New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks of all time at protecting the football. He ranks 2nd in NFL history in interception rate, behind only Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, while his era-adjusted interception rate is one of the 10 best in football history.
Brady led the NFL in interception rate this past season at 1.12%, the 9th best mark in NFL history. Brady’s 2015 season trailed his miraculous 2010 season with 4 interceptions to become the second best mark in Brady’s career. His interception rate has been below 2% in each of his past six seasons.
For context, Rodgers (1.61%) and Seahawks QB Russell Wilson (1.96%) are the only two other quarterbacks to average less than a 2.00% interception rate during their careers.
We know that not all interceptions are created equal, and not all bad passes are intercepted. It’s not rare to see a wide receiver tip the ball into the hands of a defender, and it’s fairly common to see a defender drop an easy interception.
Football Outsiders (FO) parsed through the data to see which quarterbacks benefit the least and the most from dropped passes or tipped interceptions over the past decade in order to see if any quarterback has been luckier than others.
In 2015, Brady threw 7 interceptions, but one of those was tipped. Brady also threw three passes that FO considered the defense to have dropped. In total, FO said Brady was responsible for 9 adjusted interceptions.
After applying that logic to the rest of the quarterbacks, Brady was still found to have the lowest adjusted interception rate in the entire league at 1.4%. He’s simply the best. Coincidentally, Brady’s former back-up Brian Hoyer ranked second at 1.6%. Rodgers (1.9%) and Browns QB Josh McCown (1.7%) were the only other quarterbacks below 2.0% with 200+ pass attempts.
On the other side of the spectrum, six quarterbacks exceeded an adjusted 4.0% interception rate: Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (4.1%), Texans QB Ryan Mallett (4.2%), Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston (4.2%), Jaguars QB Blake Bortles (4.3%), Colts QB Andrew Luck (5.5%), and retired Broncos QB Peyton Manning (6.4%!!!!!).
My word, the AFC South was atrocious. Titans QB Marcus Mariota just missed the cut-off at 3.8%.
But it’s important to note that this all comes down to luck. Football Outsiders noted that defenders usually drop one out of five passes that should have been easy interceptions. Brady, however, is not necessarily lucky.
Remember that atrocious 2013 season, which echoed the 2015 season, with every offensive player getting hurt and falling by the wayside? That was one of the two or three unluckiest seasons for any quarterback in the past five years. Brady threw 11 interceptions, but a lot weren’t his fault; he was projected to throw just 6.3. That’s a 74.6% increase over expectation.
The only other seasons that come close were Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 2011 season with the Bills, where he was projected to throw 17.4, but actually threw 23- a greater total increase in interceptions above expectation, but just a 32.2% increase in reality, and Shaun Hill’s 2014 season with the Rams, where he was projected to throw 4, but actually threw 7- a 75% increase that took place over a mere 229 attempts.
On the flip side, Brady’s 2007 season was the 13th luckiest in the data set, with just 8 interceptions on an expected 11.9.
Colts QB Andrew Luck is the luckiest quarterback (min. 50+ adjusted interceptions) over the span of this research, with 14.1% fewer interceptions than expected. Cardinals QB Carson Palmer (-7.9%), Ravens QB Joe Flacco (-7.1%), and Cowboys QB Tony Romo (-5.3%) have also been exceptionally lucky.
On the other side of the spectrum, Saints QB Drew Brees has been extraordinarily unlucky. Since 2007, Brees was expected to throw 128.8 interceptions, but he actually threw 141 due to bad bounces and luck- an increase of 9.5%.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers (+9.1%), Chiefs QB Alex Smith (+8.9%), and Falcons QB Matt Ryan (+7.5%) have also experienced some awful ball luck.
Personally, I think this metric is a helpful addition to understanding turnover logic. Over the years we’ve learned that recovering a fumble relies heavily on luck, so “forced fumble” is probably a better indicator when evaluating a defender.
The same applies here for quarterbacks. Not all interceptions are equal and, at the end, the bounces generally even out. But if we can better attribute blame and credit on turnovers, we can better evaluate players.
In this case, we thought Brady was good at protecting the football- and the numbers support it wholeheartedly.