Jun 012012

Don’t get me wrong — I am a football fan. The NFL holds my attention in a way the other leagues can’t. Once MJ retired, my interest in the NBA dropped in lockstep with the Bulls’ place in the standings. The NHL has never seemed anything more than soccer on ice. Speaking of the beautiful game, I really really want to like soccer, but the MLS just doesn’t do it for me.

However, baseball has things going for it that the NFL can’t (and probably never will) touch. Aside from the sense of continuity and the deeply-held loyalty (if there are football equivalents of long-suffering Cub fans and [ugh] Red Sox Nation, I don’t know who they are), there is one more-recently developed advantage: Sabermetrics.

Moneyball didn’t invent the idea that the common wisdom can be wrong, but it did popularize it for the baseball world. Naysayers like Tracey Ringolsby and Joe Morgan aside, there is no doubt that hordes of geeks and statheads have transformed the way we view baseball statistics — and by extension, player performance.

This is my long-winded way of introducing today’s topic: Quarterbacks.

On Wednesday, in an article for NFL Films, Greg Cosell took on the phrase, “He’s a winner,” which got me thinking about how we evaluate quarterback effectiveness. While there are plenty of other data points to consider (raw passing stats, durability, longevity, etc.), all too often the discussion begins and ends with “winning”.

Dan Marino could have been one of the best QBs of all time, but he never won the Big Game.

Joe Namath may have completed only 50% of his passes, and his TD-to-INT ratio[1] is 173-220, but he predicted victory in Super Bowl III! Woo!

This is so ingrained into the way we view the position, and happens so quickly, that even when it should be obvious to the world that there’s not enough information to form a valid opinion, players are elevated — and subsequently vilified for our failure to understand what was really going on.

The Bears’ offensive line has more holes than something really holey, but Jay Cutler is a whiny little crybaby who can’t win when it counts.

His first several opponents weren’t prepared for his style of play, but I think Tim Tebow couldn’t handle success.

Simply put: it’s not fair. It’s not fair to criticize players when they don’t win due to circumstances outside their control, nor is it fair to beatify quarterbacks who benefit from being on great teams. Players should be praised (and criticized) for doing (or not doing) their jobs. That’s it.

Pitchers aren’t paid to win games. They are paid to keep the other team from scoring runs. Obviously, if a pitcher does his job well, his chances of “winning” are greatly increased — but there are many other factors at play. As a result, baseball has (slowly) recognized that ERA is a much better indicator of a great pitcher than mere “wins”. Sabermetric stats like DIPS and BABIP are even better.

Likewise, quarterbacks aren’t paid to win games. They are paid to run the offense and throw the ball. Thus, the way in which the common wisdom elevates or demotes quarterbacks due to their team’s success or failure provides an incomplete picture at best, and prevents us from recognizing (or misidentifying) true greatness at worst.

As an example, let’s consider the only two quarterbacks to start in five Super Bowls: John Elway and Tom Brady.

  • Elway’s career winning percentage was .643, or an average season of 10-6. Brady’s is currently .780 (the highest in NFL history), or an average season of 12-4.
  • Elway made it to the playoffs nine times, starting 21 games. Brady has also made it nine times, starting 22 games.
  • Elway’s record in conference championships was 5-1. Brady’s record is also 5-1.
  • Elway started out losing his first three Super Bowls, then winning in his last two seasons. Brady started out winning his first three, then losing twice to the Giants.

In other words, the difference between the two when it comes to winning is two regular-season games per season, which is not insignificant. However, the point of the regular season is to get into the playoffs; and in the playoffs, the difference is exactly one Big Game.

What’s the point? Well, consider the narrative built up around the two players:

Elway was viewed as a ridiculously talented, reckless “gunslinger” who was capable of bringing his team back from any deficit — but criticized for having put his teams in big holes in the first place, and unable to win the Big Game because of it. He finally knocked that monkey off his back, but there’s still the suspicion among many that he only got the Lombardi Trophy on the strength of Terrell Davis’ legs.

Brady, on the other hand, was an also-ran backup QB, who only got his shot at greatness because of an injury to one of the best passers in the game, Drew Bledsoe. His story became rags-to-riches when he knocked off the Greatest Show on Turf. He came back two years later to cement his position among the elite by winning back-to-back Super Bowls (the first to do so since — yep — John Elway). He hasn’t won a championship in seven seasons, but that’s just because his defense has been sub-standard, and the Giants got a bit lucky.

To illustrate the importance placed upon winning and losing in the formation of a player’s narrative, let’s reverse the win-loss portions of the two players’ Super Bowls:

Elway was a wunderkind, winning back-to-back Super Bowls with his inspirational leadership and incredibly strong arm. Yeah, he subsequently lost three Super Bowls, but that’s because he ran into one of Bill Belichick’s best defenses (1986 Giants) and one of the only quarterbacks better than him (Joe Montana), while his defense had one really really bad day (Super Bowl XXII). There’s no question Elway is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever!

Brady, on the other hand, lost his first two Super Bowls, having been manhandled by the Giants in the first and outplayed by Eli Manning in the second. Sure, he’s talented, but there are serious questions about his toughness and his ability to come through in the clutch. He came back later on to win three Super Bowls, but really, he was more of a game manager — heck, his team won those games by a combined total of nine points! Brady’s a very good quarterback, but he’s nothing without Belichick.

I’m not saying Brady’s not a great quarterback, and I’m not saying Elway is better (that’s an argument for another day). I am saying that quarterbacks are unfairly praised when their team wins, and blamed when their team loses. More importantly, we end up passing judgement on a quarterback’s entire career based not only on whether their team wins or loses Super Bowls, but when those wins and losses happen.[2]

This leads to the truly silly situation in which it is better for a quarterback to never get to the Super Bowl, than to get there early, lose, and then never get back — or worse, get there many times and never win. Nobody talks about Archie Manning as a great quarterback who couldn’t win the Big Game; he was a great quarterback on really bad teams. On the other hand, failing to win a Super Bowl is probably the biggest knock on Dan Marino’s career, yet that only enters the discussion because he had the misfortune to get there in the first place.

Meanwhile, Jim Kelly is too often seen not as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time (top 20 in career passing yards, passes completed, yards per attempt, game-winning drives, comebacks, and total offense) but as the guy who lost four straight Super Bowls.

At least Marino and Kelly are in the Hall of Fame. The “winner” issue looms much larger for others. Does anyone think Trent Dilfer (one ring) and Brad Johnson (one) were better than Boomer Esiason, Dan Fouts, or even Warren Moon (zero rings between them)? Of course not.

Then why is it that Terry Bradshaw (51.9%, 27,989 yards, 70.9 passer rating, four rings) gets the keys to Canton, while Joe Theismann (56.7%, 25,206 yards, 77.4 rating, one ring) remains on the outside looking in?

Narratives are important; they build context around an individual play, a game, a season, or an entire career. The Catch wouldn’t be remembered for what it is if it came in the third game of the season. But narratives can also hurt our understanding of the real story. When the dust settles, we shouldn’t use them in place of more objective analysis.

I don’t have an answer (yet). I don’t know what should go into the evaluation of a quarterback. For one thing, there are far too many differences in the style of play between teams (not to mention across eras). For another, football doesn’t keep the kind of detailed stats that baseball does to allow an easy analysis.

I do know winning — at least winning the Big Games — should not be factored as heavily as it is now. Otherwise, the debate about the Best QB of All Time begins and ends with one name:

Otto Freakin’ Graham, baby![3]

[1] Which is not a “ratio” at all! Arrgh.

[2] Not to mention that QBs are the only players whose legacies are so clearly impacted by championships. When was the last time you heard anyone argue that Clay Matthews (one ring) is a better linebacker than Dick Butkus (none)?

[3] Seven championships, including five in a row.

Danny Boy

Hi. I'm Dan. I like football, baseball, and cheese. Also beer. I live in Colorado, where we have good beer and great football. Baseball and cheese? Not so much.

  2 Responses to “Quarterbacks and the “Winning” Narrative”

  1. Good article, good sir! And Otto was definitely the best of all time. Until Cutler takes that title by winning 7 Super Bowls in a row. By himself. Bears.

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