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Stolen Touchdowns: Who Were the Biggest Touchdown Thieves of 2021?

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It would take a lifetime to understand every angle of the Packers’ trade up into the first round of the 2020 draft and selection of quarterback Jordan Love with Aaron Rodgers still under contract. Its implications have spiraled into soap opera with detours from actress Shailene Woodley to psychedelic drugs.

 

But Rodgers’ late-career rally to win consecutive MVP awards has steered fans to two prominent schools of thought. Some fans believe the Love selection lit a fire under Rodgers, and the veteran used that motivation to drive him to better play. Other fans believe Rodgers never slipped but that his statistics rebounded because the Packers improved the talent around him, most notably at head coach with the transition from Mike McCarthy to Matt LaFleur.

With my mind trained to fantasy football, I suspected a third possible explanation: stolen touchdowns. Aaron Jones led the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns in the season prior to the Love selection. And in the two years since, Rodgers has made a mostly unimportant strategic change for the Packers’ chances to win that I believe has proven very important for his reputation as a quarterback. He started to pass more near the end zone.

In 2018 and 2019 combined, Rodgers threw 12 touchdowns on plays that started within 5 yards of the end zone. But in the last two seasons individually, Rodgers threw 20 and 13 of those close-up touchdowns.

It isn’t quite fair to call Rodgers a stat-padder. The Packers improved their red zone efficiency as Rodgers passed more at the goal line. They jumped from eighth with a 16.2% red zone DVOA in 2019 to far-and-away first at 55.2% in 2020 before they fell back to ninth at 8.6% last season. And with a similar approach as I used to calculate my expected touchdown passes and runs added metrics XTPA and XTRA, I estimate Rodgers created 38.8 more touchdowns with his touchdown throws from 2020 and 2021 than a league-average offense would score on drives that touched similar downs and distances from the end zone. That total is second most among quarterbacks behind only Tom Brady’s 39.9. But that same math suggests it is fair to call Rodgers a touchdown thief. And recent history shows that the biggest touchdown thieves can expect their touchdown rates per pass or per rush attempt to decline in subsequent seasons.

Stolen touchdowns are easy to calculate but difficult to attribute. For the former effort, I used league-average passing and rushing touchdown rates for drives — not for plays — at every down and distance from the end zone. So if Rodgers threw a passing touchdown on first down from the 1-yard line, I estimated that he stole the 0.606 rushing touchdowns that teams would on average score on the drives that reached that down-and-DEZ. And if Jones instead ran in a touchdown on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, I estimated he stole 0.271 passing touchdowns. Every touchdown includes some fraction of a stolen touchdown of the opposite play call.

Aaron Rodgers 2022 Fantasy Football Stolen Touchdowns

It’s easy to intuit that the touchdowns Jones stole were stolen from Rodgers. But in practice with a comprehensive calculation of stolen touchdowns, that expectation becomes complicated when more than one quarterback plays for a team. And the inverted situation is even trickier. Teams often use more than one running back on an individual play. So how does one fairly distribute a stolen Rodgers touchdown among Jones, AJ Dillon and even Rodgers himself but as a runner?

My solution aims to balance fairness with simplicity. Since FTN charts skill-player participation every play — which you can pull from an API along with myriad other data and advanced statistics with an FTN Data subscription — I look first to see if at least one running back was on the field for a passing touchdown. If so, I split up the debits of stolen rushing touchdowns among every running back and the quarterback on the field subject to their ratios of opportunity-adjusted rushing touchdowns for the game. And if not — or if a play does not have player participation charting — I split up the stolen touchdown debits among every running back and the quarterback subject to their ratios of rushing OTDs for the game. Either way, the runners that generally see better chances to score earn bigger fractions of the stolen touchdowns.

Now that the boring work is finished, let’s look at the biggest touchdown thieves and theft victims from last season, starting with quarterbacks.

Biggest Passing Touchdown Thieves, 2021
Player Stolen By Stolen From Net Gained
Matthew Stafford 8.7 3.1 5.6
Dak Prescott 8.5 3.9 4.6
Aaron Rodgers 8.8 4.4 4.4
Tom Brady 9.4 5.4 4.0
Patrick Mahomes 8.9 5.1 3.8
Kirk Cousins 6.3 3.1 3.2
Davis Mills 2.9 0.7 2.2
Trevor Siemian 2.5 1.0 1.5
Tua Tagovailoa 4.2 2.9 1.3
Jameis Winston 2.3 1.0 1.3

I’m tempted to speculate that Matthew Stafford demanded more easy touchdown passes when he and head coach Sean McVay schemed up the former’s trade to the Rams in Cabo last offseason. Stafford’s 5.6 net stolen passing touchdowns nearly doubled his total of 3.2 from 2018-20 with the Lions, combined. But Stafford’s league-high stolen touchdown total likely has a less conspiratorial explanation. The Rams suffered multiple injuries at running back and generally fared much better in pass protection than run-blocking. Their line had a 68% pass block win rate that was the best in football, per ESPN. But their 71% run block win rate was middle of the pack at 12th. Still, it’s difficult to see Stafford’s outlier stolen touchdown total and not expect some regression in his fantasy production. But more on that in a bit.

 

Rodgers fell a bit short of top touchdown thief status. But a broader look at his recent career burglaries hints that my initial speculation was on the right track.

Aaron Rodgers‘ Stolen Touchdowns and AP MVP Votes
Season Stolen By Stolen From Net Gained MVP Votes
2015 6.6 2.1 4.5 0
2016 9.2 3.6 5.6 2
2017 4.2 1.4 2.8 0
2018 4.7 4.7 0.0 0
2019 5.1 6.0 -0.9 0
2020 12.3 4.7 7.6 44
2021 8.8 4.4 4.4 39

Rodgers leapt from a stolen touchdown deficit in 2018 and 2019 to 7.6 and 4.4 net stolen passing touchdowns the last two seasons. And over the last seven years, Rodgers has only received MVP votes in his seasons with between 4.0 and 8.0 net stolen passing touchdowns.

Biggest Passing Touchdown Theft Victims, 2021
Player Stolen By Stolen From Net Gained
Jalen Hurts 2.9 6.5 -3.6
Jimmy Garoppolo 3.8 6.6 -2.8
Mac Jones 4.7 6.7 -2.0
Kyler Murray 3.7 5.4 -1.7
Ryan Tannehill 5.1 6.7 -1.6
Trevor Lawrence 2.4 3.8 -1.4
Justin Fields 1.5 2.8 -1.3
Zach Wilson 1.9 3.1 -1.2
Sam Darnold 1.8 2.9 -1.1
Tyler Huntley 0.7 1.7 -1.0

Jalen Hurts was nearly a full net stolen passing touchdown behind every other quarterback. But fantasy players shouldn’t lament Hurts’ poor fortune. He just missed the top 10 among all players in net stolen rushing touchdowns. And with typical scoring systems, fantasy players win every time Hurts tucks the ball and steals a passing touchdown from himself.

To my mind, Mac Jones, Ryan Tannehill and Trevor Lawrence are the compelling touchdown theft victims. As less likely quarterbacks to finish drives on the ground themselves, their ceded touchdowns were lost fantasy potential. Lawrence is already a popular Year 2 breakout candidate. But even if his critics are correct that Jones is near his career ceiling as a passer, his stolen touchdown deficit offers a reason for optimism for at least his fantasy growth in his sophomore season.

Biggest Rushing Touchdown Thieves, 2021
Player Stolen By Stolen From Net Gained
Damien Harris 4.6 1.9 2.7
Deebo Samuel 2.6 0.3 2.3
James Conner 4.3 2.3 2.0
Derrick Henry 3.1 1.5 1.6
Latavius Murray 2.0 0.4 1.6
Boston Scott 1.9 0.4 1.5
David Montgomery 2.4 0.9 1.5
Austin Ekeler 4.4 2.9 1.5
James Robinson 2.4 1.0 1.4
Jonathan Taylor 5.6 4.2 1.4

With Jones so low on the net stolen passing touchdowns list, it is little surprise to see his teammate Damien Harris atop the rushing touchdown thieves one. And even if Jones lacks the arm strength to squeeze in every end zone throw, it has me concerned for Harris’ bust potential. His rookie teammate Rhamondre Stevenson bested Harris with 3.35 versus 2.37 yards after contact per attempt, per FTN Data. Harris might not need to lose many touchdowns to the vagaries of red zone play calls to falter in fantasy if he is poised to cede some goal-line work to Stevenson, as well.

Biggest Rushing Touchdown Theft Victims, 2021
Player Stolen By Stolen From Net Gained
Sony Michel 1.2 4.5 -3.3
Aaron Jones 1.5 4.7 -3.2
Leonard Fournette 2.5 5.2 -2.7
Dak Prescott 0.3 2.7 -2.4
Justin Herbert 1.0 2.7 -1.7
Ezekiel Elliott 3.0 4.6 -1.6
Dalvin Cook 1.7 3.3 -1.6
Patrick Mahomes 0.8 2.4 -1.6
Russell Wilson 0.6 2.2 -1.6
Clyde Edwards-Helaire 1.3 2.9 -1.6

Poor Aaron Jones. His 3.2 stolen touchdown deficit could have nearly doubled his 2021 total of just four rushing touchdowns. Four! From the player who led the position in 2019! Maybe he should have demanded a trade instead of his former teammate Davante Adams. I have little doubt that Adams owes at least a few million of his new $140 million Raiders deal to the touchdown passes Rodgers stole from Jones the last two seasons.

You likely noticed that the five biggest passing touchdown thieves — Stafford, Dak Prescott, Rodgers, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes — are five of the very best passers in football. I don’t believe that is entirely coincidental. The better the passer, the higher his “break-even” red zone pass/run ratio should be. Still, the touchdown rate regression I purported for Stafford and Rodgers was more than speculation. Since 2015, seven of the 10 biggest passing touchdown thieves saw their passing touchdown rates per pass attempt decline in their next seasons.

Biggest Passing Touchdown Thieves with their Next Year’s Change in TD%, 2015-21
  Year Y Year Y + 1 Diff
Player Season Pass TD% Net Stolen Season Pass TD% Pass TD%
Aaron Rodgers 2020 9.10% 7.6 2021 7.00% -2.10%
Matthew Stafford 2015 5.40% 6.8 2016 4.00% -1.40%
Blake Bortles 2015 5.80% 6.7 2016 3.70% -2.10%
Russell Wilson 2017 6.10% 6.7 2018 8.20% 2.10%
Aaron Rodgers 2016 6.60% 5.6 2017 6.70% 0.10%
Matthew Stafford 2021 6.80% 5.6
Patrick Mahomes 2018 8.60% 5.1 2019 5.40% -3.20%
Eli Manning 2015 5.70% 4.9 2016 4.30% -1.40%
Dak Prescott 2021 6.20% 4.6
Aaron Rodgers 2015 5.40% 4.5 2016 6.60% 1.20%
Russell Wilson 2020 7.20% 4.5 2021 6.30% -0.90%
Patrick Mahomes 2020 6.50% 4.4 2021 5.60% -0.90%
Aaron Rodgers 2021 7.00% 4.4
Minimum 200 pass attempts in each season

And eight of the nine biggest rushing touchdown thieves saw their rushing touchdown rates decline the following seasons, many by 3.0% or more, which is a dramatic decline with massive fantasy implications.

Biggest Rushing Touchdown Thieves with their Next Year’s Change in TD%, 2015-21
  Year Y Year Y + 1 Diff
Player Season Ru TD% Net Stolen Season Ru TD% Ru TD%
Alvin Kamara 2020 8.60% 3.3 2021 1.70% -6.90%
LeSean McCoy 2016 5.60% 2.9 2017 2.10% -3.50%
Damien Harris 2021 7.40% 2.7
Aaron Jones 2019 6.80% 2.6 2020 4.50% -2.30%
Mike Gillislee 2016 7.90% 2.3 2017 4.80% -3.10%
Antonio Gibson 2020 6.50% 2.2 2021 2.70% -3.80%
James Conner 2021 7.40% 2.0
Devonta Freeman 2015 4.20% 1.8 2016 4.80% 0.60%
Todd Gurley 2018 6.60% 1.7 2019 5.40% -1.20%
Todd Gurley 2019 5.40% 1.6 2020 4.60% -0.80%
Raheem Mostert 2019 5.80% 1.6 2020 1.90% -3.90%
Derrick Henry 2021 4.60% 1.6
Latavius Murray 2021 5.00% 1.6
Minimum 100 carries in each season

To confirm those examples echoed a trend, I ran correlations between quarterback net stolen passing touchdowns with their changes in passing touchdown rates the following years and between runner net stolen rushing touchdowns with their changes in rushing touchdown rates the following years. The former test produced a strong correlation coefficient by football standards of -0.27. And the latter nearly doubled that strength at -0.45.

Year-to-Year Correlations
Net Stolen TDs to Changes in TD%
Stat Correl
Net Stolen Passing -0.27
Net Stolen Rushing -0.45

Clearly, quarterbacks exercise some control over their year-to-year stolen touchdown tendencies. But that doesn’t mean you should assume that even Aaron Rodgers will continue to pepper passes at the goal line to his recent outlier rates, even if doing so the last two years earned him a pair of MVP trophies and $150 million extension. Most passing touchdown thieves regress, Rodgers included from 2020 to 2021.

Meanwhile, these results should raise a red flag for rushing touchdown thieves like Harris, Deebo Samuel and James Conner. Historically, very few backs have sustained stolen touchdown surpluses season after season.

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