One of the best parts about advanced stats is that they can put a number to things we think about during games. On third down, for example, it makes sense that pass should probably go beyond the first-down marker. There's a stat for that.
Football Outsiders calls it Air Less Expected, or ALEX. NFL Next Gen Stats has a similar number, Air Yards to the Sticks, which accounts for all downs. But the idea is the same: If a quarterback is facing third and 3 and he throws the ball 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, he would get credited with plus-2 into his season average.
2009 Bills quarterback Trent Edwards had one of the lowest season averages in this stat on Football Outsiders, finishing at minus-2.8. Current Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor has been near the top of these rankings, finishing third in ALEX in 2015 (4.1) and seventh in 2016 (2.3), despite needing more yards on the average third down than most quarterbacks.
But this season, Taylor is way down in the rankings, tied for the second-lowest mark in ALEX at minus-2.2, ahead of only Kansas City's Alex Smith. NFL Next Gen Stats ranks him second-lowest in Air Yards to the Sticks on all throws at minus-2, ahead of only Chicago's Mike Glennon, who was benched for rookie Mitch Trubisky. Taylor ranked seventh in this stat last season (1.1) in the first year the NFL made it publicly available.
It's interesting that Taylor suddenly went from the top to the bottom in this stat. What caused this change, and does it matter?
I asked Taylor about throwing beyond the first-down marker on third down. Here's what he said:
"As far as third downs, completions is what you need. You have to first find a completion to be able to get past those markers. Sometimes it's catch-and-run; sometimes it's past the line, past the yard to get, so I'm really not sure what they're tracking with that."
In other words, picking out targets specifically beyond the sticks isn't an emphasis for Taylor on third down. But if he was doing it the last two years without thinking about it and stopped doing it this year, maybe that says something about his comfort with the receiving cast around him.
(One obvious thing to mention is sample size: Taylor only had 33 attempts in his third-down ALEX ranking, which was released just prior to the Bengals game, so his numbers could certainly go up over the rest of the season just due to random variation. On a leaguewide level, Football Outsiders found that full-season ALEX may increase slightly from early-season ALEX, but it hasn't risen by more than 0.5 yards over the last decade.)
Taylor has completed 30 of his 45 third-down passes this season and gained the first down on 20 of them, while taking eight sacks. He has also been a prolific runner on third down, rushing or scrambling 16 times and picking up the first down on seven of them while other rushers on the team have only eight combined third-down carries – six for LeSean McCoy and two for Mike Tolbert. The Bills' third-down conversion percentage of 38.96 ranks 16th in the league, so it's not as if Taylor's decrease in ALEX is hurting them dramatically after ranking 13th last year at 40.95.
But the concern is that a lot more has to go right to gain a first down when a pass is thrown short of the sticks. Play call, pass rush and other factors certainly affect where the ball goes – and the Bills have faced more third-and-longs per game (needing 7 yards or more) than any other team, which can't help – but a throw short of the sticks relies on the receiver to finish the job when a more aggressive throw could accomplish the goal by itself.
Football Outsiders writes that "ALEX is best applied on third downs to gauge the aggressiveness of a quarterback." We know from watching that Taylor is extra cautious with the ball, and that's backed up his last-place ranking the NFL's "aggressiveness" stat, which measures the amount of attempts a quarterback makes into "tight" coverage (defined as when a defender is within a yard or less of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion).
So watch for this on Sundays and see what Taylor does. We'll find out of this is an early-season aberration or something that reveals a telling tidbit about him as a passer.