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Ranking NFL QBs by their ability to move the sticks

First-down percentage can tell you which QBs are moving the sticks and which QBs aren’t. And we tell you which QB is which.

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Teams that consistently move the sticks tend be the teams that win consistently. It follows that quarterbacks that move the sticks consistently are very good quarterbacks; quarterbacks that fail at this most basic of football tasks are usually not very good.

The simplest way to measure a QB’s ability to move the sticks is to add up his passing and rushing first downs and divide them by his number of dropbacks and runs. The resulting QB first-down percentage (or 1D%) may not be perfect, but it removes some of the inconsistencies that plague some other stats:

  • It does not reward a QB for completing a 15-yard pass on 3rd-and-16 (like passer rating or YPA do)
  • It does not reward the QB for throwing a screen pass that the RB takes 80 yards for a TD (like EPA and many other stats do).
  • It does reward a QB for his running game, which many passer-centric stats do not (but other efficiency stats like EPA and QBR do as well).
  • It does not favor QBs from teams that like to throw in the red zone (thus padding a QBs passer rating with TD throws) versus teams that like to run in the red zone (thus leaving their QBs with a low TD percentage)

On the downside, because 1D% is all about first downs only (and therefore disregards any yardage beyond the first-down marker), it tends to undervalue QBs from big-play offenses, and tends to reward QBs who are able to sustain long, methodical drives. It also might overvalue a mistake-prone QB, as it treats interceptions or fumbles as simply another pass attempt or run.

Having said all that, it’s important to recognize that first-down percentage is not a perfect stat, but within the limitations outlined above it gives us an extra point of reference with which to evaluate QBs. And anything that gets us off the beaten path and beyond the “Dak was 1-3 in 2020” level of discourse is a welcome relief.

The start of the 2021 season is just a few days away. And while we don’t know how the season will shake out for any of the 32 teams, we do know at least one thing: If you want to be a winning team, you’d better have a QB that can move the sticks.

Let’s take the Cowboys’ 2020 to illustrate the 1D% stat. Here are the stats for the four QBs the Cowboys had under center last year along with their respective first-down percentage:

Passing Rushing Total
Player Att Sk Pass 1D Runs Run 1D Tot Plays TOT 1D 1D%
Dak Prescott 222 10 93 17 8 249 101 40.6%
Andy Dalton 333 24 116 24 11 381 127 33.3%
Garrett Gilbert 38 2 10 3 2 43 12 27.9%
Ben DiNucci 43 7 11 6 2 56 13 23.2%

The first thing to understand here is that while we are using 1D% as a QB stat, there’s a strong team component in here is well. Without proper pass protection and without a good receiving corps, even the best QBs will struggle to move the sticks.

With that out of the way, and even though the Cowboys won only two of the five games Prescott started last year, he was clearly better than his backups at moving the sticks. Andy Dalton (as well see later) did a passable job, but nothing stellar, while Gilbert and DiNucci did not pass the NFL QB sniff test.

To get a better feeling for those percentages, here’s the first-down percentage for the 36 NFL QBs with more than 60 pass attempts last year. Their average 1D% is 35.4%, conveniently marked with a red line in the table below.

Rank Player Pass Att Sacks Pass 1D Runs Run 1D 1D%
1 Ryan Tannehill 481 24 202 35 22 41.5%
2 Dak Prescott 222 10 93 17 8 40.6%
3 Aaron Rodgers 526 20 216 29 15 40.2%
4 Patrick Mahomes 588 22 238 48 22 39.5%
5 Kirk Cousins 516 39 212 25 16 39.3%
6 Josh Allen 572 26 228 80 38 39.2%
7 Mitchell Trubisky 297 18 124 33 12 39.1%
8 Ryan Fitzpatrick 267 14 106 24 12 38.7%
9 Deshaun Watson 544 49 221 80 31 37.4%
10 Drew Brees 390 13 149 6 4 37.4%
11 Baker Mayfield 486 26 188 40 18 37.3%
12 Tom Brady 610 21 233 13 6 37.1%
13 Matthew Stafford 528 38 205 24 12 36.8%
14 Derek Carr 517 26 193 31 16 36.4%
15 Matt Ryan 626 41 242 21 8 36.3%
16 Kyler Murray 558 27 205 124 52 36.2%
17 Cam Newton 368 31 133 127 55 35.7%
18 Russell Wilson 558 47 213 66 25 35.5%
19 Philip Rivers 543 19 200 2 0 35.5%
20 Justin Herbert 595 32 216 45 20 35.1%
21 Joe Burrow 403 32 150 33 14 35.0%
22 Lamar Jackson 376 29 138 152 56 34.8%
23 Nick Mullens 326 19 120 4 1 34.7%
24 Jared Goff 552 23 194 34 12 33.8%
25 Teddy Bridgewater 492 31 174 45 18 33.8%
26 Tua Tagovailoa 290 20 100 28 13 33.4%
27 Andy Dalton 333 24 116 24 11 33.3%
28 Gardner Minshew II 327 27 117 27 10 33.3%
29 Daniel Jones 448 45 158 51 17 32.2%
30 Drew Lock 443 19 145 37 13 31.7%
31 Ben Roethlisberger 608 13 193 10 3 31.1%
32 Carson Wentz 437 50 130 50 25 28.9%
33 Dwayne Haskins 241 20 73 13 6 28.8%
34 Sam Darnold 364 35 109 30 13 28.4%
35 Nick Foles 312 18 93 6 2 28.3%
36 Alex Smith 252 22 74 4 0 26.6%

Your eyes did not deceive you, Dak Prescott’s 40.6% was the second best value in the NFL Last year, albeit with a lower number of starts than most NFL QBs. Dak Prescott (and the Cowboys offense) moved the sticks better than most other teams over the first five games of last year. The Cowboys offense also coughed up the ball 11 times over those five games, largely negating the positive 1D%, but that’s a topic for a different discussion.

But here’s the kicker:

  • Over his career, when Dak Prescott has a first-down percentage of 30% or higher, the Cowboys are 40-12 (a .769 win percentage).
  • When Dak Prescott has a first-down percentage below 30%, the Cowboys are 2-15.

What this means is that 1D% accurately correlates with Dak Prescott’s QB record in a stunning 55 out of 69 games. When Dak moves the sticks, the Cowboys win. When he doesn’t, they lose. The Cowboys fancy themselves a running team, and there may be all sorts of intangibles associated with being a physical, run-heavy team, but they live and die by the passing game - running-game truthers and 30-carry auto-win apologists notwithstanding.

As you look through the names above the red line in the table above, most should not surprise you. If we divide the 36-QB sample into three tiers, then you have the top QBs in Tier 1 with a first-down percentage greater than 37%. Tier 2 stretches from 34% to 37% and is made up of largely average QBs based on this metric. The third tier is everybody below 34%. Of the 13 QBs in this tier, most have lost their starting jobs or have moved on to other teams. Only three (Daniel Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, Ben Rothlisberger) will be the starters for the same team this year as they were last year, and Tua’s job security is far from certain.

For Cowboys fans, it’s nice to see divisional opponent Daniel Jones in that third tier with a 1D% of 32.2%. It’s also comforting to know that Jalen Hurts in Philly only managed 28.0% in his five games last year. Fitzpatrick might be more of a problem in Washington, but is his magic going to last until Week 7 when the Cowboys first play Washington?

For Cowboys fans, a breakdown of Prescott’s 1D% numbers through the years might also be instructive.

Dak Prescott 1st-down pewrcentage 2016-2020
Year 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
1D% 39.2% 33.3% 32.9% 37.5% 40.6%
NFL Rank #2 #14 #22 #6 #2

Sticking to the concept of tiers, Prescott was a Tier 1 QB in three of his five years, was a Tier 2 player in 2017 and dropped to Tier 3 in 2018. Which version of Prescott we’ll get this year is anybody’s guess, and his ankle and shoulder injury further complicate the situation.

In football, the three-man chain gang keeps track of down and distance on the sidelines.

The rod man holds the “rear rod” that marks the beginning of the current set of downs, the box man holds a pole that marks the line of scrimmage and has a box at the top indicating the current down, and the second rod man holds the “forward rod” indicating the distance required to gain a new series of downs. The two rods (also known as “sticks”) are always exactly 10 yards apart, and the entire game of football is predicated on “moving the sticks” to achieve a new set of downs.

Watch the Cowboys over the first two or three games. If the offense with Prescott at the helm manages a high first-down percentage, the wins will follow. If they fail at this most basic of football tasks, we’ll start looking at mock drafts sooner than we want to.