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According to the Data: Breaking Down Quarterback Red-Zone Attempts

Jonathan Bales

Jonathan Bales

Jonathan Bales is the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series. In addition to RotoWire, Jonathan also provides content to the New York Times, Dallas Morning News, DallasCowboys.com, and NBC.

Breaking Down Quarterback Red-Zone Attempts

The quarterbacks who lead the league in red-zone passing attempts are Drew Brees (54), Tom Brady (52), and Aaron Rodgers (50). Shocked? Me neither. There's a pretty strong correlation between the quality of an offense - often led by a premier quarterback - and the number of times they reach the red zone.

A stat that is perhaps a bit flukier, however, is the percentage of red zone passing attempts that come inside the 10-yard line. Is there any good reason Brees has thrown 55.6 percent of his red-zone passes inside the 10-yard line, but Rodgers' rate is just 32.0 percent? Both teams rely heavily on the pass, and it's unlikely the Saints are much more likely to get inside the 10-yard line than the Packers.

In using RotoWire's red-zone data, I researched the percentage of red zone passes for the league's top-20 fantasy quarterbacks that have come inside the opponent's 10-yard line.

Aaron Rodgers: 32.0
Drew Brees: 55.6
Robert Griffin III: 47.1
Matt Ryan: 38.3
Peyton Manning: 52.4
Tom Brady: 48.1
Andrew Luck: 34.1
Michael Vick: 37.5
Carson Palmer: 34.7
Ben Roethlisberger: 59.1
Cam Newton: 53.1
Matthew Stafford: 52.1
Andy Dalton: 44.4
Josh Freeman: 36.1
Eli Manning: 52.3
Tony Romo: 28.6
Ryan Fitzpatrick: 25.6
Russell Wilson: 21.6
Christian Ponder: 40.0
Joe Flacco: 13.3

In terms of future red-zone passing success, a lower number is generally better here. After all, we'd expect the rate of possessions inside the 20-yard line to be correlated fairly heavily with those inside the 10-yard line. When a certain team (or player) has a disproportionately low number of possessions (or attempts) inside the 10-yard line, it may be a sign that's something is off - and thus likely to regress toward the mean.

Now, there are certainly other factors at play that could potentially influence a quarterback's red-zone passing rate, specifically inside the 10. In that range, the field shrinks, and teams become more likely to run the ball, especially on early downs. Certain teams - the Panthers and Redskins, for example - are far more likely to run the ball than others - say, the Saints and Packers. The Redskins' 41.5 percent pass rate inside the opponent's 10-yard line pales in comparison to the Saints' 73.2 percent rate. The league-wide pass rate, by the way, is 49.8 percent inside the 10 and 52.6 percent inside the entire red zone. Nonetheless, I still think there's something to be gathered from the data.

All of this is important because, although quarterbacks have less room with which to work inside the opponent's 10-yard line, they're still more likely to throw a score than when they're stationed elsewhere in the red zone. Actually, 32.2 percent of all passes inside the 10-yard line have been for touchdowns; that number drops to 18.3 percent from the opponent's 11 to 20-yard line.
Specifically, we want to identify the quarterbacks who have abnormally low or high rates of passes inside the 10-yard line relative to their team's specific run-pass balance in the red zone. The Cowboys, for example, have passed the ball on 62.1 percent of their plays inside the opponent's 10-yard line, yet only 28.6 percent of Romo's red-zone throws have come in that area. While the Cowboys' offense has been anemic this year, I don't think there's a good reason to believe they - or any other team - are far less likely to reach the 10-yard line once they've entered the red zone than any other team.

Looking at each quarterback's rate of red-zone passes inside the 10-yard line and comparing that percentage to his team's particular run-pass ratio, we find the following outliers:

Abnormally-low percentage of throws inside 10-yard line

Aaron Rodgers 32.0
Matt Ryan 38.3
Andrew Luck: 34.1
Tony Romo: 28.6
Ryan Fitzpatrick: 25.6
Russell Wilson: 21.6
Joe Flacco: 13.3

Thus, these quarterbacks have been slightly unlucky in their red-zone passing distribution through the first half of the season. Yes, it's scary to think that Rodgers - who has 25 passing touchdowns—has been "unlucky." And how about Flacco? Even though the Ravens have run the ball on 58.3 percent of plays inside the 10-yard line, the fact that only 13.3 percent of his red-zone passes have come inside that range is unusual.

Using the same sort of methodology, we can figure out which quarterbacks are likely to regress in regards to passing attempts inside the 10-yard line:

Drew Brees: 55.6
Peyton Manning: 52.4
Ben Roethlisberger: 59.1
Cam Newton: 53.1
Matthew Stafford: 52.1
Eli Manning: 52.3

That's not to say you should bench any of these players, but rather that most will probably see at least slightly fewer red-zone attempts moving forward.