I love advanced analytics. At the same time, I know the results that come from analytics can lead people down some pretty insane rabbit holes and toward some pretty hot takes. One stat leads to another, which leads to another, and all of a sudden you’re saying that C.J. Beathard deserves another shot at a starting quarterback job.
Not all advanced stats are created equal either. For every pass block, win-rate or adjusted-completion percentage, there’s a stat out there that tells us nothing, or in this case, tells us the opposite of what we’re trying to figure out. Enter Next Gen Stats’ aggressiveness percentage.
Based on its name, you’d think this statistic would measure a quarterback’s willingness to go deep or something along those lines. Or perhaps it has something to do with a quarterback’s tendency to throw a ball into 1-on-1 coverage, or their percentage of throws that don’t go to checkdown routes. Whatever it is, it certainly wouldn’t have a bunch of Checkdown Charlies near the top of its leaderboard, right?
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The most aggressive quarterback in the league in 2021, according to Next Gen Stats, wasn’t Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, or Matthew Stafford. It was Tua Tagovailoa! Did you see that coming? Bet you didn’t. In fact, of all the quarterbacks I just named, only one ranks in the top-10 for aggressiveness percentage, Burrow. He ranks second with a mark of 19.2 percent. Tua sits at 19.3. Other members of the top-10 include Jacoby Brissett, Tyler Huntley, Taylor Heinicke, Daniel Jones, Ben Roethlisberger, Tyrod Taylor, and Justin Fields. All these quarterbacks are well-known for their aggressive nature under center, obviously.
So what exactly is this stat? It has good intentions. It measures the percentage of throws a quarterback makes to a receiver who is within one yard of a defender at the time of completion or incompletion. While I understand how that can be interpreted as aggressiveness, I interpret it differently. Either you really trust your receiving corps, or you’re throwing to covered players.
In Burrow’s case, I think he trusts his receiving corps to make a play. Why wouldn’t you with Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, and Tee Higgins all making DBs look silly on a regular basis? But who else on that top-10 list actually had a receiving corps worth trusting last year? Maybe Big Ben with Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and Pat Freiermuth, but that’s a stretch. Nobody else has that excuse, and that includes Tua.
Think about that statistic for a moment. Take it at its most bare bones — “with a defender within at least one yard.” Most good quarterbacks wouldn’t make that throw unless it’s a goal-line fade or a 1-on-1 go route with big guys like Mike Williams, Mike Evans, or D.K. Metcalf on the receiving end. That’s probably a big reason why guys like Tom Brady, Matt Stafford, Josh Allen, and Patrick Mahomes all have percentages under 15. Sometimes quarterbacks are forced to make those types of throws, but there’s a difference between leading your crossing receiver away from a close defender and tossing a ball into the middle of the field without seeing the strong safety creeping up ready to put your helpless receiver on the IR for eight weeks.
Furthermore, why would the most aggressive quarterback have the third-lowest average intended air yards of any qualified QB last season? That must be a real aggressive seven air yards he’s averaging on every throw. It doesn’t make sense.
I mean, how many of these “aggressive” throws by Tua are just him not realizing that the safety or middle linebacker can just mozy on over and meet the receiver at the point of intercept? That’s what separates a mediocre quarterback from a great quarterback, the ability to look defenders off to open up receivers more, going through your reads to find an open guy rather than forcing the ball into a tight window.
Tua has a lot of good things going for him. Namely, his receiving corps. With the additions of Tyreek Hill and Cedrick Wilson this offseason, the Dolphins boast one of the best in the league. He’s also incredibly accurate, and as Hill put it throws “one of the prettiest balls” in the league. However, his placement in this statistic among names like Danny Dimes, Brissett, and Heinicke, all without passing the eye test like Burrow and Justin Herbert have, makes me think Tua’s aggressiveness is really just poor play.