Last season, NFL quarterbacks attempted 18,104 passes. They completed just less than 60 percent of them, but that success rate depended on a number of factors, including who was throwing the ball, who was trying to catch it, and where on the field the pass was targeted.
ESPN meticulously tracks these things for every single pass in the NFL, allowing us to understand passing and quarterback performance in new ways. Below you can see the distribution of last season’s passes, and how completion percentage varies according to quarterbacks’ target locations.
A quick glance at the chart reveals that short-range passes are the most popular passes in the NFL. Overall, 40 percent of NFL passes targeted receivers less than five yards away from the line of scrimmage. Leaguewide, quarterbacks completed 74 percent of them. Only 22 percent of the league’s throws were aimed at players more than 15 yards downfield. Those longer attempts offered higher risks and rewards, with only 40 percent resulting in a completed pass.
Different players obviously have different skills and approaches to throwing the ball. Further, every quarterback’s performance is heavily dependent on environmental context. In most cases, a quarterback can only be as good as his team’s schemes, blockers, and receivers, and his numbers reflect far more than just his own abilities. Just ask Philip Rivers.
Still, some quarterbacks are just plain better than others.
The Manning Brothers
Despite a disappointing performance in the Super Bowl, it’s hard to argue against the fact that the Broncos had the best passing performance in the NFL last season. Peyton Manning put up stunning numbers. His passing chart shows exactly how dominant he was.
Manning is by far the best short-range quarterback in the league. Last season, on throws within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, he amassed 29 passing touchdowns and only three interceptions. Manning is great at throwing the ball all over the field, but his precision and decision-making in short range is phenomenal.
Then there’s Eli.
Peyton’s little brother and the Giants offense had an awful season. While Peyton put up video-game numbers on those short-range passes, Eli had port-a-potty numbers. Out of 35 NFL quarterbacks who attempted at least 100 short-range throws, Peyton was the most efficient, racking up a passer rating of 115. Eli ranked 34th, with a dismal 63 passer rating, only three TDs, and six INTs. He would’ve ranked last in short-range performance, but Brandon Weeden spared him from that embarrassing anti-honor.
Best Short-Range Passers (Minimum 100 Attempts)
1. Peyton Manning, 115 passer rating
2. Philip Rivers, 107
3. Nick Foles, 104
Worst Short-Range Passers (Minimum 100 Attempts)
1. Brandon Weeden, 56 passer rating
2. Eli Manning, 63
3. Geno Smith, 64
How are these guys related again?
Eli didn’t gain much ground on Peyton when it came to going downfield. Out of 29 quarterbacks with at least 100 targets between 5 and 15 yards downfield, Peyton again ranked first, while Eli ranked 25th. In terms of midrange supremacy, Peyton narrowly edged out Russell Wilson.
Best Midrange Passers (Minimum 100 Attempts)
1. Peyton Manning, 112 passer rating
2. Russell Wilson, 108
3. Philip Rivers, 102
Worst Midrange Passers (Minimum 100 Attempts)
1. Jason Campbell, 69 passer rating
2. Chad Henne, 70
3. Geno Smith, 74
4. Terrelle Pryor, 74
5. Eli Manning, 75
Wilson was good all over the field, but he was especially effective down the right side, where he amassed 14 TDs and only one INT. He was much less dominant over the middle and to the left side.
Wilson rode right-sided brilliance, along with impressive long-range accuracy, all the way to superstardom. He’s one of the best deep throwing quarterbacks in the league, ranking fifth in passer rating on attempts targeting receivers at least 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Best Long-Range Passers (Minimum 50 Attempts)
1. Nick Foles, 133 passer rating
2. Drew Brees, 127
3. Tony Romo, 123
4. Peyton Manning, 114
5. Russell Wilson, 110
Fly, Eagle, Fly
Good things happened last season when Foles went deep. He completed 47 of his 90 deep attempts for 1,265 yards, 14 TDs, and one INT.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Joe Flacco.
Worst Long-Range Passers (Minimum 50 Attempts)
1. Joe Flacco, 43 passer rating
2. Ryan Tannehill, 50
3. Cam Newton, 60
Fail, Flacco, Fail
The most important pass of Flacco’s entire career was a bomb down the right sideline.
Perhaps that heroic effort went too much to his head. Last season, he was the least effective long-range quarterback in the league. When targeting receivers at least 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, he threw three TDs and had nine INTs, while completing just 40 of his 144 attempts. In an area where the NFL’s quarterbacks averaged an 84 passer rating, Flacco put up a miserable 43.
Flacco could’ve have limited the damage downfield by focusing on shorter throws. But instead he seemed to stubbornly ignore his limitations in that area. Flacco put up the worst downfield efficiency numbers of any quarterback, and he was also the league’s second-most active deep thrower. In other words, he medicated his long-range terribleness with a heaping spoonful of unjustifiable volume.
Flacco is the Josh Smith of the NFL. For those not too familiar with the NBA, that’s generally not an admirable statistical analogue.
Josh Smith jokes aside, when you look at which quarterbacks accumulated the worst passer rating by zone, you see Flacco and Eli Manning both appear twice. Twinsies?
Again, it’s important to emphasize that quarterback numbers in the NFL are often more a reflection of the overall ecology, and less a reflection of an individual’s passing abilities. You might call this the Gilbride Effect, but Eli is probably better than last year’s numbers indicate. And Peyton may not be as great as his numbers suggest! However, these guys still have free will, and at least in the case of Flacco, it’s fair to question his insistence on throwing all of those deep balls when they so regularly landed on the sod or in the hands of his opponents.
On the flip side, when you look at which guys thrived, the same principles apply.
Of course Peyton is great, but even he needs help. After all, every completed pass requires both a successful throw and a successful catch, a successful blocking scheme, and countless other factors.
Though being Peyton Manning certainly helps.