FMIA has partnered with NFL Next Gen Stats for a deeper look into one story each week, using motion and speed trackers on players all over each NFL field — including Justin Jefferson’s remarkable catch.
This note is why you should value the contribution of NFL Next Gen Stats to the discussion of the intricacies and appreciation of how difficult football really is. (Hat tip here to Conor McQuiston of Next Gen for his work on the numbers in this section.)
The catch Minnesota wide receiver Justin Jefferson made at the two-minute warning in Buffalo Sunday—Bills up 27-23, fourth-and-18, game on the line on this single play—is one of the best catches in NFL history. Impossible to downplay. The Bills, trying to keep hold of a narrow lead in a suddenly hard division. The Vikings, trying to show they can beat a power team on the road, with a quarterback, Kirk Cousins, who hadn’t inspired confidence in monumental spots like this one.
“Before we left the huddle,” Jefferson told me from the locker room in Buffalo, “Kirk said to me, ‘Hey, I might just throw this up to you.’ Kirk knew. We just needed to make something happen.”
He’s right. The old cliche among quarterbacks and coaches is, “Hey, what play you got in the gameplan to convert a fourth-and-18?”
None. Of course. So Cousins, and good for him, just figured he was out on the playground and looked at the best player on the field and said, You and I are going to make something happen.
The crazy thing is, this could have—should have, probably—been an interception. Bills safety Cam Lewis was breathing down Jefferson’s neck, behind him around the Buffalo 40-yard line. When the ball was in the air, Next Gen calculated the probability of Jefferson making the catch at 28.8 percent. Honestly, watch the play as Lewis and Jefferson each go up for it. Lewis has two hands on and appears to be coming down with the interception, ending the game. Then, as the two men come to earth, Jefferson’s brute strength takes the ball one-handed out of the grasp of Lewis, and as Jefferson falls, he cradles the ball and completes the catch.
Joe Davis, on Fox: “OH MY GOODNESS! JUSTIN JEFFERSON PULLED IT IN! THE CATCH OF HIS LIFE!”
JUSTIN JEFFERSON WITH ONE-HAND 🤯 pic.twitter.com/3wLjjXYcWH
— PFF (@PFF) November 13, 2022
“I felt how close [Lewis] was,” Jefferson said. “I knew it was going to be a battle for the ball. On plays like that, I don’t remember exactly what happened. But I’m going up, I’m going to fight for the ball. That’s my ball. Since ninth grade, those are the balls I think I should catch. I’m just happy Kirk trusted me and put the ball up for me to catch.”
It wasn’t just that catch that Next Gen found unlikely. Nine of Jefferson’s 10 receptions had less than a 50 percent chance of being caught by him. No player in the seven-year history of Next Gen analyzing every catch in the NFL has made nine catches in one game with less than a 50-50 chance of being caught.
Two other things: Jefferson said “probably” that was the best catch of his life—and he’s been a high school, college and pro wide receiver for 10 years. (I should hope so.) And the NGS data on Jefferson’s day is worth noting. He had 106 receiving yards over expected yardage on the day.
Jefferson is such an impressive receiver. Historically impressive too.