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What does Matt LaFleur’s arrival mean for Aaron Rodgers’ third-down approach?

QBs by the dozens throw short of the marker, on a third down.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

One of the worst things a quarterback can do is to check down on third and long. Yes, sometimes a receiver will heroically make it to the sticks, but in general, if a quarterback doesn’t throw to the sticks, they are often (but as it turns out, not always!) conceding a punt, which is the equivalent of conceding a turnover.

Every year, Football Outsiders measures a QB’s propensity to check down at the worst possible time through the stat of ALEX (Air Less EXpected, named in honor of Alex Smith). ALEX is a measure of whether or not quarterbacks throw to the sticks on third down. Checking down on third down is usually a bad idea, and so ALEX was developed to shed light on the cowardly, while highlighting the accomplishments of the smart and brave.

The good thing for the Green Bay Packers is that even in a down year, Aaron Rodgers, was smart and brave, throwing to the sticks on 3rd down more often than anyone outside of the otherworldly Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs. The bad thing was that Rodgers wasn’t actually very good at completing those passes, because even though he was 2nd in ALEX, he was 21st in conversion rate.

There are all sorts of reasons for this, including poor play-calling, an outdated strategy that relied on “trying to make third down manageable,” a maddening tendency to take sacks, an inexperienced receiving crew, and throwing bombs on 3rd and 1 for no good reason. However, the fact still stands that Rodgers was smart enough to throw past the first down marker, though he was unable to actually complete most of those passes.

2018 was an interesting season that really showed everyone the value of intelligent playcalling, and in ALEX, the geniuses came through in an unconventional way. Jared Goff, Andrew Luck, and Drew Brees all ranked in the lower half of ALEX, but as it turns out, if your scheme is good enough your receivers can actually pick up first downs through YAC. Surprisingly, all three of those quarterbacks finished in the top ten in conversion rate. Some short passes are made out of panic, and some are made out of well-designed surgical strikes; in the modern game, ALEX probably requires more context than it used to. If you generate reliable YAC, throwing short isn’t so bad.

Goff and Brees are typical of a movement in the NFL that has well-run teams focusing on avoiding third downs altogether, often throwing to the ALEX-level on first and second down. On third down, the Saints and Rams in particular focus on conversion rate above all else. They get conservative in terms of bombs and other low-completion-percentage, high leverage throws, but pull out any play that can get them ten yards, whether or not the requires an ALEX throw. The smart teams have figured out which plays are most likely to move the sticks, and that is what they run in crunch time. It’s better to be Aaron Rodgers than old Alex Smith, but it’s best to have a good QB working in an analytically-minded offense. Maybe we’ll get there next season.

Marcus Mariota and Matt LaFleur

We may not know much of new head coach Matt LaFleur, but at the very least he had Marcus Mariota throwing to the sticks, and unlike Aaron Rodgers, Marcus was pretty good at doing so. In 2018, Mariota ranked 10th in ALEX and 5th in conversion rate. That alone would provide some hope for Matt LaFleur, although Mariota was also good in ALEX before LaFleur arrived.

I suspect that ALEX is more of a coaching-based stat when we see high conversion rates paired with low ALEX, and more of a QB stat when we see either low-low, or any kind of high ALEX. In any case, this probably says more about Mariota than LaFleur, but at least LaFleur’s offense wasn’t getting in the way.