Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Rating Quarterbacks

When I did my recent post about "The Best NFL Quarterback of All-time", I put together some criteria that I thought were important qualities for any quarterback. Since then, I have had some time to think about it, and there are four qualities that stand out for me that any successful quarterback will have.

This is the one area where quarterbacks can be fairly judged against other quarterbacks, regardless of the talent around them. While quarterbacks may be unfairly blamed for some mistakes (i.e. a wide receiver runs the wrong route on a timing pattern which leads to an interception, or the running back fumbles the ball on a handoff and the quarterback gets credited/blamed with a fumble), over the entire course of a career these mistakes become very minor statistical blips.

There are three basic ways for a quarterback to do this: throw the ball deep, throw the ball short, or run with the ball.

DEEP PASSING: The deep pass is a high reward/high risk play. Older era quarterbacks threw a lot more deep passes than modern era quarterbacks. Because of this, the older era quarterbacks tended to have higher yards/attempt, but also had higher interception percentages.

SHORT PASSING: The short pass is a medium reward/low risk play, hence the popularity of the West Coast Offense. While short passes do get intercepted, it occurs less often than longer passes. As for the reward, consider this: If a quarterback is averaging 5 yards per pass attempt, he is having a bad year; whereas, when a running back averages 5 yards per rushing attempt, he is having a stellar year.

RUNNING: Whether a quarterback run is a good idea varies. Bad running quarterbacks will tend not to run with the ball, and opt to throw it away if they don't think they can complete the pass. Good running quarterbacks have another weapon in their arsenal which they can use on defenses.

This goes hand-in-hand with the last category, but it is a separate skill. Throwing or running in the "red zone" is much harder. Consider how many times you have seen a quarterback with 4,000 passing yards in a season, but only 20 touchdown passes.

In any team sport, winning the championship is the whole reason to play the game. All players on any team, regardless of their position, are judged by this criteria.

In categories 2-3, a quarterback relies on his receivers for success. If they don't catch the ball or run the right routes, it doesn't matter how well the quarterback throws the ball. But in the 4th category, the quarterback relies on the ENTIRE rest of his team for success. If the defense is a sieve, then the whole team will be lucky to make it into the playoffs, let alone make it to a championship.

In judging any quarterback, is there any one category which should be weighted more highly than the others? Is there a subcategory of one of these which deserves equal consideration?

Personally, I think these 4 categories should be sufficient, and close to equally weighted. I am also changing my rating system to reflect these. Following is a list of the new calculations:

1. Avoid Mistakes: (Interceptions + Fumbles)/(Pass Attempts + Rush Attempts)
2. Gain Yards: (Pass Yards + Rush Yards)/(Pass Attempts + Rush Attempts)
3. Score Touchdowns: (Pass TD's + Rush TD's)/(Pass Attempts + Rush Attempts)
4. Win Championships: Total number of championships won

Please let me know in the comments if you feel I am overlooking something or not giving enough weight to a specific category. Remember, this rating system is ONLY a statistical starting point for discussion. Intangibles can be brought to the argument later.


daveja vu said...

My personal observations:

1. Obviously avoiding mistakes is important, but even more important is HOW a quarterback handles things when he makes a mistake (even the good ones have bad days). The great ones shrug off mistakes and carry on despite them. A good number of otherwise very good quarterbacks seem to lose their composure when a few early mistakes are made, and then are ineffective the rest of the game. This may be considered an intangible, so I won't go into any more detail.

2. Running quarterbacks who are very good passers (Young, Cunningham, and Tarkenton, to name a few, come to mind) and use their running as a plan B when they can't get a pass off, are invaluable. Happy feet quarterbacks with marginal passing abilities (Vick, anyone?) tend to get banged up and have short careers, even if they don't dogfight on the side (couldn't resist). Running quarterbacks can make a good gainer out of a busted play, or done occasionally as an extra wrinkle to the playbook keep the defense spread out, but a QB's job primarily is to pass. Vick's running ability made for a lot of pretty NFL replay footage and won some games early on, but the Falcons came to rely too much on his running to the detriment to the passing game. Once defenses figured out he was a mediocre passer, they found ways to contain his running. Even if he didn't get busted, I think Vick's career would have started to decline anyway.

3. I can't help but wonder if any of our candidates for greatest quarterback at some point in their careers kept up their high level of play with ordinary receivers? Not necessarily bad, but not standouts. Because everywhere you look the great quarterbacks almost always have a great (sometimes two) receivers. Makes you wonder who was more responsible for who's success. Something to be covered in a later post, hmmm?

4. Amen.

EdMcGon said...

Thanks Dave!

To your points:

1. Quarterbacks who fall apart after making mistakes probably wouldn't even make it to this point of consideration. Defenses would recognize it, and soon work to get into the quarterback's head. The quarterback would either have to change his attitude, or his career would be greatly shortened.

2. This is why I included rushing yards and touchdowns in the calculations. Quarterbacks who don't run will have very little negative impact to their overall rating. QB's who can run well will have a positive impact to their overall rating.

3. Actually, I did discuss this in a post last fall where I compared Manning, Brady, and Favre. What it comes down to is that once you get the overall comparisons made, then you can start digging into receiver comparisons. It would be easy to dismiss Young and Montana because they both got to play with Jerry Rice. But then you have the question of how far down the list do they get dropped because of that? It creates a valid argument, just not sure how far it goes.

daveja vu said...

I agree that quarterbacks who fall apart under a little pressure don't make it very far in the big leagues. What I was stating was that out of the really good quarterbacks, there are a select few who stand out that seem to be totally impervious to pressure, even when getting knocked around or picked off. One of my favorite examples would be Joe Montana, which is one of the reasons why I'll always consider him a shade better than Steve Young (I know we'll have to agree to disagree here, no hard feelings). Others I would consider as such would be guys like Staubach, Bradshaw, Unitas, Fouts, maybe Stabler (though he could get REALLY bad at times, like with his six-interception performance), and even though he doesn't belong on the greatest list but did win a Super Bowl, Jeff Hostetler. And yet there are a few really good quarterbacks who's games seem to drop noticeably when they are getting really hammered, yet are quite often saved by their teammates. Examples would be Jim Kelly (did OK in his first Super Bowl but stunk up the others), Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre (though he can and has suddenly come back and pulled out games), and surprise, Peyton Manning. Manning managed to win a Super Bowl by not panicking and trying to force passes when things went wrong early, but I've seen some earlier performances where he's lost by doing just that.

A word about Montana's receivers. His first two Super Bowls he didn't have Jerry Rice, the receivers were Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon. (Oh yeah, no Brent Jones, either.) Though both were reliable and dependable, and Clark's size helped him catch in heavy traffic, I wouldn't consider them in the same class as Rice, or Moss, or TO. Young had Rice to work with his whole SF career, and later TO, a stellar lineup that any QB would kill for. And Montana's first Super Bowl he had no running game to work with, he used the backs (Patton and Cooper, I believe) as extra pass catchers. So Montana early on had less to work with than Young.

Okay, one more point and I'll stop. How on earth did Warren Moon make the list of the greatest? For that matter, how did he make the Hall of Fame? All I see is a charismatic leader with a rocket arm who was able to put up more pretty numbers than wins, let alone championships. And he achieved his numbers in a gimmick offense designed for such prolific passing. Some of his best games ended up being losses (remember Buffalo's comeback in the playoffs? Moon looked pretty good then, until he lost the game). Inquiring minds want to know.

EdMcGon said...

One other thing to consider in Montana's early years: The West Coast Offense was new at the time, and defenses weren't very good at stopping it.

As for Warren Moon, I admittedly threw him in there. I agree with you about him, but I felt he was worthy of the consideration even though I didn't think he'd get anywhere close to the top of the list.