Devil's Advocate: Blaine Gabbert's Interception Numbers

Here at Rock M Nation, we pride ourselves in trying to avoid/fight the mob mentality that dominates The Interwebs. All those months of skepticism at RMN about lines of thinking that are a little too easily accepted for our tastes have led me to an unintended fondness for contrarianism. Contrarian pieces on SB Nation are nothing new (the inestimable T. Kyle King penned a fantastic series titled Kyle Gets Contrary for Dawg Sports). But this summer, I'm launching a series titled "Devil's Advocate" in which, regardless of my own personal beliefs, I'll attempt to challenge some of Missouri fans' most commonly-held beliefs. Today's truth to challenge:

"Blaine Gabbert will throw fewer interceptions than in 2009"

Star-divide

By nearly any metric, Blaine Gabbert's debut season as starter, especially when healthy, was a smashing success. He finished in the Top 10 nationally in passing yards per game (276.4) and net passing yards (3593), the Top 20 in yards per attempt (8.1) and touchdowns (24), and finished 29th in the country in passer rating (140.46). However, today we focus on interceptions, of which Gabbert only threw nine in 2009.

The interception numbers can be somewhat deceiving. Can you name the passer in the NCAA last year with at least 150 attempts who threw the fewest interceptions? If you correctly answered Florida Atlantic's Jeff Van Camp, you're either Phil Steele or you should probably get a hobby. Gabbert threw fewer interceptions in 2009 than highly respected quarterbacks Colt McCoy, Todd Reesing, Jake Locker, Zac Robinson, etc. By the same token, he threw more than such luminaries as Utah State's Diondre Borel and Memphis'  Will Hudgens. C'est la vie when looking at INT numbers.

But rather than looking at the total number of interceptions, for the sake of argument, I've opted to use the interception rate numbers, which better account for inflated INT numbers based on inflated numbers of attempts. Common logic indicates that a returning starter at quarterback should account for fewer INTs than the year before, right?

Since the end of 2006 season, Big 12 teams have returned a starting quarterback a total of 32 times, including instances of dual starters (such as Cody Hawkins/Tyler Hansen). In only 11 of those instances has the team been able to reduce its interception rate. That means that the recent trend in the Big 12 has been for returning passers to actually throw more interceptions per pass attempt than in the previous year. Pick your rationale here: Better defensive gameplanning, quarterback overconfidence, more willingness from offensive coordinators to let experienced signal callers wing it, etc. Whatever the explanation, more than 65 percent of the time during the last several years, interception numbers have regressed.

How has Missouri fared in that sample? Note: Negative numbers indicate a lower INT rate, so negative = better, m'kay?

Year

ATT

INT

INT RATE (rounded)

Change

2006

465

11

2.4%

2007

582

13

2.2%

 -0.13%

2008

565

18

3.2%

  0.95%

2009

467

11

2.4%

 -0.83%

With Chase Daniel returning for his junior season in 2007 with a year of experience under his belt, Dave Christensen put the game in Daniel's hands and let him air it out 117 more times (with, of course, a Big 12 championship appearance included). Even in putting together one of the greatest seasons in school history, Daniel shaved off only .13 percent from his interception rate. Then came what we perceived at the time to be the real statistical anomaly, as his INT rate jumped from 2.23 percent to 3.19 percent, nearly a full percent jump usually reserved for breaking in new quarterbacks. In 2009, Gabbert returned Missouri's INT rate to the 2.4 percent range, somewhat righting the statistical ship for this small sample size. If there's another reason to thank the stars for Mizzou's recent string of quarterbacks, Missouri's average of 2.54 percent INT rate vs. the national average of 3.27 percent is one of them.

If the returning experience is supposed to mean everything for interception rates, the numbers certainly don't play along. Across the 120-team FBS, teams saw an improvement in interception rate 177 times out of a possible 359 (49.3 percent of the time). Teams returned starters 322 times in that same span, and teams saw improvement in only 133 instances (a 41.3 percent clip). Quite simply, whether it's a new starter or not, everyone seems to regress toward the mean. Experience does not automatically equal a better INT rate.

But for all the incoherent rambling and statistical voodoo I can do, the point is simple: When it comes to interceptions, contrary to popular belief, Blaine Gabbert will have a hard time avoiding regression in 2010. This is not meant as a shot at Gabbert. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Gabbert protected the ball extremely well in 2009, but as Missouri presumably entrusts the offense to his howitzer of a right arm, it's his task to keep the ball away from defenders. Nine interceptions and a 2.4 INT rate isn't an impossible standard, but it's certainly not the easiest to maintain year-in and year-out.

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