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NFL Draft

Mac Jones vs Tua Tagovailoa: What Can Be Learned From Alabama Offense?

  • The Draft Network
  • April 12, 2021
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In Tua Tagovailoa’s 2020 Contextualized Quarterbacking profile, I wrote this of his data profile as a whole:

“The data on Tua bears out what many scouting eyes see: he’s a doggone good quarterback, but he was helped tremendously by context. His numbers outside of the pocket, beyond his first read, and when pressured all show a steep drop-off… Tua's overall numbers are still that of an early Round 1 pick and bonafide franchise player, but make no mistake: there is risk involved in his projection, even beyond the health concerns. He’s never gonna have the competitive advantage of such a supporting cast again.”

And before the 2020 draft, I compared Tagovailoa’s numbers to those of previously busted pocket passers, like Josh Rosen and Dwayne Haskins, who succeeded under ideal circumstances in college but faltered within messy pockets, into tight windows, under pressure, and beyond the first read.

Let’s add Mac Jones to that equation, shall we?

Change in Ball Placement Score by Context
Josh Rosen Dwyane Haskins Tua Tagovailoa Mac Jones
Beyond First Read -19.90% -1.10% -48.70% -66.17%
Out of Pocket -35.50% -27.80% -63.60% -43.59%
Adjusted Platform -23.90% -50.90% -35.20% -26.96%
Move Platform -37.50% -40.00% -11.70% -76.75%
Pressured -24.80% -30.00% -22.40% -32.22%
Into Tight Window -15.00% -27.50% -2.10% -28.78%

Yeah… that’s really ugly.

Now, Tagovailoa hasn’t nearly busted yet, but clearly struggled in the league far more than he had at Alabama—and why wouldn’t he have? With an even better offense than Jones enjoyed in 2020, Tagovailoa produced like crazy. I thought the profiles of Rosen and Haskins might offer a cautionary tale for Tagovailoa last year. This year, does Tagovailoa contribute to the same cautionary tale, now for his successor in Jones?

While both Tagovailoa and Jones were pocket passers and game managers, they do have some characteristic differences as quarterbacks that have to be acknowledged. Fortunately, we can capture that difference by comparing two offenses, coordinated by the same offensive coordinator—Steve Sarkisian—and featuring many of the same weapons. The biggest change in the Alabama offensive scheme reflects the change in quarterback.

We won’t use Contextualized Quarterbacking data here, as I wasn’t charting RPO and play-action passes against standard dropbacks last year— a shame. Fortunately, we have plenty of other resources to bail us out.

According to PFF’s charting, Jones got a play-action fake on 46.7% of his passing attempts—11th among passers this season; Tagovailoa saw it on 46.5% of his attempts, also good for 11th in the 2019 season. How they performed on their play-action fakes was a little different: Tagovailoa lost more than eight points in completion percentage on play-action fakes (74.6% in standard dropbacks, 66.9% on play-action dropback) with only a 0.8 yards/attempt increase. Critically, Tagovailoa wasn’t really pushing the ball downfield significantly on play-action attempts (9.7 average depth of target). Jones, on the other hand, was driving the ball downfield, with a 10.8 ADOT on play-action dropbacks and a 7.0 ADOT on standard dropbacks. Despite the big difference, Jones only lost 1.2% of completion percentage.

Alabama Passers Throwing with Play-Action
Tua Tagovailoa Mac Jones
Rate of PA Passes 46.5% 46.7%
PA Yards/Attempt 11.7 12.7
Dropback Yards/Attempt 10.9 9.7
PA Depth of Target 9.7 10.8
Dropback Depth of Target 7.8 7
PA Completion% 66.9% 75.9%
Dropback Completion% 75.4% 77.2%

The 2020 Crimson Tide generated all of their chunk plays off of play-action looks. On my chartable plays, I credited 41% of Jones’ passing yards on the season to play-action passes, which only accounted for 33% of his chartable passes. This is not only intuitive for offense in general, but is particularly intuitive for the Sarkisian offense.

Both Jones and Tagovailoa’s offensive coordinator at Alabama, Sarkisian held a clinic in January of this year in which he talked about Alabama’s “Play Pass” success. (Play Pass is another name for play-action, functionally.) You can hear him speak and watch the clinic here, or read the quote below for our purposes.

“But to me, where we have made way more hay this year as an offense (2020)...has been the play-pass with the illusion of RPO. To me, if I’m a defensive coordinator, and I’m going into the game and saying ‘I’ve got to stop the RPO,’ then I’m going to have my low hole player, I gotta defend the run, I’m gonna worry about the quarterback...well, now, if your middle of the field safety is hanging at ten yards...well, you better be able to cover a post route, too.
If you watched our offense at all this year—even if you watched our bowl games against Michigan, the first play of the game: we gave the illusion of an RPO...had the safety trigger on DeVonta Smith, and hit Jerry Jeudy for an 85-yard touchdown.”

Well, let’s watch that play.

The illusion of the RPO is evident here. The pulling guard indicates that a run play is possible—a pulling offensive lineman is just about the strongest “run” indicator a linebacker can get. Once Jones completes the play-action fake, he stands up tall in the pocket. He seems to have stopped his dropback completely, and with the in-breaking route from DeVonta Smith right in front of the deep safety, this behavior screams RPO.

Then Jones drops further back. The pulling guard stays tight to the line of scrimmage, avoiding an illegal man downfield penalty. Jones uncorks a bomb to Jerry Jeudy, running away from man coverage, and the rest is history.

The illusion of the RPO creating play-action pass opportunities runs rampant across Jones’ 2020 film. Many of his explosive plays—of which he had a fair number—are a result of this function of Sarkisian’s offense. This is not an entirely new idea, as we can still find such plays on Tagovailoa's 2019 film as well. But for the offensive surge that Alabama’s passing offense enjoyed, despite a loss of talent at both the quarterback and wide receiver positions, Sarkisian credited these ideas.

Seeing Jones house these shot plays can create an easy misconception. The idea that the Alabama offense was more vertical with Jones than with Tagovailoa doesn’t actually hold up—rather, they were more effective on vertical plays. Tagovailoa attempted a greater share of his passes downfield by a small margin, but was less accurate in both measures, and accordingly completed far fewer of his passes.

This 2020 efficacy, then, is not the result of new weapons—the Alabama wide receiving corps was better in 2019 than it was in 2020—nor is the result of improved protection. Rather, it’s because Sarkisian figured out better ways to attack downfield for a quarterback with a better deep ball than he previously had. Anyone who wants to hang their hat on Jones’ evaluation must credit the fact that, despite his average arm, he has a great penchant for deep passing.

Alabama Passers on Deep (20+ yard) Attempts
Tua Tagovailoa Mac Jones
Attempt Rate 15.9% 14.8%
Accuracy .788 .896
Placement .606 .617

For as good as Jones’ deep ball was, however, Tagovailoa had him beat with short and intermediate placement. While the 2020 Crimson Tide used the RPO game to beat numbers and throw bubble screens to their wideouts, the 2019 Tide used it to throw the quick game on in-breaking routes. The same supporters of Jones do have to answer for the fact that Jones’ anticipation allows him to get away with functional short passing, but he still isn’t the elite placement player you’d like to see for a projected point guard quarterback in the NFL.

Alabama Passer by Depth
Tua Tagovailoa Mac Jones
Accuracy 20+ .788 .896
Placement 20+ .606 .617
Accuracy 10-19 .933 .933
Placement 10-19 .633 .600
Accuracy 0-9 .931 .971
Placement 0-9 .715 .683
Accuracy Behind LOS 1.000 .992
Placement Behind LOS .794 .936

The short area of the field is the only space in which Tagovailoa clearly has an advantage over Jones as a passer (in terms of depth of target). Tagovailoa's release was more compact and he delivered the ball with more zip, which allowed him to hit closing windows underneath. The Alabama offense remained efficient but was not nearly as explosive.

These stylistic changes are tea leaves we can read; bread crumbs we can follow to better understand what the internal evaluation was on each of these first-round quarterbacks. But regardless of the differences, what remains stark is the similarity: both of these passers were helped tremendously by context—Jones even more so than Tagovailoa. It is extremely difficult to project favorable early career play for Jones in the NFL, save for a landing spot in San Francisco—another ideal offense for a quarterback—knowing what we know now. 

It is by no means a death knell on Jones’ evaluation—he could very well be something beyond the Alabama offense that we struggled to see—but man, it is worrisome.

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