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When a Pass Rush Starts a Quarterback Controversy

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If a team desires to make its unusual quarterback look outstanding, all it has to do is pressure the daylights out of his counterpart.

Cooper Rush of the Dallas Cowboys is an ordinary-at-best quarterback who has spent his five N.F.L. seasons as a barely used backup. Yet this season, Rush has led the Cowboys to 4 straight victories in relief of Dak Prescott.

He has done so largely since the Cowboys pass rush of Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong and Dante Fowler Jr. has sacked opposing quarterbacks 20 times for 128 yards, and the Cowboys defense has held opponents to simply 14.4 points per game.

Jimmy Garoppolo has been the chairman of the Atypical Quarterback Society for thus long that the San Francisco 49ers unfriended him in favor of Trey Lance within the off-season. Garoppolo has led the 49ers, now 3-2 and in first place within the N.F.C. West, to 3 lopsided victories in 4 games since replacing the injured Lance, thanks largely to a Nick Bosa-led defense which leads the N.F.L. with 21 sacks and 142 sack yards, holding opponents to simply 12.2 points per game.

It never fails: Defenders do many of the dirty work; quarterbacks get the eye. Rush and Prescott, set to soon return from a thumb injury to his throwing hand, at the moment are embroiled in a moderately contrived controversy. Some 49ers fans at the moment are convinced that trying to exchange Garoppolo with Lance was at all times a foul idea.

Quarterbacks like Rush and Garoppolo are sometimes credited with “finding a option to win” games by which their opponents were busy finding ways to flee.

Quarterback drama keeps the sports-media industrial complex humming, after all, and “Bench Dak” makes a splashier headline or podcast title than “Micah Parsons is Good.” There’s one other dynamic at work, nonetheless: An amazing defense really does make its quarterback look higher.

Garoppolo and Rush, currently ranked seventh and twelfth in passer rating and fourth and tenth in Football Outsiders’ rankings for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, are benefiting from a strong statistical distortion.

On average, N.F.L. quarterbacks attempt 52 percent of their passes while trailing, 30 percent when leading and the remaining 18 percent with the rating tied, with sacks counted among the many pass attempts. The rationale for the disparity must be obvious: Teams pass more and take greater risks when playing catch up than they do when nursing a lead.

All of those extra risks — against defenses that know what’s coming — mean that quarterbacks complete a lower percentage of their passes (63.0 percent to 65.7), average fewer yards per attempt (7.0 to 7.7), throw interceptions at the next rate (2.8 percent to 1.6) and get sacked at the next rate (7.0 percent to five.4) when trailing than leading.

To summarize for readers whose eyes glazed over on the sight of all those decimals: Atypical quarterbacks are prone to produce Pro Bowl-level statistics when leading and put up bench-the-bum statistics when trailing, simply owing to the tactics used in numerous game situations.

Quarterbacks normally attempt many more passes when trailing than leading. A stingy, turnover-happy defense could make matters even easier for an unusual quarterback, giving him the good thing about fidgeting with leads he did little to generate and leaving him to complete out games with efficient, high-percentage passes.

Take the Cowboys victory against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5, for instance. Armstrong forced a Matthew Stafford fumble which Lawrence returned for a touchdown on the opening drive, then blocked a punt to establish a brief Cowboys field goal. The Cowboys led, 9-0, before Rush accomplished a single pass, and he played with a lead many of the option to a 22-10 victory.

Rush has attempted just 26 passes with the Cowboys trailing this season, 57 while leading. That’s practically the inverse of the everyday N.F.L. ratio. It’s easy for a quarterback to go 4 games without an interception when he spends most fourth quarters handing off.

Garoppolo’s splits are much more revealing: He has thrown just 11 passes with the 49ers trailing, 85 while leading. The 49ers defense returned an interception for a touchdown and compelled Carolina Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield to hobble through their 37-15 victory last Sunday on a sprained ankle. Garoppolo, who has thrown just one interception this season, was free to spend one other afternoon distributing micro-passes, handing off and watching the clock melt away.

A team’s vicious pass rush has other hidden advantages which transcend sack totals. The Cowboys have coaxed a league-high 11 false starts from opposing linemen hoping to get a jump on blocking Parsons and company, in addition to two intentional grounding penalties when Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz desperately heaved passes away to avoid being sacked in Week 4.

The 49ers defense forces opponents to go three-and-out on 39.6 percent of their possessions, the very best total within the league in response to Football Outsiders, providing their offense with more possessions.

Constant pressure has a snowball effect: Sacks and turnovers force the opponent to play from behind, which implies they have to take greater risks, which result in more mistakes and an ever-widening deficit. Under the proper circumstances, a victorious “game manager” barely breaks a sweat.

Fortunately, quarterbacks don’t get all of the credit. Parsons is now the even-odds favorite to win the Defensive Player of the 12 months award. Bosa is one in every of the league’s most recognizable stars. Rush will most probably be forgotten by everyone however the dedicated drama junkies upon Prescott’s return, and Garoppolo way back galvanized his repute for helping the 49ers by doing minimal harm.

If the Cowboys and 49ers keep sacking their way toward the playoffs, their defenders are sure to get their due.

A wonderful pass rush may even lead a team with an unusual quarterback to victory within the Super Bowl. Who can forget the legendary teams led by famously less-than-stellar passers like Trent Dilfer, Joe Flacco, Mark Rypien, Jim McMahon or, let’s be totally honest, Eli Manning?

Wait, why can we remember those quarterbacks so readily after we are imagined to be praising their defenses?

Sigh. Even when a defense leads its team to a championship, it’s the quarterback who by some means secures a spot in history.

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