zone: a 3rd and 2 against Miami.

The four well-known “athletic” quarterbacks are all grouped together in the middle: Wilson, Griffin, Newton, and Kaepernick. It’s important to note that while their rate isn’t as incredibly high as someone like Luck, it’s still a higher rate than ANY quarterback’s passing success rate in the red zone, meaning it was still generally more beneficial than not for those quarterbacks to run the ball.

On the other hand, Michael Vick simply could not find success in any way in the red zone, with his 25% rushing success rate lower than his already poor 28% passing success rate.

So, when taking the rushing success or failures into account, how does the quarterback list look?

When you look at that upper echelon in that table, you see five quarterbacks that excelled high above the rest of the competition. Only five quarterbacks reached success rate of 40% or higher in the red zone: Brady, Brees, Rodgers, P. Manning, and rookie Russell Wilson. Those top four are the four elite quarterbacks of this era – Wilson finds himself in fantastic company, and it’s a tribute to his incredible season in the red zone.

Looking at the other young quarterbacks, Luck edges out RG3, Kaepernick, and Dalton in the top 20, while Tannehill, Gabbert, Foles, Locker, and Weeden struggled.

But, before we make any final conclusions, there is one other thing I want to address: penalties

There were a few plays that don’t get counted into the initial stats, but that a quarterback has a direct influence on. I charted all the plays the quarterbacks were a part of in the redzone that ended in penalties that gave the offense a first down. These get marked as “no play” in official stats.

The penalties that occurred generally fell into three categories: pass interference/defensive holding, personal fouls (face masks, roughing the passer, unnecessary roughness, etc.), and offside.

While I charted all of the categories, I’m only counting pass interference/defensive holding and offsides penalties towards the quarterbacks’ totals. Quarterbacks can cause DPIs and offside with cadence and good reads/throws, but personal fouls (such as a late hit) aren’t due to the offense succeeding, but is a lucky (one might even say random) event.

With that in mind, here are the top quarterbacks who benefitted the most in 2012 by drawing penalties in the red zone.

The “penalties caused” column is the one that we’re most interested in. Those totals, when added into the totals we finished with in the rushing and passing charts, do change things slightly, and are important to keep in mind when looking at successes in the red zone.

So now, with everything accounted for (passing, rushing, and penalties drawn), we have an accurate portrayal of each quarterback’s success rate in 2012.

Now, it’s important to look at our sample size too when comparing the list. Alex Smith probably isn’t the 4th best quarterback in the league in the red zone (his small sample size meant adding two penalty successes rose him from 8th to 4th overall).

Nevertheless, when he got his chances in the red zone, the fact is that he WAS generally successful. Chiefs fans should take some comfort out of that, especially considering where Brady Quinn and Matt Cassel fall on this list.

Arizona fans, on the other hand? Well, Palmer is better than Lindley and Skelton were, but that’s not a surprise to anybody. He’s no world beater, but throwing to Larry Fitzgerald may help his numbers in 2013 as well.

Again, that’s a very impressive and seemingly accurate top four (aside from Smith), with Brady, Rodgers, Brees, and Manning leading the pack. Wilson showed incredible maturity and decision making throughout the season, and Ryan and Roethlisberger’s success is no surprise.

Christian Ponder’s success, contrarily, is a head-scratcher. Ponder wasn’t very good for most of the season, but in the red zone he generally found success. A large part of it has to do with Adrian Peterson, of course, Peterson’s cyborg-like year meant defenses had to focus on him in the red zone, which opened up the field for other players, such as Kyle Rudolph, who had an 80% catch rate in the red zone and caught eight touchdowns.

Peterson’s success also kept the Vikings out of long third downs in the red zone, as Ponder had to work with 6 or less yards to go on over 54% of his plays (league average was 43.9%). But, give credit where it’s due: the Vikings had some surprising success in 2012, and a big part of it was Ponder coming through in the red zone.

Luck finishing at eleventh, despite Arians’ deep passing system becoming extremely condensed in the red zone, is a success for the rookie, and a number that should only grow as the Colts’ offense becomes more efficient.

For Kaepernick, Griffin, and Newton, their dual-threat nature is going to keep defenses at bay. If they can improve their passing success rate as they improve, they will be a terror to defend in the red zone. If not, they will continue to get by at an average pace due to their athleticism, but won’t get into that elite group.

Joe Flacco has to step up if he’s going to be the elite quarterback he played like in the playoffs. An elite playoff run is great for that one season, but it usually isn’t a dependable predictive measure. Flacco has simply been bad, or average, in the regular season, and this particular metric stays with that trend.

Tony Romo, as good as his statistics bear out overall, is another quarterback who simply has to come through in the red zone. He’s too talented to be surrounded by guys like Gabbert, Foles, Henne, and Weeden. If he is who Jerry Jones thinks he is, that number needs to rise at least ten percent or so.

Finally, if you are interested, here are those same success rates (passing, rushing, penalties combined), but  sliced just to include 3rd and 4th downs in the red zone. How important is that compared to the overall rates? I don’t know exactly, but it’s an interesting look. If you would like to see them, click this link.

Thanks for reading, and if you would like a sortable table of all the data or have any questions/comments, simply contact me on Twitter: @ColtsAuth_Kyle or email me at kyle.j.rodriguez@gmail.com.

Next in the series will be running backs, which we will be looking at early next week.

EDIT: A reader requested the QB usage rates in the red zone to go along with their success rate. So, here are the usage rates for QBs with at least 40 pass/rush attempts in the red zone in 2012. 

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.

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