The Best and Worst NFL Quarterbacks on Third Down in the Playoffs

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 25, 2013



By Scott Kacsmar

Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

 

In a continuing effort to learn more about a quarterback’s playoff performance beyond his record – or to better understand that record – third-down conversion statistics were collected for numerous active quarterbacks and a few all-time greats.

Third-down rates have not changed much in the last two decades, and in fact have been trending downwards in the last five years. These are numbers that you can compare across years with no worries to era, as third down has always been the NFL’s money down. You either extend the drive or else face fourth down. In the postseason, with even the smaller things magnified, third down is a very important part of the game.

The goal is not to gain 11 yards on 3rd-and-18, which makes conversion rate the critical stat when it comes to third down. But these rates can be misleading if a player is facing more difficult situations requiring more yardage. Over a season or playoff career, this can definitely happen.

Don’t worry. We have it taken care of, yet nothing could prepare you for the active postseason leader for third-down conversion rate.

 

The best and worst recent quarterbacks

Using a minimum of five playoff starts, postseason data was collected on “recent” quarterbacks. All plays (passes, sacks and runs) are included, except for spikes and kneel downs. The “Avg. Yds” is the average yards needed for a first down on that player’s third-down attempts.

Disclaimer: Yes, a quarterback cannot convert a third down if his receiver drops the ball. These stats are also reflective of his teammates, as always.

Playoff QBs - Third-Down Conversion Rates

Rank

Quarterback

Games

Record

Plays

Avg. Yds

1st Downs

Conv. Rate

1

Mark Sanchez

6

4-2

61

7.08

28

45.90%

2

Ben Roethlisberger

14

10-4

155

7.72

71

45.81%

3

Aaron Rodgers

8

5-3

90

6.64

41

45.56%

4

Michael Vick

5

2-3

54

6.87

24

44.44%

5

Philip Rivers

7

3-4

78

8.36

34

43.59%

6

Matt Ryan

5

1-4

54

7.67

23

42.59%

7

Kurt Warner

13

9-4

125

8.39

53

42.40%

8

Peyton Manning

20

9-11

196

7.27

83

42.35%

9

Eli Manning

11

8-3

131

7.35

55

41.98%

10

Tom Brady

24

17-7

244

7.07

98

40.16%

11

Drew Brees

9

5-4

90

6.79

35

38.89%

12

Jeff Garcia

6

2-4

67

7.07

26

38.81%

13

Jake Delhomme

8

5-3

70

7.86

27

38.57%

14

Joe Flacco

12

8-4

133

6.68

51

38.35%

15

Donovan McNabb

16

9-7

190

7.47

66

34.74%

16

Chad Pennington

6

2-4

61

8.15

21

34.43%

17

Matt Hasselbeck

11

5-6

121

7.44

36

29.75%

Surprised? Well, there is a reason Mark Sanchez has gone 4-2 in the playoffs and actually ranks No. 6 in passer rating (94.3). Remember, he also ranked highly at Win Probability Added according to Advanced NFL Stats.

Sanchez did very well on his third-down attempts. Simple as that. It also speaks to the problems with basing someone’s worth on just six playoff games and 61 plays, but that is the postseason conundrum.

The average conversion rate for this table’s population is 40.21 percent, which puts Tom Brady, 17-7 playoff record and all, just below average to his peers.

Given the larger sample of plays, Peyton Manning (42.35 percent) ranks fairly well, beating out his brother Eli (41.98 percent). Not a surprise to see the likes of Kurt Warner, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger also doing well.

Drew Brees (38.89 percent) is surprisingly low given he has so many great playoff statistics, but again, it is based on only nine games.

Matt Hasselbeck (29.75 percent) has a big drop relative to everyone else, which can explain why his Seattle offenses were so prone to going three-and-out in the playoffs.

Michael Vick (44.44 percent) is surprisingly high, though it’s only 54 plays, a third of his conversions were rushes, and he had the fourth-lowest average distance needed for a first down.

Here is the same table, but sorted by average distance needed for a first down.

Shortest Average Distance To Go on Third Down, Playoffs

Rank

Quarterback

Games

Record

Plays

Avg. Yds

1st Downs

Conv. Rate

1

Aaron Rodgers

8

5-3

90

6.64

41

45.56%

2

Joe Flacco

12

8-4

133

6.68

51

38.35%

3

Drew Brees

9

5-4

90

6.79

35

38.89%

4

Michael Vick

5

2-3

54

6.87

24

44.44%

5

Tom Brady

24

17-7

244

7.07

98

40.16%

6

Jeff Garcia

6

2-4

67

7.07

26

38.81%

7

Mark Sanchez

6

4-2

61

7.08

28

45.90%

8

Peyton Manning

20

9-11

196

7.27

83

42.35%

9

Eli Manning

11

8-3

131

7.35

55

41.98%

10

Matt Hasselbeck

11

5-6

121

7.44

36

29.75%

11

Donovan McNabb

16

9-7

190

7.47

66

34.74%

12

Matt Ryan

5

1-4

54

7.67

23

42.59%

13

Ben Roethlisberger

14

10-4

155

7.72

71

45.81%

14

Jake Delhomme

8

5-3

70

7.86

27

38.57%

15

Chad Pennington

6

2-4

61

8.15

21

34.43%

16

Philip Rivers

7

3-4

78

8.36

34

43.59%

17

Kurt Warner

13

9-4

125

8.39

53

42.40%

Aaron Rodgers may not have much of a running game in his career, but he has had the most favorable third-down situations at 6.64 yards on average. The average for the table is 7.40 yards.

Joe Flacco’s playoff success is also helped by this shorter distance (6.68 yards), even though in the regular season he faces an average distance of 7.90 yards, he converts on third down in the regular season (38.19 percent) the same as he does in the playoffs (38.35 percent).

Philip Rivers is the other major surprise of someone who does well (43.59 percent) despite a 3-4 playoff record and an average distance of 8.36 yards. We are waiting to see when that eighth playoff start will come for him.

Kurt Warner needed 8.39 yards because he had very little running game to speak of in the postseason. Without any scientific study done, it would seem rushing production in a game would dictate third-down length.

Let’s adjust it regardless of the running game.

 

Distance splits for third-down conversion rates

Using 1-3 yards for short, 4-7 yards for medium and 8+ yards for long, these are the distance splits for third-down playoff attempts. The “3D%” is the percentage of third-down plays that are that distance, while the “Conv.” is the conversion rate for that distance.

The table is already sorted by the best third-and-long conversion rates, with the appropriate ranks for short and medium also included.

3rd Down Playoff Splits

1-3 yards

4-7 yards

8+ yards

Quarterback

Avg. Yds

3D%

Conv.

Rk

3D%

Conv.

Rk

3D%

Conv.

Rk

Aaron Rodgers

6.64

16.7%

53.33%

9

50.0%

44.44%

12

33.3%

43.33%

1

Ben Roethlisberger

7.72

23.2%

50.00%

13

29.0%

60.00%

1

47.7%

35.14%

2

Philip Rivers

8.36

12.8%

60.00%

6

32.1%

52.00%

4

55.1%

34.88%

3

Drew Brees

6.79

32.2%

41.38%

16

24.4%

45.45%

9

43.3%

33.33%

4

Michael Vick

6.87

27.8%

60.00%

7

33.3%

44.44%

11

38.9%

33.33%

5

Jake Delhomme

7.86

20.0%

64.29%

3

24.3%

29.41%

17

55.7%

33.33%

6

Mark Sanchez

7.08

13.1%

50.00%

14

50.8%

54.84%

3

36.1%

31.82%

7

Matt Ryan

7.67

14.8%

62.50%

5

44.4%

45.83%

7

40.7%

31.82%

8

Kurt Warner

8.39

18.4%

65.22%

2

31.2%

46.15%

6

50.4%

31.75%

9

Eli Manning

7.35

19.1%

64.00%

4

36.6%

43.75%

13

44.3%

31.03%

10

Peyton Manning

7.27

23.0%

51.11%

12

33.7%

51.52%

5

43.4%

30.59%

11

Joe Flacco

6.68

23.3%

51.61%

11

39.8%

39.62%

14

36.8%

28.57%

12

Tom Brady

7.07

23.8%

55.17%

8

37.7%

45.65%

8

38.5%

25.53%

13

Donovan McNabb

7.47

24.7%

53.19%

10

30.5%

34.48%

16

44.7%

24.71%

14

Jeff Garcia

7.07

20.9%

50.00%

15

31.3%

57.14%

2

47.8%

21.88%

15T

Chad Pennington

8.15

13.1%

75.00%

1

34.4%

38.10%

15

52.5%

21.88%

15T

Matt Hasselbeck

7.44

23.1%

32.14%

17

34.7%

45.24%

10

42.1%

15.69%

17

Not only is Hasselbeck the worst on third-and-long, but he is also the worst by a wide margin on third-and-short, converting just 34.7 percent of the time.

Rodgers is really good on third-and-long (13/30), while Ben Roethlisberger (27/45) is the best in medium situations. Medium is also where Sanchez (17/31) has done much of his damage.

Technically Chad Pennington is the best on third-and-short, but that is just going 6-of-8. He is tied with Jeff Garcia (7/32) for the second-worst conversion rate on third-and-long.

These are the totals for each range:

  • Third-and-short (1-3 yards): 220/414 (53.1 percent).
  • Third-and-medium (4-7 yards): 306/667 (45.9 percent).
  • Third-and-long (8+ yards): 246/839 (29.3 percent).

 

How some of the greatest quarterbacks ever measure up

Finally, we leave you with a look at four of the very best quarterbacks in NFL history and how they fared on third down in their postseason careers.

Playoff QBs - Third-Down Conversion Rates

Rank

QB

Games

Record

Plays

1st Downs

Conv. Rate

1

Joe Montana

23

16-7

211

87

41.23%

2

John Elway

22

14-8

225

92

40.89%

3

Brett Favre

24

13-11

234

86

36.75%

4

Dan Marino

18

8-10

188

65

34.57%

Not surprising to see Joe Montana leading this bunch, though he would rank between Eli Manning and Tom Brady among active players, so not as high as one might have expected. Dan Marino would be a good one to study the splits for with his non-existent running game and big deficits faced in the playoffs.

Falling right behind Montana would be John Elway, and these stats include a non-start in Elway’s rookie season in 1983.

Interesting to note that in the 1986 AFC Championship in Cleveland, Elway started the game 0/10 on third down. His first conversion came on “The Drive” and it was a 20-yard gain on 3rd-and-18. Elway’s game-tying touchdown also came on third down, and in overtime, he converted a 3rd-and-12 at midfield with a 28-yard pass to Steve Watson.

Elway’s statistical increase in the regular season starting in 1993 carried over to the postseason. After beginning his playoff career 52/136 (38.2 percent) on third down, Elway finished it 40/89 (44.9 percent) in his last nine playoff games, going 7-2 in the process.

Brett Favre would rank between Joe Flacco and Donovan McNabb right now. That’s a little hard to believe.

If you think Favre fell off in his old-man days, think again. In the 1990s under Mike Holmgren, Favre was just 44/135 (32.6 percent) on third down in the postseason. He actually improved to 42/99 (42.4 percent) in the 2000’s.

But we just remember the game-crushing interceptions. That’s how the playoffs tend to work. The details get lost in the lore.

 

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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