People believed in Josh Allen’s arm talent and athleticism, but through two NFL seasons, Allen had hardly shown the capability to be even an average passer at the NFL level. Over his first two seasons, Allen had completed just 56.3% of his passes for 6.6 yards per pass attempt and only threw 30 touchdown passes over 27 starts.
Last season, Allen made a seismic jump as a passer in his third season, throwing for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns. After zero career 300-yard passing games through two seasons, he had eight in 2020. It is rare for a quarterback that struggled with accuracy and production to start their career. So how did Buffalo propel maxing out their franchise investment?
Allen’s growth was aided by the addition of Stefon Diggs and increased use of play-action, but the largest boon for Allen in 2020 was the Bills pressed the attack with him through the air while avoiding placing Allen in obvious passing situations as much as possible.
The Bills and Brian Daboll deployed a hyper-aggressive offensive approach throwing the football. Buffalo threw a league-high 62% of the time on first down play calls. 48.8% of Allen’s pass attempts came on first downs, the highest rate in the league. On those first down passes, Allen averaged 8.9 yards per attempt as opposed to 7.0 on all other downs. Just 29.6% of Allen’s pass attempts came in bad spots, the second-lowest rate in the NFL.
Bad spot situations are when the team needs seven or more yards to gain on non-first down play calls (NFL success rate is defined by gaining 40% of yards needed on first down). NFL teams threw the ball 41.5% of the time on first downs last season, but passing rate jumped to 62.9% of second down play calls needing seven or more yards and all the way up to 83.2% of third down play calls needing that many yards to keep drives alive.
Given Allen’s 2020 success being aided by offensive aggressiveness on first downs as well as keeping the offense out of obvious passing situations, here are three other young, franchise quarterbacks that could benefit from similar treatment of their offenses being less predictable on first down and avoid being placed in poor offensive climates on non-first down play calls.
LAMAR JACKSON, BALTIMORE RAVENS
We have written a lot about how we knew Ravens would have some offensive regression in 2020 after barnstorming the NFL in 2019 when Jackson won the league’s MVP Award. A large part of the regression that did occur stemmed from the predictability of their offense. Avoiding the same regularity of early-down play calls and being more aggressive through the air has been a steady drumbeat out of the Baltimore camp this offseason and reinforced by their offseason moves, and here you can see why those changes need to be made.
Out of the 44 passers last season that threw the ball 100 or more times, Jackson ranked 37th in percentage of pass attempts to come on first down despite ranking 19th in completion rate and 13th in yards per pass attempt on those passes. His passing numbers tumbled on other downs.
Baltimore was 31st in the NFL in passing rate on first down (37%). While they were respectable in success rate (12th) and yards per rushing play (13th) on those first down runs, it is not like they were at the very top of the league like the Titans have consistently been to warrant such an egregious playcalling split to that magnitude.
Jackson is the most dynamic running quarterback in NFL history, so there is incentive to use him here on the ground. His early-down success and efficiency is aided by the lack of overall volume, but that threat on the ground also opens the door to maximize his passing efficiency when teams have to fully defend the Ravens offense on a per play basis.
The early knock on Jackson’s young career has been playing from behind and thriving in obvious dropback situations and the Ravens did him no favors in this regard last season. 42.3% of Jackson’s passes came on non-first down plays needing seven or more yards (fifth-highest). He averaged 7.0 Y/A on those passes (25th) while he completed just 60.4% (36th) of his passes on those downs. Jackson had the fifth-most pass attempts (33) in the NFL on third down play calls needing seven or more yards to gain and he completed just 54.5% of his passes for 6.2 yards per attempt in those situations.
While the Ravens should not be expected to jump into the top of the league in pass attempts, their added personnel and following through on their claims to be more aggressive can allow them to be more aggressive and less predictable then they were a year ago while getting the most out of their young quarterback as a passer.
KYLER MURRAY, ARIZONA CARDINALS
In his second season, Murray lifted his completion percentage (67.2%), yards per pass attempt (7.1 Y/A), and touchdown rate (4.7%) over his rookie season numbers. Below league-average rate in every category outside of interception rate as a rookie in rating index, Murray was at above base rate in completion rate, touchdown rate, interception rate, and overall rating while coming in just below the watermark in yards per pass attempt and adjusted yards per pass.
Getting to the base rates last season is not enough, however. There is still more of a passing ceiling for Murray to access and a big part of getting there and the continued elevation for him throwing the ball would be placing the young quarterback in more advantageous passing situations.
Arizona was 27th in the NFL in first down passing rate (45%) last season. Unlike the Ravens, who were respectable on their first down runs, Arizona ranked 20th in yards per play (4.4 yards) on those calls while runs from their running backs netted just 3.9 yards per carry in those situations.
Murray ended the season 31st in the league in percentage of pass attempts to come on first down, yet he ranked seventh in completion rate and 14th in yards per pass attempt on those passes, well above his marks in other situations.
When Arizona was pressed into obvious passing situations, Murray’s efficiency crumbled. 39.1% of his pass attempts came in bad spot situations (11th-highest rate in the league) and he was at the bottom of the league in efficiency on those downs throwing the football.
Murray did have a midseason shoulder injury that impacted the back half of his season and has stated that the offense cannot be as one-dimensional as it was a year ago moving forward.
JUSTIN HERBERT, LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
After being pressed into the starting role by accident in Week 2, Herbert then set a rookie record with 31 passing touchdowns, completing 66.6% of his passes with 10.9 yards per completion. Herbert did all that while being placed in an unfriendly passing climate.
Last year’s staff had him throw just 35.1% of his passes on first down (which was 39th in the league). The Chargers had the 10th highest run rate on first downs (53%) despite ranking 29th in success rate (42%) and yards per running play (4.0) on those plays.
While both Jackson and Murray have been passers that have struggled in obvious passing situations and have needed offensive diversity to achieve their best passing production, Herbert was the complete opposite during his rookie season.
Herbert led the NFL with 253 pass attempts on second-fourth down needing seven or more yards to go, which was 42.5% of his passes (second-highest in the league behind Jimmy Garoppolo). Herbert ranked fourth in the league in yards per pass attempt and seventh in completion rate in bad spot situations while he converted 37.9% of those bad spot situations for first downs, second in the NFL behind Baker Mayfield (38.9%).
What was impressive is that he was able to do that behind the offensive line the Chargers put on the field last season. Herbert was pressured on 36.6% of his dropbacks (12th highest) and hit on 10.7% of his dropbacks (eighth highest). The Chargers finished 2020 31st in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate (47%). Despite that, Herbert averaged 7.6 yards per pass attempt under pressure as a rookie, which was the fourth-highest rate in the league.
The reasoning for including Herbert here despite being weaker on first down passes is that it is a tall ask to regularly continue to bank on him winning in poor situations. Passing statistics from clean pockets have historically been the most sticky of the splits for quarterbacks year-over-year (here is another thread on the subject from Josh Hermsmeyer). From a clean pocket, Herbert averaged 7.1 Y/A, which was 31st in the league. That was below Daniel Jones, and the two quarterbacks here earlier in Murray and Jackson.
Herbert could very well be the next feature quarterback in the league and overcome poor situations regularly, or this could be an easy area to spot regression from and could lead to a perception-based disappointing second season like Baker Mayfield had in 2019. Herbert’s 2020 season has some overlap to the 2017 breakout we saw from Carson Wentz, who won the same way in excelling on third downs compared to early downs and never regained that efficiency. The difference here though is that Herbert was excellent under pressure.
Based on the moves the Chargers made this offseason, Herbert should get many more clean pockets in 2021. The sample for Herbert is too small to really call despite his promising rookie campaign, but there are positives here with the moves Los Angeles has made in terms of surrounding personnel and changes to the coaching staff. The Chargers and their new regime of Brandon Staley and Joe Lombardi can do Herbert many favors in avoiding a decline in his second season by keeping Herbert out of the plethora of poor situations that the previous regime put him in.