On Wednesday, Pro Football Focus’ Arjun Menon and Judah Fortgang published a new study that attempted to isolate a quarterback’s decision-making, which they self proclaim is the first of its kind that has been released to the public. The methodology includes “game situation, route, defensive-back ability, receiver separation, men in the box and other defensive situational factors.”
Based on a three-year sample size, with a minimum of 320 dropbacks over that period, the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers ranked second among quarterbacks in Predicted EPA (expected points added) By QB Decision. The only quarterback ranked above him was the New England Patriots’ and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tom Brady. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Detroit/Los Angeles’ Matthew Stafford rounded out the top tier of quarterbacks from a decision-making standpoint over this time.
This, obviously, doesn’t include talent-based results from the quarterback’s end of the equation. This process-based metric only measures when quarterbacks are making optimal decisions, without the impact of ball placement influencing their numbers. This is why some gunslinger types like Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes ranked 11th and 12th among qualifying quarterbacks despite their obvious talent level. The next highest-ranked quarterback in the NFC North behind Rodgers was Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, ranked 22nd among qualifiers.
Processing power only goes so far, though, as the study notes, “The ability to execute is likely the most important QB metric because how well a QB executes — the X-axis of the above graph — better predicts next year’s EPA (R value of 0.46) than EPA itself (0.43).” In layman’s terms: Talent is more consistent than what we can estimate even with weighted factors. While Brady is in a tier of his own in terms of his decision-making, he’s in the middle of the pack in regard to his execution versus expected. On the flip side, a quarterback like Mahomes is in the middle of the pack as a decision-maker but is ranked second in execution versus expectation.
Rodgers, though, ranks highly in decision-making (second) and execution (fourth) which puts him in rare air. The only quarterbacks ahead of him in execution are the retired Drew Brees, Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, who did not play in 2020.
The study also claims that execution is relatively tied to the success (or lack thereof) that a quarterback has when he makes a “non-optimal” decision: “There is a much stronger correlation between QB execution and EPA on nonoptimal plays (0.75) than on optimal plays (0.33). This is to say that against talented secondaries — or when no receivers are open — a QB’s ability to generate offense and throw receivers open is the most predictive of his total production.”
Some quarterbacks are robots who can make correct decisions and move their offense down the field by taking what the defense gives them. Some quarterbacks can break structure and complete passes that most aren’t expected to for chunk plays. Rodgers — a four-time MVP of the NFL — is both, which anyone watching the sport already knew, but is nice to see quantified.