Last weekend LSU quarterback Joe Burrow was crowned as the most outstanding player in college football after he won the Heisman Trophy by the biggest margin in the award’s history. This wasn’t a surprise after his phenomenal senior season in which he led LSU to an undefeated regular season, the SEC championship, and the College Football Playoff. But looking back to his first season as the starter in Baton Rouge, it’s hard to see any indication Burrow would eventually be considered the best player in the country. 

In 2018 —his junior year and first season as LSU’s starter after transferring from Ohio State—  Burrow was at best an average college quarterback and lower-tier NFL prospect. Now, he is on pace to break the NCAA completion percentage record and is likely a future Cincinnati Bengal as the first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft. How has this incredible transformation been possible and have we seen anything like it before?

SUPER BOWL PACKAGE
Game, Total and Props

Burrow’s Historic Improvement

Before we get into the how and why portion of this analysis, let’s first look at what Burrow’s transformation has looked like on the stat sheet. The improvement in his basic box score stats jumps off the page when you compare his 2018 season to his 2019 season.

Joe Burrow’s Basic Stats by Season

SeasonComp%TD/INT RatioYds / AttRating
201858%3.27.690.6
201978%810.7142.2

An increase of over 20 completion percentage points is not something you see every day. In fact, we have not seen anything close to it in the Sports Info Solutions (SIS) data set which goes back to 2016. The next highest year-to-year increase in completion percentage (minimum 250 attempts in each season) SIS has seen was from current Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew, who saw an increase of 13 percentage points after transferring from East Carolina to Washington State’s Air Raid offense.

Along with the highest increase in completion percentage, Burrow also holds the highest jump in touchdown percentage (6.7 percentage points) and the third-highest jump in yards per attempt (3.1 yards). 

While the stats above are impressive, they are still surface level. Advanced stats also show an incredible increase in production from Burrow in 2019. 

Joe Burrow’s Advanced Passing Stats by Season

SeasonCatchable%EPA / DropbackEPA / AttINT-Worthy Throw%
201880%00.152.60%
201990%0.40.522.00%

Again we see just how much better Burrow has been in 2019 compared to his 2018 season. His increase in Catchable% of 10 percentage points is the largest increase in the SIS data set. His EPA / Dropback has gone from ranking 64th in 2018 to ranking fourth in the country in 2019. Burrow has also cut down on his Interception-Worthy Throws (pass attempts that resulted in an interception or dropped interception) in 2019.

All of this illustrates just how much Joe Burrow has improved this season and how rare some of these improvements truly are. But there is still the question of how all of these improvements have been possible. Is it just a case of a young quarterback developing as he gets more experience, an elite offensive line and skill players around him elevating his game, or the new offensive scheme brought in by first-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady?

How Did This Happen?

To get a sense of how much teammates have factored into Burrow’s magical season we will focus on his offensive line and receivers. Burrow’s offensive line at LSU was recently awarded the Joe Moore Award for being the most outstanding offensive line unit in the country. Also, his number one receiver, Ja’Marr Chase, was the winner of the Biletnikoff Award as the best wide receiver in the country. So Burrow’s teammates have had impressive seasons themselves, but how much does that directly impact Burrow’s performance?

While they are regarded as one of the best in the country, LSU’s offensive line doesn’t seem to be directly impacting Burrow’s increased production in 2019. Burrow has been the 28th most pressured quarterback this season, facing pressure on 35% of his dropbacks which is down only 1% from 2018. And he has actually faced a higher percentage of pressures directly resulting from offensive line blown blocks this season, 14% in 2019 compared to 12% in 2018. We also see the same incredible improvement from Burrow in both pressured and non-pressured splits, meaning it’s most likely due to other reasons than his offensive line being so dominant.

When looking at the play of LSU’s skill position players in 2019 compared to 2018, we see a nice improvement in the passing game. LSU skill players dropped 11% of their catchable passes last season, but have lowered that figure to 4% this year. They have also created more separation this season as shown by Yards After Catch Before Contact (YACBC), which is a rough way to approximate how much separation a receiver has at the catch. YACBC measures the yardage between the catch point and where the receiver is first contacted.

LSU’s Skill Players’ Receiving Stats by Season

SeasonDrop %Brk Tkl / RecYAContact / RecYACBC
201811%0.132.42
20194%0.162.92.7

Along with dropping fewer passes, LSU’s skill players have been better after the catch this season. They are breaking slightly more tackles per reception and are averaging half a yard more after contact. As mentioned above, LSU’s skill players have improved their separation as well, as they are averaging over a half yard more YACBC than last season. Overall the skill players surrounding Burrow have played better this season, but these moderate improvements don’t seem to explain the historic improvement he has made.

Joe Brady, LSU’s passing game coordinator, was hired last offseason to modernize the team’s offense. In his first year, he did just that as he embraced shotgun, RPO’s, and shorter dropbacks. This resulted in a large shift in scheme for the LSU offense.

LSU’s Offensive Tendencies by Season

SeasonShotgun%Play-action%Short Drop%ADoT
201883%38%77%9.8
201999%28%95%8.8

*Short Drop% refers to 3 step dropbacks or shorter along with RPO’s 

With such a large shift in offensive scheme, it’s fair to wonder if Burrow’s improvement has been due simply to LSU focusing on his strengths and hiding his weaknesses. But when we compare apples to apples we still see an incredible improvement from Burrow.

Joe Burrow’s Advanced Passing Stats by Season
(Only Comparing shotgun dropbacks of three or fewer steps without play-action)

SeasonCatchable%EPA / DropbackEPA / AttINT-Worthy Throw%
201884%0.010.212.70%
201990%0.340.461.90%

Overall, Burrow has shown historic improvement across the board this season, even when we try to adjust for offensive scheme changes by only comparing similar throws. While it is true that he has a lower average depth of target this season, he is by no means a slouch on deeper passes

Final Word

A year ago, Joe Burrow was seen as an average at best college quarterback and a fringe draft prospect. After a historic improvement, he is now regarded as the best player in the country, a possible top overall draft pick, and an LSU legend. It is true that some of his improvement has been due to improvements by LSU’s offensive scheme and skill position players.

But this doesn’t tell the whole story, as Burrow has improved across the board, even when we compare the same circumstances between years. If this incredible improvement is sustainable and if it can translate to the NFL are questions for another day. For now, it’s safe to say that Burrow has undergone one of the largest year-to-year improvements we have seen at quarterback, and it will be interesting to watch how he continues to develop in the future.