Don’t Blame the Quarterbacks

Much has been made about the quality of the NFL this year. Lots of blowouts, an ever-growing list of injured marquee players, and having to watch Brock Osweiler throw a football.

In particular, several starting quarterbacks have been injured and others have been poor and inconsistent. That being the case, you would assume that stats would support that quarterback play this season has been markedly worse.

I decided to take a look at the average quarterback rating of the NFL’s top 32 quarterbacks by pass attempts in each season since the turn of the century (the NFL has data dating all the way back to 1932 but I didn’t feel like doing that much data entry into Excel). Even though 18 seasons isn’t an enormous sample size, the results were interesting….

nfl passing graph

So a couple quick thoughts on the data. First, it seems like we’ve reached a ceiling over the last 4 seasons, with an average rating that’s both an all-time high (I did check the old data enough to know this trend is roughly linear over NFL history) but almost constant. Moreover, while there’s been the slightest downturn so far this season the average quarterback rating is still very impressive. The injuries and mediocrity have been balanced out by great seasons from Alex Smith, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and Tom Brady, among others:

 

Top 5 Bottom 5
Alex Smith 113.9 Deshone Kizer 54.4
Tom Brady 108.3 C.J. Beathard 70.8
Carson Wentz 104.1 Joe Flacco 72.7
Drew Brees 104.0 Trevor Siemian 76.8
Aaron Rodgers 103.2 Mike Glennon 76.9

 

Now, if I was to offer a prediction, I would guess the average for this season will be lower at the end of the year. Injuries to players such as Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson will show themselves more in the stats the longer the season goes on without them. Who knows, maybe the backups will surprise us over the rest of the year (the bar is pretty low when a guy with a passer rating of 54 still has a job). But all in all this season hasn’t been as disastrous for QBs as conventional wisdom might lead you to believe.

So, what does this trend say in general? First, the gradual increase in passer rating over time mirrors the fact that the amount teams throw the ball is always increasing. Second, we have been living in the golden age of quarterbacks. It’s hard to appreciate in real time how ridiculous it is to have guys like Brady, (Peyton) Manning, Rodgers, Brees all in the league at the same time for much of their careers. Finally, this is by design. The NFL has made it a little harder on defenders by making defensive holding a point of emphasis, and rule changes intended to keep players safer and prevent concussions have had the side effect of opening up the passing game.

It will be interesting to see over the next few years what directions these numbers go. Maybe the league has hit a ceiling and the average will float around 88 or 89 for the foreseeable future, maybe once this has been the norm for a while the NFL will make more changes in a desperate attempt to boost ratings by trying to boost scoring, or maybe we’ll see a decline once more of the great quarterbacks of recent years have retired.

In any case, while we can debate if and to what extent the NFL has been a lesser product this season, we should look beyond the quarterbacks when placing blame.

 

P.S.: I am aware of the complaints with quarterback passer rating as a measure of quality. However, in general, it’s still better than any other one stat in comparing quarterbacks and generally assessing how well they’ve played. I used the traditional passer rating rather than the ESPN derived “QBR” (despite QBR being way easier to understand, the formula for passer rating is ridiculous) because QBR is intended to be normally distributed with an average of 50, and where quarterbacks score is a function of other players, a standard which will shift over time. I feel passer rating is still effective in illustrating that teams are both throwing the ball a lot more and doing so more effectively than in the past. I would be interested in any evidence that may in fact show that this season has been markedly worse for QBs than previous ones. Also, if you’d like to explore all of the NFL data for yourself, you’ll find that here

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