Have Elite Quarterback Seasons Translated to Playoff Success Recently?
Matt Ryan had one of the best quarterback seasons in recent memory. He led the league in Passing Net Expected Points per drop back, had the third-best season since the merger by yards per attempt with at least 300 attempts and he won league MVP honors.
Despite all that, he didn't win the Super Bowl and continued the streak of NFL MVPs to not win the award and the Lombardi trophy in the same season -- Kurt Warner was the last player to do it in 2001.
The Atlanta Falcons signal-caller's performance has also joined an increasingly long list of great quarterback seasons that didn't finish with a Super Bowl victory.
This begs the question: Did Ryan experience the worst ending to the best quarterback season in recent memory? That can be up for debate, but it also led to finding out exactly how the best single-season quarterback performances have ended in recent years.
There is NEP data available on numberFire dating back to the 2000 season, which enabled us to look at the top-10 quarterback seasons by Passing NEP per drop back with at least 400 drop backs since that time.
So, let's see where the best quarterback performances since the turn of the century have ended, and if any of them also included the joy of hoisting a Lombardi trophy.
Lost in Wild Card Round
We start off with a unique case including Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals. In 2015, Dalton and the Bengals had the poor man’s version of what Ryan and the Falcons had in 2016 -- a quarterback who excelled in the given offense, an offensive coordinator who created a scheme that allowed the quarterback to succeed and enough surrounding talent to pull it off.
He didn't even get a chance to show what he could do in January, though.
Dalton led the league in Passing NEP per drop back in 2015, but while the Bengals’ season ended in the wild card round, Dalton’s season ended in Week 13 with a fractured thumb in his throwing hand. He was replaced by A.J. McCarron, who was not good during the team’s playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
This injury made the season rather forgettable, robbing Cincinnati from what might have been their best shot at a deep playoff run with the roster as currently constructed.
Lost in Divisional Round
The divisional round is where half of the top-10 seasons ended, including three of the top five.
Peyton Manning finished with the first- and fifth-best quarterback seasons since 2000, but those performances were punctuated by consecutive divisional-round losses. In 2004, his 12-4 Indianapolis Colts fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, while the 14-2 squad from 2005 lost to the Steelers, who also went on to win it all.
Losing to the eventual champ probably doesn't make either loss feel any better, but maybe it's slight reassurance in defeat. However, the 2006 Colts -- a Manning season that just missed the top-10 by hundredths of a point -- won the Super Bowl.
Aaron Rodgers’ 0.43 Passing NEP per drop back is third among the top-10 and won him MVP honors in 2011, but his Green Bay Packers fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. The Packers were the NFC's top seed and had the league's top offense by Adjusted NEP per play, but the 9-7 Giants never trailed in the game.
Drew Brees (0.35) was right behind Rodgers that year, but also exited in the divisional round when his New Orleans Saints lost a shootout with the San Francisco 49ers, 36-32. San Francisco took a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter, but the Saints came back to take their first lead, 24-23, with 4:02 left in the fourth. The lead changed two more times before Brees and the Saints took a 32-29 lead with just under two minutes to go, but the Niners would score on a 14-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds remaining to win the game.
Then, there was Philip Rivers in 2009.
The team formerly known as the San Diego Chargers (too soon?) had the league’s best offense by Adjusted NEP per play and the best passing offense by Adjusted Passing NEP per play. Rivers led the league in Passing NEP per drop back, but placed third in MVP voting behind Brees and Manning. In the playoffs, San Diego was stifled by the peak of Rex Ryan's New York Jets defense, football's best unit by a wide margin per Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.
All five of these quarterbacks received a first-round bye, which made losing in the divisional round their only playoff game for that year.
Lost in Super Bowl
The good news for these quarterbacks is if they made it past the dreaded divisional round, they reached the Super Bowl. The not-so-good news is most of them didn't win it.
Tom Brady led the seemingly unstoppable 2007 Patriots to the Super Bowl, but fell to the Giants due to a go-ahead touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left in the game. Of course, there was also the perfect season thing that ended with this loss.
Peyton Manning and the 2013 Denver Broncos put to test the question of whether it’s worse to lose in heartbreaking fashion late in a game or to get blown out. From the first play of Super Bowl XLVIII when the snap flew over Manning’s head and into the end zone for a safety, the Broncos were in trouble. They eventually lost 43-8 to the Seattle Seahawks.
Then there’s Matt Ryan and the Falcons, who are fresh in everyone's mind. Ryan put together one of the most impressive seasons for a quarterback and nearly had a blowout win in the Super Bowl to cap it off. But then they blew that 25-point lead and things got weird, which brings us to...
Won the Super Bowl
Of course Brady is the only quarterback of these 10 to win a Super Bowl. He's simply on fire right now.
While this exercise started with wondering what the worst loss was for the best quarterback season, it ended up arguably finding the best ending to the best quarterback season. Brady’s 2016 is the only one of the top-10 by Passing NEP per drop back since 2000 to be capped off with a Super Bowl win.
For most of Super Bowl LI, it looked like Brady and Ryan were going to be switched here, and Brady was mostly at fault. He was bad for the first three quarters -- producing a -0.6 Passing NEP per drop back -- before lighting it up in the fourth quarter and overtime. There's really not much else to say about Brady's game because so much has already been written about it here.
Brady was forced to start his 2016 season in Week 4, but with all things considered, he might have just put up the best season we’ve seen in awhile from start to finish.