In an episode of Seinfeld entitled The Sponge, Elaine is horribly upset to learn that her preferred contraception device, the sponge, has been taken off the market. Distraught that she has only a limited number of sponges remaining, she must decide not simply if she is interested in sex with her dates but if they are indeed “spongeworthy.” A higher level of selectivity.
Bankrolls are to sports bettors as sponges are to Elaine. Both are limited. Given the limited resources, we must decide with each opportunity to wager if it is a bankroll-worthy play. Or, in Elaine’s vernacular, if the play is spongeworthy.
The question raised here is a simple one, is Josh Allen “spongeworthy?”
Meteoric Rise in 2020
There were always concerns with Josh Allen’s accuracy. If you google his draft scouting reports (Walter Football, e.g.), they list accuracy as his most significant weakness. In his “breakout” year at Wyoming, he completed only 58% of his passes.
In his first two seasons in the league, Allen ranked 39th and 30th in Adjusted Passer Accuracy rating. This rating incorporates completion percentage along with aimed passes thrown on target. Essentially, it accounts for drops. Last season, Allen ranked sixth in the league.
Almost everyone wrote about the regression issues pertaining to Allen in the preseason. I included the model’s thoughts on this topic in my article on AFC East Win Totals. I mentioned the issue a second time in my article on the NFL MVP race. I reference the prior mentions only to reinforce that this was the exact issue on everyone’s mind concerning Allen in the preseason.
Specifically, the model concluded:
“While Allen’s improvement is sustainable, that does not mean he will not experience a drop-off in some areas. Allen’s season last year was nowhere near as odds-defying as Wentz’s 2017 season. In Wentz’s case, the ensuing regression was more easily predictable. The larger point is that there is enough to expect him to play at a top-ten quarterback moving forward.”
The 2021 Season
The Bills’ first game this season was against Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh beat Buffalo on the strength of a special teams touchdown by a score of 23-16. Readers of my articles know that the model is low on Pittsburgh, but it did not take a side in the game. The main reason was that I wanted to see Allen play. Specifically, I wanted to see how accurately he threw the ball.
Allen did not play well. He had a completion percentage of only 58.8% on a high volume of throws, 51 attempts. His numbers from that game were:
That performance was concerning but explainable. Although the model is not high on the Steelers, it does agree that they have an elite defense. This game was a carbon copy of what the Buccaneers did to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh only blitzed Buffalo twice, yet they recorded the highest pressure rate of any team in the league that week.
Josh Allen has historically been good under pressure, so one might conclude that he should have been fine against Pittsburgh. That is not accurate. Quarterbacks are most often under pressure when a team blitzes. This creates much larger windows in the secondary because only five or six players are in coverage on defense.
When a team achieves pressure without blitzing, seven players drop into coverage. Consequently, the available windows to complete a pass shrink considerably. This is precisely what happened to Mahomes in the Super Bowl, where he fared no better than Allen in Pittsburgh.
In light of the preceding, and knowing that only one or two teams in the league can get sustained pressure without the blitz, it was easy to dismiss the game as a bad day for Allen and nothing more.
In week two, Allen had a seemingly much better matchup against the Dolphins. Unlike the Steelers, the Dolphins’ defense is not elite in their front four. They have to blitz to get pressure. The Dolphins are elite in the secondary. Allen had played well against the Dolphins defense in previous matchups. This game had all the markings of a harbinger.
I made this exact point in my article on the Bills before last week’s game against the Dolphins. Specifically, I wrote in that piece:
“The Dolphins will not have the luxury of dropping into coverage. They will have to blitz often. The Bills will send five out and attack the weakest link. Allen will have bigger windows in which to throw and one-on-one matchups to exploit. If he is inaccurate this week against this defense, then Buffalo drops to Defcon 3. “
If you only look at the final score, you might assume that Allen played well. He did not. Allen completed only 51.5% of his passes. If you watch the game, there is no doubt that he was inaccurate.
If we fill in our chart from above, with the data from Allen’s first two games from the 2021 season, we see an alarming trend:
His numbers appear perfectly in line with his first two seasons in the league. If we compare either standard box score stats or advanced metrics, we see the same result. Below are Allen’s season by season box score stats:
His numbers in 2018, 2019, and 2021 tell a consistent story of a quarterback with accuracy issues. 2020 seems like an extreme outlier.
If we reference more advanced metrics, we reach the same conclusion. In 2018 and 2019, PFF graded Allen’s passing at 58 and 61.9, respectively. This season Allen has a grade of 59.3. Right in between his first two seasons. My NFL model agrees with PFF. The model ranks Allen as the 25th best quarterback after two weeks. He is behind Wentz and even Andy Dalton. In 2021, PFF graded Allen at 89.8.
This is not an esoteric metric analysis without real-world application. The Bills are an elite team and a viable Super Bowl contender when Allen is accurate. When he is not, they are mediocre.
We are only two games into the season, and that is an awfully small sample size even by NFL standards. However, this trend is a continuation from the final two games of the 2020 season. There is a significant cause for concern in Buffalo. The model is staying off or fading the Bills until more data comes in, but as of now, neither Allen nor the Bills are “spongeworthy.”