All Kinds of Time: Caleb Williams, Justin Fields, and the Importance of Time To Throw

| February 26th, 2024

I’m happy to host this piece by Kyle Morris, a football statistician and a personal friend of mine, as he explores the differences between Caleb Williams, Justin Fields, Drake Maye, and how Time To Throw affects each Quarterback’s play on the football field.

If you’re a football fan who loves data, this is the article for you. If you aren’t a football fan who loves data, this article is still well worth your time — the insights held within it are core in discussing the ever-raging Bears’ QB debate, and Kyle does a great job numerically illustrating what I think the tape shows about each QB mentioned.

Kyle also has a podcast, which I’ll link right here. Enjoy the article, and let me know what you think in the comments below.

For the last six years I have attempted to determine how to best evaluate and project college quarterbacks to the NFL using advanced analytics.

For decades most NFL evaluators have adopted a fairly dismissive attitude toward college statistics, and for understandable reasons. Tim Tebow’s sparkling 66% college completion rate hid what became one of the NFL’s least accurate passers in recent memory. Josh Allen’s pedestrian numbers made him an enemy of most box score scouts, but actual scouts crowed about Allen’s physical tools. Even then, Josh is an outlier — he is a rare example of the NFL’s coaches improving a poor college passer, and the graveyard of prospects like Jake Locker and Kyle Boller demonstrate just how rare a story like that can be.

Ignoring a prospect’s college production carries as much (or more) risk as box score scouting. I’ve therefore spent a great deal of time trying to compile as many statistics as I can on every available college QB prospect, comparing them to each other, comparing them to their historical peers, figuring out what metrics might actually predict NFL success or failure, and which ones are just noise. Each year I look at what I got right or wrong, and I peel the layers back even further, trying to find out what I might have missed.

This leads me to today’s topic: Justin Fields, Caleb Williams, and the importance of Time To Throw.

If you’re unfamiliar with Time to Throw as a statistic, it’s pretty basic: it’s how much time after the snap a quarterback takes, on average, to throw the football. As basic this sounds, the factors that actually go into time to throw can be somewhat complicated — is a guy taking forever because he can’t read the defense and process information quickly? Is he getting rid of the ball too quickly, passing up options down the field and checking down immediately to avoid getting hit, thus passing up big plays in the process? Or is he doing the opposite of that and passing up wide open outlet throws (thus taking an extra second) to try and force an ill-advised throw downfield?

Given all this, how do we determine what factors into each individual quarterback’s time to throw?

The simple, dismissive answer favored by both professional and amateur online scouts is “watch the tape.” Now I do watch tape, but I won’t pretend to be an expert at it, and I also think that watching film is a largely mysterious and inaccessible activity for the average fan. Watching tape also doesn’t protect an analyst from their own biases, which has led NFL evaluators to often fall for “tape” that told them what they already wanted to believe.

So, without relying entirely on my own (subjective) opinion of the tape, I like to see if I can break down one stat into even more stats and determine what a player’s overall profile & tendencies look like while comparing them to players with similar and different profiles throughout history. 

When Justin Fields was drafted by the Bears I was ecstatic. Fields’ physical gifts speak for themselves, and analytically there was much to love. His combination of deep passing accuracy & efficiency combined with his low turnover rate painted a picture of a guy who would drop lethal bombs down NFL sidelines for years to come.

Sure, I heard the concerns about how long he took to throw the ball (3.14 seconds, or 110th out of 114 drafted/draft-eligible QBs since 2014) and how often he turned pressures into sacks (23.6% of the time, 103rd out of 114 QBs). I hadn’t explored those particular statistics in depth, as I’d focused much more on the metrics regarding what happened after he threw the ball while ignoring what happened before he threw it (or how often he didn’t throw it at all). Then Fields’ NFL career happened. 

For three years now we’ve seen how Justin Field’s lag in processing & his tendency to hold the ball has torpedoed his development as a passer and the Bears’ offense’s ability to sustain drives after losing yardage to sacks, which has proven detrimental to his own health as the hits and injuries have piled up. We’ve certainly seen flashes of the pinpoint deep ball accuracy and aggressiveness, but his consistency lacks because on a snap-to-snap basis Fields does not process information quickly enough to get the ball out on time.

The accuracy he displayed at Ohio State (behind an excellent offensive line throwing to elite wide receivers) never materialized in the NFL, where his abysmal completion percentage reflects a QB often throwing late and failing to anticipate receivers coming open. Fields instead waits to see a wide open target before pulling the trigger, suffering sack after sack because of the delay. Simply put, it is a terrible idea to ignore what happens before a college prospect throws the ball, because it can be a clear sign of trouble to come in the NFL.

I said “can be,” though, because some college prospects with high time to throw rates have gone on to be good to great NFL QBs. Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts are recent QBs with 3+ second TTT in college who have been successful in the NFL. What differentiates guys like that from Justin Fields, and what does all of this tell us about Caleb Williams, the man who owns the highest TTT (3.27 seconds) of any draft prospect since 2014? If Caleb takes over for Justin Fields in Chicago, how will he avoid the same depressing parade of sacks, fumbles, and late throws? 

If you’re like me, you just saw that 3.27 mark and started sweating. When I first decided that the right move for the Bears would be to move on from Justin Fields if the Panthers delivered a top-two draft pick, I started digging into the available QBs and was horrified to discover Caleb’s historically high Time To Throw waiting for me. Having just seen how Fields’ slow clock could drag the entire Bears offense to a screeching halt at times, I wanted no part of a repeat performance. I ran to the arms of Drake Maye, who I still think is a superlative QB prospect who would be an unquestioned first overall pick most years. 

However, when I questioned Caleb publicly I got a lot of pushback. Some of it was nuanced, and a lot of it was based on the all-important tape. When I myself watched Caleb I was in love with the guy, and I didn’t get the feeling I was watching a quarterback who wasn’t processing quickly enough, or that I was watching Johnny Manziel immediately take off and play backyard football. Like I said, however, I am not one to trust my own biased tape-watching skills vs the numbers, and the numbers for Caleb concerned me.

The TTT was outrageously long, and his Pressure To Sack rate (19.4%), though not particularly awful, was not particularly great either. His much-hyped ability to manipulate the pocket and avoid the rush had drawn comparisons to Mahomes, but Mahomes (11.3% pressure to sack rate, 2.81 seconds TTT) never held the ball that long and was much more difficult to sack. My eyes told me Caleb was special, my numbers said he might be special in a dangerous way. 

The only answer was to keep digging. The first clue that Caleb might not be your typical high to throw scrambler came when I found that, according to Pro Football Focus, Caleb has averaged well over 6 seconds per scramble throughout all three seasons of his college career, including a staggering 6.58 seconds per scramble this year. That seemed extraordinarily high, so I compared it to other QBs and found that he was consistently taking almost a full second longer on scrambles than almost any QB, even other high Time To Throw guys. 

Why does this matter? Isn’t it a bad thing that he’s taking longer to scramble than any other QBs? You might think, but what I’ve found is that  Caleb’s high overall TTT is most likely a mirage skewed entirely by how long his scrambles are, because compared to other QBs (and especially other high TTT QBs) Caleb doesn’t scramble to run often at all:

The graphic above shows recently-drafted QBs who went in the first three rounds and averaged over 3 seconds Time To Throw overall in college, sorted by how often they scrambled. Caleb had:

  • The lowest overall percentage of dropbacks ending in a scramble at 6.2%,
  • The lowest % of pressured dropbacks ending in a scramble at 12.4%
  • And, most importantly, the lowest percentage of scrambles from a clean pocket at 3.0%.

Caleb’s high time to throw is not a product of a QB who frequently takes off at the first sign of trouble or one who runs before trouble even arrives. Compared to other high TTT passers he is remarkably patient, using his legs to buy time to make a throw. This tracks with the film, where you will consistently see him elude rushers while drifting behind the LOS until he can make a throw, only taking off to run as a last resort.

Unlike Fields, who saw 51% of his college rushing yardage come on scrambles, Caleb gained only 42.6% of his yardage on scrambles, with most of his production coming on designed runs. If you want Caleb to pick up yards with his feet you will need to explicitly call a run play to get him to do so. That said, when Caleb does finally decide to run he remains an effective scrambler, averaging a respectable 8.3 yards per scramble, not far behind Fields 8.7 yards. 

For further reassurance, I looked at what percentage of Caleb’s dropbacks were excessively long, and found that over 41% of Caleb’s college dropbacks over his last two seasons were 2.5 seconds or shorter, while Fields at Ohio State managed that on just 36% and 35.2% of his dropbacks in his two seasons as a starter.

You’ll also note that Caleb’s pressure to sack rate, while nothing as impressive as that of Anthony Richardson (who I labeled a ‘Throwaway Gawd’ last year), is below Lamar Jackson & Fields while also not far from successful passers like Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts. For as long as Caleb holds the ball, he’s still in good company for how often he turns that time into sacks. 

So what does all of this mean? In short: Caleb Williams truly is a uniquely gifted quarterback. Unlike many other recent dual-threat quarterbacks of note, Caleb is fiercely determined to use his mobility to create time for himself to throw the football. This leads to some truly special plays where he manages to singlehandedly crush the will of the defense and beat them over the top as coverage breaks down.

He is not like Justin Fields, whose time to throw reflects a slow processing speed that affects almost every single dropback. Caleb is instead a selective scrambler, and one who has proven able to create & buy time unlike any other QB in recent memory. Does this make him the next Patrick Mahomes? Maybe, but other similar options include Kyler Murray and my own personal favorite best-case scenario: Aaron Rodgers.

Yes folks, as much as you might hate the man (and I do too), Aaron Rodgers is extremely similar to Caleb in his tendency to buy time with his legs, patiently wait for the defense to breakdown, and then break them with a deep ball. When I was researching Caleb’s extremely high scramble time and trying to find NFL comps, Rodgers consistently ranks among the league leaders in time-per-scramble and his 2016 season especially resembled Caleb Williams:

Rodgers scrambled a little more often from a clean pocket, a little less often under pressure, while taking nearly as long as Caleb when scrambling, and managed an OK-but-not-great Pressure To Sack rate. Rodgers for his career has a Pressure To Sack rate of 20.5%, a tick above Caleb’s 19.4 mark in college. Rodgers, like Mahomes (and like Williams IMO), has an elite ability to process at a high level and can absolutely get the ball out within structure. But unlike Mahomes, Rodgers and Williams have a tendency to occasionally go rogue on what they deem bad or hopeless playcalls and hold the ball to buy time to make a throw, often resulting in an outstanding highlight reel play and occasionally resulting in a sack and/or fumble. Williams’ arrogance and confidence, like Rodgers, is both the source of his power and his occasional undoing. 

While I don’t think Caleb, despite his ability to elude the rush, will ever match Mahomes in the sack avoidance department (and that skill, more than almost any other, is perhaps what truly makes Mahomes the GOAT), Caleb’s ability to create for himself and exploit breakdowns in the defense gives him the upside of another Hall of Fame quarterback, one who personally terrorized the Chicago Bears more than any other.

Perhaps to break their quarterback curse the Bears truly do have to take a page from Green Bay’s book and embrace the slightly eccentric QB from a California college who leads the world in generating “oh come on I thought we had him!” reactions from opposing defenses. I don’t know if Caleb Williams is the next Chicago Bears quarterback (though I strongly suspect he is), but I do know that whether you are using the film or the numbers to evaluate him he is a quarterback prospect unlike any we have seen before, and that makes this one of the most exciting moments to be a Bears fan in the history of the franchise. 

As mentioned above, check out Kyle’s podcast! Here’s his episode on Caleb Williams — enjoy!

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