Every week throughout the 2020 NFL season, we'll revisit the biggest storylines around the NFL's quarterback play and try to add proper context to PFF grading and traditional stats.
Before we start, here are a few disclaimers to aid in the understanding of the PFF system and its interaction with box score stats.
- There's no doubt that quarterback play is the biggest driver of passing production, and most people are conditioned to have a picture of how well a quarterback played based on the five basic box score stats — completions, attempts, yards, touchdowns and interceptions.
- The reality is that the best quarterbacks will rise to the top, or close to it, statistically over time, but in one-game samples or even full seasons, there are other forces at play that heavily influence those numbers.
- The PFF grade is here to isolate the quarterback's play away from his playmakers, playcaller, opposing defense and anything else that could influence his statistics. We give credit for good throws regardless of the result, and we do the same for bad throws. The PFF passing grade has proven to be one of the most stable passing metrics available, and we believe adding proper context to every play is crucial for long-term player evaluation.
Week 8 is in the books, so here's a look at some of the top stories from the latest slate of NFL games.
[Editor's Note: PFF's advanced statistics and player grades are powered by AWS machine learning capabilities.]
Joe Burrow vs. Justin Herbert: Similar grade from different styles
It’s been an excellent start for first-round rookies Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, and they respectively rank 12th and 13th in PFF grades through eight weeks.
The beauty of the grades is that they can land at similar numbers despite a completely different playstyle, as evidenced by Burrow and Herbert, who have achieved roughly the same grade in completely different ways.
Here’s a look at where Burrow and Herbert stack up in the most stable passing categories.
|Category||Joe Burrow||Justin Herbert|
|Passing grade in a clean pocket||86.3 (10th)||77.1 (21st)|
|Passing grade on straight dropbacks||75.2 (15th)||78.4 (9th)|
|Passing grade on first/second down||79.2 (12th)||68.7 (20th)|
|Passing grade with no play action||76.1 (10th)||82.6 (5th)|
|Passing grade on throws up to 20 yards||90.4 (3rd)||73.2 (18th)|
|Negatively graded throw percentage||12.0% (6th)||15.3% (28th)|
Herbert has been spectacular throwing the ball down the field, and he’s owned the early-season highlight reels. He is tied for fourth in big-time throw percentage at 6.7%, and he’s done a fairly good job at avoiding turnover-worthy plays, though his poor plays have often come at inopportune times.
Those two numbers are a great baseline for success, and Herbert’s success on those game-changing throws is a big reason why he’s been hyped up as the best rookie quarterback. However, even with the high-end plays, Herbert ranks just 21st in the total percentage of positively graded plays, and he’s only 28th at avoiding negatives. So, there is no doubt that Herbert’s arm strength and downfield accuracy have been a huge asset early in his career, but he has room to improve on all of the plays in between, where he ranks below average in the NFL.
As for Burrow, his grading profile is almost the exact opposite of Herbert's. Burrow ranks just 27th in big-time throw percentage and 21st at avoiding turnover-worthy plays, both far worse than Herbert. However, Burrow has the ninth-highest rate of positives and the eighth-lowest percentage of negatives. He’s not in Herbert’s class in the extremes, but the throw-for-throw performance has been much more consistent.
The other place where the performance is polar opposite is on passes up to 20 yards versus the deep passes (passes of 20-plus yards). Burrow has the third-best PFF grade on throws up to 20 yards at 90.4, while Herbert ranks just 18th at 73.2.
However, Herbert ranks 13th league-wide on 20-plus-yard throws, while Burrow is just 27th. This matches the previous narrative about big-time throws, but once again, Burrow has the edge when it comes to the stability of his success. Short and intermediate success is much more stable than downfield passing, and those 20-plus-yard throws tend to fluctuate from year to year. This bodes well for Burrow, as he’s already mastering the portion of the field where most of his throws will occur, and the downfield passes should positively regress in his favor at some point in the future.
For Herbert, this doesn’t take anything away from what he’s accomplished; it’s just very difficult for him to sustain his current level of play unless he improves in the more important aspect of quarterback play.
The other unstable place where Herbert is outperforming Burrow is under pressure. While most evaluators spend a significant amount of time during the evaluation process looking at how a quarterback handles pressure, actual success while under pressure also tends to fluctuate from year to year. Herbert has an excellent 65.0 grade and 102.2 passer rating when under pressure, both among the league’s best, while Burrow is grading at just 50.7 when under pressure.
As different as the actual performance has been between Burrow and Herbert, their supporting cast situations are eerily similar. Both quarterbacks are playing behind leaky pass blocking, as the Bengals have the no. 25 pass-blocking grade at 61.2 while the Chargers rank 27th at 59.1. The receivers are closely ranked, as well, as the Bengals are eighth at 76.9 and the Chargers are at 10th at 76.5. Burrow and Herbert both have below-average offensive lines, but there’s a solid group of pass-catchers in each situation.
So, what does it all mean?
Burrow and Herbert have been extremely impressive as rookies, and both the Bengals and Chargers fan bases should be optimistic for their respective futures. We’ve seen Burrow excel throwing the ball to all levels of the field, while Herbert has been an instant game-changer with his ability to make defenses cover every inch of the field. When projecting for the future, Burrow’s performance should be more sustainable, and he’s primed for a big second-year jump with offseason improvement up front in Cincinnati. Herbert may continue to dazzle with his field-flipping arm strength, but his performance is less sustainable than Burrow’s, and there’s more likely some regression heading his way.
Weather affects the passing game
This was the first week in which weather was a factor across the NFL landscape. From heavy winds to periodic precipitation, inclement weather negatively affected a few games this weekend.
- The New Orleans Saints played in their first outdoor game of the season, and they were greeted by heavy winds in Chicago. QB Drew Brees finished with a 49.9 passing grade, his lowest since Week 14 of 2016.
- On a windy night in Philadelphia, Dallas Cowboys rookie QB Ben DiNucci and Philadelphia Eagles QB Carson Wentz combined for four turnover-worthy throws on 10-plus-yard passes.
- The Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots played in difficult conditions, and Bills QB Josh Allen’s passer rating of 23.8 on 10-plus-yard throws is the lowest of the week. Patriots QB Cam Newton was better, but a limited game plan held him to just four passes of 10-plus yards.
- The Cleveland Browns and Las Vegas Raiders played in the wind and different types of precipitation in Cleveland. Baker Mayfield had just a 64.3 passing grade on 10-plus-yard throws, while Raiders QB Derek Carr went 1-for-4 for 13 yards on 10-plus-yard passes.
Of course, not every quarterback was negatively affected by the poor weather, but it’s a reminder that the elements can alter game plans in November and December. It was a much more run-heavy NFL weekend in a few situations, and the difficult passing conditions should be accounted for when evaluating quarterbacks.
Graded worse than the stats: Drew Brees
Brees finished with a 49.9 passing grade, but the stat line showed 31-for-41 for 280 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Brees had 182 of his 280 passing yards come after the catch, the third-highest percentage in the league this week, but more importantly, that interception column should show a two.
Brees threw what easily could have been a game-ending pick-six in overtime when he left a short-stick concept behind, and LB Roquan Smith dropped the interception. Brees came back with another questionable decision, and this time it was safety Eddie Jackson breaking on the ball and failing to come away with the turnover. Throw in a fumble in the pocket as well, and Brees did not do a good job of taking care of the ball despite zero official turnovers for the game.
Drew Brees didn't have a turnover on the stat sheet, but he fumbled in the pocket and almost threw the game away with two near-INTs in overtime pic.twitter.com/SyJmKANpOk
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) November 3, 2020
Luckiest Pass of the Week: Jared Goff
Goff struggled all day against the Dolphins, as he got picked off twice and lost two fumbles. However, perhaps the worst throw of the day should have been an easy pick-six, but Eric Rowe dropped it.
The luckiest pass of the week is Jared Goff getting bailed out of a pick-6 by Eric Rowe's drop pic.twitter.com/lRxmsWS0PN
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) November 3, 2020
Big-time throw of the week: Matthew Stafford
Stafford fires this one 59 yards from the line of scrimmage for a 73-yard gain.
The #BigTimeThrow of the week is Matthew Stafford's bomb that traveled 59 yards from the line of scrimmage.
73-yard gain pic.twitter.com/fMOFnNPlfe
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) November 3, 2020
Stats of the Week
Kirk Cousins had an average depth of target of just 1.6 yards (lowest in the league in Week 8), but he averaged 11.4 yards per attempt, highest in the league.
Patrick Mahomes now has six touchdowns on screen passes. The rest of the league combined has 15.
Jared Goff has faced Cover 0 on 84 dropbacks during his career, and he has a PFF passing grade of just 35.7 on those throws.