Le Freak?: Breaking Down Zach Mettenberger's First NFL Start

Was it a story of disco heat for the Titans' new quarterback, or did he ride on a horse with no name?

There is little to no statistical correlation between an NFL player’s fashion sense and their success in the league. It’s also not often that their statistical performance in one game reveals everything we need to know about their ability, current value, and future projection.

For the sake of Tennessee Titans rookie and newly-named starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, I certainly hope the former indicates more than the latter. Mettenberger was panned a bit on social media for his Instagram “selfies” posted just 90 minutes before his debut against the Houston Texans on Sunday. Texans defensive end J.J. Watt even mocked the rookie with a sack celebration that referenced this incident.

So, did Mettenberger and his wonderfully coiffed hair, majestic facial fur, and stylish sweatbands deserve Watt and the Twitterverse’s scorn? Or should we all respect the groovy, 70’s era taste of the Titans’ young passer after his first career start?

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough

One thing seems certain about the future of the mustachioed man under center in Tennessee: his head coach is going to let him run wild the rest of this season in order to see what he can handle. Ken Whisenhunt has started to take the reins off this Titans offense, allowing Mettenberger to drop back 48 times in his first NFL start. In these 48 drop backs, Mett attempted 41 passes, completing 27 of them (a surprisingly solid 65.9% completion rate) for 299 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception. The Texans’ pass defense ranks second in numberFire’s Adjusted Defensive Passing Net Expected Points (NEP), so this was a surprisingly effective performance, especially considering that he only took two sacks.

So, Mettenberger showed respectably well in the box score and on fantasy teams this week. But did he actually perform as well as his stats show? To find this out, we turn to our aforementioned NEP metrics here at numberFire. NEP is a metric that peels back the box score and reveals more accurately the production and value that each player contributes to his team. When a player advances his team’s chances of scoring, he increases the team’s expected points on that drive and, therefore, gains NEP. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

When we put his first start under the microscope, how did Mettenberger measure up?

Walk On The Wild Side

The table below depicts Mettenberger’s performance in terms of our NEP data, specifically in Passing NEP (all NEP gained or lost on drop backs), as well as his ranks in these metrics among all 44 passers in the NFL this season and compared to the other Titans’ quarterbacks from this season.

PlayerPass NEPRankPass NEP/AttemptRank
Jake Locker0.3731st0.0030th
Zach Mettenberger-5.4235th-0.1138th
Charlie Whitehurst9.2229th0.0923rd

As the kids in their internet-speak and Tumblr comments say: “ :( ”. So much for channeling Burt Reynolds with his style (or even Ben Stiller’s character in Dodgeball). What can we take away from this pretty poor showing by the new starter in Nashville? So far, Mettenberger appears exactly like we’d expect a sixth-round rookie to look: raw. Both Jake Locker and Charlie Whitehurst have been far more valuable quarterbacks this season. Part of their total Passing NEP value comes from each having double the drop backs of Mettenberger, but they are also majorly outstripping him on a per-drop back basis as well. I don’t need to tell you that if Whitehurst is the best quarterback on your team, you have a major problem.

To put Mettenberger’s terrible start into context, the 6 quarterbacks who are just worse than him on a per drop back basis in 2014 are: Robert Griffin III, Blake Bortles (who has thrown double the interceptions that he has touchdowns), Josh McCown (who is no longer starting), Michael Vick (who had three turnovers on Sunday), Christian Ponder (enough said), and Chad Henne (lost out to that guy, Bortles, who has thrown all the interceptions). Pretty exceptional company.

Let’s Stay Together

If Mettenberger has been atrocious in his own production, how much has this poor play affected the value of his teammates?

The table below shows the combined NEP production of the Titans’ skill position players by position, comparing the periods of Weeks 1-7 and Week 8. The table shows the difference in production by position between these spans of time. To compare these data properly without volume factoring in, we will be look at the per-opportunity metrics (per-attempt Rushing NEP and per-target Reception NEP).

PositionRush NEP/AttemptRec NEP/Target

Sure enough, almost across the board, the rates of NEP production per attempt and per target became immediately diminished with Mettenberger arriving as the starter. Only the wide receivers took a slight step forward with a positive gain of 0.01 Reception NEP per target, which was likely due to taking more vertical attempts with Mettenberger’s big arm.

Lack of effectiveness on the quarterback’s part, though, has clearly led to the running game being bottled up, as the running backs’ production has plummeted on each opportunity. The tight end has suffered more per target than any other position, and this is likely a similar cause as the step forward by the wide receivers: with more attempts downfield, there are fewer checkdowns coming to the bigger tight ends who usually function as safety blankets. This is a huge boon for the passing game overall, but Delanie Walker and his compatriots will see their opportunities diminish steadily.

This offense was already throttled from the start, due to the limited physical nature of incumbent starter Jake Locker and his veteran backup in Charlie Whitehurst. Mettenberger’s physical profile allows them to try more things and vary their playcalls, but until he begins to show more refinement as a passer, he will not be the key to unlocking the potential of this offense. Boss mustache or not, Mett has not yet impressed as the answer in Tennessee after all. There's still time for this LSU product, but in the "Not For Long" NFL, he better step his on-field game up to match his social media prowess.