How Does Footwork Impact Quarterback Performance?

Over the last few years, the statistically-inclined football community has gotten really interested in pressure and how it relates to quarterback play. Of course, pressure often leads to sacks, but it also leads to off-platform throws. Intuitively, throws from a stable base are more likely to be accurate than throws where, above everything else, you’re also moving around.

Our intuition seems to bear out when we look at the numbers. Sports Info Solutions tracks three different types of footwork that the quarterback could be using when throwing: planted, shuffling, or moving. If we add a fourth category of “hit as he throws,” we can see how performance changes as the quarterback’s platform becomes less stable.

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Performance Differences Coming From Footwork

Quarterback Performance by Footwork, 2018-19

Hit As He Threw59%38%21%16%

In this table (and those below), Positive% is the percentage of plays with a positive Expected Points Added (EPA), Boom% is the percentage of plays with an EPA of 1 or more, and Bust% is the percentage of plays with an EPA of negative-1 or less. 

Unsurprisingly, throws while planted perform the best. Throws on the move aren’t as likely to be catchable, but because they often involve designed bootlegs off play-action, there’s enough upside (and to some extent, limited downside by moving away from the rush and simplifying reads) to make those plays look better than when the passer’s feet are shuffling. The increased accuracy of shuffling throws comes from a lot of running back screens.

Most of the degradation of the quality of the throw as the platform becomes less stable is actually a result of the likelihood of that throw to be under pressure. There isn’t nearly the difference in performance once you isolate clean-pocket attempts. In this case, being hit as you throw isn’t relevant, because that’s by definition under pressure.

Quarterback Performance by Footwork with a Clean Pocket, 2018-19


Players Who Are Most or Least Often Off Platform

The finding that stable footing isn’t so critical if you’re not under pressure could make things interesting in terms of evaluating young quarterbacks. If performance off-platform isn’t so bad when the pocket is clean, then we might not need to worry so much about quarterbacks who naturally throw from an unstable platform more than others.

Patrick Mahomes is a great example of a quarterback who makes throwing off-platform work. Whether it’s the baseball background or trust in his arm talent or anything else, he makes planted throws less than anyone, and he does so with great success. This is most visible when we isolate plays when the quarterback has the most control over his footwork by removing pressured attempts, one-step drops, RPOs, screens, and designed rollouts.

Quarterbacks Most Frequently Off-Platform, 2018-19
Min. 200 clean pocket attempts (excluding designed quick throws, screens, and rollouts)

Player% of PlaysCatchable%Positive%Boom%Bust%
Patrick Mahomes21%82%56%35%8%
Aaron Rodgers17%81%58%29%7%
Russell Wilson15%80%60%29%14%
Sam Darnold14%86%53%25%6%
5 tied13%

Mahomes is easily the most frequent mover-and-shuffler on the list, and also happens to perform as well as anyone. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson are unsurprising leaders in this stat, with Wilson showing a much greater risk profile. Sam Darnold has excellent accuracy in this split, but his throws were shorter on average than the others on the list. On the whole, we see from this list that having sufficient athleticism and trust in your arm tends to coexist with more off-platform throws.

And then there are the statues. While there are all-time greats among the most frequently-planted throwers (Tom Brady and Drew Brees just missed the list), there’s just as much a chance that you are a mediocre quarterback if you are inclined to throw from a stable base. 

Quarterbacks Most Frequently Throwing with Feet Planted, 2018-19
Min. 200 clean pocket attempts (excluding designed quick throws, screens, and rollouts)

Player% of PlaysCatchable%Positive%Boom%Bust%
Andy Dalton96%74%53%31%9%
Joe Flacco95%81%52%28%12%
Cam Newton95%77%59%31%10%
Deshaun Watson93%80%63%34%9%
Josh Allen93%74%52%24%10%

It’s somewhat surprising to see a quarterback who is known for his athleticism on a list like this. Deshaun Watson is an interesting case because he is so often under pressure that he does in actuality end up off-platform quite a bit, but when that doesn’t happen he’s actually quite likely to throw with his feet planted. That he is both willing and able to stand in the pocket and pick apart a defense makes his ability out of structure all the more threatening. Cam Newton represents a similar case to Watson but with lesser performance with his arm.

Final Word

While generally it’s preferable to have more of your throws come with your feet set, once you remove the effect of pressure there actually isn’t so much of an advantage. Quarterbacks can make it work throwing off-platform more than average if they have enough athleticism to threaten the defense and the arm talent to make up for the lack of consistent footwork. Given the individual differences here, we should make sure to acknowledge that inconsistent footwork is potentially a concern from a development perspective, but enough quarterbacks make that work that it isn’t a death sentence for a young quarterback.