NFL

Analytics explain why Texans need to reconcile with QB Deshaun Watson immediately

Where there is smoke, there is fire. And Houston Texans’ first-year general manager Nick Caserio should be doing everything possible to put out the flames when it comes to trading superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson or allowing him to sit out the upcoming season.

According to Peter King and his weekly Football Morning in America, Caserio is ignoring any calls about Watson, despite the Carolina Panthers clearing nearly $20 million dollars in cap space to make a serious run at trading for Watson.

That rumored trade would likely include perennial Pro Bowl running back Christian McCaffrey.

Caserio should continue let the phone calls go to voicemail and do what is necessary to reconcile the team’s relationship with their star quarterback despite other NFL clubs putting together trade packages that include everything and the kitchen sink.

Watson is, without a doubt, the definition of a franchise quarterback. And those do not come along very often. Letting him sit the season out or, worse, trading him would, effectively, be ending Caserio’s career with the Texans before it even has a chance to start.

In fact, a deep dive into the advanced analytics showcases just how uniquely special Watson is.

Let us first look down at third-down aggressiveness. In this case, third down aggressiveness percentage is the amount of third-down passing attempts wherein the air yards either equaled, or surpassed, the required yardage for the first down. In football analytics, air yards are the distance that the ball travels, in the air, from the line of scrimmage to the point of reception. It is considered a true representation of a quarterback’s impact as yards after catch, a distinctive wide receiver statistic, are not considered.

In thirddown passing situations, Watson was the eighth-most aggressive quarterback in the league during the 2020 season. He attempted a pass at, or past, the first-down markers on 60.4% of his third down passing attempts. That puts him in the company of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Ryan Tannehill, and Patrick Mahomes. That is quarterbacking company that is elite.

Looking at air yards via third-down aggressiveness is one thing. Looking at air yards across all pass attempts is another. And it highlight just how special Watson is. His intended air yards — meaning, the averaged air yards for both complete and incomplete attempts — is 9.06 yards. The NFL average? Just 7.88 yards. Watson’s completed passes traveled an average of 7.67 air yards, while the NFL averaged 6.15.

That means Watson’s completed passes are traveling through the air 1.5-yards further than the league average and that does not even include the yards after catch. However, air yardage is just one piece of the equation when exploring a quarterback via advanced analytics.

Another way to do so is by looking at a quarterback’s completion percentage over expected versus his expected points added per play. This, of course, requires a bit of explaining.

Completion percentage over expected (CPOE) is an estimate used to gauge the likelihood that any one given pass is completed, using an average of all the expected percentages after subtracting the actual completion percentage. As seen in the graph below, Watson is completing approximately 6.5% of his passes over expected. That number is second best in the NFL, trailing only Rodgers.

On the other side of the plot is expected points added (EPA) per play. The EPA metric takes into consideration that not all yards are created equal. For example, a 3-yard pass on first-and-10 is way less valuable than a 3-yard pass on third-and-1. Moreover, EPA is calculated by determining how likely a score is on any given play taking into consideration variables such as field position, down, yardage to go, and more. For example, a Watson rushing touchdown from the defense’s goal line is going to result in a very low EPA as the model predicts a touchdown in that situation. On the other hand, if Watson breaks off a 50-yard touchdown run from midfield, his EPA will increase drastically as the odds of scoring from that specific situation are low.

Plotting Watson’s CPOE against his EPA per play highlights how exceptional of a player he his. His completion percentage over expected, as mentioned, is second-best in the league only to Rodgers. Watson’s EPA per play of plus-0.228 is seventh-best in the NFL among quarterbacks. Even just a slight increase in EPA per play results in Watson becoming the second-best quarterback in the league, with his advanced analytics outpacing even Mahomes and Brady.

Lastly, examining the “deep ball” game in the NFL showcases that Watson is one of the premier deep passers in the league based on overall accuracy. Using data from Pro Football Focus, a deep ball is considered a pass attempt that travels 20 or more yards downfield. To gauge a quarterback’s accuracy in those situations, a simple formula is conducted on PFF’s end to incorporate where a QB was aiming as well as wide receiver drops.

Of quarterbacks with no less than fifty deep attempts, Watson is the third-most accurate in the league, with a deep accuracy percentage of just over 50-percent. As well, Watson had the third-most deep passing yards in the league (1,094), trailing only Brady (1,233) and Rodgers (1,242). His 11 touchdowns on passes of 20 or more yards is also good for a top-five finish in the league, only two short of the league-leading Russell Wilson’s 13.

It is no secret: Watson is a superstar. He is everything you want a long-term franchise quarterback. However, a dive into the analytics shows just how talented the 25-year-old signal caller is. Based on the analytics used in this article, Watson is keeping pacing, or surpassing, those considered to be quarterbacking elite in the NFL – Rodgers, Brady, Mahomes, and Wilson.

Letting that kind of talent sit the season out, or trading it away, would be an absolutely disastrous and embarrassing start to Caserio’s career with the Texans. Watson is not a “we will replace him via the draft” kind of player. He is not a “fine him $620,000 for every regular season game he sits out” kind of player.

He is a “find a way to immediately fix the relationship” type of player — because players like him do not come around often.

Congelio is Assistant Professor of Sport Analytics at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached via Twitter (@BradCongelio) or e-mail (Congelio@kutztown.edu).


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