Tuesday October 13th, 2015

On Oct. 8, on the opening drive of the Colts’ 27–20 win over the Texans, Houston quarterback Ryan Mallett dropped back and fired a near-perfect spiral into the hands of running back Arian Foster. But instead of grasping the pass, Foster deflected the ball, which came to rest in the arms of Indianapolis safety Mike Adams. Interception.

Fact: The turnover was Foster’s fault, not Mallett’s. So why does it count as a negative statistic against Mallett? Likewise, why should NFL interceptions leader Matthew Stafford suffer the indignity of being picked apart on sports-talk radio when, for example, two of the Lions QB’s three INTs in a 42–17 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday were not his fault. Like an error in baseball, an interception should be attributed to the guiltiest culprit, not the man who happened to throw the ball.

Classifying interceptions in this manner would go miles toward changing people’s perceptions of quarterbacks. Tipped passes are not the only contributors to misleading interception statistics. If you were to watch film of all 400-plus picks thrown over an entire NFL season, you would find that barely half were the explicit fault of the quarterback. The rest can be traced to, among other things, poorly run receiver routes, miscommunication between players (good luck assigning blame without knowing the play call), blocking blunders that affect a quarterback either directly (he’s hit upon release) or indirectly (pressure forces a mechanically unsound throw), or situational circumstances. It’s vastly different if a QB is picked off on first-and-10 when his team is holding a lead than if he throws an interception on a Hail Mary or a desperate heave on third-and-long when trailing by multiple scores.

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Then there’s this: great defensive plays, which happen regularly in a league featuring the world’s best-prepared and most-gifted athletes. Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson’s interception of the PackersAaron Rodgers on Sunday? Johnson simply made a brilliant diving catch on a quick pass in one-on-one coverage.

Of the interceptions that can accurately be pinned on a QB, most stem from imprecise throws. But often those picks are presumed to result from bad decisions, which are far less common than football analysts might have you believe. Though announcers and fans frequently suggest that an intercepted QB “stared down his receiver,” this doesn’t occur nearly as often as is suggested. 

Staring down a receiver isn’t even necessarily a terrible thing. For starters, a quarterback needs to look where he’s throwing; he’s not a point guard dishing a no-look pass. And if he’s working against man coverage, it usually doesn’t matter where his eyes go; the defender is typically focused on his receiver anyway. Only against certain zone schemes is a stare-down problematic. This is most evident on deep balls downfield, which often require the QB to influence the safety, steering him one way or another using his eyes. If the quarterback gets antsy and looks to his target too early, he’ll lead the safety to the ball. 

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But announcers rarely talk about staring down on these deep shots. Generally, that bromide is reserved for intermediate passes, where throws happen more quickly. And stare-downs aren’t even the cause of most intermediate interceptions. A good number of those passes come off three-step drop‑backs. With this quick timing, at such an early stage in a play, defenders are stationed where their coverage scheme puts them; their presence in a passing lane is largely a product of design. Much of the passing game is a function not of a receiver and quarterback beating a defender, but rather of an offensive design beating a defensive plan. When a certain route inherently defeats a particular coverage, it usually doesn’t matter if the quarterback stares down his receiver or not.

Are there instances when a quick-dropping quarterback looks at his target immediately and guides an underneath defender toward the ball? Of course. Just like there are instances when the offensive design beats the coverage but a defender makes a heroic play anyway. In these scenarios, an offensive coach might tell his QB to be a half-beat more patient with his eyes.

More emphatic, though, is the defensive coach telling his guy, Hey, great play!

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