Breaking Down Seahawks QB Tarvaris Jackson

Defensive backs take part of their traditional pregame huddle before taking the field for warmups.
Inconsistency can be a funny thing. It is often used when a person cannot detect any predictable pattern in a person or thing. The real question is whether there truly is no pattern to a person, or whether the observer is simply is unable to recognize the pattern. Tarvaris Jackson is a perfect example. Analysts ranging from Brock Huard to Tim Hasselbeck to this blogger have talked repeatedly about Jackson being better than expected, but maddeningly inconsistent. He currently leads the Seahawks quarterback competition, earned respect last year playing behind a terrible line and with a painful injury, and very well may end up starting again in 2012. It is about time to see if there is any explanation to his inconsistent play. Jackson has started 34 games in his six-year career. has terrific splits of player stats that I spent a few hours combining into career splits for Jackson. The result revealed some clear patterns to Jackson’s play, a few of which may surprise you.

Jackson is great in the red zone
My hypothesis with a player like Matt Flynn was that he would win the job against Jackson, in part, due to a better command of making good decisions near the opponents end zone. Flynn should look elsewhere for a weakness in Jackson’s game. Jackson had an astonishing 9:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the red zone last season, and a 90.5 passer rating. That was actually below his career rating in red zone situations.

Jackson has a sterling 111.6 rating inside the opponents 20-yard line in his career, including 21 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He gets even better inside the opponents 10-yard line where he boasts a 132.2 rating with 12 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. The 20-yard stats are inclusive, so 12 of his 21 red zone touchdowns came inside the 10-yard line. 

His production outside the red zone is not so hot, where he is a career 73.3 rated passer with 16 touchdowns and 30 interceptions.

Third down is not a happy place
Seattle’s offense struggled to convert on 3rd down last season, and Jackson was a major contributor to the problem with a terrible 65.6 passer rating, a 53% completion percentage and three touchdowns versus five interceptions. That production was actually an improvement. Jackson’s career passer rating on 3rd downs is 61.9. It is his worst down, by far.

Surprisingly, he struggles more in 3rd and less than 6 yards (41.8 rating) than he does in 3rd and 6 or more yards (73.8).  He does especially bad on 3rd and 1-2 yards, where his rating is a putrid 38.4 with a 41% completion percentage.

This does not appear to be a common problem in the NFL. A quick check of two players across the spectrum of NFL QBs reveals Tom Brady and Alex Smith were both better passers on 3rd and less than 6 than they were in 3rd and more than 6. Flynn, however, did struggle in those situations in his game against Detroit last season with a 55.8 rating.

Struggling in short yardage could be the result of any number of things. Jackson may not be his best when making quick reads, or audibles, or hitting the routes involved. Many shorter yardage 3rd down plays involve the middle of the field, either via the tight end, slot receivers or running backs. Jackson is at his worst throwing down the middle, where he is a career 49.0 passer, including a microscopic 24.7 rating last year.

This could prove to be a key differentiator with Flynn, who has been a very strong 3rd down passer so far and had plenty of success last year throwing down the middle. Seattle’s receiving strength appears to be up the middle with players like Doug Baldwin, Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow Jr.who also make their living on 3rd down. It does not seem like Jackson is well-equipped to maximize those players.

Third down is the only situation where Jackson has thrown more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (9). He has thrown for a combined 28 touchdowns and 20 interceptions on any down other than third.

Second down is a very happy place
Jackson is a completely different player on 2nd down. He is a career 89.2 passer, with a lofty 67.2% completion percentage in those situations. He is particularly strong in 2nd and long situations (6+ yards) where he is a 93.2 passer with 12 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions.

What does it say about a player that excels on 2nd down? It is the least important down of the bunch. First down is most important, followed by 3rd, and then 4th (if the team goes for it). The pressure is off here. It’s like a 2-1 count in baseball. The worst thing that can happen is you wind up with one more swing.

It is better, of course, to excel on 2nd down than to be miserable on every down, but playing so much better on that down raises questions about a player’s make-up.

Sacks are a real problem
Much has been made about the porous offensive line the Seahawks ran out there to begin last season. Jackson was sacked a punishing 42 times. Those that watched every snap saw that Jackson was to blame for more than a few of those sacks by holding onto the ball too long, or a general lack of pocket presence. History indicates this has been a problem throughout his career.

Jackson has been sacked 88 times in on 1,029 career pass attempts. That means he is sacked once every 11.7 attempts, just slightly better than where he was last season (1 sack per 10.7 attempts). Peyton Manning is the gold standard for avoiding sacks, and he checks in at one sack every 31.2 attempts. Matt Hasselbeck will be our median comparison. Seahawks fans saw that he was neither great or terrible at avoiding pressure. He is sacked every 14.6 attempts. That means that if Jackson and Hasselbeck each threw 448 times in a season (which Jackson did in 2011), Hasselbeck would be sacked 7.7 fewer times.

Not surprisingly, Jackson is sacked the most on 3rd down. It’s his worst down, and the situation when most defenses are thinking about rushing the passer. Still, he is sacked every 8 pass attempts on 3rd down (versus every 14+ attempts on 1st and 2nd downs). That’s an alarming rate, and is further evidence that he is overwhelmed in those situations.

Best in the 4th quarter
Jackson is an 87.5 passer in the 4th quarter, his best. He has thrown 41% of his touchdowns in that quarter, and only a couple of those have come when the game was out of reach. This is odd considering he has only three comeback wins in the 4th quarter in his career. Andy Dalton had four in his rookie season last year. Flynn has one in two NFL starts.

Best when winning
Jackson is a 93.2 passer when his team is ahead, 53.2 when tied, and 76.7 when behind. Compare that to Tom Brady and Alex Smith who were basically the same player whether they were ahead or behind last season. Brady was 107.9 when ahead and 106.5 when behind. Smith was 88.8 and 89.8 in those situations.

Not a winning formula
Great in the red zone. Great on second down. Terrible on third down. Takes too many sacks. Plays well in the 4th. Does not lead many comebacks. A front-runner that can close.

That’s the scouting report on Jackson. It is a confusing one. His good play in the red zone and the 4th quarter being the most confounding aspects. Saying Jackson wilts under pressure would not be accurate. Things happen fast and matter greatly in the red zone. His good play in the 4th quarter can partially be explained by playing from behind and being forced into no-huddle where he has shown greater comfort.

The biggest barrier to Jackson being an acceptable starting quarterback is his play on 3rd down. No team can succeed with a quarterback that cannot convert on 3rd down, and has a propensity to turn the ball over in those situations.

His play on second downs and in the red zone show that Jackson has the talent to play in the NFL. His challenges appear to be mental, and that’s not to say intelligence is the issue. The complications of the red zone are comparable to 3rd downs. Psychologically, though, playing in the red zone has the defense on its heels where 3rd downs has the offense feeling the pressure. A pop psychologist might wonder if all the times Jackson had his legs taken out from under him in Minnesota has him fearing failure. The look in his eye when he runs the no-huddle was completely different than when he was under center. There is far less time to second-guess yourself and get in your own head when running no-huddle.

His tendency to hold onto the football for too long would be further evidence to this problem. He very likely is trying to find the “right” throw instead of just making the best one.

Pete Carroll needs to determine if giving Jackson the starting job will provide the confidence boost Jackson needs to play with more decisiveness and confidence, or whether having capable back-ups like Flynn and Wilson nipping at his heels would just amplify his fear of making mistakes. The irony should not be lost of fans that Jackson’s best chance to grasp the starting role for a ball control coach is to play with less caution. Jackson remains a fascinating player with potential to thrill and frustrate.