Was the Quarterback Play in Week 1 Really That Bad?

Andy Dalton was among the signal callers who started the 2017 campaign with a clunker, but how did all the bad performances stack up to opening-week showings from past seasons?

Here's the understatement of the day: Week 1 of the 2017 NFL regular season featured some less than stellar quarterback play.

Andy Dalton threw four interceptions. Carson Palmer threw three. DeShone Kizer was sacked seven times. Tom Savage was sacked six, then replaced by Deshaun Watson who was dropped four times.

Of the 33 players who attempted a pass in Week 1, a whopping 11 of them finished with negative Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players, with the team totals being adjusted for strength of schedule. Some quick division tells us that a third of all quarterbacks came out of their first game with subpar NEP.

Understandably, that made some wonder about the state of quarterback play in the NFL -- a fair question, because, well, we had to watch Savage, Scott Tolzien, and Josh McCown. Apologies to Texans, Colts, and Jets fans but yuck.

So, are we in the midst of a quarterback crisis?

Starting Slow

Let’s examine the overall quarterback performances this week. For that, we’ll look at each signal caller who threw a pass in Week 1 and add up those drop backs. Then we’ll take the Passing NEP produced on those plays and divide it by the drop backs, which will give us a league-wide Passing NEP per drop back average:

Year Drop Backs Pass NEP Pass NEP/DB
2017 1,083 28.16 0.03

The 0.03 average was slightly worse than 2016 Joe Flacco, who had a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.04 over the full season -- so, yeah, not great. But it’s the opening week and teams are still kind of getting into their grooves. We can give them the benefit of the doubt there.

But what we can also do is see how this compares to other opening weeks since 2012. Believe it or not, 2017 comes out somewhat favorably.

Year Drop Backs Passing NEP Passing NEP/Drop Back
2016 1,205 117.87 0.10
2017 1,083 28.16 0.03
2013 1,263 32.26 0.03
2015 1,174 12.85 0.01
2012 1,196 8.57 0.01
2014 1,229 -9.95 -0.01

What might make this past week feel so lousy is how good the opening week was last year. The 0.10 Passing NEP per drop back put up by 2016's opening-week quarterbacks is decidedly the best over the past few seasons.

These performances should also be graded on a bit of a sliding scale, because over the past five years, the overall quality of quarterback play has increased.

During the 2012 campaign, the average Passing NEP per drop back for quarterbacks was 0.03. That’s increased every season, and last year, it shot up to 0.11. If we expect that rise to continue, 2017's 0.03 average in Week 1 will look much worse compared to the season average than 2013's does, considering the Passing NEP per drop back average for quarterbacks was just 0.04 that season.

We also shouldn’t put too much stock into these Week 1 performances. While last year’s great Week 1 was close to the overall sample of 2016 quarterbacking, it was followed up by a 0.03 average in Week 2 and a minus-0.06 average in Week 3, thanks to likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick (six interceptions) and Blaine Gabbert (119 yards and 1 pick).

Block It Out

Why was there such a drop off from Week 1 last season to Week 1 this year? Well, that could partially be explained by some of the work up front -- or lack thereof -- by the offensive lines.

The league-wide sack rate in Week 1 of 2017 was 7.1 percent. That would be like facing the pass rush of the Denver Broncos, Buffalo Bills, or Carolina Panthers, each of whom had a 7.1 percent sack rate last season, tied for third-best in the league. That rate is well above Week 1 sack rate of the previous few seasons.

Year Week 1 Sack Rate
2017 7.11%
2016 5.48%
2015 5.45%
2014 5.45%
2013 6.41%
2012 6.02%

Even if we completely ignore what the Jaguars did to the Texans -- 10 sacks on 36 drop backs -- there was a sack rate of 6.4 percent, which would tie 2013 as the most sack-heavy Week 1 since 2012.

While we can make the case that the overall quality of quarterback play could improve throughout the season, it’s harder to make that case about the offensive line. Granted, not all of these sacks are on the linemen, but quarterbacks did not run themselves into all 77 sacks over the weekend, either.

Improved blocking up front could help the passing game amp up over the course of 2017.

But so will not starting Scott Tolzien.