Fitzpatrick, the Washington Football Team, and Pressure

We’re back with another look at 2020 data from Football Outsiders Almanac 2021 (now available!). Today we’re going to look at quarterbacks and pressure—who faced pressure most often; who played best and worst under pressure; and who succeed or failed from a clean pocket. Sometimes when we get into these data pieces, no team really stands out, and it can be difficult to develop a narrative. This is not one of those times. When we talk about who was most affected by pressure in 2020, and whose pressure stats are most intriguing heading into 2021, it’s clear that we’re going to be talking about the Washington Football Team.

By DVOA, Washington’s Dwayne Haskins was the worst quarterback under pressure last season. He was also the worst quarterback without pressure—and somehow he was even worse than that sounds. His DVOA under pressure of -174.2% was the second-worst since at least 2010, better only than Matt Flynn’s -182.8% mark with the Packers and Raiders in 2013. His DVOA without pressure, meanwhile, was the third-worst mark on record in that category. (Jared Goff’s -45.2% DVOA without pressure as a rookie in 2016 may not be broken in any of our lifetimes.)

To be fair to Haskins, the Football Team was hardly any better without him. By DVOA, Alex Smith was the second-worst quarterback under pressure last season. He was also the second-worst quarterback without pressure. In fact, the only quarterback in our archives to be worse than Smith last year with and without pressure was his teammate, Haskins.

Haskins is now in Pittsburgh and Smith is retired. The Football Team replaced them by signing Ryan Fitzpatrick, former starter for the (deep inhale) Rams, Bengals, Bills, Titans, Texans, Jets, Buccaneers, and Dolphins. And looking at 2020’s numbers, it’s hard to blame them. Fitzpatrick was nothing special from a clean pocket last season—his DVOA of 29.2% was well below the league-average DVOA of 40.7%—but boy, did he make a lot of great plays under pressure:

This is partly why they call him Fitzmagic. More important than his big throws, however, was Fitzpatrick’s ability to limit mistakes—he only threw two interceptions under pressure, and gave up just 14 sacks all season. (Haskins and Smith each gave up at least 20 in fewer dropbacks than Fitzpatrick.) Fitzpatrick finished with a DVOA of 11.2% under pressure. That wasn’t just the best mark in 2020, it’s the best mark in our record books, which in this case go back to 2010. It’s just the sixth time that a quarterback has had a positive DVOA under pressure. He’s also the first quarterback in our books to average more yards with pressure than without it.

With Fitzpatrick’s ability to make something out of nothing, we can go ahead and put Washington down for 10-plus wins and a repeat as division champs, right? Well, not necessarily. Here’s a look at the top 20 seasons by DVOA under pressure, along with how each quarterback fared the following year:

Any time you see a “best season” table where Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh McCown take the gold and silver medals, you can reasonably assume that an unusually high amount of good fortune was involved. This also bears out in what these quarterbacks did the following season. Three of these quarterbacks (Fitzpatrick, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen) played last season. Of the other 17, only seven stayed in the top 10, and only two others stuck around in the top 20. The others (including such greats as Tom Brady and Drew Brees were all well below average the following season. McCown managed to go from first in 2013 to worst in 2014 (and somehow lasted five more years after that, playing in his first playoff game for the 2019 Eagles at the age of 40.) Drew Stanton didn’t start any games in 2015 as Carson Palmer returned from injury, while Jay Cutler only started five in 2016, but even in limited action neither could come close to matching their elite production in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

This gets back to something we examined in detail last season: DVOA under pressure is a highly volatile stat from one year to the next, while DVOA without pressure is more consistent. Fitzpatrick himself is the perfect embodiment of this trend—he now has five seasons in the top 10 in DVOA under pressure, five other seasons where he has ranked 23rd or worse, and exactly zero seasons in between. So while he’ll almost certainly be an upgrade for Washington at the game’s most important position, just how big that upgrade is remains to be seen.

As shown in that table, however, there are a handful of quarterbacks who have shown an ability to thrive under pressure with some regularity. We’ll get back to them later.

Other 2020 Leaders

The best passer from a clean pocket last season was also the best passer overall: Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. He’s followed by Ryan Tannehill, Patrick Mahomes, Kirk Cousins, Josh Allen, Tom Brady, and Russell Wilson. That’s a decent short list of the best quarterbacks in the game right now.

The worst from a clean pocket, as mentioned, were Dwayne Haskins and Alex Smith. Just above them we find Sam Darnold and Andy Dalton, two other passers who switched teams this offseason, and Nick Foles, a target of constant trade rumors and perhaps the best third quarterback in the league. And then we find Tua Tagovailoa—with Fitzpatrick out of Miami, Tua will need to take a big step forward in his second season if the Dolphins are going to reach the playoffs.

It’s good to play well under pressure, but it’s even better to avoid pressure in the first place. This is where the old quarterbacks shined last year—38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger faced the lowest pressure rate in the league, followed by 43-year-old Tom Brady. Former teammates Drew Brees and Philip Rivers took their low-level pressure rates with them into retirement. And then there’s Dwayne Haskins—avoiding pressure was the one thing he was good at last year. And now he’s backing up Roethlisberger, giving the Steelers two quarterbacks who should make life easy for their offensive line.

For the second year in a row, Sam Darnold faced the highest pressure rate in the NFL. Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson have also been in the top five two of the last three years. Russell Wilson had ranked in the top five every year of his career until last year, when he finished sixth. Remember when we said that performance under pressure was volatile? Well, frequency of pressure is not—the year-to-year correlation for qualifying quarterbacks is .627.

Long-Term Trends

When we mentioned that some quarterbacks had shown a consistent ability to thrive under pressure, we were referring in part to Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger, but mostly to Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes has now ranked second in DVOA under pressure for two years in a row after leading the league in 2018. Throw in his limited action as a rookie in 2017 and Mahomes’ averaged DVOA under pressure has been 1.2%. In plain English, this means Mahomes has been a little better than average even if you remove every throw he has ever made from a clean pocket. Among quarterbacks with at least 1,000 total pass plays since 2010, Lamar Jackson is second at -18.5%, with Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, and Tyrod Taylor rounding out the top five.

Most of the worst quarterbacks under pressure didn’t last long, because bad quarterbacks in any situation don’t last long. At a 1,000-play minimum, the worst was Brandon Weeden at -119.3%; at 2,000 plays, it’s Mark Sanchez at -119.1%; at 4,000, it’s Ryan Tannehill at -95.9%. More on him in a bit.

Patrick Mahomes, by far the best quarterback under pressure, has also been the best quarterback from a clean pocket, though the margin there is much closer—he leads second-place Russell Wilson 78.8% to 69.9%. They’re followed by a pair of Hall of Famers, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, as well as Jimmy Garoppolo, currently fighting to save his job.

The worst passers from a clean pocket—Blaine Gabbert, Matt Hasselbeck, Brandon Weeden, Christian Ponder, and Matt Cassel—are largely the worst quarterbacks of the past decade. Among active quarterbacks, Sam Darnold is in last place at 28.9%, followed by Jacoby Brissett and (surprise!) Kyler Murray.

While Tannehill has struggled with pressure, he has played well without it, with a DVOA of 51.5%. That gap of 147.5% in DVOA with and without pressure is the largest in football. Other quarterbacks who have particularly struggled when under pressure include Mark Sanchez, Kyle Orton, Brandon Weeden, and Jared Goff. (For Bryan Knowles, if he’s reading this, I’ll add that Nick Mullens’ gap of 169.4% is even bigger than Tannehill’s, but that’s over just 645 passing plays.)

Naturally, every quarterback’s DVOA goes down under pressure, but some see less of a dropoff than others. Lamar Jackson has a DVOA of 54.8% from a clean pocket and -18.5% under pressure, a gap of just 73.3%, smallest in the league. Josh Freeman (!), Patrick Mahomes, and Tyrod Taylor are also in the 70s; Jacoby Brissett is in fifth place at 85.7%.

The lowest pressure rate since 2010 belongs to Peyton Manning at 15.0%. The next five names on the list (Matt Hasselbeck, Kyle Orton, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, and Brandon Weeden) are, like Manning, retired. The next three names (Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger, and Andy Dalton) may join them after this season. Among active players who are likely to stay active for a while, Matthew Stafford (23.2%) and Derek Carr (23.3%) are your leaders.

Meanwhile, the six players with the highest pressure rates (Deshaun Watson at 35.8%, then Jacoby Brissett, Sam Darnold, Russell Wilson, Tyrod Taylor, and Daniel Jones) are all active; Wilson, the oldest, doesn’t turn 33 until November. The younger, more athletic quarterbacks who have started to take over the league mostly play well under pressure, and for good reason: they get plenty of practice at it.

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