Talking about quarterback battles from an outsider perspective is a little stupid.
I’m not in practices, so I have no idea what things look like on a day to day basis. In the end, you’re somewhat forced to trust the coaching staff’s decision until the bullets start flying when the season gets underway. The problem is, coaching staffs pick incorrectly in quarterback battles all of the time and either make a game changing switch mid year that comes too late (USC with Sam Darnold and Max Browne) or let one get away that outperforms the guy you’re left with (Justin Fields, Joe Burrow, and Malik Willis).
That said, from here, it’s hard to pick which one I definitively want to be the LSU starter. Maybe Max Johnson is a totally different player, maybe Myles Brennan just isn’t the same guy after his bizarre injury, etc. What I can do is analyze the skillsets and output they have displayed so far in an effort to prove and discern what little I actually can. There is just one thesis I really mean to prove here:
Max Johnson was a significant downgrade, in 2020, at the quarterback position from Myles Brennan.
That is undeniably true, I don’t care that he won two games because Marco Wilson threw a shoe and Matt Corral had a stroke and threw five(!) interceptions in a game that Kayshon Boutte deserves most of the credit for winning. Max Johnson won two starts with okay but underwhelming performance; Myles Brennan lost two of three with some inconsistent but intermittently high end play against Mississippi State and downright elite, Day 1 NFL Draft prospect level play against Missouri.
Before I get into this it is important to define a couple of Pro Football Focus terms I’ll be using. Disclaimer, this is an analytics heavy piece; analytics are incredible for contextualizing and grounding what you see on tape and are a great way to isolate individual performance. PFF, much to Shannon Sharpe’s chagrin, is an incredible resource for all this stuff and I suggest you subscribe to everything they offer.
- Big Time Throws
A big time throw is simply any throw that is on the superior end of difficulty and impressiveness. PFF grades plays positively or negatively in intervals of .5, so pretty much anything on the upper scale like a 1.0, 1.5, or 2.0 would classify as a big time throw. It’s essentially a quantification of the QBs achievement on a pass over expectation. You don’t get a big time throw for drilling a receiver on a 10-yard dig with seven yards of separation because that is expected of any moderately palatable quarterback. You do get a big time throw for accurate balls down the field with little separation. It is a good way of quantifying the high end of a quarterback’s production. It answers the question of whether or not they are providing you with that explosiveness and high end production that sets them apart.
- Turnover Worthy Plays
This definition is far more simple: it’s any play that should have been a turnover. For instance, a dropped interception would count here, but not a well thrown ball that skips off a receivers hands into a defender’s chest. Bad luck INTs are not TWPs.
Despite his 1-2 record (thanks Bo), Myles Brennan absolutely looked the part in his three-game stint as the starting LSU quarterback. Overall, Myles Brennan posted a PFF grade of 87.5 with a passing grade of 88.3, both numbers a hair shy of the elite 90 benchmark.
He posted a superb big time throw percentage of 7.5 with a minuscule turnover worthy play percentage of 0.7. He was an absolutely incredible deep passer, posting a 97.5 (!!!!!) grade on balls past 20 yards down the field, which was behind only the likes of Zach Wilson, Mac Jones, Spencer Rattler, Sam Howell, and Trevor Lawrence. It’s unfair to compare him to those guys given the sample differences but it shows how good he was in that time.
Facing pressure Brennan really shined. It’s important to note that performance under pressure is inherently unsustainable and volatile given the fluidity and unpredictability of pressure situations. That said, Brennan’s passing grade when pressured was an astonishing 82.8 (under pressure that’s incredible but probably unsustainable). His yards per attempt under pressure came in at 11.4 (!!!), with an absurd big time throw percentage of 12.8. His passing grade when blitzed was an elite 90.2 with a BTT percentage of 8.2. Those numbers themselves are unsustainable, but it does show that Brennan can make plays and move the football when the bullets fly, which is important because LSU’s offensive line still projects to underwhelm. More predictive benchmarks occur when kept clean, because it eliminates the fluidity and variance of pressure situations. Brennan posted an 87.2 overall grade with a rock solid big time throw percentage of 5.3 and a tiny turnover worthy play percentage of 1.1. That’s decently high level stuff; it’s a shade under stardom, and it displays the high end ability he flashed before his injury.
Data from Pro Football Focus
I didn’t just source data from PFF. SEC Statcat does amazing work over on their site which gives you metrics that tell you a bit more about accuracy. Brennan posted a somewhat solid but far from elite accuracy percentage of 61.07. That said, he made up for it with a really good to great depth adjusted accuracy (accounts for accuracy downfield, a function of your depth of target and accuracy metrics) of 57.64, which was good for third in the SEC ahead of players like Matt Corral (who is really great at everything except avoiding turnovers) and Kyle Trask (who was a Heisman finalist and second round pick).
Data from SEC Statcat
Max Johnson did see a 2-0 record as the starter and did a solid job managing the offense for a true freshman. That said, he didn’t really flash at all.
Yes he threw for 435 yards against Ole Miss, but 308 of those went to one guy on largely very routine passes. He has shown the possibility of being a solid quarterback who will sorta match whatever the play calling/system, receivers, and offensive line open up for him— but not much more.
He posted an overall offensive grade of 78.5, which is pretty solid, particularly for a true freshman thrust into the situation he was. He produced an underwhelming big time throw rate of 2.6%, considerably less than Brennan’s 7.5%. He accompanied that with an impressive (even more considering his inexperience) 2.7 turnover worthy play rate. His deep passing was a bit suspect, which is part of why the big time throw rate was so low. His grade on deep passes was 73.3, which is underwhelming considering that deep passing grades tend to skew upward with their increased proclivity for the availability of big time throws.
His offensive grade fell off a cliff to 48.1 when under pressure, which isn’t particularly alarming for a true freshman, but is something to watch if he does get the job because LSU’s offensive line still isn’t very good. When kept clean (the more stable metric), Johnson produced a far more solid offensive grade of 82.8, again, pretty dang good for a true freshman in his situation. That said, the big time throw rate was still low at 2.7%.
Data from PFF
Johnson’s SEC Statcat metrics lagged behind Brennan’s as well. His accuracy percentage was a little worse at 57.33%, and the lack of big time throws suggest he isn’t super confident in being precisely accurate enough to complete passes to guys with little separation. His depth adjusted accuracy lagged too, coming in at 50.55 percent.
Data from SEC Statcat
Conclusions and Analysis
Grades and analytics are a fantastic way to contextualize and quantify performance, but they can’t account for everything. With this in mind, the second installment will be a look at tape from a year ago.
Unfortunately I only possess some All-22 from the LSU offense (none of Myles Brennan) so I’ll do what I can. From what the grades can tell us, Myles Brennan is a considerably more aggressive, explosive, and gifted passer who is a far bigger threat to push the ball down the field and create explosive plays. This is major, it opens up a ton in play calling, places constraint on the defense, and makes your offense considerably more efficient since you have to rely less on stringing together first downs.
Brennan, despite his lack of high end athleticism, is able to handle a rush and produce in suboptimal pocket conditions. He took a huge leap against Missouri after taking one against Vanderbilt. Against Mizzou, he looked like a legit first round prospect. He made six big time throws (matching Joe Burrow’s career high) and, alongside Terrace Marshall, kept LSU in a game that their defense (and late game play calling) lost. He was dropping bomb after bomb and ripping balls into tricky windows, of which he showed flashes against Miss State and Vandy. He was truly putting it all together. If he has the same physical capability he did pre-injury (big if), he’ll have several tune up games to put it back together, assuming he’s the starter. His downfield accuracy is superior to Johnson, but his risk management and processing are also even better.
The latter two are partially a product of Johnson’s inexperience, but the former may not be. With inexperienced quarterbacks who truly have high end talent, you tend to see high big time throw rates with high turnover worthy play rates. Both of those are low for Johnson, which seems to indicate a risk averse, averagely talented quarterback a la Danny Etling. In a more pass heavy system, he could produce a lot more volume than Etling, but he may not possess much more than the ability to give you what the system/play calling, line, and receivers open up. Think Alex Smith in the NFL (pre injury), a bit of a situation chameleon.
Brennan, on the other hand, has shown the ability and talent to take over and make plays while providing you a similar floor. That, of course, depends on him returning to pre-injury physical ability. The thing is, Danny Etlings are a thing of the past. You need that high level talent at quarterback in the modern game if you want to be great unless your receivers, line, and play calling are Alabama 2020 levels. Even then, Mac Jones was devastatingly accurate downfield and rock solid in his process. Could Johnson potentially transcend the Alex Smith, Danny Etling characterization? Sure. But again I’m not in practice. That caveat doesn’t change what the data and film show though. The data, and as I’ll show soon, tape, prove one simple proposition:
Myles Brennan was considerably better than Max Johnson in 2020.