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NY Jets: Where Have All The Touchdowns Gone?

The mystery of the vanishing scores.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

A few months ago I wrote an article regarding what statistics of Ryan Fitzpatrick were most likely to regress, if any, in 2016.  It was no extraordinary analysis or incredible insight.  Basically it simply analyzed Fitzpatrick's 2015 statistics and compared them to what he's done throughout his career since he hooked up with Chan Gailey in 2009.  The premise was very simple, and should have been fairly uncontroversial (though it turned out not to be  without controversy):  when we have a long career's worth of statistics with which to establish a baseline of normalcy for any player, any year we see specific statistics far outside the historical norm we should expect regression to the mean in future time frames.  It isn't rocket science.  A player is great in a particular statistical category year after year his entire career.  Then one year he isn't.  Which is more likely: that the large body of evidence is the "true" nature of the player, or that the one outlier year is?  The answer should be obvious; though we cannot absolutely rule out a sudden change in abilities, the better bet by far is that the player will return to within the range of his statistical norms.

In Fitzpatrick's case the article made two specific predictions, based on two 2015 Fitzpatrick statistics that were outside the range of his statistical norms.  First, the article predicted 2016 would see a spike in Fitzpatrick's interception %, based on the fact that he had a 2015 interception % well below anything he had ever achieved in any years other than 2015 and 2014.   Second the article predicted Fitzpatrick would suffer a major regression in his sack %, based on the fact that 2015 saw him post a sack % far below any other year of his career.

As it turns out Fitzpatrick's interception % has indeed risen, from 2.7 in 2015 to 4.3 in 2016.  And his sack % has indeed risen, from an NFL best and by far a career best 3.3% in 2015 to 5.4% in 2016, which is almost precisely in line with his career average.

I bring these things up not to toot my own horn, though I'm certain it will be viewed that way by some, but rather to point out the fairly powerful statistical effect of regression to the mean.  If a player has always been at a certain level and he suddenly is far better or far worse, then it is rather likely that this represents a statistical anomaly, random fluctuation, just plain bad luck, and not some new paradigm for the player.

That brings us to 2016 and Ryan Fitzpatrick's puzzling inability to get the ball in the end zone.  I know there is this narrative floating around that this is just who Fitzpatrick is, that 2015 was some kind of fluke, a result of a favorable schedule and just plain good luck. But a close examination of Fitzpatrick's statistics belies that notion.  Yes, Fitzpatrick has always been turnover prone.  Yes he has always struggled reading defenses.  But his one saving grace as a quarterback, love him or hate him, was Ryan Fitzpatrick got the ball into the end zone.

Since 2009 Ryan Fitzpatrick has never had a touchdown % less than 4.0, and he has averaged a touchdown % of 4.73 over the seven years from 2009 through 2015.  That is better than the NFL average over that time frame.  In 2015 Fitzpatrick posted a career high touchdown % of 5.5%, slightly better than his 2014 mark of 5.4%.  It is no coincidence that in 2014 Fitzpatrick was throwing to Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, and in 2015 he was throwing to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. The top receivers, the best Fitzpatrick ever worked with, clearly helped produce a bump in his touchdown %.  However, even when Fitzpatrick had far inferior targets to work with he consistently stuck the ball in the end zone at a fairly high rate, ranging from 4.0% in his worst year to 5.2% in his best year prior to 2014.

Then 2016 happened.  In 2016 Ryan Fitzpatrick has a dismal 2.7% touchdown %.  That mark is good for 30th in the NFL.  A quarterback who from 2009 through 2015 was mostly well above league average in touchdown % and never finished worse than 96% of league average in the category is suddenly scraping the bottom of league rankings at just 81% of league average in this category.  What the heck is going on?  Where have all the touchdowns gone?

The first inclination might be to blame the better pass defenses Fitzpatrick has faced in 2016.  Certainly the defenses have been better than the ones he faced in 2015. However, despite preseason projections of a murderer's row of pass defenses the Jets would be facing, in fact the slate of defenses the Jets have faced in the first nine games has been almost exactly average.  The Jets have faced three top 10 pass defenses in terms of passer rating allowed in Arizona, Seattle and Kansas City. They have also faced two bottom 10 pass defenses in Cincinnati and Cleveland.  In the aggregate the Jets have faced pass defenses yielding a passer rating of 88.8, compared to the league average of 89.2.  Here is a chart of all the pass defenses the Jets have faced thus far in 2016.









































The Jets have faced an essentially average slate of pass defenses so far in 2016. This is certainly better than the slate of pass defenses the Jets faced in their 2015 schedule, so it explains some regression, but it is not any better than the defenses Fitzpatrick faced over the course of his Bills years, when he was consistently far better at getting the ball into the end zone.  So pass defenses don't really go very far in explaining the huge drop off.  What else might explain it?

There is an obvious difference in the Jets offense from a year ago, and his name is Eric Decker. Decker is an excellent receiver with a knack for finding the red zone, so his loss certainly would help explain a drop in touchdown % from 2015.  However, the emergence of Quincy Enunwa goes part of the way towards  mitigating the loss of Decker.  In addition, no matter how painful the loss of Decker has been in 2016, it cannot explain the drop in touchdown % from each of the years from 2009 through  2013, when Fitzpatrick was working without Decker and indeed with a worse set of targets than his current group with the 2016 Jets.  Decker's loss might explain some small drop from 2015 levels, but it does nothing to explain the large drop from the levels of 2009 through 2103.

How about the overall level of the Jets' play?  Some have theorized Fitzpatrick struggles most when forced to play from behind.  Might the  overall bad quality of the Jets play, resulting in constant deficits, explain the drop off in touchdown %?  Again, the answer is probably not.  Yes, the Jets are playing from behind much more in 2016  than 2015.  However, Fitzpatrick played on bad teams every year from 2009 through 2014.  In those six seasons Fitzpatrick never posted a winning record, and his teams were often playing from behind, yet Fitzpatrick posted a far higher touchdown % in every one of those years than in 2016.  So playing on a bad team doesn't really explain the drop in touchdown %.

What, then, might the explanation be?  I think there are two explanations that are the most likely to explain Fitzpatrick's sudden regression in touchdown %.  The first is that Fitzpatrick is suffering from age related decline.  It happens to everyone.  Some gradually decline, while others simply fall off a cliff in production.  Fitzpatrick is not all that old at 34, but he is five years past his statistical prime.  Quarterbacks in general peak at the age of 29.  Some peak earlier, some peak later, but in the aggregate the statistical peak age for quarterback production is 29.   Statistically every year past 29 it becomes more and more likely you will see a drop in effectiveness.  At five years past 29 it is not out of the question Fitzpatrick is simply in rapid decline.  That may be the answer.  However, given that he had one of his finest seasons just a year ago, there is reason to be skeptical of that answer.

What then, is left?  Simply this.  Remember at the beginning of this article we discussed certain positive statistical anomalies Ryan Fitzpatrick exhibited in 2015, and how it was a good bet that he would regress to the mean in these categories in 2016?  Remember how that is in fact exactly what happened?  Well, this doesn't just work for positive anomalies.  Players also have inexplicable down years, which in retrospect are seen as outliers, random  fluctuations, but in the moment are seem as the player just sucking.  Perhaps the best explanation for Fitzpatrick's sudden inability to find the end zone is the simplest:  Ryan Fitzpatrick is just having a run of bad luck.  It doesn't take much to skew the statistics.  We have seen multiple errant throws in the end zone that were just way off.  It didn't have to happen that way. Yes, Fitzpatrick is not a particularly accurate quarterback, but he is still perfectly capable of delivering an accurate pass much more often than not.  If he wasn't you'd see a completion % of less than 40%, after accounting for balls tipped at the line, dropped passes, balls intentionally thrown away and tightly contested passes, instead of his current rate in the mid to upper 50s.  Fitzpatrick currently has thrown eight touchdown passes for a TD % of 2.7%.  Just five more completions in the end zone over the course of the year would have produced a touchdown % of 4.4%, well within the range of his career norms.

That's just a little more than one more accurate pass in the red zone every two games.  It is a tiny difference, yet it would completely change how we view Fitzpatrick's season.  If Fitzpatrick had thrown five more touchdown passes, perhaps we're staring at something like a 5-4 record and still being very much in the thick of the playoff race.  One more touchdown pass at the right time could have tipped the balance in the Miami and Cleveland games for sure, and possibly even  the Seattle game.  Five more touchdown passes and the Jets would likely be a winning team, Fitzpatrick would not be mired in last place in the quarterback rankings, and few people would be calling for his immediate removal.  That is how much difference a random run of bad luck can make.

There is no way to be sure that Fitzpatrick's problems finding the end zone are just random fluctuations.  It may be the most likely answer, but it is not the only possibility.  However, given how predictable the reversion to the mean in the sack rate and the interception rate from 2015 highs was in 2016, it should follow that it is fairly predictable that Fitzpatrick would, given time, revert to the mean in his touchdown % and rebound from his 2016 lows.  Given the mediocre nature of his career, Fitzpatrick will likely never be given the chance to prove or disprove that hypothesis.  Ironically for a quarterback who has often benefited from the bad luck of others, it would seem likely his own run of bad luck may finally be his own undoing as a starting quarterback in the NFL.