An interception returned for a touchdown, or “pick six,” can be a game-changer, swinging an opportunity to score into points for the opposition. Dave Archibald looks at which quarterbacks are the best, and worst, at avoiding pick sixes.
All turnovers are bad, but ill-advised throws that provide a reversal of scoring opportunity are the worst. Since 1998, NFL teams have posted 212 wins and 694 losses ‒ a paltry .233 winning percentage ‒ when throwing at least one pick six.
If a quarterback were able to avoid these kinds of interceptions, he would contribute real value to his team. The chart below shows career pick sixes, total pass attempts, and total interceptions ‒ as well as the ratio of pass attempts to pick sixes, and interceptions to pick sixes. All statistics include both regular season and playoffs:
It is clear that some quarterbacks do possess the ability to avoid throwing pick sixes. This year, quarterbacks average 323 attempts per pick six and 7.7 interceptions per pick six, but Tom Brady and Alex Smith are throwing pick sixes half as often over their careers. The top of the list is the most stunning: Russell Wilson has thrown just one interception returned for a touchdown in his 4 years in the NFL, while Aaron Rodgers has thrown only one in his eight seasons as an NFL starter ‒ a truly remarkable accomplishment.
The previously mentioned four QBs all have historically low interception rates, but they also throw fewer pick sixes than expected, based on their number of interceptions. For the total sample of 29 active quarterbacks with more than 1,000 passing attempts used in this study, there is a mild 0.21 correlation between interception rate and percentage of interceptions returned for touchdowns. Quarterbacks who threw fewer interceptions generally also tended to be better-than-average at avoiding pick sixes when they did turn it over.
There are other quarterbacks with fairly small sample sizes also posting excellent rates ‒ Brian Hoyer has thrown just one pick six in 959 career pass attempts, while former Washington savior, and current benchwarmer, Robert Griffin III has never thrown one in 1,082.
The group with the worst rates of throwing pick-sixes isn’t nearly as interesting, lacking the dramatic outliers that characterize the “best rate” group. To some extent there is a survivor bias here ‒ any player that frequently throws pick sixes is not likely to hang around long enough to have much of a career. Matt Schaub is the clearest example of this ‒ he made the Pro Bowl in 2012 but one year later threw pick sixes in four consecutive games and lost his starting job. Schaub has been a dour-faced backup ever since.
Several young players have worse rates over a small sample size, including the first two picks in the 2015 draft:
Nearly every metric for evaluating quarterbacks takes into account interceptions, but few look at what happens once the opposing defense gets the ball. Analysts have either assumed there’s little difference between quarterbacks or that the results after the interception are beyond their control, but the tables above suggest that at least some quarterbacks have the ability to avoid the most costly errors.
More study is needed before any definite conclusions, but given how damaging a pick six is to a team’s effort to win, this may be a hidden edge that Green Bay, Seattle, New England, and Kansas City have as they fight for playoff berths down the stretch.
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