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Why won’t Dwayne Haskins throw the ball away?

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NFL: Washington Football Team at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, Dwayne Haskins didn’t play great. At points throughout the game, he played poorly enough that he was largely responsible for the team’s 34-20 loss to the Cleveland Browns, throwing three interceptions and fumbling the ball away during a sack by Myles Garrett. The Browns scored 24 points off turnovers in the loss.

Dwayne’s three interceptions in Week 3 were his first of the season, but he’s taken 10 sacks so far (more than the 1991 Redskins surrendered all season), including several that he scrambled into, like the one below, against the Cardinals:

After three games, I’ve been left with the distinct feeling that Dwayne was trying to hard to make things happen, and when he felt there were no options left, he was trying to force a solution, rather than tossing the ball away and living to fight another play. Thankfully, virtually ever stat is tracked these days, and most are broadly available, so it’s not hard to see how Haskins stacks up on “passes thrown away” versus other QBs in the league.

Through three weeks, Haskins is tied for 20th in the league with one pass thrown away in three games (Both Mahomes and Jackson, who have only played two games as of this writing, are still ahead of Haskins). Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield lead the league with 6 passes thrown away. Ryan Tannehill is next with 5, followed by Mahomes, Jones, Carr, and Goff with 4. The next tier, with 3 throw aways includes Wentz, Rodgers, Watson, Ryan, and Wilson.

The only QBs - who’ve played all 3 games - with fewer throw aways than Haskins are:

  • Mitch Trubisky - who was benched mid-game in Week 3 for Nick Foles.
  • Sam Darnold - who is shepherding the worst team in the NFL.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick - who plays by his own set of rules.
  • Philip Rivers - who has been one of the least pressured QBs in the league so far (only Carr, Rodgers, and Brady have been pressured at a lower rate).

Perhaps it’s counterintuitive to some, but several of the greatest QBs of this generation have also lead the league in throwaway rate over the course of their careers. Philip Rivers, who has been stingy with throwaways this year, held the season record for throwaways (46) set in 2016, until Aaron Rodgers topped that number in 2018 with 48.

Green Bay Packers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

PFF conducted a fascinating analysis of that record setting season by Rodgers, a season in which he was still hobbled by a knee injury. Even by Rodgers’ standards - in the three prior seasons he had thrown the ball away at least 30 times a season (or was on a pace to do so before injury) - his 2018 performance was notable. What they found was that Rodgers’ aggressive dump offs didn’t change his sack rate, which hovered around 6%, but that they did change something else. They reduced his turnover-worthy plays. As of the mid-season analysis, Rodgers had the fewest turnover-worthy plays by a substantial margin, and he ended the season with a .3% INT rate, which was 13 of Drew Brees’ rate, who had the second best percentage.

Rodgers’ proclivity for throwing the ball away was even more pronounced when he had more time in the pocket:

Time to throw is measured from the snap until one of three things happens: the quarterback releases the ball on a pass attempt, the quarterback crosses the line of scrimmage on a scramble, or the quarterback is sacked. Rodgers currently has the third-most dropbacks where it takes more than 3.0 seconds for one of those three things to take place, coming in with 105 on the season which slots behind only Deshaun Watson and Jared Goff.

Despite that, Rodgers has yet to register a turnover-worthy play on those long-developing plays. Instead, he has thrown the ball away 19 times in such situations (most) and taken 14 sacks (4th most). On those plays that take over 3.0 seconds, the average turnover-worthy play rate raises from the usual average of 2.7% this season to 3.3%. Rodgers has been avoiding situations where he could put his team at risk of a turnover and instead has opted to take sacks and throw his passes where no one can catch them.

But that wasn’t the only circumstance in which Rodgers got rid of the ball. He also did it when he felt pressure:

The average turnover-worthy play rate under pressure raises to 3.5%. Meanwhile, Rodgers is one of only two quarterbacks with 50 or more dropbacks under pressure to not record a single turnover-worthy play. Atop the leaderboard with him is the throwaway-happy Rivers.

Rodgers, however, is not the only QB great to take the throwaway path. Tom Brady led in the NFL in throwaways last year, in 2019, with 40 (Rodgers was second with 31). He ended up throwing the ball away on 6.5% of all his passing attempts, and about 2.5 times per game. Brady’s justification for his approach seems to have a particular relevance to Haskins’ style of play:

“So, if you’re a dropback passer — because I’m not really a scrambler. I mean, I have scrambled in the past. It’s not like I’ve never scrambled. I’m not really much a scrambler. But if I’m going to hold it back there, then usually good things aren’t going to happen. So, try to throw the ball away to a safe place and live for the next down.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, in 2019, Brady ended up with one of the best sack percentage rates (4.2%) and interception percentage rates (1.3%) in the league.

Conclusion

Even the best - perhaps, especially the best - QBs in the league routinely throw the ball away at least 1-2 times per game, either to avoid sacks, avoid turnovers, or both. Often times, these throwaways come - somewhat paradoxically - when the QB has “too much” time to pass. Ken Zampese has his job cut out working with Haskins on his footwork, but he’d do well to also remind the young QB that he has the option to toss the ball out of bounds when he doesn’t see what he likes.