The Houston Texans defeated the Indianapolis Colts on TNF to take full control of the AFC South. On the surface, this game might seem like a simple example of a low-scoring divisional struggle. However, upon closer examination, it rapidly becomes clear that the game was a near-perfect microcosm of the two teams’ offensive performances throughout the entire season. The easiest way to see this fact is by looking at the teams’ respective quarterbacks: Jacoby Brissett and Deshaun Watson.
Brissett and Watson have been placed in polar opposite situations offensively. The Colts have a dominant offensive line and an excellent head coach in Frank Reich. Meanwhile, Watson is one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the NFL and has often needed to overcome subpar coaching decisions by Head Coach Bill O’Brien. And when the players are examined using PFN’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM), which measures how impactful a player was on their own statistics, it rapidly becomes clear that while Watson has mostly been able to overcome his team’s incompetence, Brissett is only holding Indianapolis back.
Colts and Texans quarterback play before TNF
Several months ago, I wrote an article about Jacoby Brissett and the impact of Andrew Luck’s retirement on the Indianapolis Colts. In that piece, I suggested that, based on his play in 2017, Brissett would not be good enough to lead Indianapolis to any success. I was wrong about that, as I underestimated the overall strength of the Colts roster. However, I wasn’t wrong about Brissett. Although he has played well at times, his average performance has been entirely in line with my low expectations for him. Two years ago, Brissett’s average OSM grade for the entire season was 16.7. This season, he has played better, but not by much. Prior to Thursday night, his overall grade was 17.88, ranking him as the 36th overall quarterback during that time frame. A grade that low indicates that Brissett has had very little influence over how well he performs statistically, as well as his team’s overall offensive performance.
On the other hand, Deshaun Watson has consistently performed at a high level despite a supporting cast that has let him down more often than not. He hasn’t exactly been an OSM superstar this season either, but he has been far from terrible, ranking tenth among qualifying quarterbacks with an overall grade of 26.44. He has consistently elevated the play of his teammates, rather than being carried along by them.
Brissett and Watson’s OSM grades from TNF
The differences between Brissett and Watson have never been more evident than they were on Thursday night. Watson outperformed Brissett by a significant margin statistically, out-gaining him by more than 100 passing yards and throwing two touchdown passes to Brissett’s zero. But the difference in their OSM grades was even wider. Against the Texans, Brissett received his lowest OSM grade of the year at 4.22, implying that he had almost no impact on his offensive production, a fact that looks even worse given how limited that production was. In stark contrast, Watson’s grade of 47.72 was his best of the season and the fifth-highest grade by any quarterback so far this year. In short, not only did Watson outplay his opponent according to conventional statistics, but he also contributed far more to those statistics than Brissett did.
Why were Brissett and Watson’s grades so different?
Determining a player’s OSM grade is a complex process that takes into account a variety of advanced metrics. For the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on the two that impacted Brissett and Watson’s grades the most. The first of these metrics what the NFL calls “intended air yards” (IAY), which measures how far the football traveled in the air before being caught or hitting the ground on each of a quarterback’s pass attempts. In simpler terms, this statistic shows how far a quarterback threw the ball downfield on average. Quarterbacks with higher averages will receive higher OSM grades because their statistical production relied less on their receivers to gain yards after the catch.
Watson performed very well on this metric, as his average IAY of 13.5 yards was one of the highest of the week. On the other hand, Brissett fared substantially worse, only averaging 6.5 IAY per attempt, meaning that his passes traveled less than half as far as Watson’s on average. The comparison looks even worse for Brissett when you examine the quarterbacks’ IAY on their completions only. Watson’s average dropped to 12.4 yards, which still is incredibly high. Put another way, on an average completion, Watson’s passes traveled far enough for the Texans to gain a first down. Meanwhile, Brissett’s passes only traveled an average of two yards before being caught, meaning that he needed a lot of help from his wide receivers if Indianapolis was going to gain significant yardage. It is possible to win games this way if you have dynamic enough receivers, but even in such cases, it is clear that the quarterback is not doing the majority of the work.
The other relevant metric in this game is what is called “expected completion percentage.” The NFL, using advanced predictive analytics, calculates how likely each pass a quarterback throws is to be completed. From there, they can determine the percentage of pass attempts the quarterback should have completed in comparison to what they actually accomplished on the field. Let’s examine Brissett’s statistics first. He completed 64% of his passes, which looks good on paper. However, his expected completion percentage was 72%, meaning that he actually completed eight percent fewer passes than he should have. And remember, this was in spite of the fact that Brissett only threw the ball 6.5 yards downfield on average.
Meanwhile, Watson’s statistics were, once again, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. His actual completion percentage of 63.3% was roughly comparable to Brissett’s, but the expectations for him were completely different. Based on the NFL’s analytics, Watson should have completed just 55.1% of his passes, more than 8% lower than what he achieved on gameday. So, despite consistently throwing the ball further downfield than Brissett, Watson was much more efficient when it came to actually completing his passes.
What did TNF tell us about the Colts and Texans’ futures at quarterback?
The Colts and Texans are two teams with opposite weaknesses, and this fact definitely showed on TNF. Indianapolis is a great team with a subpar quarterback, and Houston is a mediocre team with a great quarterback. Most people probably already knew that, but this game showed just how wide the gap between the two quarterbacks truly is. That said, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that the Colts are actually in the better position going forward. They are well-coached and have a solid foundation to build upon. All they need to do is find a quarterback, although that is easier said than done. On the other hand, the Texans need to improve at a number of positions, particularly on the offensive line, if they want to challenge for a Super Bowl. Oftentimes, Watson masks these flaws with his individual greatness, but even he can’t carry the team by himself.
Additionally, while Indianapolis has the ammunition to draft a quarterback this offseason, Houston lost a significant amount of draft capital over the next two years when they traded for Laremy Tunsil, which means improving the roster around Watson will be even more difficult. In truth, though, both of these teams have tough decisions ahead of them. Only time will tell which can navigate their situation better.