Why the Jameis Winston-Peyton Manning comparison is a bad one

Comparing quarterbacks based on their raw interception totals can lead to faulty conclusions. Here’s a better way.
“You're going into your fifth year, you're not the rookie anymore,” Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said of Jameis Winston. “It's time. Stuff really should show up now. [BILL KOSTROUN | Associated Press]
“You're going into your fifth year, you're not the rookie anymore,” Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said of Jameis Winston. “It's time. Stuff really should show up now. [BILL KOSTROUN | Associated Press]
Published June 25

Examining Jameis Winston’s interceptions is like interpreting Rorschach inkblots. Everyone’s going to tell a different story.

In his four seasons in the NFL, Winston has thrown 58 picks. That’s either a lot or not all that many.

Buccaneers quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen’s take: “Your first four years, you throw a bunch of interceptions,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer recently.

That’s true for some quarterbacks. Vinny Testaverde (81), Peyton Manning (81) and Jake Plummer (80) threw a bunch. Bernie Kosar (33), Russell Wilson (34) and Tom Brady (38), however, did not.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (46) also threw fewer interceptions than Winston, “but they ran the ball in Atlanta, he went to a little bit better football team,” Christensen said.

Before it drafted Ryan in 2008, Atlanta was a mess actually. The Falcons’ franchise quarterback spent the 2007 season in prison, and their head coach quit on them. They did run the ball often, though — nearly 2,000 times from 2008 to 2011. Only the Jets and Ravens attempted more runs.

But that wasn’t why Ryan threw fewer interceptions.

He threw fewer interceptions because he was simply a better passer, as evidenced by, among other things, his interception rate. He threw a pick 2.3 percent of the time. Winston threw one 3.0 percent of the time.

[ RELATED: Fewer Jameis Winston interceptions in 2019? Don’t count on it. ]

Where does Winston’s interception rate rank among NFL quarterbacks, past and present? To find out, we built a list of players from the past 40 years who threw at least 1,000 passes during their first four seasons. That list features 86 quarterbacks, from Troy Aikman to Vince Young.

Among those 86, Winston ranks … 35th.

Thirty-fifth doesn’t seem so bad. That places Winston ahead of seven Hall of Famers. SEVEN! And they are: Dan Marino (3.3 percent, 46th), Brett Favre (3.4 percent, 50th), Jim Kelly (3.6 percent, 63rd), John Elway (3.7 percent, 68th), Kurt Warner (3.8 percent, 74th), Aikman (3.9 percent, 77th) and Warren Moon (4.6 percent, 84th).

Best interception rates during first four seasons, 1979-2018 (minimum 1,000 passes)
Rank Player Team Seasons Att Int Int%
1 Dak Prescott DAL 2016-2018 1,475 25 1.7
2 Colin Kaepernick SF 2011-2014 1,117 21 1.9
3 Carson Wentz PHI 2016-2018 1,448 28 1.9
4 Russell Wilson SEA 2012-2015 1,735 34 2.0
5 Derek Carr OAK 2014-2017 2,247 44 2.0
6 Jared Goff LAR 2016-2018 1,243 26 2.1
7 Robert Griffin WAS/CLE 2012-2016 1,210 26 2.2
8 Sam Bradford STL 2010-2013 1,760 38 2.2
9 Jeff Garcia SF 1999-2002 1,968 43 2.2
10 Neil O'Donnell PIT 1991-1994 1,455 32 2.2
Worst interception rates during first four seasons, 1979-2018 (minimum 1,000 passes)
Rank Player Team Seasons Att Int Int%
86 Vinny Testaverde TB 1987-1990 1,476 81 5.5
85 Jake Plummer ARI 1997-2000 1,699 80 4.7
84 Warren Moon HOU 1984-1987 1,683 77 4.6
83 Kerry Collins CAR/NO 1995-1998 1,531 64 4.2
82 Mike Pagel BAL/IND 1982-1985 1,154 47 4.1
81 Derek Anderson CLE 2006-2009 1,109 45 4.1
80 Tim Couch CLE 1999-2002 1,511 61 4.0
79 Jon Kitna SEA 1997-2000 1,130 45 4.0
78 Trent Dilfer TB 1994-1997 1,365 54 4.0
77 Jay Schroeder WAS/RAI 1985-1988 1,273 50 3.9

Don’t start looking into arrangements for a trip to Canton just yet. Elway? Marino? Moon? Wasn’t that a completely different era? Weren’t they wearing leather helmets back then? Isn’t this a little like comparing Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) and Old Town Road?

It is. Those songs are nothing alike, and Old Town Road is excruciatingly awful. As for interception rates, the average rate in 1983, the year Elway and Marino made their debuts, was 4.4 percent. Quarterbacks today have cut that average in half, to 2.4 percent.

[ RELATED: Who is Jameis Winston? We still don’t know. ]

If only there were a way to compare quarterbacks across eras …

Actually, there is. And Pro Football Reference has already done the math for us.

The statistic? INT%+. What is it? The short explanation is that it measures a quarterback’s interception rate, compares it with the league average and puts it on a scale. The plus sign is merely a way to differentiate INT%+ from the conventional interception percentage. An INT%+ of 100 is league average. Anything greater than 100 is considered above average, and anything less than 100 is considered below average. (For the baseball sabermetricians out there, think OPS+ or wRC+).

Through this lens, it’s not a good look for Winston. Those seven Hall of Famers from a few paragraphs ago? They’re all ahead of him. Marino is 12th (111), Elway is 28th (106), Kelly is 33rd (105), Favre is 49th (100), Aikman is 60th (96), Moon is 64th (93) and Warner is 71st (91).

Winston? An INT%+ of 89 places him 75th, between Alex Smith and Ben Roethlisberger. Manning, despite throwing 23 more interceptions during his first four seasons, still comes out ahead of Winston. His INT%+ of 95 ranks 62nd, between Aikman and Moon.

Kosar (123), Joe Montana (121) and Ken O’Brien (118) top the list, and Derek Anderson (84), Plummer (79) and Testaverde (76) round out the bottom.

Highest INT%+ during first four seasons, 1979-2018 (minimum 1,000 passes)
Rank Player Team Seasons Att Int Int% Int%+
1 Bernie Kosar CLE 1985-1988 1,427 33 2.3 123
2 Joe Montana SF 1979-1982 1,130 32 2.8 121
3 Ken O'Brien NYJ 1984-1987 1,566 43 2.8 118
3 Neil O'Donnell PIT 1991-1994 1,455 32 2.2 118
5 Jeff Garcia SF 1999-2002 1,968 43 2.2 117
6 Donovan McNabb PHI 1999-2002 1,639 38 2.3 116
7 Neil Lomax STL 1981-1984 1,355 43 3.2 114
8 Tony Eason NE 1983-1986 1,273 40 3.1 113
9 Tom Brady NE 2000-2003 1,544 38 2.5 112
9 Colin Kaepernick SF 2011-2014 1,117 21 1.9 112
9 Dak Prescott DAL 2016-2018 1,475 25 1.7 112
Lowest INT%+ during first four seasons, 1979-2018 (minimum 1,000 passes)
Rank Player Team Seasons Att Int Int% Int%+
86 Vinny Testaverde TB 1987-1990 1,476 81 5.5 76
85 Jake Plummer ARI 1997-2000 1,699 80 4.7 79
84 Derek Anderson CLE 2006-2009 1,109 45 4.1 84
83 Kerry Collins CAR/NO 1995-1998 1,531 64 4.2 86
80 Mark Sanchez NYJ 2009-2012 1,867 69 3.7 87
80 Trent Dilfer TB 1994-1997 1,365 54 4.0 87
80 Tim Couch CLE 1999-2002 1,511 61 4.0 87
75 Vince Young TEN 2006-2009 1,034 39 3.8 89
75 Jameis Winston TB 2015-2018 1,922 58 3.0 89
75 Ben Roethlisberger PIT 2004-2007 1,436 54 3.8 89
75 Christian Ponder MIN 2011-2014 1,057 36 3.4 89
75 Jon Kitna SEA 1997-2000 1,130 45 4.0 89

Winston’s low INT%+ doesn’t mean he’s a bad quarterback and that the Bucs are doomed. He matches up favorably with the quarterbacks in this sample in other similarly-adjusted categories, categories such as touchdown rate (near average), passer rating (near average) and yards per attempt (above average).

What his low INT%+ does mean, however, is that his accuracy and decision-making issues are real. Sometimes, sloppy mechanics are to blame. Sometimes, it’s his aggressive, never-say-die mentality. During spring workouts, Bucs coaches sought to clean up Winston’s alignment and footwork and emphasized patience, Christensen said on a recent Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast.

“We’ll keep teaching it,” he said. “We’re not there yet, but we can get there.”

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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