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Geno Smith Leads The NFL’s Growing List Of Unsung QBs

maya (Maya Sweedler, copy editor): Hello! Week 5 of the NFL season is almost wrapped, and at this point, we (mostly) know who everyone is. Justin Tucker continues to be clutch; Gabe Davis will kill your fantasy team when you least expect it; and Micah Parsons is very good at getting sacks. From a team standpoint, there was also a fair amount of continuity this week. The Houston Texans beat the divisional rival Jacksonville Jaguars for the ninth consecutive time; the Philadelphia Eagles remained undefeated, though the Arizona Cardinals hung tough until the end; and the Brandon Staley-led L.A. Chargers did something weird because “analytics.”

There are a couple of players who I feel like I’ve been reintroduced to this season, and I want to start with one of the last guys who I’d expect to lead the league in passing accuracy (and not by tenths — by a mile): Geno Smith. After the Seattle Seahawks shipped Russell Wilson off to Denver, were any of you expecting Geno to slide so comfortably into Seattle’s system?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I did not. While there were plenty of nerds who liked Geno coming out of college, and the models of the time were optimistic about his play, it’s just incredibly rare to have a player lose his starting job, spend years as a backup, and then regain the starting position and be this good.

neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): Yeah, anyone who tells you they thought this would happen with Geno on this much-maligned Seattle team is either a liar or a member of the Smith family. I still am shocked that it’s not a statistical transposition to see Geno with these amazing stats and Wilson with such weak numbers. If we hadn’t seen Russ struggle so much with our own eyes (including what may have been the worst football game ever played Thursday night), I would assume the stat sites made a collective error.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I had nearly purged that game from my memory. Dammit, Neil.

neil: Sadly, we can never unsee it completely.

maya: After last week’s Thursday night game, nothing can convince me the NFL isn’t trying to make Amazon regret this TV deal.

But going back to Geno, I was taking a look back at Smith’s numbers over the years, and what I find most striking is that his accuracy numbers are up alongside his yards per attempt.

neil: Oh yes. According to Next Gen Stats, he’s completing passes at a rate 9.6 percentage points above expected based on the types of throws he’s making. And his Adjusted Completion Percentage, which weighs passes by air yards, is 81.3 percent!! That is currently beating out Drew Brees in 2018 for the most accurate season on record, according to that metric.

maya: And not only is he connecting on more of his passes, good enough for a career-best in those various completion percentages over expected stats, he’s also averaging almost a full yard per attempt more than at any point in his career.

Geno Smith is having a career year in Seattle

Quarterback stats for Smith, 2013-2022

year team G Tot QBR Cmp Att Yd/Att Comp% NGS Comp%+/-
2022 Seattle Seahawks 5 74.6 118 157 8.31 75.2 +9.6%
2021 Seattle Seahawks 5 51.8 65 95 7.39 68.4 +6.4
2018 Los Angeles Chargers 5 0.7 1 4 2.00 25.0 -27.4
2017 New York Giants 2 39.8 21 36 5.89 58.3 -4.2
2016 New York Jets 2 26.2 8 14 9.00 57.1 -6.8
2014 New York Jets 14 45.8 219 367 6.88 59.7
2013 New York Jets 16 41.0 247 443 6.88 55.8

Limited to seasons in which Smith appeared in at least two games. 2022 figures through Week 5. Completion percentage above expected (NGS) is only available from 2016.

Source: ESPN Sports and information group

Ty Schalter (Ty Schalter, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Meanwhile, to Neil’s point, Wilson’s NGS completion percentage so far this year is -6.3 percent, well below last year’s career low* of 0.2 percent, well below 2020’s third-lowest* rate of 4.0 percent, well below his 2016 peak of 5.6 percent. (*The stat wasn’t tracked until 2016.) It’s possible that not only is Russ falling off the cliff, he’d been sliding for years while DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett held him up. Now they’re helping out Geno instead.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Geno made a couple throws to Metcalf and Lockett on Sunday that were absolute dimes. And they were deep downfield. So this isn’t a case of a guy dinking and dunking his way to accuracy.

neil: And maybe most impressive of all, Smith has averaged the third-fewest yards after catch per completion of any qualified QB this season. So Geno is doing a lot of the heavy lifting himself.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think all of this just underlines something we all have kind of internalized but rarely vocalize: No one knows anything about quarterbacks.

maya: You know, having Metcalf and Lockett instead of (checks New York Jets’ 2014 roster) Eric Decker and Jeremy Kerley probably helps.

joshua.hermsmeyer: All Decker did was score touchdowns, Maya.

maya: Fun fact, he had five touchdowns that season.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL, that was the end, eh?

maya: I would agree except I still think of that 2015 Jets season and vomit in my mouth a little bit. Watching Ryan Fitzpatrick throw three picks against the Rex Ryan-coached Buffalo Bills in Week 17, costing the Jets a playoff berth (the only team that season with a winning record to not make the playoffs), is still one of the most upsetting sports experiences of my life. And this was after Geno had his jaw broken by a teammate!

joshua.hermsmeyer: I have a total vibes take on Russ, BTW. I think in Week 1 against the Hawks he expected the Seattle crowd to embrace him, and kind of validate his decision to leave. When he was booed so loudly I think it shattered his confidence.

Now “Let Russ Cook” is a meme filled with images of uncooked hot dogs served with a slice of processed cheese on untoasted bread.

neil: Ewwww.

Ty Schalter: So, speaking of the Jets and quarterback play … could Zach Wilson be good? Sixty-four points in two games and 8.11 yards per attempt is attention-getting for a guy who barely seemed able to walk and chew gum at the same time during his rookie season.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Ty, I think it depends on how long you hold onto your prior about his draft slot. I am still burning a candle for Justin Fields, so I think we can all still have hope for the second overall pick as well.

maya: Heaven forbid I defend a Jets quarterback, but fun fact about Zach Wilson: His final season at BYU was, by adjusted Points Above Replacement, the fourth-best season in BYU history, trailing only Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer in Detmer’s Heisman Trophy-winning campaign. So, his ceiling might not be on the floor …

neil: I love how a 56.1 QBR in one week against a Miami team allowing the NFL’s fourth-most points per game qualifies as a sign of life for Wilson’s career. Kinda says something about how things had been going before.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Ty Schalter: Yeah, I liked Fields a lot better than Wilson coming out of college, so I’m right there with you. And some of the same markers we’re using to hype Smith don’t look great for Wilson (Wilson’s NGS completion percentage is -7.2 percent). But so far his average yards per attempt is up 2 whole yards from last year, average yards per completion up to 14.4 from 11.0, and his sack rate is half what it was (5.0 percent vs. 10.3). It’s two games against two subpar AFC defenses, but I think it’s a lot more lively looking than anything we saw from him last year.

maya: So we’re loving the revitalized Geno Smith, down on one Wilson and withholding judgment on another. In which of these categories would you guys put Daniel Jones, who is leading (?) the 4-1 Giants?

neil: Jones’s rushing has sure been great this season.

maya: Honestly, I love that the Giants are absolutely middle-of-the-pack as an offense (17th in points per game, 19th in yards per play, 23rd in yards per game) and still winning games.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Jones is pretty clearly being frog-marched to competence by a coaching staff that is doing everything in its power to minimize his worst traits. Namely, his arm.

And they’re pressing the easy button at a very high rate when they do ask him to throw.

maya: Kind of makes me wonder if Joe Judge ever met his quarterback.

neil: And I guess there’s research showing that it doesn’t matter that Saquon Barkley’s rushing threat is massively greater this season than last, to make those play-action passes a better option?

I always found that one somewhat difficult to accept, although the numbers are what they are.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, whenever I went looking, I was unable to find evidence for that at the league level, Neil. That may just be that we lack the right data to properly measure the effect. But I think that’s gotten harder and harder to point to as a flaw as tracking data has become available.

Ty Schalter: Agree on play-action … it’s generally accepted that teams need to run frequently to make play-action a viable threat, but not necessarily well.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Well, not to get off on a tangent Ty, but even then, there is scant evidence:

maya: Hey, a correlation coefficient of 0.02 isn’t the worst I’ve seen in a football metric.

So what are everyone’s theories regarding what makes play-action effective?

Ty Schalter: I don’t have data for this, but I think the most important determinant factor is acting ability.

Not just the classic Peyton Manning fake-handoff motion, but the OL and TE setting up to sell the idea that a run is coming.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it’s line action. Bill Walsh wrote in “Finding the Winning Edge” that the key to play-action is that the offensive line fires off the ball in the same way during pass and run. I think Kyle Shanahan is the best among current NFL head coaches at putting this principle into practice.

Ty Schalter: Yeah, if the line pops up into pass protection and the QB’s eyes are downfield and the RB is looking for blitzers instead of attacking a hole, the QB weakly gesturing at the RB with the ball before throwing it won’t bait many safeties into stepping up.

neil: And in the case of Jones, it might just be a situation where it’s good when used as a passing staple within a running offense. The Giants are one of only two teams (with the Bears, LOL) who have gained over 50 percent of their total yards running the ball. Jones has a good play-action split — he’s fourth in play-action QBR while ranking just 14th in overall QBR — but the offense really doesn’t rely on passing in general. And even within that, their most effective passing plays are really just the ones that make the defense think they’re running.

maya: This makes sense to me, but after watching Ryan Clark, Marcus Spears, Dan Orlovsky and Mina Kimes in this segment on NFL Live, I kind of think play-action effectiveness interacts with league-wide trends in offense. If the frequency of rushing concepts are down, defenses will prepare more to play the pass.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I thought the discussion in that segment was terrific — but I am skeptical that the linchpin of a successful offense is running plays from under center.

neil: I thought about that, Maya, as the Seahawks and Saints exchanged clutch, long-yardage body blows on the ground yesterday. Not in the air.

Have defenses gotten so wrapped up in stopping the pass that 60+ yard runs are now the hallmark of comeback drives??

Ty Schalter: We’ve seen teams like the Seahawks and 49ers have lots of success in the last decade, building a power-run game that today’s smaller, lighter linebackers and safeties struggle to stop. But that involves several years’ worth of scouting and development that’s very much counter to current trends in college and high-school football. There are six or seven first-round worthy wide receivers in every draft; how many road-grading centers and guards?

maya: Josh, I know you’re not a huge believer in the idea that the proliferation of two-high safety coverages are making it easier for teams to run this year, but do you think there’s anything to the cyclical theory of offensive trends and defensive responses?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Maya, it’s not that I think that two-high safeties can’t lead to more efficient running — Mike Macdonald, the DC of the Ravens, made just that tradeoff last night against the Bengals. He limited wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase in favor of letting running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine run. It’s just that no DC goes into a game without a way to limit rushing effectiveness situationally. And nearly all the value of rushing is situational (third-down and short, red zone, etc.)

So when we go search for evidence that two-high is a liability in the run game, we don’t find much. Because coaches are still being gap sound when it matters.

Ty Schalter: Yeah, I was going to say: In the end, running still inherently means fewer yards and less explosive-play potential than passing.

maya: Unless, of course, you have Taysom Hill. The Seahawks and Saints combined for 834 yards of offense, the third-highest total on the week.

neil: Taysom Hill is an NFL coach’s ultimate guilty pleasure.

A coach will go into the season saying, “We won’t use him at QB that much.” Then by Week 5, he’s being used all over.

Coaches can’t resist a Swiss Army knife.

Ty Schalter: I think this is the first example of him truly being more effective than the alternative, right? He lost the quarterback battle against Jameis Winston because the Saints were a lot better on offense with Jameis playing a traditional quarterback role. Hill’s not effective as a tight end because he’s not as big and strong as tight ends need to be. This game, the gadgety-ness worked. 

joshua.hermsmeyer: And it worked well. This one game will be enough to keep the gadget player dream alive in coaches’ hearts for a decade.

neil: It probably also helped to be playing the Seahawks, who just got done giving up 45 points to the Lions, who themselves went on to lose 29-0 to Bailey Zappe and the Patriots this week.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Just gonna put this here:

maya: I’m breaking out in hives just considering the implications of that.

(Also … Tom Brady’s career as a starting QB is of drinking age?)

joshua.hermsmeyer: #abhortheroar

neil: The 62 total points per game in Detroit games is tracking to be the second most in the NFL since the merger:

Only the 2000 “Greatest Show On Turf” Rams, who scored 33.4 points per game and allowed 29.5, had a higher average point total in their games. (Their total includes the playoffs.)

And of course, as part of that, the 34 PPG allowed would be No. 1 (in a bad way) since the merger.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Lions may make me rethink my stance that defense is inherently unpredictable. Perhaps you can be predictably bad.

neil: If you have to be bad, at least they’re bad in an entertaining way! (Most weeks. Maybe not this week.)

Ty Schalter: Zappe looked exactly like the most diehard draftniks I know expected: competent, accurate, and surprisingly useful for a fourth-round rookie out of Western Kentucky. That said, the Lions fielded a thin secondary already ravaged by injuries, deactivated two underperformers, and lost four of them due to injury during the course of the game.

Detroit’s real problem was on the other side of the ball, where their complete inability to turn drives into points was partly due to having an off-the-street kicker they apparently did not trust to attempt even a single kick, and Jared Goff having his first bad game of 2022.

joshua.hermsmeyer: As we were talking, the thinkable occurred, and Matt Rhule was let go by the Carolina Panthers. 

neil: In just his fifth NFL season, Baker Mayfield is already leaving an impressive number of fired coaches in his wake … Hue Jackson, Freddie Kitchens and now Matt Rhule.

Ty Schalter: When David Tepper bought the Panthers, we heard an awful lot about how aggressive he wanted to be in pursuing a great coach, great quarterback, and sparing no expense to raise standards across the franchise. That Rhule got this long of a leash while showing no real evidence he had a plan indicates otherwise.

It’s also something to point to for those who’ve completely reversed course on Dan Campbell in two weeks. 

maya: Hours ago, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that Tepper didn’t want to be “rash” with his decision.

Guess a 22-point loss to the Niners is a good enough reason?

Ty Schalter: I’ve said before that when Rhule brought Cam Newton back, it was like hanging a Clerks-style shoe-polish-on-bedsheet banner outside Bank of America Stadium that read: “I AM OUT OF IDEAS.”

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Maya Sweedler is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Ty Schalter is a husband, father and terrible bass player who uses words and numbers to analyze football. His work has been featured at VICE, SiriusXM and elsewhere.


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