Clemson Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson stirred up some mild controversy last week when he declared that he — not Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who won this year’s Heisman Trophy — was the best player in all of college football.
“I’m the best player in the country,” Watson told reporters on Dec. 19. “That’s how I think. That’s how I feel. You know, people have their own way of voting.”
Although Watson won his second straight Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s most outstanding QB this season, he ended up second behind Jackson in the Heisman voting. And the O’Brien-Heisman split — “best quarterback” vs. “best player” — is pretty much the heart of Watson’s rivalry with Jackson.
In the traditional sense of the QB role, Watson was probably a better pure passer than Jackson this season. Watson threw for 524 more yards, had a higher passing efficiency rating (according to the NCAA’s formula) and contributed many more expected points added (EPA) in the air than Jackson did. More to the point, Watson had a vastly superior completion percentage (68 percent to 58 percent), threw fewer of his passes off-target (11 percent vs. 15 percent), and was notably better in the short-to-intermediate passing game. He beat Jackson in Total QBR (81.2 to 76.9) on passes that traveled 15 or fewer yards through the air — plays that accounted for about three-quarters of each QB’s total attempts — and a higher percentage of Watson’s passing yards also came after his receivers caught the ball, a healthy indicator in the type of quick-passing game Clemson employs.
As a result of all that controlled passing, Clemson’s aerial attack was more efficient than Louisville’s this year. The Tigers ranked fifth among Power Five conference teams in passing EPA, piling up about 40 percent more expected points per game via the pass than the 12th-ranked Cardinals.
Still, Jackson made up the difference as an all-around QB. He generated nearly 70 more yards of total offense per game than Watson, thanks in large part to his mobility — Jackson rushed for an incredible 1,538 yards, the most of any Heisman-winning quarterback ever (as well as the second-most by a 3,000-yard passer).1 Watson’s no slouch as a runner — he gained 524 yards on the ground, which ranked 15th among qualified FBS QBs — but Jackson probably had the best dual-threat season in college history. When we factor in Jackson’s huge workload in the running game, he had a slightly better Total QBR than Watson on the season, and he generated about 31 percent more total EPA per game than Watson did.
Jackson even had Watson beat in a couple of important passing categories. First, Jackson threw 24 percent fewer interceptions per attempt than Watson did. (Despite his accuracy, Watson has had a problem with picks all year — though his overall game is still so good that it’s hard to say even the picks are a real problem.) And although Watson had the superior overall passing numbers, Jackson had a better year throwing the ball deep. Not only did he do it more — 14 percent of Jackson’s throws traveled at least 25 yards in the air, versus 9 percent for Watson — but he also had a better QBR (77.8 to 71.1) on those long tosses. Watson was more surgical in his deep strikes, with a sterling 8-0 TD-INT ratio on throws of 25 or more yards (Jackson’s mark was a more pedestrian 9-6), but he also spent a significant amount of his time setting up bubble screens with passes at or behind the line of scrimmage. Twenty-seven percent of Watson’s passes were for zero or fewer air yards, compared with 17 percent for Jackson.
All told, many of the differences between Jackson and Watson simply come down to the trade-offs a QB makes playing in different offenses. While both teams call their share of zone-read plays, Louisville’s offense asks Jackson to keep the ball and run with it more than Clemson’s does of Watson. (There’s also a school of thought that says this was by design, and that Watson will be unleashed as a runner in the College Football Playoff, so stay tuned.) The Cardinals are a more run-oriented team than the Tigers anyway, and that allows them to exploit defenses for more big plays down the field when Jackson does throw. Clemson, meanwhile, is more set up to control the field through short passing and the selective use of Watson’s running and deep-throwing skills.
The big takeaway, then, is that although the two quarterbacks played pretty different styles this season, they both arrived at a similar place in terms of overall production. So the question of who is the nation’s true best player might just boil down to preference: Do you like running QBs who throw a bunch of deep bombs, or do you prefer more pocket-oriented accurate passers who can also run when necessary?
If I were starting a team, I’d flip a coin.