Carson Palmer Leads NFL in Failed Completions

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 14, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Captain Anti-Checkdown (@CaptainComeback)

One of the common mistakes fans and even a lot of us stat-heads make is focusing on the incomplete passes a quarterback throws in a game, while treating every completion as if it was a good play.

In caveman terms: completions good, incompletions bad.

But not all completions are good plays, and we can use math to figure out which ones were not. These would be what are known as “failed completions.”

The basis of this work began in the book The Hidden Game of Football by Pete Palmer, Bob Carroll and John Thorn. Their research concluded that for a play to be successful, it must gain at least a specific percentage of yards towards the first down: 45 percent on first down, 60 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

A 3-yard gain on 2nd and 10? That is not a successful play, and it sets the offense back. These baselines are what Football Outsiders use for their stats, while also giving fractional success points. Obviously a 5-yard pass on a 2nd-and-10 play is better than losing a yard on a poor screen, even if both plays are still technically failed completions.

After watching Carson Palmer dink and dunk his way to a 32-completion night against San Diego, all while producing such little offense in the 22-14 loss, we wanted to take a look at this data for Week 1. That is now easy to do with the Game Play Finder at Pro-Football-Reference.

With a Week 1 record of 705 pass completions around the league, we broke down the plays to find which teams were loading up on the failed completions. Intuition on Palmer’s impotent night was indeed right as no team had more of these plays than Oakland’s 13.

But you may be surprised to learn which team had the highest rate of them. It was Oakland’s opponent, San Diego. Just further proof of the ugliness that was ESPN’s double-header on Monday night.

Let’s see how everyone else did.

Week 1 data

Of the 705 completions in Week 1, there were a total of 158 failed completions, or 22.4 percent. Here is the breakdown by down.

 

Down

Avg. Distance

Completions

Failed Comp.

%Failed

1st

10.0

268

53

19.8%

2nd

9.0

256

55

21.5%

3rd

7.5

171

49

28.7%

4th

6.2

10

1

10.0%

Total

8.9

705

158

22.4%

Even though the average distance needed for a first down decreases among the first three downs, the rate of failure gets higher as the standard of success is raised. Based on these average distances, the expectations for success are: gaining 4.5 yards on first down; gaining 5.4 yards on second down; gaining 7.5 yards on third down.

That makes sense why the failed percentage is so close on first and second down, but a bit higher on third down. Fourth down only had 10 completions, so it is not very relevant, statistically speaking.

Now onto the teams. The 158 failed completions produced 611 yards for offenses this past week. This table shows the breakdown in failed completions and the yards they gained for each team.

 

Team

Comp.

Failed Comp.

%Failed

Yards

Failed Yards

%Yards

San Diego

24

10

41.7%

231

30

12.99%

Tennessee

29

12

41.4%

272

40

14.71%

Oakland

32

13

40.6%

297

53

17.85%

Tampa Bay

16

6

37.5%

138

15

10.87%

Miami

20

7

35.0%

219

25

11.42%

Philadelphia

29

10

34.5%

317

39

12.30%

Seattle

18

6

33.3%

153

18

11.76%

Baltimore

23

7

30.4%

329

30

9.12%

NY Giants

21

6

28.6%

213

34

15.96%

Kansas City

21

6

28.6%

258

33

12.79%

Carolina

23

6

26.1%

303

2

0.66%

Arizona

20

5

25.0%

215

20

9.30%

San Francisco

20

5

25.0%

211

13

6.16%

Chicago

21

5

23.8%

333

28

8.41%

Cincinnati

22

5

22.7%

221

25

11.31%

Washington

19

4

21.1%

320

10

3.13%

Green Bay

30

6

20.0%

303

34

11.22%

Minnesota

20

4

20.0%

270

15

5.56%

Pittsburgh

22

4

18.2%

245

15

6.12%

St. Louis

17

3

17.6%

198

26

13.13%

Jacksonville

23

4

17.4%

260

19

7.31%

Cleveland

12

2

16.7%

118

2

1.69%

Detroit

32

5

15.6%

355

17

4.79%

Dallas

22

3

13.6%

307

18

5.86%

New England

23

3

13.0%

236

10

4.24%

Buffalo

18

2

11.1%

195

7

3.59%

Houston

20

2

10.0%

266

3

1.13%

Atlanta

23

2

8.7%

299

13

4.35%

New Orleans

24

2

8.3%

339

6

1.77%

NY Jets

19

1

5.3%

266

5

1.88%

Denver

19

1

5.3%

253

4

1.58%

Indianapolis

23

1

4.3%

309

2

0.65%

That is 23 failed completions between San Diego (10) and Oakland (13) on Monday night. Carson Palmer also had the highest rate of his yards (17.9 percent) result from these plays.

In his debut with Denver, Peyton Manning could not afford to waste any plays, with his lone failed completion being a 4-yard gain on 1st and 10 to Jacob Tamme. That’s as close as you can get to a successful play without getting the credit for it.

When breaking down Andrew Luck’s performance this week, only incompletions were really on this analyst’s mind. At least it was justified this time, as Luck had just one failed completion (best rate in the league), and the lowest percentage of his yards gained from such plays (a puny 0.65 percent).

Speaking of rookies, more bad news for Ryan Tannehill: he had seven failed completions, including the only worthless fourth-down completion of the week. Someone alert Lauren Tannehill that a 3-yard gain to Anthony Fasano on 4th and 8 will not help. You know she probably cheered that completion.

Subtract those seven completions away from Tannehill’s stats – they offered about as much as an incompletion would have anyway – and his passer rating drops from 39.0 to 22.8.

Victor Cruz had an ugly night in the season debut for the Giants. Along with his three drops, he had three failed receptions for 21 yards, which were the most for any wide receiver in Week 1. Cruz finished the game with six catches for 58 yards.

The short and long of it

St. Louis’ Sam Bradford had the longest gain of the 158 plays, with a 17-yard pass to Danny Amendola on a 3rd and 24 against Detroit. It did set up a 48-yard field goal, as not all failed completions are a bad thing.

Sometimes you can improve your field goal opportunity, or give yourself a better chance for a fourth-down attempt. Other times, just running clock is good enough. But generally, these plays do set offenses back much more than they help them.

There were 14 failed completions that went for negative yardage, and Cam Newton had the worst plays of the week with two different completions of -6 yards to Mike Tolbert.

The first was one of those screens that take forever to develop, and by the time Newton threw it, you can already see Tolbert was in trouble, tackled almost immediately. Later in the quarter Tolbert caught a pass with Newton under pressure that would have been wise to not come down with. Both drives ended in punts for Carolina.

In the same game, Tampa Bay’s rookie back Doug Martin had three failed receptions. It made Josh Freeman’s day look even more pedestrian, but at least the Buccaneers ended their 10-game losing streak.

 

Black hole of failed completions

From Week 1, nothing can compare to Monday night in Oakland. Le’Ron McClain and Ronnie Brown each had three failed receptions for San Diego, but even combined that was not enough to top the Raiders.

Darren McFadden may have led the league with 13 receptions, but he had eight failed receptions for 32 yards on the night. While eight carries for 32 yards might sound good for a runner, if the plays all came on the same down-and-distances as the catches, then it still would have been a heavy night of failure, which can explain why Oakland’s offense was so bad.

The big beneficiary of the load of failed completions is Palmer. He finished 32 of 46 for 297 yards, TD, and a 94.2 passer rating. Rivers also had good numbers, but what if we dock these players for their failed completions?

 

QB

Stats

Att.

Comp.

Pct.

Yards

TD

INT

PR

Carson Palmer

Official

46

32

69.6

297

1

0

94.2

Failure

13

13

100.0

53

0

0

83.7

Without

33

19

57.6

244

1

0

91.0

"Real"

46

19

41.3

297

1

0

70.7

Philip Rivers

Official

33

24

72.7

231

1

0

102.0

Failure

10

10

100.0

30

0

0

79.2

Without

23

14

60.9

201

1

0

103.7

"Real"

33

14

42.4

231

1

0

76.7

The stats look much different and more reflective of how well (or bad) they actually played Monday night.

If these teams continue this type of offensive inefficiency, then you can bet they will have a hard time competing in the AFC West, especially if Manning plays that efficiently this season.

Conclusion

While this is just one week of numbers, a high rate of failed completions for a season should lead to a bad record for a team, and likely a bad offensive performance.

You can see a list from Football Outsiders of the leaders in failed completions in 2009 here.

Pay attention to the table on the right for the highest rate of failed completions. Those 10 quarterbacks had a combined record of 46-73 (.387) as starters in 2009. Only Kyle Orton had a winning record (barely; 8-7), and none of them made the playoffs.

While a lot of completions for quarterbacks and catches for receivers look great in fantasy football, just remember that not every completion is a good play in real football. Sometimes you have to aim bigger to be rewarded properly as an offense.

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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