Washington is currently the hottest team in the NFL. Over the past seven weeks, the Commanders have won six of seven games. During that span they have held opposing teams to an average of 178 passing yards per game, out-rushed opponents by an average of 37 yards a game, and won the time of possession battle by an average of approximately seven minutes per game.
Initially, there was a belief among fans and players that the switch at QB from Carson Wentz to Taylor Heinicke had been the spark that set the team on fire. Since then, most of us have come to realize that the improvement of the defense has been the primary driver of the team’s reversal of fortune, with the increased reliance on the running game also playing a significant part (see the poll result in last week’s snap counts article).
Carson Wentz certainly didn’t do much to inspire confidence in first six starts in DC. Throughout the preseason and the first two games, it appeared that Ron Rivera had outfoxed the league and found a QB that Washington could win with, despite some up and down moments. After that, however, his play began to regress and the issues that had plagued his on-field performance in Philadelphia – inaccurate passing, poor decision making and holding onto the ball too long – reemerged.
When Taylor Heinicke replaced Wentz, who suffered a finger injury against Chicago, something seemed to be different on offense. There seems to be a consensus that he has intangible qualities that inspire the team to play better. What he brings to the team in terms of tangible production on the football field has been harder to nail down.
He has a much weaker arm and is not able to stretch the field reliably the way that Wentz can. His passing production in yards per game (194.8) is close to the lowest in the league, ranking 29th among QBs this season, while Wentz is tied with Derek Carr for 10th at 248.2 yds/game.
While Heinicke doesn’t offer much in the way of positive production, his main advantage over Wentz seems to be that he doesn’t suffer as badly from some of Wentz’s key weaknesses. In particular, he is much less prone to taking sacks, ranking 20th in the league at 5.7% of dropbacks (tied with Jacoby Brissett and Jimmy Garoppolo), compared to Wentz in 6th place at 9%. Heinicke is also a bit more accurate, with 17.4% of his throws graded as uncatchable this season (11th worst), compared to Wentz at 21.2% (3rd worst). On the other hand, he is about equally prone to throwing interceptions as Wentz, ranking 9th in the league at 2.7% of passing attempts (tied with Josh Allen), compared to Wentz in 11th place at 2.6% of attempts.
A few weeks ago, I showed that Heinicke has one key advantage over Wentz that doesn’t show up very well in normal game statistics. His mistakes are more evenly distributed within down series and, as a result, he is about half as likely to kill offensive drives with negative plans than Wentz. This would seem to suggest that he is more clutch than the injured starter he replaced. In this article, I will test that directly.
In the previous articles, I compared Wentz’s play in six starts in Washington to Heinicke’s entire career with the team, since he had only had a few starts this year when I wrote them. Now that Heinicke has played as many starts as Wentz in 2022, it is possible to compare the two QBs within a single season, playing with more or less the same team, to eliminate any confounding factors, such as changes in offensive line personnel and offensive weapons from year to year.
Some readers might think that comparing the two QBs at this point in the season is flogging a dead horse, after Rivera named Heinicke the starter going forward. There are two reasons that I think it’s still topical.
First, if you read between the lines of his statements, you might notice that the main justification given for starting the backup over the starter he staked his reputation on is that the team is winning. I take that weak endorsement to mean that Heinicke is on a short leash, and that Rivera could revisit the decision to bench Wentz if Heinicke has a bad day in a loss.
Second, there is a growing belief within the fanbase that something about Heinicke’s play has been a key factor in sparking the team’s winning streak; and that it’s not just due to improvements on defense and increased reliance on the running game. I have been attempting to find out what that might be, but the only answer I have come up with so far is that he seems to commit fewer and less damaging errors than the injured starter. Perhaps the next piece of the puzzle is that he makes more clutch plays to keep drives and games alive.
To determine which QB is the most clutch, I used a simple system to grade their performance in pivotal game situations. A pivotal situation was defined as one in which the fate of an offensive drive or game depended on the outcome of a play AND the outcome of the play was in the QB’s hands. This simply came down to all passes and QB runs on third or fourth downs, except for a few situations late in games trailing by more than one TD, when there was not enough time left to change the game result. Plays negated by penalties (no play) were excluded, because it was usually impossible to tell whether the infraction might have influenced the outcome.
The QB’s play was graded as Clutch, if he executed the play successfully, resulting in a first down or score. The play was graded as Not Clutch if he failed to execute by throwing an incomplete pass or interception, ran short of the line to gain, took a sack, or fumbled. I would have also counted grounding penalties as Not Clutch, but there weren’t any.
It might seem unfair that I am placing total responsibility for incompletions and sacks on the QBs. However, since the purpose of exercise is to compare the two QBs in the same situations, all that matters is that they are both being graded in the same way. Similarly, QBs being bailed out after failing to convert on third down, by either a field goal or conversion on fourth down, was not taken into account. This analysis is about how the QBs performed in clutch situations themselves, rather than the help they got from teammates. Also, failure to keep a drive alive or score on third down, resulting in field goal on fourth down, potentially nets a loss of four points, so the QB should not be let off the hook.
Pass completions that fell short of the line to gain were graded as Inconclusive. My reasoning is that it is impossible to tell in these situations whether the QB executed the play that was given to him, and was let down by a bad play call, or whether the QB was at fault for targeting the wrong receiver. Approximately 20% of plays in pivotal situations were graded as inconclusive across both QBs. The sense I get from doing this analysis was that the play call was usually the problem, but I can’t be sure, so it is better to exclude these plays from the comparison between QBs. Both QBs had about the same proportion of plays excluded as Inconclusive, so it is unlikely to affect any conclusions.
Who Got the Clutch Gene?
The numbers of qualifying pivotal situations faced by the two QBs in their six 2022 starts were remarkably similar. Wentz was involved in 74 pivotal plays and Heinicke in 72. Wentz averaged 12.17 pivotal situations per game and Heinicke averaged exactly 12.
The aggregate results of the grading across all six starts for each QB are shown in the following table:
These results came as a major surprise to me, as I’m sure they will to many fans. I have developed the impression, watching Heinicke play through the last six games, that he tends to make more saves in critical situations than Wentz. Furthermore, I have previously shown that Wentz has been more than twice as likely to end drives prematurely with negative plays than Heinicke. However, the results of this analysis show that, overall, the two QBs have produced nearly identical percentages of clutch plays on drive and game-critical downs for the Commanders.
How is it possible that so many of us have developed the impression that Heinicke is the more clutch QB of the two? The answer, I suspect, has to do with the fact that two QBs’ clutch and not clutch plays have not been evenly distributed across games. Both QBs have had whole games in which they had a lot of clutch plays, and others in which they had relatively few, throughout the season. I suspect the pattern of their clutch and not clutch performances explains our perceptions.
The following graph shows the Clutch % (percentage of plays in pivotal situations graded Clutch) for each QB across each of their six starts in 2022:
Wentz’s debut performance against the Jaguars was nearly perfect in pivotal situations, with seven plays graded as Clutch, one play graded as Not Clutch and two graded as Inconclusive. After that, his play steadily declined, reaching abysmal levels against the Titans and Bears, in which he had one play graded Clutch out of 12 and 10 pivotal situations, respectively
Heinicke, on the other hand, is up and down. He had strong performances against Green Bay (37.5% Clutch), Philadelphia (46.7% Clutch) and Atlanta (40% Clutch) and bombed out against Indianapolis (18.2%), Minnesota (9.1%) and Houston (11.1%). He made up for his poor overall performance on later downs against the Colts by leading three scoring drives, while the running backs did most of the hard work to get the win against the Texans.
I suspect the reason that fans have got the impression that Heinicke is more clutch than Wentz is that Wentz had been on a downward trend and hit rock bottom for the two games before he got injured. In Heinicke’s first start, we suddenly had a QB making plays on third down again, which we hadn’t seen for a while. That impression was carried through the next few weeks when the team was winning games, and playing close in the one loss to Minnesota, on the strength of a resurgent defense and strong running game.
Is Clutch QB Play Important?
The results of this analysis demonstrate that Wentz’s performance in drive-critical situations had bombed out before he was injured, while Heinicke produces clutch performances, interspersed with non-clutch performances. This would seem to suggest that Heinicke is the safer QB for the Commanders right now, unless Wentz can return to his Week 1 form. But the question you might ask is whether clutch QB play, as I have defined it, really matters. Does it actually affect game outcomes?
To answer that question, I tested whether each QB’s Clutch% was correlated with game outcomes, on a week by week basis, using standard correlation analysis like I did in my previous article. The first outcome measure I tested was point differential. Both QBs’ Clutch% values were positively, but weakly correlated with point differential in their six starts. In fact, both QBs had identical correlation coefficients, r = 0.291. This means that QB Clutch% explained 8.5% of the variance in point differential. That level of explanation might get a social scientist excited, but I doubt it would move the needle for the average football fan.
In hindsight, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the correlations were weak, since a lot of factors contribute to point differential, beyond just QB play on 3rd and 4th downs, which is all that Clutch % measures. As a second attempt, I decided to test whether Clutch % was correlated with a game outcome measure that is more directly in the quarterback’s control. I settled on offensive scoring as the outcome measure. The results are shown in the next graph.
QB Clutch% was strongly correlated with team score for both quarterbacks. Wentz had a correlation coefficient of r = 0.777 (60.4% explained variance) and Heinicke had a correlation coefficient of r = 0.620 (38.4% explained variance).
While other factors, such as rushing production and defensive performance, are clearly influencing overall game outcomes, as reflected in point differential, it appears that clutch QB play on pivotal downs has a strong influence on scoring by the offense.
Summary and Conclusion
To test the perception that Taylor Heinicke is a more clutch performer than Carson Wentz, I compared the two QB’s performances on pivotal downs throughout their six starts this season.
The overall numbers for the two quarterbacks were surprisingly similar, with each coming through in the clutch on around 28% to 29% of gradable opportunities. A key difference between the two QBs was that Wentz showed a steady decline to alarmingly bad clutch performance levels throughout his six starts, whereas Heinicke has up and down performances, with his worst being as bad as Wentz’s last two games.
I also showed that the percentage of clutch plays by QBs is strongly related to scoring, suggesting that this it has an important influence on game outcomes.
I suppose the answer to the question I posed at the start could depend on your perspective. If Wentz can recover the form he displayed in the opening game against the Jaguars, he would be the better performer in critical game situations. However, if you believe that the downward trend in his performance over his six starts for Washington is indicative of some kind of a mental collapse, reminiscent of his last season in Philadelphia, then you’d have to wonder about the likelihood that he can pull it back together when he returns to the active roster.
In that sense, Heinicke is less or a risk right now, because you know what to expect: a QB who is capable of clutch performances or non-clutch performances on any given Sunday. His highs are not as high as the performance that Wentz is physically capable of producing, but he has reached them more often this season. The Commanders would be unwise to rely on him to win games for them, but when he does turn in a good game, it’s a bonus. Scott Turner seems to have figured that out, which is why he has turned to the running game increasingly with Heinicke as the starter. It would take a huge act of faith in Wentz to walk away from that winning formula at this point in the season.
Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett
What should the Commanders next move at QB be?
This poll is closed
Start Wentz when ready. We will need a QB who can stretch the field to compete in the playoffs.
Roll with Heinicke and Howell this offseason. Let the new regime pick find the QBOTF in 2024.
Extend Heinicke as the bridge. Draft a QB to compete with Howell in April.
After the Super Bowl parade, sign Heinicke to a long term deal.
Extend and trade Heinicke when his value is at peak.