Marcus Mariota, the Red Zone and the Danger of Splitting Small Samples

It’s been highlighted in reporting for at least the last year that Marcus Mariota has some very gaudy red zone stats. In 103 career red zone attempts, Mariota has thrown for 475 yards, 33 touchdowns and zero interceptions. His 112.7 quarterback rating is better than any quarterback with more than 10 red zone attempts.

The topic is Mariota’s incredible red zone numbers has come up again after receiving praise from the head coach of this week’s opponent, Pete Carroll.

That is a really good sign for what you have. The guy has a great conscience, a great awareness, in the most difficult area to throw the football, he is really good at it. He is really efficient, so I think it bodes really well for him. He is going to have a longtime career, I don’t think there is anything to hold him back.

I don’t disagree with Carroll’s assessment that Mariota will have a “longtime career.” Mariota was a phenomenal prospect, and the start of his career closely tracks those of well-regarded franchise quarterbacks. But does 100 red zone attempts really justify the narratives around Mariota in the red zone: his patience, ability to slow down the game, the fact that he doesn’t get rattled.

Maybe Mariota has all of the qualities that commentators are attributing to him to explain his red zone proficiency. But there’s also a good chance it’s a situation where the stats are driving the narratives. That’s why we need to look to see if the Mariota’s lofty red zone stats will continue.

Historical context

Luckily we have historical data we can turn to to see what the relationship is between red zone efficiency early in a quarterback’s career and what we should expect moving forward.

I looked at some historical data to see how the efficiency of a quarterback’s first 100 red zone attempts compares to the next 100. The qualifying quarterbacks began their careers after 20001 and had at least career 200 red zone attempts. To measure passing efficiency, I’m using adjusted net yards per attempt, which, in addition to yards, accounts for critically important red zone stats: touchdowns, inceptions and sacks.

You’ll notice that the linear regression line2 is bascially flat, with a slightly negative slope. Historically there hasn’t been any correlation between how efficient a quarterback is in his first 100 red zone attempts and how efficient he’ll be going forward.

While some great quarterbacks – like Philip RiversAaron Rodgers and Tom Brady – have maintained strong red zone efficiency, it’s more likely a function of the fact there they’re generally efficient quarterbacks, not that there’s anything special about them in the red zone. Other quarterbacks have gone from great to horrible in the red zone – like Chad Henne and Jay Cutler – or went from poor to potential Hall of Famers – like Drew Brees and Matt Ryan.

Conclusion

Marcus Mariota’s red zone efficiency has been awesome, there’s no denying that. But judging a quarterback based on split stats only introduces more uncertainty. Whenever you see splits used to bolster the case for what will happen in the future, you have to ask yourself if there is historical data to back the theory, or if there’s even a credible theory for why the split is relevant.

In the case of Mariota’s red zone efficiency, we have to ask ourselves why being a great quarterback in the red zone that’s inherently different than being a great quarterback anywhere else on the field. Judging a quarterback based on only 100 pass attempts, especially attempts in a high-leverage area like the red zone, will only lead to overconfidence in what results we expect moving forward.

  1. Where my historical data begins
  2. Blue dashed line

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