You gave it a good run Doug Martin, but the Offensive Rookie of the Year award is going to come down to the top three quarterbacks: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
All three are on teams competing for the playoffs, and they all just engineered a fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive in Week 13.
While fans are already engaged in a Twilight-style war over who is the best, let’s take a deeper look into some of the numbers that go beyond traditional statistics. Rookie or veteran, the advanced stats such as ones offered by ESPN or Advanced NFL Stats provide more insight.
We want to look at how these quarterbacks have measured up relative to each other (and some past rookie standouts) in clutch situations that ultimately decide games.
They have a quarter of a season left to improve, but here is the three-quarter report on what they have already done.
Third Down Separates the Elites and Also the 2012 Rookie Class
Third down is the money down in football. Elite quarterbacks excel at it, while the scrubs flounder and jog off through the oncoming punt team. You have to be able to convert third down, and it is a different situation than most plays, because the defense is often expecting a pass.
Networks like to show passer rating and general stats for third down during a broadcast, but the number that matters most is the conversion rate. Throwing a nine-yard pass on 3rd-and-16 is usually not a good play for your team.
Here are the third-down numbers on this year’s rookie quarterbacks along with eight other recent rookie seasons that were noteworthy. Attempts are passes, sacks and runs combined. Data is for regular season only, and all spikes and kneel downs are excluded.
The “%Cmp1D” is the percentage of third-down completions that went for a first down.
Luck separates himself from his draft class here, posting a near-elite conversion rate of 44.30 percent. Anything over 40 percent is definitely good, and you can see only Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger have also been able to do that.
Luck even misses out on a 3rd-and-17 conversion on his last play against the Jets, because Reggie Wayne fumbled the ball after gaining 29 yards. Those plays technically do not count as first downs, though you could easily argue the quarterback did his part on them. There have been no such plays for Wilson or Griffin this season.
Wilson comes more middle of the pack, but still a solid number. The real surprise is Griffin barely edging out Vince Young with a poor 31.93 rate.
Based on passer rating, Griffin (93.3) would actually lead both Luck (76.7) and Wilson (83.1), but that is why you all but disregard passer rating on third down. Griffin is 52-of-85 for 520 yards, with five TD, one INT and a 93.3 rating on third down.
But the standout number is Griffin only having 51.9 percent of his third-down completions (27-of-52) result in a first down. The 11-player table’s average is 68.2 percent. That would mean 25 "failed completions," if you will, for Griffin. Luck only has 13 failed completions on third down, and Wilson has 16.
I have third-down numbers on over 100 recent quarterback seasons, and no player (keep in mind it is mostly comprised of top-level quarterbacks) has a %Cmp1D lower than Griffin’s 51.9 percent. The closest is Drew Brees in 2003 (52.3 percent) before he was really “Drew Brees.” This list even includes Jason Campbell seasons, so that is not good news.
Luck has 11 rushing first downs on third down and just 14 attempts. Griffin also has 11 rushing first downs, but on 27 attempts. Wilson has eight first downs on 17 runs.
What If Griffin Were Facing Longer Third-Down Situations Than the Other Two?
Griffin is in fact facing longer third downs with an average length of 8.71 yards, but there is a major outlier in his data. When the Redskins played the Bengals in Week 3, the replacement referees marked off 20 yards on an unsportsmanlike penalty on the last drive, and Griffin faced a 3rd-and-50.
That’s right, 3rd-and-50. It was going to be a Hail Mary either way after a Griffin sack and spike with six seconds left and the Redskins down 38-31, but now it was from the Redskins' 41.
Without the 3rd-and-50 Hail Mary, the average-to-go is 8.36 yards. However, that still does not explain the low conversion rate.
The “3D%” is the percentage of total third-down attempts in each range: short (1-3 yards), medium (4-7 yards) and long (8-plus yards).
Now we’re talking. Wilson has stayed out of the long situations, which is why his average third-down play (Avg. 3D) is only 6.39 yards for a first down. Griffin has been in 3rd-and-short the least, but still has the lowest conversion rate.
Wilson is often in medium situations, though Griffin does the best job of converting these. The medium attempt is Luck’s worst in terms of conversion rate, which is unusual.
The biggest disparity, however, comes on the big-time plays: 3rd-and-long. Luck has managed to convert 31-of-75 (41.33 percent) 3rd-and-long plays this season. That is 14 more conversions than Wilson (10) and Griffin (7) combined.
Griffin is in 3rd-and-long more often than not, but he has only converted 7-of-61 opportunities (11.48 percent). Four of his conversions have come on the ground.
All three are obviously mobile players, but if you look at all situations where it is at least 3rd-and-10 and they throw the ball, then you get these numbers: Luck is 22-of-57 (38.6 percent), Wilson is 4-of-25 (16.0 percent) and Griffin is 2-of-35 (5.71 percent).
It is nearly inconceivable how big of a gap that is. Against Miami, Luck was 6-of-9 at converting through the air on 3rd-and-10. That's just one game.
Of all the things Luck's rookie season could go down as, the "best rookie ever on third down" should be one of the lines.
What About Fourth Down?
Obviously fourth-down plays are big too, but you are unlikely to get a large sample size of them in 12 games, especially in a season where coaches are going for it less than ever.
You also can get plays in garbage time that do not really capture the tension of other fourth-down plays, but it is what it is.
For those who are curious, here are the fourth-down stats in 2012.
Luck is 5-of-6 (83.3 percent) at converting fourth down. He is 3-of-3 for 53 yards and a touchdown, and all three passes were on 4th-and-10 or more. He has two runs for nine yards and a score. His only failure was on a quarterback sneak against Green Bay.
Wilson is 9-of-12 (75.0 percent) at converting fourth down. He is 7-of-9 for 80 yards and a touchdown (yes, a touchdown). He has converted on 4th-and-1 with three runs for four yards.
Griffin is 8-of-11 (72.7 percent) at converting fourth down. He is 6-of-7 for 47 yards and a touchdown, which includes that highlight play in New York on 4th-and-10 earlier this season. He has been sacked once, and has rushed three times for 11 yards. Griffin was stuffed in the red zone against Carolina.
These are great numbers from just rookies. Why don’t coaches go for it more often?
Fourth-Quarter Comebacks and Game-Winning Drives
Each of the three rookies had one this week, and it was of the dramatic variety for both Wilson and Luck on the road.
Luck’s 12-point comeback in the final 4:02 in Detroit gives him a tie of the NFL record for most game-winning drives by a rookie quarterback (5). Including playoffs, Ben Roethlisberger (2004) still holds the record with six.
Wilson’s three game-winning drives tie him with five other rookies for sixth place since 1960. We know his most controversial moment, but his finest job was against Chicago on Sunday, leading touchdown drives of 97 and 80 yards to get the win.
Luck and Wilson each have three fourth-quarter comeback wins this year. The only rookie quarterbacks since 1960 with more are Roethlisberger (5), Andy Dalton (4) and Vince Young (4). Jeff George had three in 1990.
Griffin’s comeback and game-winning drive against the Giants was his second. His first was in Tampa Bay when he led a last-second field goal drive for a 24-22 win.
They have all been able to log multiple clutch wins, which is good for rookies—but in terms of overall performance, Luck also wins this one with ease.
Luck is 3-1 at comebacks and 5-1 in overall game-winning drive opportunities. His only loss was in Week 3 to Jacksonville, and even in that game he put his team ahead with 0:56 left before a rare 80-yard touchdown by Cecil Shorts.
Wilson is 3-4 at comebacks and 3-5 overall. The knock on him was that he could not finish games on the road, but he took care of that with a big win in Chicago this week. Still, some people will knock his game-winner over Green Bay, and he did not come through on the road against all three divisional opponents (Arizona, St. Louis and San Francisco).
Griffin is 2-4, and they were all comeback opportunities. Trailing 31-28 in St. Louis, Griffin had four drives to tie the game but could not do so. Josh Morgan cost the team a 47-yard field-goal attempt with his silly penalty. Billy Cundiff missed the 62-yard try.
In a tight game with Cincinnati, Griffin tried to rally back late, but the aforementioned final drive ended with a Hail Mary. Griffin took a brutal sack before it with the ball at the Bengals 19.
Perhaps more impressive than his wins, Griffin had a special play on 4th-and-10 in New York then threw a perfect pass to Santana Moss for a 30-yard touchdown with 1:32 left. However, Eli Manning had the game-winner to Victor Cruz, and Moss fumbled on Griffin’s last drive.
Good things here for all, but Luck gets the nod for the simple fact that he has put his team ahead all six times he has played a close game. He had the incredible comeback over Green Bay, and he set the rookie record with 433 yards passing against Miami.
In that one, Luck was also 12-of-17 (70.6 percent) on third down, showing the best of both situations studied here.
The name is Luck, but it has been outstanding execution in the clutch that has led to his success this year.
When you look into the clutch moments, suddenly that QBR and Win Probability Added start to make some sense, do they not? Luck is significantly outplaying the other two in that case.
Wilson and Griffin are very good, but when it comes to tough situations where you need to come through, Luck is on a whole different level in this rookie class, and when compared to any rookie period.
The stats may not always be pretty, but that’s never the primary goal for any quarterback, rookie or veteran. Luck looks for first downs on 3rd-and-long, not just a short gain to boost his completion percentage.
The numbers bear that out, and when you look at the tiers of success in clutch situations here, it basically goes: Luck, Wilson, Griffin.
There’s an obvious correlation there to Indianapolis (8-4) having a better record than Seattle (7-5), which has a better record than Washington (6-6).
Good thing we still have four more games to sort this out, but with 75 percent of the reports in, No. 1 in the draft is still top of this class.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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