NFL Analytics And The Problems With The Case For Blaine Gabbert


Nov 18, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans free safety Danieal Manning (38) forces Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert (11) to fumble in the first quarter at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

You’ll have to excuse me as I venture away from writing about just the Seahawks this morning. When stories about NFL teams using analytics appear on my radar, I take notice. I’ve also also taken an interest in the Jacksonville Jaguars this offseason.

This is partly because I have tremendous respect for former Seahawks defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley, who is now their head coach. It is also because Bradley is using Seattle as a mold in terms of on-field scheme and Pete Carroll’s philosophy of competition. I find it very fascinating.

One of the stories from the past week that won’t go away is that that the Jaguars are using statistical metrics to justify their selection of offensive tackle Luke Joeckel.

Apparently, when given 2.6 seconds or longer to throw, Blaine Gabbert was in the top third in the NFL in passer rating (13th out of 38 quarterbacks with enough passes to qualify). When given 2.5 seconds or less, he was horrible (34th). In response to this the Jaguars drafted Joeckel to ensure that Gabbert (hopefully) has at least 2.6 seconds to throw.

If this story is true, then I believe it is a poor use of analytical tools. When I see Gabbert’s performance based on his time to throw, I don’t conclude that he just needs more time.” Rather, I think see a much bigger (more obvious) problem.

If the conclusion is that Gabbert regularly faced too much pressure, that should show up in the stats as well, but it doesn’t. Gabbert was only under pressure for 32.7% of his throws. While that sounds like a lot, there were 16 quarterbacks who faced pressure on a higher percentage of throws.

The problem wasn’t that Gabbert couldn’t perform under pressure. His completion percentage when under pressure was actually the best in the NFL in 2012 (57.7%). His accuracy when under pressure was also good at 70.8%, 6th best in the NFL. Pressure, it seems, wasn’t the problem.

Another factor that could create the discrepancy is play-action. Play-action passes generally take longer to develop. They also tend to create holes in the defense that can be exploited. Looking at Gabbert’s play action stats, he completed passes at a rate almost 14% higher when using play-action compared to standard pass plays. That is the highest difference of any quarterback in the league. It should also be noted that when Gabbert had over 2.6 seconds to throw, he completed nearly half  of his play-action passes (46%).

All of that data would suggest that the Jaguars are better off simply using more play-action, and using the 2nd overall pick elsewhere. It also suggest that the true problem isn’t time, it’s Gabbert.

Gabbert’s inability to complete passes under 2.6 seconds suggests that he struggles to read defenses pre-snap and has no idea where he’s going with the ball based on the defensive alignment. For a player who has just completed his second  full season in the NFL, that’s a major problem.

I should briefly stop and recognize that I’m writing this because of a giant case of “coach-speak.” While Jaguar fans and NFL analysts are all up in arms because the team seems to be building around Gabbert, that is unlikely what is actually going on here.

As I said above, Bradley is rebuilding the Jaguars using the same methods and tools that Pete Carroll used with the Seahawks. Carroll spent the first two seasons rebuilding the roster, but didn’t address the quarterback position until year three. Instead, the team trotted out  two quarterbacks that were very clearly not part of the team’s long term plans.

That is most likely going on in Jacksonville, as well. The 2.6 seconds nonsense is to justify another year of Gabbert to the fans and players in the locker room. If it works out, that’s great, but no one really expects it to.

It’s very similar to the Seahawks in 2011 with Tarvaris Jackson. He was clearly not the long term solution at quarterback, but you would never have known it if all you did was listen to the Pete Carroll’s press conferences. Carroll had some Seahawks fans in a panic thinking that the team was about to commit to Jackson long term. Instead, he signed Matt Flynn and drafted Russell Wilson, and we all know how that worked out.

Basically, if you’re a Jaguars fan and you happened to find your way here, then I suggest being patient. Rebuilding the team won’t happen overnight, and Bradley likely won’t address the quarterback position as quickly as you want him to. You still have a gifted and charismatic coach leading the way. Just try not to get caught up in the coach-speak. He did coach under Carroll, after all.

Finally, if you’re a Seahawks fan who waded through this wall of text about another team, let me leave you with a final thought. How awesome is it that we are no longer stressing out over Seattle’s starting quarterback? We should all appreciate how awesome it is to have Russell Wilson under center in Seattle. I know I do.

Go Hawks!