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Interceptions and Jameis Winston

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Why does Winston throw so many interceptions, and is it something to worry about?

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Football Outsiders recently released their 2017 NFL Adjusted Interceptions. How does this work?

When is an interception not an interception? Typically, when a defender drops a pass that he should have caught, or when a wide receiver makes a big play to turn what should have been a turnover into an incompletion instead. On the other hand, sometimes quarterbacks are charged with interceptions that aren’t really their fault -- Hail Mary passes, for example, or those that bounce off a receiver’s hands and into a defender’s.

It’s important to remember this metric can be somewhat subjective, as two people can look at the same play and come away with totally different opinions, and because determining a ball would have been intercepted when it wasn’t is projecting, even if only a bit. Still, while it’s not a perfect metric it has its uses. On a macro scale we can look at patterns and on a micro scale of one season we can see who was lucky and who wasn’t. However, it’s equally important to remember correlation is not causation and interceptions can vary wildly from one year to the next.

So, what were Jameis Winston’s numbers last season? Winston threw eleven interceptions last season, including three in the final game of the season. Football Outsiders determined Winston had eight additional interceptions that should have been caught because they either hit defenders in the hands or were knocked away by a receiver, giving him 19 adjusted interceptions. This is fourth-most after Deshone Kizer, Trevor Siemian, Kirk Cousins, and tied with Derek Carr. With 474 pass attempts (removing defensive pass interference plays), Winston’s interception rate was 2.3 percent and his adjusted interception rate was 4.0 percent. That ranks fifth-most among qualifying quarterbacks, behind Trevor Siemian, Carson Palmer, Blaine Gabbert, and Deshone Kizer respectively.

But how lucky or unlucky was Winston last season? We know Matt Ryan was the unluckiest quarterback last season with an NFL-high five interceptions coming off of tipped balls. Winston had none of those. Football Outsiders had this to say:

Quarterbacks typically finish with about three-fourths (77 percent, to be more precise) as many actual interceptions as adjusted interceptions.

This means Winston should have thrown about 14.63 interceptions last season instead of just 11 (-3.63). Luck plays a huge role in many aspects of football, from interceptions, to fumbles, to one-score games in the fourth quarter essentially being coin flips. But this also means while Winston has many detractors who point to his adjusted interceptions as evidence he is terrible, over time all quarterbacks are generally “lucky” when it comes to interceptions being dropped. And if something (like y number of interceptions) should be one thing but is usually something else (actual x number of interceptions), there’s a limit to what this metric can tell us.

With that said, let’s look at Winston’s history of interceptions and adjusted interceptions. We now have three seasons of data:

2015: 530 non-DPI attempts, 15 interceptions - 2.8 percent interception rate. 22 adjusted interceptions (third-most) for a 4.2 percent adjusted interception rate (tied for 4th-most). That means Winston was expected to throw for 17.4 interceptions (-2.4).

2016: 603 non-DPI attempts, 18 interceptions - 3.0 percent interceptions rate. 20 adjusted interceptions (tied for sixth-most) for a 3.3 percent adjusted interception rate (tied for ninth-most). Assuming the 77 percent adjusted-to-actual interception ratio holds for 2016 (possible it varies somewhat from year-to-year as 2015 seems around 86 percent), Winston should have been expected to throw 15.4 interceptions (+2.6).

That’s a lot of information, so let’s simplify it.

2015: 2.8% interception rate - 4.2% adjusted rate. Lucky by 2.4 interceptions.

2016: 3.0% int. rate - 3.3% adj. rate. Unlucky by 2.6 interceptions.

2017: 2.3% int. rate - 4.0% adj. rate. Lucky by 3.63 interceptions.

So, what does this tell us? His adjusted rate has been higher than his real rate every season of his career so far. His real interception rate dropped dramatically last season, but his adjusted interception rate has fluctuated wildly. Even his lowest adjusted rate was high by NFL standards. But he was also likely unlucky that year.

Why does Winston consistently throw so many interceptions? Is he just a terrible quarterback who can’t hold on to the ball? Broken inaccuracy and/or decision-making? Or could it be something else?

Below is a list of the twelve quarterbacks with the highest ten 2017 adjusted interception rates in descending order marked by whether they are in the top 10 in the following categories - highest Average Intended Air Yards (IAY), highest Average Completed Air Yards (CAY), highest Air Yards to the Sticks (AYTS), and in the top 10 in highest Aggressiveness (AG) as per NFL Next Gen Stats:

Trevor Siemian: N/A

Carson Palmer: (IAY) (CAY) (AG)

Blaine Gabbert: (IAY) (AYTS) (AG)

Deshone Kizer: (IAY) (AG)

Jameis Winston: (IAY) (CAY) (AYTS) (AG)

Jay Cutler: N/A

Tom Savage: (IAY) (CAY) (AYTA) (AG)

Deshaun Watson: (IAY) (CAY) (AYTS)

Derek Carr: N/A

Marcus Mariota (t): (CAY)

Brett Hundley (t): N/A

Brian Hoyer (t): N/A

What this tells us is who is risking and throwing interceptions while being aggressive and who is throwing picks while still being somewhat risk averse. I find it fascinating Winston and Savage are the only quarterbacks to rank in the top 10 in all four aggressiveness categories and of the twelve quarterbacks all but five show up in at least one category and six show up in multiple ones. In fact, Winston ranks third in intended air yards, third in completed air yards, seventh in aggressiveness, and third in air yards to the sticks. Savage ranked sixth, eighth, eighth, and seventh. But, Winston’s adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) last season was 6.7 and Savage’s was 4.44. In fact, of all twelve quarterbacks Winston had the second-highest ANY/A behind only the phenom Deshaun Watson who only played a short sample of seven games before tearing his ACL. The quarterbacks that show up on multiple aggressiveness metrics but not on adjusted interception rates are Carson Wentz, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Drew Stanton, though Roethlisberger did show up in the top ten in highest total adjusted interceptions. Of those, Winston is 4th in ANY/A ahead of Wilson and Stanton. Only Wentz and Stanton were in the top ten in all four like Winston and Savage.

Okay, so being aggressive tends to mean you’ll throw more picks. But correlation is not always causation, right? Is being aggressive a bad thing? Most of those quarterbacks are bad quarterbacks, right?

It’s worth noting work done on expected points added and the value of deep passes relative to short passes. In short (no pun intended), deep passes hold much more value and carry far more expected points per attempt than short passes, despite the fact deep passes carry a bigger potential loss. In fact:

Looking at the numbers bears out that this conservative behavior in search of predictable results comes at a very large cost. Teams are sacrificing huge amounts of offensive value every season simply because they hold the incorrect view that the improvement in going from a 1st and 10 to a 2nd and 4 is worth sacrificing the possibility of another 1st and 10 much further down the field. It’s a classic case of chasing consistency at the expense of more volatile, long term value.

Nobody throws for more first downs than Winston and the Bucs have faced the seventh-fewest third downs in the NFL since 2015. You could also say no quarterback’s play in the league is as volatile’s as Winston. It goes on to say...

It’s not surprising that completed passes farther downfield lead to more gained value than completed passes closer to the line of scrimmage. After all, gaining more yards is obviously better.

However, by looking at only completed passes, which in the play-by-play data we’re working with includes interceptions and thus preserves the big downside aspect of deep passes, we can see that deep passes provide disproportionately greater upside to short passes without sacrificing the same disproportionate downside. In fact, a plurality of short passes even leads to a loss in value. Greater than one third of the time that a short pass is completed the offense ends up in a worse position after the completion than they were before the play.

As explained briefly in the intro, the rationale for this strategy is that even a small gain is better than an incomplete pass and no gain, which is an outcome that occurs greater than 50% of the time on deep pass attempts. In other words, a small loss is always better than a slightly bigger loss. What is being overlooked here is that the difference between losses is limited to a small downside, less than 1 Expected Point. On the other hand, the difference between gains has a theoretical limit of just under 14 Expected Points. Placing a bet with a small defined loss and large possible gain is almost never a bad decision.

In a vacuum, the no-brainer decision would be to throw deep on every single offensive play, but of course there are outside conditions in a football game that aren’t present in a vacuum. For one example, on 3rd and short a team stands more to gain from maximizing its odds at a first down rather than chasing Expected Points upside.

The Bucs were fifth in completed deep passes to the left last season, first in completed deep middle passes and tied for third in deep left passes. They also led the league in the number of short passes that gained equal to or more than ten yards. In fact, on first downs...

An overall decrease in EPA/Attempt numbers isn’t the surprising part, as you would expect short passes to suffer due to being farther from the first down line and deep passes to suffer as defenses are more guarded against downfield attempts. What is the surprising part is how much value short passes lose compared to deep passes. At 0.002 EPA/Attempt, attempting a short pass on first down is essentially sacrificing a down. It’s an indication that NFL teams are so risk averse that they would rather sacrifice any hope at creating positive value in order to ensure they don’t suffer a loss in value. Despite the fact that deep passes offer 95 TIMES the value per attempt as short passes do, they are attempted less than one fourth as often. Put another way, 95% of the value of first down passes came from deep attempts yet they only account for 18.8% of the total first down pass attempts. [emphasis added]

Throwing short of the sticks on first down is quite possibly the worst strategic decision out there for NFL teams to make, and yet it was made over 4,000 times last season alone.

The Bucs had the fourth-best passing success rate on first down last season and for much of the season was actually first. This is consistent with Winston’s first two seasons as well. Despite the data, the NFL is throwing quicker and quicker and shorter and shorter, breaking completion percentage records year after year. With Carson Palmer’s retirement, there are fewer and fewer quarterbacks willing to throw deep. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still one of the few that do, and may now be leading a dwindling group of the most vertical offenses in the NFL. As the spread proliferates teams will get better at figuring out how to consistently attack deep, but for now, Winston seems to be the king of aggressiveness. I think it’s interesting the Eagles have used a “college” spread offense to let Wentz be aggressive while still giving him a large amount of open-window throws and it’s something the Bucs should look into copying at least in parts.

In conclusion, while I would readily admit his total turnover numbers are a huge problem, Winston’s interception issues are still overblown to some degree. You could easily argue his fumbling is more of an issue. I suspect the Bucs’ problems in getting to the playoffs largely lie more with a consistently terrible defense (Pass defense has ranked 26th and 31st in two of Winston’s first three seasons) and the efficiency issues in Koetter’s offense (playcalling on first downs and in the red zone) than any real problem with Winston turning the ball over when passing, though he has his share of boneheaded contributions. Dirk Koetter’s aggressive scheme will produce more interceptions than others, especially in this age of the NFL, simply because it is executing riskier pass concepts like Dig downfield into coverage where multiple defenders have opportunities to break on the pass, and doing it far more often. While other teams are playing at a low-risk low-reward game that necessitates long drives down the field the Bucs want to play a high-risk high-reward game that gets down the field in as few plays as possible.

The data above shows being aggressive in the passing game is still worth the downside of losing possession, and actually gives the Bucs an advantage over their opponents. Not only that but Winston is clearly producing the yardage value you would expect him to given the scheme. The real issue is the vertical offense struggles to work horizontally in the compressed space of the red zone and consistently stalls. All of this context is important when evaluating Winston as a passer. However, realism dictates any quarterback who continues to turn it over at the total rate Winston is will eventually be out of a job. If we’re being honest, Winston’s multi-interception games are the problem. While you have to take every game in its own context, in general Winston’s issues aren’t that he throws picks, but that he has too many games with two or three interceptions, or even more. When you combine those with the fumbles, that’s where we get into territory where Winston needs to clean it up. He had one 3+ interception game in 2015, two in 2016, and two in 2017. He’s had four 2+ interception games every season. That’s what he has to cut down on. The Bucs would absolutely live with Winston throwing about one a game because of what else he does for you.

Besides that, Winston’s inconsistent deep accuracy is a problem and major focal point going forward and if it can’t get corrected he may end up stuck as a high-volume low-efficient player that never gets to where Bucs fans need him to go. With that said, I would expect Winston to continue to be in the top 10 in interception rate and adjusted interception rate and at least personally I will continue to not care about it. He will likely have a year or two with an enormous unlucky interception rate but the opposite is also probably true. Despite his interceptions and turnovers the Bucs’ pass offense DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) has gone from 17th, to 12th, to 9th in his three seasons, so the increase in efficiency is there, if only incremental. If Winston and the offense can continue to increase their efficiency in the passing game overall and in the red zone specifically it really won’t matter how many interceptions Winston throws.