Myth versus Reality on NFL Quarterbacks

Myth versus Reality

Luck vs Brady

Quantitative Analysis for Quarterbacks

I had been pondering writing for some time about the many myths of quarterbacking.  I planned to look into what perceptions people have about the level of play at the position versus that of the past as well as a few other topics.  That changed a bit when I read a Bill Simmons article1 where he bemoans the sorry state of quarterbacking play in 2007 compared to the glorious 1980s.  Spurred on by his insufficient anecdotal support, the scope of this piece has since exploded. I have now done a fairly comprehensive study on quarterback play since the Super Bowl era.  The results are simply amazing.  Strap yourselves in, this may blow your hair back a bit.

We live in a fast paced society. Instant gratification is the norm.  We want news now, sports now, food now, and don’t you dare make me wait.  Microwaves are too slow, speed limits are too low, and a dial-up connection is too slow for anyone who is not a Grandma.

This is one of the earmarks of the information age.  It is an effective mindset for spurring forth technological advances.  However, this mindset has spilled over into areas which in which it has no business.  Namely, sports.  Sure it is nice to have instant fantasy updates, but what I’m referring to is on the field. 

NFL QB DraftSports fans have no patience.  None.  Anything less than instant miracle turnarounds for their favorite teams result in coaches heads rolling, front offices fired, and quarterbacks being run out of town.  With sports news broadcast nationwide in seconds, the fan has a new sense of power and entitlement over the franchise of their liking.  If a team makes moves deemed poor by the fan base, the repercussions are instant.  Draft picks are booed, the merchandise doesn’t sell, and season tickets are put up for sale.  All such whimsical reactions are tremors felt by a franchise that exists purely at the pleasure of the fanbase.

This power mixed with impatience is lethal in many ways.  How quickly was Charley Casserly chased out of Texas when he pushed for Mario Williams over Reggie Bush and Vince Young?  Every Texans fan called for his head, and he was gone.  Turns out his mistake was defying the fanbase, not the actual pick.

This brings us to quarterback play in the NFL.  There has never been a shorter leash for a starting quarterback than right now.  Never.  Not even close.  It was earlier this year that Vikings fans wanted Tavaris Jackson gone because he would “never be a good NFL quarterback.”  This after eight games as a starter.  It’s preposterous.  No quarterbacks progress that quickly.  There is no way to know what will become of Jackson.  I don’t care how much you think you know about football, this is unknown.

Myth: Quarterbacks today are inferior to the great quarterbacks of the past.

Where does this myth come from?

Just look at the quarterbacks from the respective decades:

Today Tarvaris Jackson, Philip Rivers, Joey Harrington, David Carr, Tom Brady, Peyton and Eli Manning
1990s Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Drew Bledsoe, John Elway, Brett Favre
1980s Elway, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Boomer Esiason, Phil Simms, Dan Fouts, Bernie Kosar
1970s Terry Bradshaw, Fran Tarkenton, Bob Griese, Joe Namath, Roger Staubach
1960s George Blanda, Len Dawson, Sonny Jurgensen, Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, Tarkenton, Namath

Case closed.  Right? 

Joe NamathThe whole problem with this argument is that it is anecdotal.  You can’t look at a handful of players and extrapolate their greatness to cover the entire era of quarterbacking.  They were the exception, not the norm. If you want to evaluate overall quarterback play, you have to look at all quarterbacks, and how they perfomed as a group. So here it is.  The comprehensive statistics of every pass thrown by every quarterback since 1966 (Super Bowl era).  The charts to the right present a summary of each team’s average production from the quarterback position per game, per year.

Now let’s dig into this.  The first thing that jumps out is that from 1969-1978, teams were terrible at passing the ball.  In fact they were worse than in the 60s!  Quarterbacks were inefficient, turned the ball over frequently, and could barely complete half of their passes. The 70s quarterbacks sucked.

Now I hear the objections already.  “Slow down, there!  That was a different era!  Three yards and a cloud of dust, remember?  Teams ran the ball all the time, that’s why they had worse numbers.”

Here is my answer to that.  This was a different era.  Teams did run the ball more.  But, it was not nearly as dramatically different as faded memories, or glowing retrospectives would have you believe.  Even at the most run oriented point in the NFL, 1973, teams still passed the ball 23 times a game.  That’s 388 attempts per 16 games.  At that pace, a 16 game season would be:

202-388 52.1% 2254 17 21 61.7

That’s terrible.  Almost 400 pass attempts and they accomplished very little with them.  That’s not even the worst teams, that was on average!  In 1974 the Atlanta Falcons, on the season, threw four touchdowns and 31 interceptions.  The 1977 Buccaneers had three touchdowns and 30 interceptions.

Eli ManningSit back and think about that.  What would your reaction be if your favorite team had that kind of quarterback play? Ten interceptions thrown for every touchdown.  It’s not even fathomable.  A modern fan just can’t comprehend a team having a passing game that bad.  It’s not like the Falcons were a running juggernaut that year either.  Their leading rusher had 464 yards!  Eli Manning?  Please.  He can throw three touchdowns in a game, and would take a season and a half to equal the interceptions.

If you want to point out Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Moore as evidence that modern quarterbacking is in crisis, you MUST include Bob Lee, Pat Sullivan, and Kim McQuiken (the three quarterbacks of the 1974 Falcons) as proof that 70s quarterbacks weren’t so hot themselves. “Three yards and a cloud of dust” would account for ALL stats dropping. That the interceptions stayed high is very telling.  Quarterbacks of the 70s threw MORE interceptions on FEWER attempts.

I hope by this point you are starting to see “why” teams ran the ball more in the 70s.  They sucked at throwing; of course they would run more!  It is not a badge of honor, so we can now say, “Gee, so-and-so managed to throw for 141 yards a game when they never passed the ball, that’s amazing!”  No.  Sorry.  They passed slightly less, and when they did, terrible things happened.  If teams were capable of throwing for more than 141 yards a game — they would have.

Let’s move along to the 1980s.  I firmly, firmly believe that Bill Simmons is living in nostalgia, not reality, when he runs down the modern-era quarterbacks.  The 1980s quarterbacks were not nearly as good as he remembers.  The graphs show empirically that overall quarterback play has steadily improved, despite the increased complexity of defenses (3-4, Tampa-2, etc.) and the increased physical ability and size of defenders.  Let’s look at an individual season for a great quarterback from the 1980s:

224-410 54.6% 3198 19 12 83.4

That was the NFL MVP season for John Elway in 1987.  What would that be by today’s standards?  Mediocre… at best. Compare Elway’s numbers with Joey Harrington in 2004:

274-489 56.0% 3047 19 12 77.5

Scary what used to pass for MVP-quality QB play, isn’t it? Let’s look at the decade of the 1980s as a whole and compare it to this decade (2000-2007):

  1980s TODAY
% of games where a team had more INT than TD 48.6% 30.1%
Completion percentage 55.5% 59.5%
Passer Rating 71.8 78.2


Look, this could go on and on.  By any measure quarterbacks are playing better today than they ever have. From here on, we can make a lot of excuses.  Here are some of the prime candidates:

“Offenses have changed!  West coast offense!  Teams dink and dunk more!”

Answer: Defenses have changed too.  To say that qb’s benefit from friendlier offenses while ignoring the rapid improvement in defensive schemes is silly.  If dinking and dunking were the reason for the improvement, we’d see that in the yards/attempt, right?  Shorter passes = fewer yards per attempt.

  1980s TODAY
Yards per attempt 6.4 6.4

Well, guess not.  Hasn’t changed a bit.

Here’s another excuse: “Quarterbacks used to call their own plays, that’s what made them great”

Answer: Playbooks have increased in complexity ten-fold.  When your options were power-right, power-left, power-up-the-middle, or two pass plays, it was pretty simple to call your own plays.  Now there is such a cat-and-mouse game in the playcalling that quarterbacks need to focus on reading defenses rather than calling plays.  Reading defenses has also skyrocketed in complexity.  Have blitz-packages, zone coverages, and defensive schemes ever been harder to read than they are today?  Of course not.

Another excuse: “Quarterbacks were better leaders than they are today”Manning vs Rodgers

Anyone making this excuse is just grasping at straws.  It’s absurd.  When you have to resort to intangible, unmeasurable attributes to refute solid facts that show the opposite, it only means you have dunked your head in the sand in an attempt to deny the existence of what is becoming clear.
Let’s take a little test, shall we?  What follows are statistics of several quarterbacks in their first 48 games.  I wiped out games that were partially played (twelve or less attempts) and compiled some stats from quarterbacks of today and of the past.

The game is this: you tell me which quarterbacks you think have a future as a good starter in the NFL based on their performance after three full seasons of play.  I have grouped them together in tiers.  You pick out the best quarterbacks.  Who these players are is revealed at the end.

Tier 1 – Cream of the Crop

Which QB would you rather have?

QB A 981-1611 60.9% 12891 110 54 34
QB B 980-1579 62.1% 10562 72 39 35

Tier 2 – Very Good Quarterbacks

Rank these quarterbacks from 1-3.  Which you would most like to have on your team going forward?

QB A 749-1198 62.5% 9822 65 48 34
QB B 1018-1596 63.8% 10940 73 43 28
QB C 1014-1679 60.4% 12287 85 58 26

Tier 3 – Solid future, right?

Rank these quarterbacks from 1-4.  Which one would you most like to have on your team going forward?

QB A 922-1612 57.2% 9706 68 37 29
QB B 851-1490 57.1% 11991 79 52 25
QB C 900-1381 65.2% 10088 63 28 25
QB D 1012-1626 62.2% 10711 72 54 27

Tier 4 – Still Pretty Good

Same drill, rank ‘em.  Bonus: Can you pick out the 2 Hall of Famers?

QB A 884-1481 59.7% 9975 66 49 25
QB B 988-1595 61.9% 11136 69 48 26
QB C 893-1448 61.7% 9814 63 42 23
QB D 725-1220 59.4% 9672 59 36 24

Tier 5 – Well, it could be worse

If you HAD to pick one of these quarterbacks for your team, which one would you take? Do either look like they could lead your team to the Super Bowl?

QB A 827-1503 55.0% 9574 67 53 25
QB B 763-1421 53.7% 9360 58 54 34

Tier 6 – Ummm, do I have to pick one?

Can it get any uglier than this? There’s got to be a bright light at the end of the tunnel somewhere… doesn’t there?

QB A 825-1388 59.4% 9591 44 58 23
QB B 633-1153 54.9% 8116 45 33 29

Tier 7 – Are we sure these are NFL quarterback material?

How fast would you have these guys on the waiver wire? How much do you think each would make you blush as he matured?

QB A 766-1338 57.2% 8868 39 45 13
QB B 892-1636 54.5% 9213 53 59 16
QB C 780-1445 54.0% 10408 49 65 15
QB D 489-1008 48.5% 6370 36 66 27
QB E 629-1162 54.1% 8228 38 60 13

One last question before we move on to the answers: Is there any player you would move up or down a tier?
Now for the answers…

Tier 1

Quarterback A: Dan Marino

Quarterback B: Tom Brady

Not too bad.  You can live with that, right?

Tier 2

Quarterback A: Ben RoethlisbergerBrady vs MOntana

Quarterback B: Joe Montana

Quarterback C: Peyton Manning

Well Ben is a bit of a surprise.  Didn’t think he would be comparable to those other two, did you?  But still, no BIG surprises.

Tier 3

Quarterback A: Donovan McNabb

Quarterback B: Boomer Esiason

Quarterback C: Chad Pennington

Quarterback D: Brett Favre

Well that hurts a bit.  Will anyone admit to taking McNabb or Pennington over Bommer or Favre?  They all started out their careers pretty darn similar.

Tier 4

Quarterback A: Jim Kelly [HOF]

Quarterback B: Brian Griese

Quarterback C: Drew Brees

Quarterback D: Steve Young [HOF]

Yes, that Brian Griese.  Probably didn’t see that coming, did you? Just wait… it gets worse.

Tier 5

Quarterback A: Eli Manning

Quarterback B: John Elway

Anyone pick A over B?  If so, you chose Eli Manning over John Elway. Ouch.

Tier 6

This one is brutal.  Admit it.  you weren’t sure who to pick.  If so, you were just waffling over who was a better passer between Troy Aikman and Mike Vick.

Quarterback A: Troy Aikmanvick

Quarterback B: Michael Vick

Tier 7

Quarterback A: David Carr

Quarterback B: Joey Harrington

Quarterback C: Warren Moon [HOF]

Quarterback D: Terry Bradshaw [HOF]

Quarterback E: Dan Fouts [HOF]

There are actually three Hall of Famers in this group.  And you probably ranked Carr and Harrington ahead of them.  The only major difference between the greats of yesterday and the kids of today is that Bradshaw, Moon and Fouts weren’t run out of town after royally sucking their first few years.
Moral of the story:  Even after 48 games, you may not know who will will rise to the top.  To think you know after sixteen (or less) is just plain dumb. Everyone needs to quit pretending they are an expert and let the professionals do their job.  When you call for Tarvaris Jackson, Donovan McNabb or Brian Griese to be run out of town, realize you also would have called for the heads of half a dozen Hall of Famers… probably more.

Quarterbacks just don’t make as many mistakes anymore.  They throw fewer interceptions on the same number of pass attempts as the 1980s.  Even the crappy signal-callers that are being trotted out in this era of quarterbacking are playing better than those that played two decades ago.  It’s a hard truth, but fans need to come to the realization that everything that is gone is romanticized.

Nothing is recognized until it’s time has passed.  You may refuse to believe the numbers if you wish, but twenty years from now, fans will talk about the 2000s as the “Golden Age of Quarterbacks”, rattling off names — Manning, Brady, McNabb, Palmer, Roethlisberger — as though they were recounting the greatest to ever walk the earth.  Even if there are quarterbacks playing even better right in front of their faces they won’t see them… just like glance over so many in the NFL today.

by Joel Ruff 
Submitted 2009

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