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Is Joe Burrow The Most Efficient College QB Ever?

Joe Burrow went from conference afterthought to potential future No. 1 draft pick in a matter of months. He led LSU to its first conference championship since 2011 and then swept awards season. In last weekend’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl demolition of Oklahoma, against an opponent making its third consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoff, Burrow passed for 493 yards and finished with eight total touchdowns — a feat that had never occurred in the bowl era. He also essentially didn’t play in the fourth quarter.

After the game, LSU coach Ed Orgeron was asked if he thought any player in the history of the sport had produced a season superior to Burrow’s. Orgeron shook his head no. His QB had just gone off for the single best performance by any QB in a playoff game.1

Memorable quarterback seasons have piled up in recent years as scoring-crazed offense continues like a runaway train. Pass percentage at the major-conference level has jumped more than 5 percentage points since 2010, so it stands to reason that individual and teamwide passing production would balloon in equal measure. And yet what Burrow has accomplished stands up — both statistically and anecdotally — to those other incredible performances.

Burrow has thrown for 5,208 yards and 55 touchdowns. Both marks are already SEC records and rank among the top 10 at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. With three more TD passes, Burrow would tie the all-time single-season record set by Hawaii’s Colt Brennan in 2006. He has already thrown for more touchdowns than the Tigers quarterbacks passed for in the previous three seasons combined. Moreover, he has completed more than 77 percent of his throws, which is tracking to break the all-time record.

It’s possible that this season might one day be remembered as merely the first of a new transcendent offensive system that Burrow just lucked into. Behind Joe Brady and his New Orleans Saints-inspired system, the Tigers have taken advantage of lucrative concepts like play-action2 to steamroll defenses all season.

But Burrow’s college career might be remembered for what he accomplished in his own right: vaulting LSU back to national title contention by pairing efficiency with production in a way nobody has before.

Accuracy

It has barely mattered what coverage a defense is in against Burrow. Burrow’s adjusted completion percentage of 82.5, which weights completions by air yards and excludes drops and throwaways, is the highest mark in the nine-season sample from the ESPN Stats & Information Group. (By comparison, starting major conference QBs over that same stretch recorded an average adjusted completion mark of 67.7 percent.)

ESPN has tracked coverage splits the past two seasons, and Burrow’s completion marks receive top billing against man (72.0) and zone (77.6).3 Here’s how his splits look by coverage when compared with the top quarterbacks by Total QBR the last two seasons.

Burrow has excelled against all defenses

Performances against man and zone defense by the top three college quarterbacks by Total QBR during the 2018 and 2019 seasons

Against Man Coverage Against Zone Coverage
Season Player Comp. % Passing Yds/Att Raw QBR Comp. % Passing Yds/Att Raw QBR
2019 Joe Burrow 72.0% 10.6 96.5 77.6% 11.9 91.7
2018 Jake Fromm 66.2 10.5 87.7 63.6 8.3 78.0
2018 Kyler Murray 64.9 11.2 98.4 66.5 13.0 94.8
2018 Tua Tagovailoa 64.2 11.8 94.6 69.8 12.8 94.9
2019 Justin Fields 56.5 8.6 87.5 69.4 10.4 86.7
2019 Tua Tagovailoa 54.1 10.7 94.4 69.7 13.0 90.9

Source: ESPN STATS & INFORMATION GROUP

Burrow is no Checkdown Charlie, either. As measured by air yards, Burrow has thrown 22 touchdowns that traveled at least 18 yards, tied for the most by any QB in a single season since at least 2011.

Under pressure

Few are better than Burrow at buying time or can tout more absurd on-the-run accuracy.

“We had a hard time, obviously, corralling him back there,” said Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, perhaps referring to the Peach Bowl play in which Burrow scrambled out of the pocket, sprinted toward his sideline, avoided a tackle and completed a fadeaway 30-yard pass while getting drilled. “We’re certainly not the only ones that have.”

When pressured, Burrow still completes 73.9 percent of his passes, a clip 9.5 percentage points better than any other player in the country and the top mark produced by any QB since at least 2011.4. He also has a 211.2 passer efficiency rating, the highest among qualified passers over that stretch, and has thrown 19 touchdowns, five clear of any other QB in a single season.

Team success

Burrow is operating with NFL talent at wide receiver and behind the nation’s best offensive line, to say nothing of the coaches or system in place. But individual success informs team success, too, and Burrow is the linchpin of a unit that ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit has deemed the best he’s covered in nearly two-and-a-half decades in the booth. LSU stands to set single-season records in offensive expected points added,5 expected points added on passes and offensive efficiency, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

It’s unlikely that the Tigers will score nine offensive touchdowns in the national title game to tie Oklahoma’s 2008 single-season TD record, but with one it would finish second. It’s also unlikely that Burrow will throw six touchdown passes against Clemson, but LSU currently has 56 passing touchdowns this season, second most by any team in a season since at least 2004. And, fairly or unfairly, Burrow is the man responsible for a nation-leading 25.4 points per game.

It should also be mentioned that Burrow’s team has been so destructive — with the Tigers winning by an average margin of 27.2 points — that it has limited his performance. Burrow has logged only 95 snaps in the fourth quarter or overtime, which ranks outside the top 125 QBs nationally. But even without as many dropbacks as he could have accumulated, Burrow is still outperforming almost every other quarterback since 2004:

What Burrow has accomplished is unprecedented both at program and conference levels. Despite stars coming out of Baton Rouge, like Leonard Fournette, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, LSU’s offense was not a record-setting juggernaut. Indeed, the offense was so tepid that it led to the dismissal of one of the most successful coaches in SEC history. Look at the last 16 seasons of Tiger football, and you’ll find Burrow responsible for six of the 20 best single-game performances in adjusted Quarterback Rating.

And it’s not as if Burrow did his damage against subpar competition. LSU’s 2019 schedule was deemed the fifth-toughest. Against teams currently ranked in the top 25 of ESPN’s Football Power Index, Burrow has compiled a QBR of 95.8 and completed 77.1 percent of his passes for 2,672 yards, 25 touchdowns and two interceptions over seven games.


Despite a stat line that without question showcases one of the finest QB seasons ever, it is certainly possible — maybe even likely, if you’re taking surrounding talent into account — that this isn’t the greatest individual quarterbacking season of all time. Burrow doesn’t have the strongest arm we’ve ever seen, nor the quickest legs. His style is nothing like the video game moves featured by Lamar Jackson or Johnny Manziel.

But Burrow stays ahead of the chains, completes a high volume of passes, finishes drives and, above all else, scores heaps of touchdowns. Considering that host of factors, it’s also possible that Burrow has manufactured the single most impressive QB showing of the modern era.

Check out our latest college football predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Of the 65 best single-game QBR performances this season, Burrow had accounted for eight.

  2. Few teams have dialed up play-action more than the Tigers, who ran it on a season-high 18 snaps against the Sooners. On those snaps, the Tigers were 12 of 17 for 202 yards and three touchdowns.

  3. Burrow’s completion percentage against zone defense is the highest mark by 5.8 percentage points.

  4. With at least 10 pass attempts in pressure situations.

  5. Both adjusted for opponent and unadjusted. Each stat has been tracked since 2004.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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