Good quarterbacks are hard to define

by Gary Shelton on May 8, 2017 · 2 comments

in general

How do you quantify Winston's progress at quarterback?./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

How do you quantify Winston's progress at quarterback?./JEFFREY S. KING

Monday, 4 a.m.

If you go by yardage, Blake Bortles was better than Tom Brady last year. Kirk Cousins was better than Aaron Rodgers. Sam Bradford was better than Dak Prescott.

If you go by quarterback rating, Nick Foles was better than Drew Brees. Brian Hoyer was better than Derek Carr. Mike Glennon was better than Jameis Winston.

If you go by touchdown passes, Andrew Luck was better than Ben Roethlisberger. Philip Rivers was better than Matthew Stafford. Colin Kaepernick was better than Jay Cutler, although neither of them are proud of it.

That's the thing about quarterbacks. They're hard to define because the analytics are not complete. There isn't a single statistic that's ever been able to sum up, precisely, how much better the very good quarterbacks are from the good ones. It's the reason that, every now and again, someone will attempt to come up with a better formula. Troy Aikman. ESPN. Anyone.

The numbers will tell you that, because he missed four games while suspended, Tom Brady was an average quarterback last year. Your own eyes will tell you that's a lie. Brady was the best in the game, and everyone knows it, and he has another new shiny ring to close all discussions. If the NFL is a game, Brady won. Anyone who argues differently is arguing the wrong point.

Baseball. Ah, baseball has perfected its analytics. If you don't like on-base percentage, you can argue slugging percentage. Or WAR. Or

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fielding range.  Or batting with runners in scoring position. There are literally dozens of good stats when it comes to baseball, for both players and pitchers, and they give you a much truer picture of the complete player under evaluation. I tend to giggle when someone surrenders completely to the numbers, as if nothing else means anything, and that you can tell an ace more by his Whip than by his ERA, but that's true of anything. Ignorance of analytics is silly; blind allegiance to them can be as well.

With pitchers, there isn't one defining stat to say who's better, either. The point is, if you're discussing, say, Chris Archer, you have a heck of a lot more measurables than if you're discussing Jameis Winston, and certainly more than if you're discussing Ali Marpet.

Consider this: Jacksonville's Blake Borles was dreadful last year. Close-to-losing-his-job awful. He got his head coach fired. in fact. But for the year, he threw two less interceptions than Winston (who, admittedly, still needs work, but not as much as Bortles, who is two incompletions from being Blaine Gabbert). His yardage was within 185 yards. The ratings were fairly close.

But were they close as quarterbacks. No. They weren't in the same area code.

The bottom line is this: Quarterback rating only tells you so much. Yardage and touchdowns only tell you so much. Fourth quarter comebacks only tell you so much. There is an intangible to playing this game: How you lead. What kind of hope you carry. How you do in the key moments.

Let's start with this: A perfect quarterback rating is 158.3. That's kind of an arbitrary number stuck out there, isn't it. It sounds precise, but it isn't really. It's basically a formula that rewards touchdown passes and diminishes interceptions. What second-grader doesn't know that?

Here's my problem with the quarterback rating. It ignores more than it decides.

If a quarterback goes on the road against, say, New England, his rating doesn't reflect that. He might as well be playing the Browns at home.

If a quarterback is playing in a hailstorm, or if his top receivers are hurt, or if he brings his team from 26 points down, the formula does not compute any of it.

If he has a broken wrist, or if he scrambles for a key first down, or if evades the rush to complete a 22-yard pass on third-and-21, the formula does not compute any of that, either. It doesn't compute winning, or leading an upset, or playing with no running game and a receiver who keeps dropping passes. If you're playing in The Longest Yard, and the warden has warned you not to win, and you stole your uniforms from the guards, the formula does not compuete that, either.

Look, if a wide receiver catches 12 touchdown passes, you know he's pretty good. If a back averages four yards a carry and no fumbles, no one argues against him starting. There are legitimate measurables for sacks, and for interceptions.

For a quarterback, however, the most important position in his sport by a ton, it's all stew. You taste what you want. You can choose to trust the ratings or the completion percentage or the touchdowns or the interceptions or the average yards per catch. You can talk about the surrounding cast or the coaching or the schedule or the comebacks or the big games.

Most of the good analysts, of course, consider all of it. Because it all counts. Playing quarterback is a position that demands varied skills in the pressure of the moment.

So how do you tell a good one.

You'll know it when you see it. Usually, he's the guy underneath the winning scoreboard.

Hint: It's not Bortles.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

barry mcdowell May 8, 2017 at 8:07 pm

In baseball, I still believe in the old-school ERA for pitchers and BA for hitters. As you point out, football QB’s are a different breed. I wonder how Joe Montana would rate on the measurables?

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Gary Shelton May 8, 2017 at 11:09 pm

Montana was terrific with his quarterback rating. He threw very few interceptions. He had a 92.3 quarterback rating with four seasons over 100. He also won, and he was deadly in the fourth quarter. He was terrific.

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