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Passing plus/minus: A tale of two Kyler Murrays

Our annual review of the passing game continues with our look at 2021 plus/minus stats, where the changing of the guard continues. Drew Brees dominated completion efficiency stats in the 2010s, with only Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan posting even 50% of Brees’ plus/minus totals in the decade. Well, Brees and Rivers are gone now, and Ryan is well on the back side of his career, so we’re looking for the Drew Brees of the 2020s—the passer who will lead the league in completions over expectation. You might be tempted to look at the top of the DYAR leaderboards and assume that we’ll be celebrating Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen now that he’s past his rookie struggles, or the last hurrahs of great players such as Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. No, however. If you want to find the current gold standard for accuracy in the 2020s, you have to look down just a little bit, both on the DYAR tables and, you know, generally. There, you’ll find Kyler Murray, 2022’s plus/minus leader.

Passing plus/minus is a stat we annually track to help provide context to completion percentage. Given the location of a quarterback’s passes, it compares his completion percentage in each area to historical baselines. This stat does not consider passes listed as “Thrown Away,” “Tipped at Line,” “Miscommunication” or “Quarterback Hit in Motion” by Sports Info Solutions charting. Metrics are based on how often a pass is completed based on the pass distance; the distance required for a first down; and whether the ball was thrown to the left, middle or right side of the field. This is a counting stat, so more attempts are obviously a great thing for the purposes of what we’re talking about here. Our Completion Percentage Over Expectation (CPOE) numbers may differ from other models around the Internet.

So far, Murray is leading the 2020s. He has taken a step forward each season, seeing his CPOE rise 0.5% to 3.9% to 6.3% as he has developed and grown in Kliff Kingbury’s offense. Murray was second behind only Joe Burrow in terms of on-target passes last season, and that’s not solely because of a diet of short passes. Murray wasn’t just taking the empty calories of ten thousand dumpoffs to James Conner and shooting up the leaderboards; his connections with Christian Kirk and DeAndre Hopkins ranked third and sixth in plus/minus for quarterback-receiver pairs with an average depth of target of at least 10.0 yards. Yes, it looks like Kyler Murray will be the Drew Brees of the 2020s, and we should all be prepared for his upcoming dominance.

Well, no. It’s more complicated than that, so let’s dig in to the data a bit. Here’s where last year’s quarterbacks stood, ranking all 34 passers who qualified for our leaderboards.

2021 Passing Plus/Minus
Rk Player Team Attempts CPOE +/-
1 Kyler Murray ARI 438 6.3% 27.4
2 Joe Burrow CIN 490 5.4% 26.6
3 Derek Carr LV 583 3.6% 21.3
4 Aaron Rodgers GB 498 3.7% 18.2
5 Kirk Cousins MIN 511 3.1% 16.1
6 Dak Prescott DAL 564 2.7% 15.0
7 Patrick Mahomes KC 594 2.3% 13.9
8 Teddy Bridgewater DEN 388 3.6% 13.8
9 Tom Brady TB 675 2.0% 13.5
10 Mac Jones NE 488 2.4% 11.7
11 Josh Allen BUF 580 1.7% 9.7
12 Davis Mills HOU 358 2.7% 9.7
13 Russell Wilson SEA 372 2.4% 9.1
14 Ryan Tannehill TEN 495 1.4% 7.2
15 Lamar Jackson BAL 351 1.9% 6.6
16 Justin Herbert LAC 625 0.8% 5.2
17 Jimmy Garoppolo SF 418 1.2% 4.8
18 Matt Ryan ATL 525 0.8% 4.5
19 Jared Goff DET 457 0.7% 3.1
20 Matthew Stafford LAR 578 0.5% 3.0
21 Tyler Huntley BAL 171 0.8% 1.4
22 Jalen Hurts PHI 393 -0.2% -0.6
23 Tua Tagovailoa MIA 374 -0.6% -2.1
24 Taylor Heinicke WAS 462 -0.8% -3.5
25 Andy Dalton CHI 214 -1.9% -4.1
26 Jacoby Brissett MIA 208 -2.1% -4.3
27 Daniel Jones NYG 335 -1.9% -6.3
28 Baker Mayfield CLE 386 -2.4% -9.4
29 Justin Fields CHI 254 -4.0% -10.3
30 Carson Wentz IND 476 -2.5% -11.9
31 Sam Darnold CAR 369 -5.2% -19.2
32 Ben Roethlisberger PIT 573 -3.4% -19.5
33 Trevor Lawerence JAX 548 -4.3% -23.4
34 Zach Wilson NYJ 354 -10.2% -36.0

A Tale of Two Murrays

Murray led the league with a plus/minus of 27.4—so he completed 27.4 more passes than an average quarterback with the same types of throws would be expected to make. That is the lowest total to lead the league since we started keeping track of this in 2006, and remember, it’s a counting stat—the 17th game should have led to larger numbers. Murray missed three games this season, so it’s not a surprise that his total wasn’t higher, but it is noteworthy that no one with a full 17-game season could top his total. Murray’s 6.3% CPOE was better than 2020’s leader, Deshaun Watson at 5.5%, but we’re used to seeing the best passer in a given season up in the 7% or 8% range with Brees or Peyton Manning leading the way. Murray didn’t win with a dominant season; he had a very good season in a year where no one destroyed the competition. That’s not to take anything away from Murray, but it is interesting that we set an all-time low in a counting stat after expanding the schedule.

Murray’s year was also very much a tale of two halves. In Weeks 1 to 8, Murray had a +22.1 plus/minus and a 9.4% CPOE; he was on pace not just to lead the league, but to set records as the Cardinals roared out to their 7-0 start. Then Murray hurt his ankle against the Packers and missed three weeks. When he came back, he was not the same player. In Weeks 13 to 18, Murray had a +5.3 plus/minus and a 2.6% CPOE—both respectable, but not league-leading by any stretch of the imagination.

Murray’s drop in production lines up with more than his injury. The Cardinals started using fewer four-receiver sets and spread formations. Injuries along the offensive line continued to mount. And Kingsbury’s offense, as it has throughout his time as a head coach, became more predictable and easier to cover over the second half of the season. But I do think you can blame a significant chunk of the drop-off on Murray. Being banged up limits the out-of-structure freewheeling that makes him one of the more exciting quarterbacks to watch, but he was also missing easy throws in December, the kind he had no problem making in September. He built up a large enough lead over those first seven weeks that no one had a chance to catch him, but he left the door wide open for the rest of the league to get close.

While the injuries are obviously a factor here, it’s fair to note that Murray saw his CPOE drop in the second half of 2020 as well. Over the last two seasons, Murray’s +36.0 plus/minus in Weeks 1 to 9 leads the league, and his 7.4% CPOE trails only Russell Wilson. From Weeks 10 to 18, those stats drop to +10.7 and 2.4% respectively—still good, but more borderline Pro Bowler rather than superstar franchise passer. The second-half swoon of Kingsbury’s teams is one of the stranger splits in the NFL at the moment. If they could find a way to keep their success going past Halloween, the Cardinals would be right up there with the top Super Bowl contenders.

Risers and Fallers

Right behind Murray was Joe Burrow, who is the passer with the greatest year-over-year improvement in CPOE, going from 0.2% to 5.4%. Burrow made significant strides in his second season, showing few ill-effects from the knee injury which ended his rookie season. It should also be noted that upgrading from A.J. Green to Ja’Marr Chase will help any quarterback. Burrow had a -9.2 plus/minus targeting Green in 2020; his CPOE for that year jumps from 0.2% to 3.2% if you ignore Green. Targeting Chase in 2021, Burrow had a +6.1 plus/minus, which is significantly better. Even if you throw Chase out of the equation entirely, Burrow would still have had a high CPOE—it actually would rise slightly to 5.5%. And you can argue that the only reason Burrow wasn’t No. 1 is a lack of the kind of short screens that can quickly rack up points here—even if a throw would be completed 95% of the time, that’s still a sweet +0.05 for your plus/minus for every completion. On throws beyond the line of scrimmage, Burrow actually outdoes Murray +24.3 to +22.1. Perhaps all Burrow needs to take the crown in 2022 is a Rondale Moore-type.

The other passer who saw a significant jump from 2020 was Carson Wentz, who leapt from -6.5% to -2.5%, meaning he moved from worst to fifth worst. I’d wager the vast majority of that improvement can be attributed to Frank Reich’s offense rather than Wentz’s talent at this point in time, and we’ll see if that can hold up in Washington. The biggest fall from 2020 belongs to Baker Mayfield, who was progressively more battered and bruised over the course of the year. Ignoring him, the biggest fall would be Josh Allen going from 4.6% to 1.7%; 2020 was the kind of season that would be a career year for any passer, so some regression from Allen was perhaps to be expected.

Rookie Year Blues

We have to give significant credit to Mac Jones and, shockingly, Davis Mills for having very solid seasons in both plus/minus and CPOE. Rookies often struggle in their first year in the league, a byproduct of being drafted to bad teams and struggling to adapt to the speed of the NFL game. Jones is one of just three rookie quarterbacks since 2006 to hit double-digit plus/minus, joining 2012 Russell Wilson (+23.3) and 2016 Dak Prescott (+15.4); Mills ends up fourth just ahead of 2008 Matt Ryan (+8.5). You flip Mills and Jones around when looking at CPOE rather than plus/minus, as they finish fourth and fifth behind Wilson (6.4%), Prescott (3.5%) and, er, 2016 Cody Kessler (4.7%). So the fifth and sixth quarterbacks drafted last year were the best two. Of course. What else would you expect?

The other rookies had their struggles. Trey Lance didn’t play enough to qualify, but he had mediocre numbers in San Francisco’s offense (-0.2 and -0.3%, respectively). The other three first-year passers, however, all hit negative double-digits in plus/minus. Justin Fields was regular run-of-the-mill bad, but Trevor Lawrence and especially Zach Wilson were exploring new depths of poor play. Wilson’s -36.0 plus/minus is the second-worst since 2006, and his -10.2% CPOE is fourth-worst. His processing has been excruciatingly slow, allowing defenders to close in and break up what should be easy checkdowns, leading to a lot of incomplete passes (or worse) on things that should be automatic. Wilson had 28 incompletions on passes with an average catch rate of at least 80%, most in the league.

Lawrence doesn’t hit the bottom of any historic lists if you look at all passers, but he certainly does if you just look at rookies.

Worst Rookie Passing Plus/minus, 2006-2021
Rk Player Team Attempts CPOE +/-
2011 Blaine Gabbert JAX 375 -10.5% -39.6
2021 Zach Wilson NYJ 354 -10.2% -36.0
2014 Blake Bortles JAX 442 -6.8% -29.9
2017 DeShone Kizer CLE 430 -6.0% -25.8
2018 Josh Rosen ARI 351 -7.2% -25.4
2009 Matthew Stafford DET 340 -7.3% -25.0
2018 Josh Allen BUF 291 -8.3% -24.3
2021 Trevor Lawrence JAX 548 -4.3% -23.4
2012 Andrew Luck IND 570 -4.1% -23.4
2006 Bruce Gradkowski TB 295 -7.9% -23.2
2009 Mark Sanchez NYJ 338 -6.4% -21.8
2010 Jimmy Clausen CAR 256 -8.0% -20.5

Ah, Blaine Gabbert, every poor quarterback’s saving grace. Gabbert has saved so many people from being described as the worst ever in any capacity, he should be getting thank-you cards in perpetuity. Wilson gave Gabbert a run for his money in both plus/minus and CPOE, but Gabbert had the sort of generational badness you just can’t beat.

There are quite a few names on this list who went on to be fine players, so a bad rookie season is far from a reason to panic. Lawrence’s rookie numbers are very similar to Andrew Luck’s, someone else who came into the league heralded as the best prospect in a decade. Of course, the 2012 Colts were slightly better in terms of talent and coaching than the 2021 Jaguars were, so Luck’s overall performance ended up better, but that’s what happens when you have Marvin Jones, Laviska Shenault and Laquon Treadwell instead of Reggie Wayne, Donnie Avery and T.Y. Hilton.

There’s hope for the rookies, is what we’re saying. More so for Lawrence than Wilson, perhaps, but one bad season does not a career make.

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