In Kansas City’s Oct. 6 game against Indianapolis, Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes faced a third and 18 from the Colts 27-yard line. Perhaps a bit skittish after an 8-yard sack on the previous play, Mahomes vacated the pocket early despite good protection from his line. Retreating backward, Mahomes faked left, then spun around and sprinted to the right sideline. He turned upfield at the boundary, and before crossing the line of scrimmage, he threw the ball approximately 35 yards across his body to wide receiver Byron Pringle in the end zone.
Mahomes is perhaps best known for his rocket arm and improbable no-look passes, but his ability to salvage plays like this — scrambling outside the pocket when the intended play design fails — is also off the charts. Mahomes has quickly become exhibit A when coaches talk about the value of a QB who can create out of structure. Throws outside the pocket have been on the rise across the league in recent years, including plays that are explicitly designed to put the QB on the move. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has even said that scheming movement for his quarterback is what makes his offense go.
This season, it seems to be paying dividends for teams that are proficient at it. With some notable exceptions, NFL teams that are successful on dropbacks outside the pocket have tended to win more games.
The Chiefs, 49ers and Patriots are all likely playoff teams that have taken different approaches to moving their quarterbacks.
The Chiefs have eight wins and rank fifth in the NFL in expected points added per play on dropbacks outside the pocket. I looked at all 60 plays that Kansas City has run outside, and I determined that half were improvised — plays made when the original call in the huddle broke down. On those improvised plays, Mahomes and the Chiefs averaged 0.39 EPA per play<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="1" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/teams-are-excelling-when-their-qbs-leave-the-pocket-can-that-continue/#fn-1" data-footnote-content="
League-average EPA per play on dropbacks outside the pocket is 0.00.
“>1 — 0.27 EPA per play better than the schemed plays designed by Reid.
San Francisco’s similar success to Kansas City belies a profound difference in approach. The 49ers are tied for the league lead in wins with 10 and are first in the NFL in EPA per play on outside dropbacks (0.51). But the Niners have run the second-fewest outside dropbacks in the league (28), and while the Chiefs have been reliant on the improvisational brilliance of their superstar QB, San Francisco has leaned heavily on head coach Kyle Shanahan. Nearly two-thirds of the 49ers’ plays outside the pocket in 2019 have been schemed, and Shanahan’s offense has been brilliant on those 18 occasions, earning 1.2 EPA per play. But when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has been asked to improvise outside the pocket, he’s been a liability, accruing -0.43 EPA per play.
Similarly, the Patriots seldom ask Tom Brady to leave the pocket. The Patriots rank just above the 49ers in outside dropbacks on the year with 32, third-fewest in the league. Perhaps one reason is that when the 42-year-old Brady does move outside, it’s generally been a disaster: 62.5 percent of Brady’s plays outside the pocket have been improvised, and New England has an EPA per play of -0.70 on those scrambles. That’s far worse than the team’s work on schemed plays, which have generated 0.0 EPA per play.
Which approach is most likely to succeed? To answer that, we need to know if we should expect outside-the-pocket performance to continue. And if it does, which flavor of outside-the-pocket performance is most likely to persist: the improvisational approach exemplified by Mahomes and Kansas City, or the scheme-based approach of Shanahan and San Francisco?
To try to answer these questions, I tested the year-to-year stability of EPA per play both inside and outside the pocket.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="2" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/teams-are-excelling-when-their-qbs-leave-the-pocket-can-that-continue/#fn-2" data-footnote-content="
Using 281 QB season-pairs from 2009 to 2018. Players who changed teams were omitted.
“>2 The results were somewhat surprising. It turns out that a quarterback’s performance inside the pocket has a 96 percent chance of being more stable than their performance outside the pocket. That is, a QB’s performance inside the pocket is a better predictor of future success (and future struggles) than the plays he runs outside of structure. This aligns generally with the work of Eric Eager at Pro Football Focus, who found that QB play from a clean pocket is a more consistent measurement of quarterback performance, relative to QB play under pressure. Moreover, the evidence suggests that performance on schemed plays outside the pocket — specifically play-action — is almost completely unstable, further driving home that we can’t infer much about a quarterback’s success on outside the pocket.
None of this is to say that outside-the-pocket performance doesn’t matter. It’s simply unpredictable. Fumbles have an enormous impact on the outcome of a game, but they’re basically random events. Just because a team has had good or bad fumble luck throughout a season doesn’t mean future fumbles are more or less likely to occur.
We can use this information to set reasonable expectations for the rest of the season and into the postseason. Kansas City relies on Mahomes’s out-of-pocket exploits to a large degree: They’ve run nearly as many plays outside as San Francisco and New England have combined. And while outside-the-pocket performance is generally unstable across years, the type of plays Mahomes makes out of structure tend to be the most steady. Mahomes is also impressive throwing from the pocket. Among healthy, qualifying QBs, Mahomes ranks second in in-the-pocket QBR, behind only Lamar Jackson. It’s reasonable to conclude that his performance has a good chance to continue.
|player||Team||games||out of pocket||in pocket||TOTAL|
The performances of Garoppolo and Brady outside the pocket, however, take on less importance. Garoppolo likely won’t be as good in the future on outside plays — since most of them were schemed play-action — and there’s a chance that Brady won’t be as bad moving forward. We should probably temper our expectations on that count, though, since it’s unlikely that Brady will grow new legs at age 42. Perhaps the poor out-of-pocket numbers are here to stay for New England. More concerning is Brady’s very average in-the-pocket QBR of 54.4 through 13 weeks. If that number doesn’t improve, the Patriots’ path through the postseason could end up being one of the toughest, despite their gaudy regular-season win total.
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Dabo Swinney had a lot to say on Tuesday. Heading into the ACC championship game against Virginia, Clemson’s head coach said his team is underestimated. He said the ACC is underrated. And he said his sophomore quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, is playing better football than he was a year ago. “He is twice the quarterback right now that he was in the national championship game when everybody was crowning him the king of football,” Swinney told reporters during a lengthy, impassioned press conference.
On that last point, Swinney may be right, which would have been hard to imagine after Lawrence completed 20 of 32 passes for 347 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 44-16 thrashing of Alabama in last year’s title game. That night set almost unrealistic expectations for Lawrence’s sophomore season, and for most of this year, Lawrence didn’t live up to them. But over the past five games, he has been the best quarterback in the country — and he has saved Clemson from the perception it has underachieved, turning the Tigers into every bit the juggernaut they were supposed to be.
After Lawrence, the No. 1 overall prospect in the recruiting class of 2018, became the first true freshman starting quarterback to win a national championship since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1986, no projection seemed too outrageous. Multiple analysts deemed Lawrence flawless. He was, some assumed, a sure No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, the first draft for which he will be eligible. He was, with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, a Heisman co-favorite.
But as Clemson started 7-0 and pushed its win streak to 22, Lawrence underperformed relative to his breakout freshman season. In 2018, he threw four interceptions in 397 passes — an interception rate of just 1.0 percent. In the first seven games of this season, he threw eight picks in 190 passes, a rate of 4.2 percent. Louisville picked off Lawrence twice in the first quarter on Oct. 19, and both mistakes were concerning. First, from the Louisville 21-yard line, he threw into coverage and allowed the safety to jump easily and make the catch. Then, from the Louisville 39-yard line, he fired into a crowd of red jerseys again.
Those plays were meaningless — Clemson won by more than 30 for the second straight week — but after that game, only one Power Five quarterback had more interceptions than Lawrence did. Compared with the more dominant LSU and Ohio State teams, Clemson’s struggles in the early goings stood out: On Nov. 5, the College Football Playoff selection committee put the reigning national champions fifth. Rob Mullens, the committee chair, pointed to a close call against North Carolina: The Tigers needed to stop a last-minute 2-point conversion for the 21-20 win.
After Clemson coasted past Louisville, Lawrence flipped a switch and became the quarterback everyone thought he could be. His total QBR of 95.4 since Oct. 20 leads the country. He has thrown 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the past five games, with a completion rate above 70 percent in each. Not even Tagovailoa, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts or Ohio State’s Justin Fields has a five-game streak like Lawrence’s (though LSU’s Joe Burrow, the Heisman favorite, has hit 70 percent in a staggering 12 of 12 games this season). Meanwhile, Clemson has scored more than 50 points in four of those five games and climbed to No. 3 in the playoff rankings.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="1" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/trevor-lawrence-is-playing-like-a-star-again/#fn-1" data-footnote-content="
It’s worth noting the Tigers’ opponents during this five-game stretch: Boston College, Wofford, North Carolina State, Wake Forest and South Carolina. Wofford visited Clemson from the FCS; the other four opponents all rank below 60th in the FBS in pass efficiency defense.
One factor in Lawrence’s bounceback appears to be a slight tweak in offensive philosophy: The Tigers are throwing downfield less frequently and much more successfully.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="2" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/trevor-lawrence-is-playing-like-a-star-again/#fn-2" data-footnote-content="
Lawrence also appears healthier now — he bruised his shoulder on a hit against Texas A&M in September and underwent an MRI afterward.
“>2 In the first seven games, 29 percent of Lawrence’s passes (7.9 per game) traveled 15 or more yards in the air. In their last five, that number was only 23 percent (5.8 per game). And on those passes of 15 or more yards downfield, Lawrence’s completion percentage almost doubled (from 36.3 to 65.5) between the first seven games and the last five. He threw six touchdowns and five interceptions on those passes in the first seven games compared to eight touchdowns and zero picks in the last five.
Now, Swinney says, “He’s playing like the best player in the country.” It’s still unlikely that Lawrence will get much consideration for the Heisman Trophy against Burrow, Fields and Hurts, but his resurgence is critical for Clemson, which hardly needed Lawrence much in its march through the mediocre ACC but will need another great performance before long.
In an era of high-scoring offenses, most recent national champions have had to win a shootout at some point, and Clemson is no exception. The 2018 Tigers gave up 35 points to South Carolina and scored 56. The 2016 national champions won by scores of 42-36, 37-34, 42-35 and 35-31. Even LSU, long known for its stingy defense and uninspiring offense, has given up 37 points or more four times this season and required a terrific performance from Burrow each time. But Clemson has not given up more than 20 points in a game this season — every other FBS team except Georgia has done so at least twice — so the Tigers’ offense hasn’t been tested. Lawrence has just 21 pass attempts in the fourth quarter and 18 when his team is behind.
When he finds himself in that situation again, he’ll have to use the deep pass wisely. During this five-game tear, Lawrence is 4-for-4 on passes down the middle totaling 15 yards or more, tallying 148 yards and three touchdowns. In the first quarter Saturday at South Carolina, he dropped a gorgeous throw to Tee Higgins, hitting the open receiver in stride for a 65-yard touchdown, the kind of connection Clemson didn’t find often enough earlier this fall. “I was still having fun,” Lawrence told reporters a couple of weeks ago. “But I do think I was just thinking a little too much about what I needed to do to live up to the expectations.”
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