The NFL is very much a what have you done for me lately league, as fans succumb far too easily to recency bias. Not even a year removed from a unanimous MVP award – only the second in NFL history – people have already begun to reconsider just how good Lamar Jackson is in light of some depressed box scores. While we should have expected some regression from such a historic campaign, some reliable efficiency stats have generally frowned upon Jackson’s 2020 performance thus far.
For example, Jackson ranks 34th among 40 qualifying quarterbacks in Total Points Per Snap, our proprietary player value metric. That is certainly not something we expected from a player who has forced us to reconsider how we assessed quarterback rushing performance, so it’s worth exploring. However, I think framing this question as, ‘What’s wrong with Lamar Jackson?’ is a bit disingenuous, so I think we should instead ask ‘What’s gone wrong for Lamar Jackson?’
For starters, he has recorded two of the worst single-game performances in the Total Points era this year. Last week’s brutal showing in Pittsburgh (-14) and his Week 5 game against the Bengals (-14) ranked among the 20 worst games among 2,724 quarterback games since 2016. A pair of notably abysmal games didn’t serve him well in front of a national audience, but these outliers still do not satisfactorily explain his production.
Between those two games, he had eight turnover-worthy plays (sack-fumbles + interceptions + dropped interceptions), and carelessness with the ball has indeed been a problem for him thus far. He’s already up to 13 such plays on the year – tied for third-worst in the NFL – after recording only 10 in 2019. Ball security is obviously a crucial trait for passers, but it should be noted that he’s been perfectly serviceable as a passer outside of those plays, ranking 16th in Passing Total Points per Snap (0.26) among players with 50+ attempts. Minimizing these plays moving forward will be of the utmost importance, but there are also factors outside of Jackson’s control that are contributing to his numbers.
With respect to so-called ball control offenses like Baltimore, pundits often talk about the value of staying ‘on schedule’ in terms of down and distance. This is, of course, important for all teams, but especially so for run-heavy units that tend to be more game script-dependent. The average yards needed for a successful (EPA > 0) play on Jackson’s dropbacks has increased nearly half a yard from 2019. After having the 10th-most favorable mark among 42 qualifying quarterbacks (minimum 100 attempts) last year, Jackson now ranks dead last in that figure halfway through the season.
Avg. Yards To Success, 2020
|Player||Avg. Yards Needed for Success|
Compounding this problem is a slight decrease in his average depth of target (ADOT), which has dropped from 8.1 to 7.8 year-over-year. This gives us a general indication of what might be happening within the Ravens offense from a passing dimension, but it is important to understand this phenomenon within the context of game situation. If we take Jackson’s depth of target relative to the minimum yards needed for a successful play, we can see that it has likewise dropped from +2.6 last year to +1.9 this year, which implies that the passing attack is less aggressive even when controlling for game situation.
Of lesser note is that a greater percentage of Jackson’s dropbacks have also occurred within 2-minute drills this season. Quarterbacks tend to perform worse inside the 2-minute mark at the end of halves (-0.07 EPA/play) than outside of it (0.02 EPA/play), and while this only explains part of Jackson’s struggles, an increase from 12% to 20% of his snaps in that context is not insignificant. Furthermore, Jackson performed abnormally well in these situations last year and has regressed past average to playing abnormally poorly in them.
In terms of pure passing ability, Jackson has functioned basically the same as he did last year. His predicted completion percentage plus/minus (pComp +/-) – which measures the likelihood of a completion against whether or not a pass was actually completed – was net zero in 2019 and has slightly decreased by one percentage point this season. His slump can likely be attributed to this combination of a rash of poor decision making, being put in some disadvantageous situations, and some level of regression that was otherwise inevitable.
It must be maintained that turnover-prone football is bad football, so Jackson must rectify that facet in order to perform better in the second half. However, we should not ignore the fact that Jackson has been put behind the eight-ball in some regards. If he can get back to playing mistake-free football, it seems likely that his numbers will stabilize and he’ll get back to one of the best quarterbacks in football.