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Post Stafford’s efficiency

Tuesday June 17, 2008

The Senator asks an interesting question this afternoon.

I keep wondering the degree to which Stafford’s completion percentage/efficiency rating is important, not so much in regard to his personal legacy, but rather in the context of Georgia’s offensive scheme.

Good question. Just what’s so important about completing 60% versus 55%? I’ll put in my two cents here.

Let’s get the drops out of the way. Every team has them, so Stafford isn’t going to get some Drop Correction Factor (even in the South Carolina game). I’m not going to analyze every pass from 2007, but it was my belief that drops were more or less down in 2007 and on par with most teams.

If you grant that Georgia has a run-oriented scheme, you’d expect that the quarterback’s most important role would be to sustain drives when the running game can’t. Even allowing for the occasional first and second down throws to keep the defense honest, third down is what most of us would consider the passing down. So the third down conversion rate seems like a pretty important performance indicator for the quarterback in an offense like Georgia’s.

As you might expect and hope, the Bulldogs were better on third down last season than they were during Stafford’s freshman campaign. Georgia was 8th in the SEC in 2006 with a 39% conversion rate on third down. In 2007, the Bulldogs had improved to 4th in the conference with a 44.8% conversion rate. In absolute terms, the difference is also impressive: Georgia converted 20 more third downs in 2007 than in 2006. It’s kind of a self-perpetuating system. Because Georgia was able to convert third downs at a higher clip, they kept drives going and had 15% more third down opportunities in 2007.

OK, you say, we did better on third downs, but how much of that was because of some good tailbacks, and how much can we credit to an improved Stafford? It’s hard to tell, but we do know that the run-oriented Bulldogs got more first downs through the air than on the ground last year. But here’s the important takeaway:

63% of Georgia’s completions came on third down.

That stands out, but it’s not a huge shock because, again, third down is generally a passing down even for run-based teams. The point is that incremental increases in pass efficiency will pay the biggest dividends on those all-important third downs. Here’s how.

Using Stafford’s attempts from 2007, an improvement to a 60% completion rate represents just 15 more completions over the season. That’s little more than one more catch per game. It doesn’t seem like a lot – one pass not dropped here, one better throw there. But using last season’s results as a rough guide, that’s potentially ten more third down conversions through the air. Ten more third down conversions in 2007 would have put Georgia over 50% on third downs – second-best in the SEC behind only you-know-who.

So, for what it’s worth, that’s my guess as to why efficiency is such a priority (other than "more completions = good"). Even with a star tailback and quality quarterback, the Georgia offense is still middle-of-the-pack in the SEC. Stafford’s additional completions are likely to be ones that keep drives alive, and an offense that is converting third downs close to 50% is likely to be very productive.

(By the way, how important was third down to LSU last year? The Tigers converted 104 of 223 third downs – numbers which, even considering their 14-game schedule, dwarf the rest of the SEC. Their conversion rate of 46.6% was good enough for top 3 in the league. That’s an awful lot of chances though, and it’s to their credit that they were able to keep grinding out drives and converting. Les Miles probably still went for it half the times he didn’t convert on third down.)

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