Fifteen years ago, while plugging Football By The Numbers, a book I had cowritten with the sports economist and statistician George Ignatin, I got into an on-air verbal battle with a radio host who was also a football writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He asked me, "Who do you think is the greatest quarterback in NFL history?"
I asked him how he defined "the greatest." The most prolific? Held the most records? The one who figured at the top of the NFL's passer rating system? He replied, "Pick the best quarterback according to how you would select him."
Well, I told him, by that standard I would pick Bart Starr. The host was appalled. "Starr doesn't hold any important NFL records," he responded.
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"You're wrong," I shot back, "He has one: most championships, five." (By the way, I meant the most in what I consider the modern era of the NFL, from 1958 to the present. Why 1958? That's the year Johnny Unitas put the NFL in the national spotlight by leading the Baltimore Colts to their sudden-death victory over the New York Giants and also marks Bart Starr's first NFL season.)
But he wouldn't let go. "That's what you're going by? Championships?"
"Well, yes," I replied. "That's what I would go by, unless winning the game isn't important." That sort of ended the debate.
It's true that some quarterbacks have won primarily because they played on great teams with great defenses, great receivers, and great blockers. In the first two years he won championship rings with the Steelers, Terry Bradshaw was mediocre to bad. And there have been three or four other QBs over the years that, like Bradshaw in his first two Super Bowls, were bad but not so bad that they kept their teams from going all the way.
But the importance of the quarterback is so ridiculously out of proportion to that of any other on offense or defense that QB performance must be weighted first in any consideration of winning factors. Different quarterbacks have played under different rules and strategies over different eras, but the importance of winning hasn't changed in any of those. And so while no rating system can take in every statistic, any decent one should rely on QB statistics that correlate with win percentage. There's an amazing number of ratings systems in existence, but few actually figure the primary—Vince Lombardi would have said the only—goal of the game: to win it. I've got one, though, that does.
First, take a look at what's out there. The best-known formula is the NFL passer rating system, which isn't bad but is absurdly complex. (Read it for yourself, but a warning: it might help to have that degree from MIT.) The NFL rating figures in statistics that, to me, are of a negligible importance, such as pass completion percentage. I've never understood why the percentage of passes completed matters when the length of a football field is measured in yards. It's how far you move the ball downfield that matters. Would you rather complete three of three passes for 10 yards or one out of three for 20?
There are other rating systems that figure in the effectiveness of a quarterback's running ability. I don't see why that should matter, either. A quarterback's primary job is to throw the ball. If he wants the ball kept on the ground, he should hand it off to one of his running backs.
There are systems like ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating, based on several factors that can only be subjectively determined, such as "Win Probability," "Dividing Credit," and "Clutch Index." Good luck with putting a number on all that, or with making your definition of what those terms mean match up with theirs.
Then there are systems that are just too simplistic. Scott Kacsmar, on a site called ColdHardFootballFacts.com, calculates "Champion's Fourth-Quarter Comeback Wins" as the ultimate gauge of greatness. (Peyton Manning, by the way, surpassed Dan Marino for first place with the Bronco's 35-24 win over San Diego on October 15 Monday Night Football. Peyton now has 37 fourth-quarter comeback wins. Marino, of course, has 36, and the next two are Johnny Unitas and John Elway, both with 34.) Fourth-quarter comeback wins is a very good yardstick. The problem is that it doesn't reward quarterbacks who don't get their teams in fourth-quarter deficits. Bart Starr, if I may use his example again, won as many championships as the top four comeback QBs combined.
Is there such a thing as the ultimate passer rating stat? No, but there is one that works better than any other. Years ago, working on an article for my high school paper, I wrote to the NFL's leading stats expert, Bud Goode. My question was simple: What do you think are the most important stats for a quarterback to be rated by? His answer was equally simple: "Yards per pass attempt, and closely behind that one, interception percentage." A short time later, in a story for Sports Illustrated Goode wrote, "I want this on my headstone: Here lies Bud Goode. He told the world about yards per pass attempt." (Goode died in 2010; to my knowledge, his request was not honored.)
Early in 1993, working with George Ignatin, I embarked on a project to determine how good a tool yards/pass attempt really was. We calculated every pro football game played from 1958-1992. What stats correlated the best with winning? Goode was vindicated: It was yards/pass attempt, as in gross yards gained passing divided by the number of attempts.
The second most-important stat was interception percentage. The challenge was how to combine them into an easily accessible formula available to any fan.
What stat correlated the best with winning? Yards/pass attempt. The second most-important stat was interception percentage. The challenge was how to combine them into a formula available to any fan.
This was finally accomplished by figuring the value, in terms of yards, of an interception. We determined this by adding all the yards gained in every possession a football team had over the course of a season as well as the average number of yards gained on punts. We also figured in the average number of yards that interceptions were returned for.
After weeks of painstaking work—painstaking for the math-deprived like me, at least—we determined that an interception was worth 49.38 yards, which rounded off nicely to 50. We called the result Adjusted Yards/Pass or AYP.
I'll show you how to figure it, starting with Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, by anyone's standards surely one of the best passers in the NFL this decade. So far this year, Rodgers has passed for 1,979 yards in 262 attempts. He has been picked off four times, so multiplying that by 50, we get 200; subtracting that from his yards passing, we get 1,779 yards. We then divide that by the number of attempts, 262, and get an AYP of 6.79.
But Rodgers's AYP isn't the most impressive in the league. So far that honor goes to the Washington Redskin's sensational rookie Robert Griffin III who, in seven games, has gained 1601 yards in 189 attempts for a sensational 8.47 yards/attempt. And he has done it while throwing just three interceptions. So, subtracting 150 yards from RG3's gross yards passing, we get 1451 yards, which divided by 189 is an impressive 7.67 YPA.
Why are the Redskins only 3-4? Because their defense has allowed 200 points, the highest of any team in their conference and 30th out of 32 teams in the entire league. They have also allowed 8.0 yards per attempt this year, 27th in the league.
(By the way, No.'s 2 and 3 in AYP are the Mannings, Peyton at 7.08 and Eli, 7.02.),
Adjusted yards/pass proves, if anyone needed more evidence, that RG3 is a spectacular talent and, if he manages to escape injury, is clearly the next great NFL quarterback. Stated another way, if the Washington Redskins can improve their defense this year, Griffin, at 22, could well wind up the youngest quarterback in NFL history to play in a Super Bowl. And if he sticks around, and if pro football history tells us anything, he'll play there more than once.
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