Not all yards are created equally.
If you've spent any time learning about some of the methods and core principles behind the work Aaron Schatz and the guys over at Football Outsiders do, you know how important that statement is. Context matters immensely when trying to make sense of NFL stats. A three-yard run that picks up a first down on third and two is clearly better than one that comes on a draw play on third and 15. That same run is more impressive still against a top flight run defense like the Cardinals as opposed to a poor one like the Chargers.
This brings us to the topic covered today by Scott Kacsmar over at FO: failed completions. A failed completion is simply any completed pass that fails to meet FO's standards for a successful play – which are detailed in the article. There are a few instances in which a failed completion can actually be a good thing, such as when the completion results in moving the team within field goal range when it would have otherwise been forced to punt. But most of the time these aren't plays that are helping your football team pick up first downs or get into the endzone.
Many fans have criticized Colin Kaepernick for refusing to check down, instead looking downfield for the big play when there appeared to be an open receiver underneath right in front of him. Looking that those situations through the eyes of failed completions puts Kaepernick's decision making in those situations in a bit of a different light.
Among quarterbacks that completed at least 150 passes last season, Kaepernick had the fifth lowest rate of failed completions (20.6 percent), tallying 50 of them in his 243 completions. Essentially, this means that four out of five completions were picking up meaningful yardage and keeping the 49ers on track towards picking up a new set of downs. Looking at the list as a whole, it mostly passes the eyeball test. Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers all fall in the top 10, while the likes of Chad Henne, Matt Schaub and Mike Glennon populate the bottom of the list. There are a few oddities, but most players fall about in the range you would expect them to based on their performance last season.
Not only did Kaepernick have one of the lowest failed completion rates in the league, but he also posted the top marks in both DYAR and DVOA – two of FO's core opponent-adjusted metrics, which you can read more about here – among the 30 qualifying signal callers. This would seem to indicate that Kaepernick's failed completions were less of a failure than the rest of his peers.
The one damning piece of data for Kaepernick that was put out in the article was the percentage of failed completions that came on third or fourth down. Of those 50 failed completions, exactly half of them were thrown on the most crucial of downs, the worst rate in the league. You would think that if there is any time to forego the underneath option to look down the field, it would be on third or fourth down when you may not get another opportunity to move the chains. I would be very curious to see how many of Kaepernick's failed completions here were of the "good" variety – plays that put the team in field goal range, setup a shorter field goal or possibly put the team in position to go for it on fourth down. I may actually go back and watch those plays in order to get a more complete picture of the situation and then report back to you.
Regardless, Kacsmar presents some interesting data that offers a different perspective on a topic that has been a point of contention among fans. Failed completions, or any single metric for that matter, doesn't paint the complete picture of a player. But it's another piece of useful information that can help us better understand what we do know about the player leading our offense.