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Failed completions, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees - what it means for the Bronco offense in 2023

What will the Bronco offense look like under Sean Payton and how will short passes factor into it?

Denver Broncos v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The picture above shows current Bronco OLC Zach Strief (#64) blocking (sort of) for Drew Brees as the right tackle on Sean Payton’s Saints in 2016. #92 for the Broncos is Sylvester Williams.

According to Bryan Knowles at, Russell Wilson had the highest percentage of “failed completions” among qualifying QBs in 2022 (34th of 34). A failed completion is

A failed completion is any completed pass that fails to gain 45% of needed yards on first down, 60% on second down, or 100% on third or fourth down.

I used to jokingly refer a failed completion as an “Orton”, but back to Russ.

Even when he was completing passes in 2022, the completions were not often “successful”. I initially thought that this could be chalked up to the general offensive ineptitude that existed in Denver in 2022, but then I found this.

Russ was 23rd of 34 in 2021. You want this number to be low. However, Russ has not always been poor in this stat. In 2020 he was 10th of 36, and you have to question any stat that shows Mitch Trubisky at #1 ahead of Patrick Mahomes at #2 (see the link for 2020). Doubts aside, I found the list of the worst failed completion seasons in NFL history (by total number of failed completions) interesting and informative (below).

Drew Brees shows up four times in the top 26 (10th, 16th, 20th and 24th). That tells me that Sean Payton’s offense calls for short throws. When it works the receivers gain lots of YAC and those throws are “successes”. When it doesn’t you get high numbers of failed completions like Brees had in 2010, 2013, 2015, and 2017.

In those four seasons, the Saints made the playoffs in all but one season (2015 when they went 7-9). So Payton’s offense can be successful even with a high percentage of failed completions. The Saints offense ranked 11th, 10th, 8th and 4th in those four seasons. The best that the Denver Broncos offense has ranked since winning SB50 is 22nd (in 2016).

Because of Joe Lombardi’s failure to get more successful completions out of Justin Herbert in 2022, he was fired, but Knowles makes a really interesting point regarding Payton and Brees.

And then, yes, Joe Lombardi was fired. Lombardi copy-pasted the late-career Drew Brees game plan on a quarterback with an actual live arm. Brees was consistently near the top of the leaderboards in failed completions, in both good seasons and bad, as he made up for fading arm strength with exceptional precision in short yardage in a Sean Payton offense designed to squeeze every last drop out of short routes over the middle. Lombardi is no Payton, and limiting Herbert to one or two deep shots per game handcuffed Los Angeles’ offense for no adequately explained reason. Chargers fans should expect Herbert’s numbers to drop down significantly with Kellen Moore calling the shots in 2023.

So let’s look at where Russ has ranked in this over his career keeping in mind that the highest failed completion percentage of those guys with the 26 most failed completions (Joe Flacco in 2017) was 36.1%. We know Russ still has a live arm (based on watching him throw in 2022), but where has he ranked in FC% and what were his actual values

  • 2022 - 34th of 34 - 35.3%
  • 2021 - 23rd of 34 - 27.4%
  • 2020 - 10th of 36 - 21.4%
  • 2019 - 6th of 34 - 20.8%
  • 2018 - 25th of 34 - 27.1%
  • 2017 - 13th of 35 - 24.7%
  • 2016 - 20th of 34 - 24.6%
  • 2015 - 9th of 37 - 21.6%
  • 2014 - 34th of 38 - 29.1%

This analysis only goes back to 2014, but RW had been consistently in the bottom of the league in this stat (though never dead last until the debacle that was 2022). Lets look at Brees FC% from 2014 to 2020 (when he retired) and see how it compares to RW

Year Drew Brees Russell Wilson
2020 24.7% 21.4%
2019 23.8% 20.8%
2018 23.1% 27.1%
2017 28.4% 24.7%
2016 22.2% 24.6%
2015 26.3% 21.6%
2014 22.8% 29.1%

In general, RW had a lower FC% than Brees, but there are some exceptions with 2014 being the largest. Brees average for this whole timespan was 24.5% while Russ’ average was 24.2%. So they are comparable in average, but Russ had much more fluctuation. You can see this in the trendlines below

We’ve very little FC data to go off in terms of how Payton’s offense works for a QB other than Drew Brees. Teddy Bridgewater did not have enough attempts to qualify for FC% analysis in 2019 when he started five games for the Saints and no Saint QB had enough attempts to qualify in 2021, which was Payton’s last as head coach in NO. In that season, Trevor Siemian had the most passing attempts for the Saints with 188. Jameis Winston had 164 and Taysom Hill had 134.

I also want to point out the the guys who finishes last generally is at or near the end of his career as a starting QB. See below - QB who finished last in FC% (worst). I hope Russ is not at the end of his career.

Year Worst Starting QB FC%
2022 Russell Wilson 35.3%
2021 Ben Roethlisberger 33.3%
2020 Dwayne Haskins 35.1%
2019 Mason Rudolph 33.5%
2018 Nick Foles 41.1%
2017 Mitch Trubisky 36.2%
2016 Jared Goff 39.3%
2015 Nick Foles 41.1%
2014 Robert Griffin 33.3%

I should also point out that a “failed completion” on first or second down is still better than a sack or an incompletion. The only time a completion on first or second down is bad, is if the plays loses yards or if the clock is an issue and the completion wastes valuable seconds. I don’t know how many of Russ’ 103 failed completions in 2022 were on first and second down. Failed completions on 3rd down are only good if you are trying to get into position for a field goal on 3rd and forever. Failed completions on 4th down can never be positive.

Russ completed 113 passes on first down in 2022 for an average of 10.3 yards per completion with an average ToGo distance of 10.4 (penalties - yikes). 39 of those completions gained four or fewer yards. Of those, eight gained zero yards and seven lost yards. When Russ passed on second down in 2022, the average ToGo was 9.2 yards and our average gain on completions was 8.1. Using the average to gain on second down, a six yard gain would be needed on second down to have a successful completion. (I’m not going to look at every single second down throw by Russ to see how many were successful and how many weren’t - unless y’all really want me to run that study). Russ completed 104 passes on second down and 69 of them went for 6 or more yards. That tells me Russ was fairly good at throwing the ball on second down in 2022 (at least by this success/failure metric).

Russ threw the ball 139 times on 3rd or 4th down in 2022. He completed 75 of those throws for 41 first downs. That means he had 34 failed completions on 3rd or 4th down. In other words 24.4% of his completions on 3rd or 4th down failed to gain a first down. For comparison, Kermit the Wonderfrog, who plays QB for KC, threw the ball 150 times on 3rd or 4th down in 2022. He completed 90 of those throws for 78 first downs. That’s a failure rate of 13.3% which I would guess is one of the best in the league on 3rd and 4th downs. The Chiefs finished second in the league in 3rd down conversion rate at 48.7%. Only the Bills were better in 2022.


Where do you expect Russell Wilson’s failed completion percentage to be in 2023?

This poll is closed

  • 46%
    much better than 2022
    (233 votes)
  • 40%
    a little better than 2022
    (203 votes)
  • 8%
    about the same as 2022
    (45 votes)
  • 4%
    worse than 2022
    (21 votes)
502 votes total Vote Now