The Surprising Utility of QB Touchdown Stats

In the analytics community, using touchdowns to measure player performance is generally looked down upon; touchdowns are great for fantasy football but don’t matter in real football. I agree with this line of thinking for running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends. But I think touchdowns can be a very useful took for evaluating quarterbacks if done in the right context.

I’ll start by saying that using touchdowns to measure single game performance is a terrible idea. If QB A tosses three goal line TD passes while QB B hands off for three scores by his running back, QB A is going to look artificially better even thought both led three scoring drives. If a QB starts several drives in plus territory because his defense or special teams provided him great field position, that makes it easier to score touchdowns than if he’s starting drives backed up against his own endzone. If a receiver takes a screen pass and runs 80 yards for a touchdown, the QB gets credit for a TD even though he did very little to make it happen.

In this game, for example, Kurt Warner had a dominant performance but didn’t register a touchdown because he handed off to Marshall Faulk for a quartet of short TD runs. Conversely, in this game, Steve Young passed for a meager 100 yards but tallied four red zone TD passes. These are extreme examples, but they illustrate how context dependent touchdowns are in a single game.

Why Touchdowns Matter

Despite being a misleading statistic at the game level, QB touchdowns begin to tell a more accurate story at the season level. The contextual randomness starts to even out, and through the noise we find a valuable signal: the ability to lead scoring drives. The literal act of advancing the ball over the goal line isn’t a special skill, but driving one’s offense down the field and scoring is a very real and repeatable skill. There are many important things a QB does to lead scoring drives that don’t show up in traditional passing stats, but these abilities are captured indirectly by TD statistics:

  • Picking up first downs, especially on third down.
  • Scrambling for yardage and/or a first down on a broken play.
  • Calling successful audibles, for example to a run play that picks up good yardage and/or a first down.
  • Changing offensive line protections to give himself more time in the pocket.
  • Drawing defensive penalties such as offsides, too many men on the field, or pass interference.
  • Performing in the red zone, where the field is compressed and it’s harder to find holes in the defense.
  • Distributing passes among his receivers to keep everyone happy and engaged.

Great quarterbacks do these things to give their offense a better chance of reaching the endzone, while bad quarterbacks do things that pad their stats without helping their team:

  • Completing passes short of the sticks on third down; good for completion % and passer rating but kills the drive.
  • Moving the ball in minus territory where the defense plays softer coverage, but floundering as the field compresses closer to the goal line.
  • In the two minute drill or garbage time, gobbling up yardage against prevent defense without really threatening to score.
  • Taking delay of game penalties or burning valuable timeouts because he can’t manage the play clock effectively.
$1.2 million per touchdown. Suck it, haters!

In 2016 Sam Bradford completed a then record 71.6% of his attempts, was intercepted on only 0.9% of his passes, and registered a 99.3 passer rating, good for sixth in the NFL. But despite these pretty stats, Bradford tallied only 20 touchdowns on 609 plays, a net of 4.5 touchdowns fewer than expected for an average QB over the same number of plays. He threw a ton of safe passes to boost his efficiency numbers, but failed to make the necessary plays to drive his offense into the endzone. Predictably, Bradford’s Vikings missed the playoffs.

R-E-L-A-X, I got this.

In 2016 Aaron Rodgers completed 65.7% of his passes at 7.3 yards per attempt, nothing special in today’s high octane passing environment. But he scored 43 touchdowns (40 passing, 3 rushing) on 712 plays, good for 14.4 scores above expectation. Despite it being ugly at times, Rodgers did all the little things necessary to drag his offense to paydirt, and it paid off with an appearance in the NFC championship game.


Measuring Quarterback Touchdowns

To measure a quarterback’s touchdown production, I created a metric called Marginal Total Touchdowns (mTTD):

mTTD = ((Pass TD + Rush TD) / (Pass Att + Rush Att + Sack) – (Lg Pass TD + Lg Rush TD) / (Lg Pass Att + Lg Rush Att + Lg Sack)) x (Pass Att + Rush Att + Sack)

mTTD = ((Total QB TD / QB Plays) – (Lg Total QB TD / Lg QB Plays)) x QB Plays

In English, mTTD is the number of touchdowns a QB scores above what’s expected from an average QB in a given season. I calculated mTTD back to 1950 (including the AFL), and every season is prorated to 16 games. Here are the top 100 seasons:

Peyton Manning2004IND535490499.2%4.0%27.4
Tom Brady2007NWE636502528.2%3.9%27.3
Peyton Manning2013DEN709551567.9%4.1%27.2
Dan Marino1984MIA605480487.9%3.9%24.4
Aaron Rodgers2011GNB598453488.0%4.0%24.0
Patrick Mahomes2018KAN666502527.8%4.3%23.1
Steve Young1994SFO550357427.6%3.6%22.1
Kurt Warner1999STL551411427.6%3.7%21.9
George Blanda1961AHOU379360369.5%4.9%20.0
Dan Marino1986MIA652440446.7%3.7%19.9
Y.A. Tittle1963NYG409362389.3%5.0%19.9
Drew Brees2011NOR702461476.7%4.0%18.8
Daunte Culpepper2000MIN597337406.7%3.6%18.6
Brett Favre1996GNB632392416.5%3.6%18.2
Johnny Unitas1959BAL419322348.1%4.9%18.2
Y.A. Tittle1953SFO301206268.6%4.3%17.6
Ken Stabler1976OAK317271288.8%4.0%17.5
Steve Young1998SFO635366426.6%3.9%17.4
Daryle Lamonica1969AOAK450341357.8%4.4%17.3
Brett Favre1995GNB642383416.4%3.7%17.0
Steve Grogan1976NWE3801812307.9%4.0%17.0
Cam Newton2015CAR6603510456.8%4.3%16.9
Randall Cunningham1998MIN477341357.3%3.9%16.5
Ken Stabler1974OAK340261277.9%3.7%16.4
Jim Kelly1991BUF525331346.5%3.4%16.4
Y.A. Tittle1962NYG404332358.7%5.2%16.0
Aaron Rodgers2014GNB591382406.8%4.1%15.7
Tony Romo2007DAL575362386.6%3.9%15.6
Drew Brees2012NOR711431446.2%4.0%15.6
Jeff Garcia2001SFO602325376.1%3.6%15.3
Ben Roethlisberger2007PIT486322347.0%3.9%15.1
Tom Brady2010NWE548361376.8%4.0%15.1
Len Dawson1962ADTX387293328.3%4.9%14.8
Aaron Rodgers2012GNB657392416.2%4.0%14.8
Drew Brees2009NOR556342366.5%3.9%14.6
Philip Rivers2008SDG534340346.4%3.6%14.6
Tom Brady2011NWE686393426.1%4.0%14.5
Brett Favre1997GNB596351366.0%3.6%14.4
Aaron Rodgers2016GNB712403436.0%4.0%14.4
Steve Beuerlein1999CAR648362385.9%3.7%14.3
Mark Rypien1991WAS443281296.5%3.4%14.1
Kurt Warner2001STL612360365.9%3.6%14.0
Andrew Luck2014IND707403436.1%4.1%13.9
Tony Romo2014DAL490340346.9%4.1%13.9
Joe Montana1987SFO455311327.0%4.2%13.7
Nick Foles2013PHI402273307.5%4.1%13.7
Matt Ryan2016ATL606380386.3%4.0%13.6
Terry Bradshaw1978PIT421281296.9%3.7%13.6
Daryle Lamonica1967AOAK484304347.0%4.6%13.6
Daunte Culpepper2004MIN682392416.0%4.0%13.5
Peyton Manning2006IND594314355.9%3.6%13.5
Norm Van Brocklin1957RAM289204248.3%4.9%13.2
Adrian Burk1954PHI269230238.6%4.9%13.2
Lynn Dickey1983GNB545323356.4%4.0%13.1
Joe Ferguson1975BUF364251267.1%4.0%13.0
Brett Favre2003GNB508320326.3%3.8%13.0
Dave Krieg1984SEA566323356.2%3.9%12.9
Steve Young1993SFO562292315.5%3.2%12.8
Peyton Manning2014DEN638390396.1%4.1%12.8
Carson Palmer2005CIN562321335.9%3.6%12.8
Roger Staubach1973DAL375233266.9%4.0%12.7
Len Dawson1964AKAN432302327.4%4.8%12.7
Vinny Testaverde1996BAL617332355.7%3.6%12.7
Drew Brees2013NOR722393425.8%4.1%12.7
Terry Bradshaw1982PIT266170176.4%3.7%12.6
Vince Ferragamo1980RAM442301317.0%4.2%12.5
Brett Favre2001GNB570321335.8%3.6%12.5
Norm Van Brocklin1960PHI307240247.8%4.8%12.4
Peyton Manning2007IND556313346.1%3.9%12.4
Greg Landry1972DET374189277.2%4.3%12.3
Don Meredith1966DAL419245296.9%4.4%12.2
Kordell Stewart1997PIT5482111325.8%3.6%12.2
Donovan McNabb2004PHI542313346.3%4.0%12.2
Matthew Stafford2011DET721410415.7%4.0%12.1
John Hadl1973RAM289220227.6%4.0%12.1
Vinny Testaverde1998NYJ464291306.5%3.9%12.0
Peyton Manning2012DEN627370375.9%4.0%12.0
Roman Gabriel1967RAM438256317.1%4.7%12.0
Carson Wentz2017PHI532330336.2%4.0%11.9
George Ratterman1950NYY326223257.7%4.9%11.9
John Brodie1970SFO395242266.6%3.9%11.9
Boomer Esiason1988CIN461281296.3%3.7%11.8
Drew Brees2018NOR537323356.5%4.3%11.7
Scott Mitchell1995DET650324365.5%3.7%11.7
Steve Young1992SFO507254295.7%3.5%11.5
Peyton Manning2000IND628331345.4%3.6%11.5
Milt Plum1960CLE301212237.6%4.8%11.4
Jeff Garcia2000SFO657314355.3%3.6%11.4
Frank Ryan1963CLE338252278.0%5.0%11.4
Brett Favre1994GNB655332355.3%3.6%11.4
Russell Wilson2018SEA545350356.4%4.3%11.3
Earl Morrall1968BAL352261277.7%4.9%11.3
Len Dawson1966AKAN331260267.9%4.9%11.3
Joe Montana1989SFO468263296.2%3.8%11.3
Fran Tarkenton1967NYG450292316.9%4.7%11.3
Chris Chandler1998ATL408252276.6%3.9%11.2
Otto Graham1955CLE283156217.4%4.5%11.2
John Brodie1965SFO420301317.4%5.1%11.2
Steve Bartkowski1980ATL523312336.3%4.2%11.1
Bert Jones1976BAL410242266.3%4.0%11.0
White Cam Newton.

Despite ignoring completions, yards, interceptions, fumbles, and win/loss record, mTTD spits out a very credible list of the best QB seasons of all time. The only top seasons that don’t really belong are Steve Young’s 1998, Daryle Lamonica’s 1969, and Steve Grogan’s 1976, but perhaps those campaigns are underrated by ANY/A or TAY/P value. Grogan did score 12 rushing TD’s in 1976!

Peyton Manning is the leader in top 100 seasons with seven, followed by Brett Favre with six, Drew Brees with five, Aaron Rodgers and Steve Young with four, and Len Dawson, Tom Brady, and Y.A. Tittle with three apiece.

Now the worst 100 seasons since 1950:

Blake Bortles2014JAX586110111.9%4.1%-13.1
Jim Ninowski1960DET3502572.0%4.8%-13.0
Karl Sweetan1966DET3674151.4%4.4%-12.6
Drew Bledsoe1995NWE679130131.9%3.7%-12.4
Trent Dilfer1995TAM4854261.2%3.7%-12.1
Mike Phipps1975CLE3594041.1%4.0%-11.9
John Hadl1975GNB4086061.5%4.0%-11.9
Jimmy Clausen2010CAR3553030.8%4.0%-11.2
Jim Plunkett1972NWE4308192.1%4.3%-11.0
Lamar McHan1954CRD3116172.3%4.9%-10.9
Bobby Hoying1998PHI2810000.0%3.9%-10.9
Y.A. Tittle1950BAL36982102.7%4.9%-10.8
Sam Bradford2011STL4116061.5%4.0%-10.5
Dan Pastorini1973HOU3515051.4%4.0%-10.2
Archie Manning1975NOR4207181.9%4.0%-10.2
Chad Henne2013JAX568130132.3%4.1%-10.1
Roman Gabriel1966RAM497103132.6%4.4%-10.0
David Carr2002HOU57993122.1%3.8%-9.9
Chuck Ortmann1951PIT2233031.3%4.7%-9.8
Norm Snead1961WAS455113143.1%5.0%-9.8
Ralph Guglielmi1960WAS3429092.6%4.8%-9.8
Jon Kitna2001CIN633121132.1%3.6%-9.8
Cotton Davidson1962AOAK37873102.6%4.9%-9.8
George Blanda1964AHOU529170173.2%4.8%-9.8
Carson Wentz2016PHI686162182.6%4.0%-9.6
Mickey Slaughter1964ADEN2343031.3%4.8%-9.5
Joe Geri1950PIT3066282.6%4.9%-9.4
Ryan Leaf1998SDG2942020.7%3.9%-9.4
Akili Smith2000CIN3443030.9%3.6%-9.3
Derek Carr2018OAK628171182.9%4.3%-9.3
Bill Nelsen1965PIT3388192.7%5.1%-9.2
Andrew Walter2006OAK3363030.9%3.6%-9.2
Frank Tripucka1961ADEN368100102.7%4.9%-9.1
Kordell Stewart1998PIT572112132.3%3.9%-9.1
Josh Rosen2018ARI461110112.4%4.3%-9.0
Steve Dils1983MIN497110112.2%4.0%-8.9
Tony Banks1998STL48973102.0%3.9%-8.9
Gary Hogeboom1984DAL4087071.7%3.9%-8.9
Brandon Weeden2012CLE572140142.4%4.0%-8.8
Scott Brunner1983NYG4439092.0%4.0%-8.8
Jeff George1991IND557100101.8%3.4%-8.7
Ryan Tannehill2012MIA568122142.5%4.0%-8.7
Dan Darragh1968ABUF2503031.2%4.2%-8.7
Chuck Long1987DET455110112.4%4.2%-8.7
Warren Moon1984HOU555121132.3%3.9%-8.6
Joe Kapp1970BOS2663031.1%3.9%-8.5
JaMarcus Russell2009OAK2973031.0%3.9%-8.4
Jim Harbaugh1999SDG505100102.0%3.7%-8.4
Roman Gabriel1963RAM36483113.0%5.0%-8.4
Tobin Rote1950GNB2707072.6%4.9%-8.4
Dick Wood1966AMIA2534152.0%4.9%-8.4
Joey Harrington2007ATL3947071.8%3.9%-8.3
Ken O'Brien1991NYJ545100101.8%3.4%-8.3
Colt McCoy2011CLE556140142.5%4.0%-8.3
Dan Pastorini1972HOU3747292.4%4.3%-8.3
Ken O'Brien1989NYJ536120122.2%3.8%-8.3
Kyle Boller2004BAL552131142.5%4.0%-8.2
Steve Pelluer1986DAL4668191.9%3.7%-8.2
Steve Spurrier1976TAM3557072.0%4.0%-8.2
Browning Nagle1992NYJ4387071.6%3.5%-8.2
Bernie Kosar1990CLE470100102.1%3.9%-8.1
Blaine Gabbert2011JAX501120122.4%4.0%-8.1
Case Keenum2018DEN646182203.1%4.3%-8.0
Matt Ryan2015ATL681210213.1%4.3%-8.0
Brad Johnson2006MIN49791102.0%3.6%-8.0
Jack Trudeau1986IND4598192.0%3.7%-8.0
Brian Hoyer2014CLE486120122.5%4.1%-8.0
Joe Flacco2013BAL689191202.9%4.1%-8.0
Ken Stabler1980HOU499130132.6%4.2%-7.9
Bart Starr1958GNB2003142.0%4.9%-7.8
Johnny Unitas1961BAL500162183.6%5.0%-7.8
Mark Malone1987PIT3886392.3%4.2%-7.8
David Klingler1993CIN4246061.4%3.2%-7.7
David Carr2004HOU588160162.7%4.0%-7.7
Nick Foles2015STL3687182.2%4.3%-7.7
Gary Cuozzo1967NOR3127182.6%4.7%-7.6
Trent Dilfer1996TAM542120122.2%3.6%-7.6
Matthew Stafford2012DET791204243.0%4.0%-7.6
Robert Griffin2013WAS580160162.8%4.1%-7.5
Donovan McNabb2010WAS538140142.6%4.0%-7.5
Jason Campbell2008WAS591131142.4%3.6%-7.5
Ryan Lindley2012ARI1870000.0%4.0%-7.5
Brady Quinn2012KAN2372020.8%4.0%-7.5
Rodney Peete1995PHI4408192.0%3.7%-7.5
Vince Young2007TEN50093122.4%3.9%-7.5
Kerry Collins2003NYG545130132.4%3.8%-7.4
DeShone Kizer2017CLE591115162.7%4.0%-7.4
Drew Bledsoe2003BUF544112132.4%3.8%-7.4
Jim Everett1991RAM547110112.0%3.4%-7.4
Matt Hasselbeck2001SEA3997071.8%3.6%-7.4
Blake Bortles2018JAX492131142.8%4.3%-7.4
Ken O'Brien1987NYJ473130132.7%4.2%-7.3
Mark Sanchez2012NYJ509130132.6%4.0%-7.3
Derek Anderson2010ARI3577072.0%4.0%-7.3
Craig Morton1975NYG432110112.5%4.0%-7.3
Norm Snead1963WAS423132153.5%5.0%-7.2
Chad Henne2010MIA555150152.7%4.0%-7.2
Ken Anderson1980CIN3156061.9%4.2%-7.2
Joe Flacco2016BAL726202223.0%4.0%-7.2
Paul McDonald1984CLE568141152.6%3.9%-7.2
So many throws, so few touchdowns.

As with all value based metrics, mTTD struggles to accurately classify the very worst seasons of all time. It’s really measuring the worst seasons by quarterbacks who were just good enough (or drafted high enough) to get a decent amount of playing time. The actual most pitiful seasons were authored by QB’s like Kim McQuilken and Todd Collins who were mercifully benched before inflicting too much damage on their teams. And while using a touchdowns-only metric works well for the best seasons since turnovers tend to be minimal anyway, it fails to capture the true awfulness of QB’s who routinely give the ball to the other team.

The only QB’s with multiple appearances in the bottom 100 are Ken O’Brien with three (surprising), and Blake Bortles, Chad Henne, Dan Pastorini, David Carr, Drew Bledsoe, Joe Flacco, Norm Snead, Roman Gabriel, and Trent Dilfer with a pair each.

Which seasons do you think are underrated or overrated in these lists? In my next post I will unveil the career rankings by mTTD, so stay tuned!