I would like to start by clearing up a common misconception that I see repeated over and over again in the comment threads on Hogs Haven. Taylor Heinicke is the Commanders’ backup quarterback. He was pressed into service two weeks ago when the starter was injured. Last season, he played in relief of starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who suffered a season-ending hip subluxation in the season opener against the Chargers. Two seasons ago, he made his debut as a late-season emergency replacement after starting QB Alex Smith’s body broke down following recovery from a horrendous leg fracture.
At no time in Taylor Heinicke’s short tenure in Washington has the team appointed him its starting quarterback for a season. He has performed admirably in the backup role, from his electrifying debut when he came close to staging an upset of eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay in an aptly named Wild Card playoff game. However, he has physical limitations which will probably consign him to a backup role for the remainder of what I hope will be a long NFL career.
Entering the 2022 offseason, Ron Rivera recognized a need to upgrade the quarterback position and took a massive gamble on Carson Wentz, who had lost the confidence of his second NFL team in two years. Throughout training camp, preseason and the opening victory over the Jaguars, it appeared that Rivera had outfoxed the entire NFL and the national media. Over the next four games, however, the issues with his game that we had been warned about began to re-emerge. These included inaccuracy, and tendency to hold onto the ball too long, leading to sacks. A new issue also emerged, which had not been a problem for Wentz with his previous teams. His interception rate has increased dramatically in his first six games as a Commander relative to his previous teams.
The promise, when Rivera traded two day-two draft picks for Wentz was that his ability to stretch the field would result in a boost in offensive production relative to the weaker-armed backup, Taylor Heinicke. Through his first six games with the Commanders, Wentz averaged 248.2 passing yards per game and 1.67 passing TDs per game, which represent improvements of 17% and 23% over Heinicke’s average career productivity in Washington (212.4 yards/game, 1.26 TD/game), respectively.
The modest increase in passing yardage might have fallen short of what a lot of fans were expecting from Wentz, but a 23% increase in scoring should be moving the needle. However, the “upgrade” to Wentz, with a bevy of new weapons, has not translated to an uptick in the wins total. There are a lot of reasons aside from quarterback play that the Commanders have not taken advantage of their soft schedule in 2022. These include the loss of offensive line talent and some issues on defense. But, as I am about to show, sub-standard quarterback play is also likely to be a significant factor.
And it is on the point where I think that scrappy underdog Taylor Heinicke, who probably shouldn’t be starting for an NFL team, might actually offer some hope to beleaguered Washington fans. While Heinicke can’t stretch the field as well as the injured starter he replaced, he does offer one advantage which can be crucial to game outcomes, but is not well reflected in the usual game statistics. He is better at keeping drives alive, because he makes fewer drive-killing mistakes.
Drive Killing Plays
A major reason why Wentz’s superior arm talent, combined with the upgrades at offensive skill positions, has not translated into improved offensive production is that the modest increase in passing production has been more than offset by an increase in negative plays, most notably sacks and interceptions. Such negative plays can have a disproportionate impact on game outcomes by ending drives prematurely.
I think everyone appreciates the impact of turnovers. Sacks fly a little under the radar, because their impact can be greater than just the lost yardage recorded in the box score. This is particularly the case for sacks on third down which lead to a punt. In effect, a five-yard sack can negate tens of yards of offensive production leading up to that point in a drive if it leads to a change in possession.
There are also other less direct ways that negative QB plays can impact drives. In this article, I will focus on negative plays which lead directly to a change in possession, which I will refer to as Drive-Killing Plays. In a subsequent article, I might examine how negative plays by quarterbacks can impact offensive drives a little more indirectly.
To determine how Wentz and Heinicke compare in committing Drive-Killing Plays, I examined all of Washington’s offensive drives in games that either QB started since the 2020 Wild Card playoff. I also included the 2021 season opener, but only counted drives with Heinicke at QB. Drives that ended because the clock ran out were omitted from the analysis.
For purposes of this analysis, I defined a Drive-Killing Play as either a turnover committed by the QB via an interception or fumble, or a sack on third down resulting in a punt on fourth down. This definition is really just a subset of the negative QB plays that can kill a drive. For example, QBs can take sacks for long yardage on early downs to put the team in third and long. Then the play on third down comes up short. Resolving which play resulted in the need to punt in those situations can get pretty subjective, so I have decided to deal with those types of impacts in a subsequent article. For now, I will focus exclusively on negative QB plays which lead directly to a change in possession via turnover or punt on fourth down.
Some readers might argue that sacks are more the fault of the offensive line than the QB. In that case counting sacks as Drive-Killing Plays might give Heinicke an unfair advantage in the following comparison, because Wentz has played behind the terrible 2022 O-line for his entire tenure in DC. Having watched Wentz in action through six games in Washington, I am swayed to the view that sacks are a QB statistic. Also, without giving too much away, in his first game behind the same line in 2022, Heinicke only had a single Drive-Killing Play, which is better than Wentz’s most error-free performance as a Commander.
Feel free to argue about the bias of this analysis in the comments if you like.
Which QB Kills More Drives?
In 19 games for Washington, Taylor Heinicke has led 184 offensive drives that didn’t end with the clock running out. Twenty eight of those drives were ended by a Drive-Killing Play, which equates to 15.2% of drives.
In six games as a Commander, Carson Wentz led 68 qualifying drives and had 20 Drive-Killing Plays, for a whopping drive-kill rate of 29.4%, nearly twice the rate at which Heinicke commits them.
We have seen that Wentz has good games (e.g. Jacksonville) and bad games (e.g. Philadelphia). So perhaps the bulk of the Drive-Killing Plays might be bunched in a few games. In that case, it might be more informative to look at Drive-Killing Plays per game.
Wentz’s worst games, from this perspective were against Philadelphia and Tennessee. In both games he had five Drive-Killing Plays. His best (or perhaps least worse) games were against Jacksonville and Dallas, in which he had two apiece. On average, Wentz committed 3.33 Drive-Killing Plays per game.
Heinicke’s worst mark of three Drive-Killing Plays was hit three times in 2021 (Denver, Dallas #1, Philadelphia) and once again last week against the Colts. He has played four games without committing any Drive-Killing Plays and six games with only one. He has averaged 1.47 Drive-Killing Plays per game in his time in Washington.
Went commits 2.26 times more Drive-Killing Plays per game than Heinicke. 53% of Heinicke’s games had fewer Drive-Killing Plays than Wentz’s best performances.
Impact of Drive Killing Plays
The numbers show that Wentz is more likely than Heinicke to end drives prematurely by taking sacks, throwing interceptions or fumbling. In theory, that should mean that Heinicke has a better record of keeping drives alive. To see if that was true, I compared the average durations of offensive drives with the two QBs under center.
Across 68 offensive drives as a Commander, Carson Wentz achieved an average drive duration of 2 minutes, 41 seconds. The average duration of Heinicke’s 184 drives in burgundy and gold was 3 minutes, 9 seconds, 17% longer than with Wentz under center. While that’s certainly consistent with the idea that Heinicke is better at keeping drives alive, an alternative explanation could be that in addition to committing more Drive-Killing Plays, Wentz also brings more drives to a premature end by scoring.
To test that one out, I compared the numbers of scoring drives led by the two QBs. In six games at the helm, Carson Wentz has led 17 scoring drives, which works out to 2.83 scoring drives per game. Heinicke has led 67 scoring drives in 19 games, which equates to 3.53 scoring drives per game. The difference in drive length does not seem to be due to Wentz being more prone to quick scores, since Heinicke leads 24% more scoring drives per game.
Fanning the Flames of Quarterback Controversy
The mere fact that we can argue about which quarterback is better indicates that the Carson Wentz trade was a failure. The Commanders parted with draft capital and picked up the full amount of a high-end QB salary to upgrade the QB position. Their new starter provides moderate improvements in passing yardage and touchdowns, but as I’ve shown, is more than twice as likely as his backup to kill drives prematurely by taking sacks and committing turnovers. For what the Commanders paid, their new starter should be an unquestionable improvement over the backup QB. He isn’t.
Unless Heinicke leads the Commanders on a prolonged winning streak, I think it’s highly likely that Rivera will bring back Wentz when he has recovered from his finger fracture. This is not because Wentz has proven to be a better performer under center for the Commanders, but because Rivera is stubborn and has a history of sticking with his guys.
That would be a mistake because, despite the weaker arm, Heinicke is better at keeping drives alive, which gives his playmakers more opportunities to score and keeps the ball out of the hands of opposing teams. I am far from convinced that Heinicke will ever be anything more than a top-tier backup, but neither is Wentz at this point in his career. However, for the remainder of this season, Heinicke gives the Commanders the best chance to win games.
Acknowledgement: thanks as usual to James Dorsett for editorial assistance, and to Dan and Tanya Snyder for giving fans hope for a better future.
Which QB would you like to see start when Carson Wentz is cleared to play?
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