Why Quarterback Wins Are Irrelevant
In 2006, Rex Grossman led the Chicago Bears to a 13-3 regular season record. He then took the Bears to a Super Bowl, their first since their famous 1985 team win.
In 2006, Rex Grossman dropped back to pass 502 times. On those 502 passes, Grossman accumulated a Passing Net Expected Points total of -31.82, the seventh-worst of all 29 signal-callers who tried to pass at least 300 times.
Grossman will never go down as the first Bears quarterback to take the team to the Super Bowl after the ’85 championship. Instead, the career backup will be remembered for his poor leadership, erratic throws and general love for New Year's Eve partying.
Counting the playoffs, Grossman won 15 games that season. Grossman did. Not anyone else. It was Grossman who won 15 games. Can’t I conclude that? If we’re going to count quarterback wins as a legitimate statistic – one that gets thrown around every website and media outlet imaginable – can’t I say that Rex Grossman won 15 games that season?
Of course, but any NFL pundit would look at me and point out the obvious caveat that he didn’t just win 15 games. His team did. And in turn, folks will dig up numbers to show why the Bears didn’t win because of Grossman. They won in spite of Grossman.
And yet, while we all know the NFL is the ultimate team game, we still continue to associate quarterback wins with certain players. No example is better than Tom Brady.
This year, it was Brady who led the Patriots to the second-best record in the AFC. It was Brady who took the squad to the AFC Championship. Brady won games. And Brady was the one who was placed in MVP discussions as a result.
Pardon me for being blunt, but you’re better than that.
Brady vs. Ryan
If you Google “Matt Ryan’s Fault” (these are the weird phrases I put into the site), you’ll find what I’d consider alarming results. There’s finger pointing – blame on Matt Ryan for his team’s 4-12 failure of a 2013 season.
But ask yourself (and I know football fans will agree): Is it fair to blame Matt Ryan? Is it fair to say it’s his fault when he lost one of the best wide receivers in the game in Week 5, while his other top receiver played essentially as a decoy throughout the season? Is it necessary to place blame on a quarterback who was throwing the football to Harry Douglas, Drew Davis and Darius Johnson?
Of course not. And the team’s 4-12 record this season wasn’t Matt Ryan’s fault. Despite all the turnover on offense – backup running backs and receivers running around the field with a poor offensive line – Ryan put together, analytically, the 14th-best season at quarterback. His passing numbers were better than Andrew Luck's and Cam Newton's.
He was also just 15 Net Expected Points off of Tom Brady. In other words, Brady was adding just under a point more for the Patriots per game this year than Matt Ryan was for the Falcons. And while some wanted Tom Brady to win MVP because he “did so much with so little,” does that mean Matt Ryan should’ve been a candidate in the minds of fans as well?
”No,” the Brady backer says. “Tom Brady won 12 games, while Matt Ryan lost 12.
That’s precisely the issue.
This will be wildly unpopular, but Matt Ryan wasn’t much worse than Tom Brady this season. The reason his team didn’t win was not due to his specific play, but the team’s general poor performances. In fact, Matt Ryan’s Falcons, when adjusted for strength of schedule, posted a higher Passing Net Expected Points score than Tom Brady’s Patriots this season (99.48 versus 87.46).
The reason the Falcons lost was because their defense was pitiful and their division and conference was stacked.
But that’s Matt Ryan’s fault?
Philip Rivers and the League's MVP
Over a month ago, I wrote about the above points (without comparing Tom Brady to Matt Ryan, which was a comp I found interesting from this tweet today), comparing Tom Brady to Philip Rivers. While Brady had more wins, which made people giddy about him winning another MVP, Rivers was by far the superior quarterback metrics-wise, and was performing at a high level with arguably just as poor of weapons. Even if you wanted to dub Brady’s weapons “worse”, Rivers’ Passing NEP was so significantly higher that it didn’t even matter.
That was before Rivers’ team went 9-7, making the playoffs due to fortunate circumstances. Funny enough though, Rivers seemed to not get nearly enough respect until his team was in the playoffs. Prior to that, he was just having a great quarterback season.
Let’s think about that for a second. Had the Ravens beat the Bengals in Week 17 in Cincinnati, would Philip Rivers be considered – even thought about – on the same level as Tom Brady or Russell Wilson in 2013? If Rivers' team hadn't made the playoffs, would we place him in the same passing tier as the two playoff passers? If the answer to that question is no, then why? Because of sheer luck?
It's because people like quarterback wins. It's because Rivers’ team went from being 7-7 with a 2.5% chance of making the playoffs to a 9-7 squad and the final wild-card team. Therefore, Rivers' season is validated.
Look, I don't want this article to be another one about the MVP - I've written enough of those lately. This is merely an example. Clearly the way you judge the MVP award could be completely different than the way I judge it. Instead, this is just to say that we allow wins to change our perception of a quarterback. And that shouldn't be the case. Football isn't a simple one-on-one game. This isn’t baseball. This is the ultimate team sport.
Tom Brady is historically great because of how he produces on the field. Regardless of his team's records, that's what we should care about.
Suppose Peyton Manning puts up the exact same numbers in 2014 that he did this year, but his team goes 7-9, missing the playoffs. Also, imagine that there are no quarterbacks that even come close to Manning statistically, similar to this year. Should we view him as any worse of a passer because his team went 7-9 opposed to going 13-3 the season prior? If everything is similar other than wins, should we change the way we view Manning's performance on the season? Of course not. The main reason his team lost would be due to either poor rushing performances or bad defensive play. Maybe they continuously lost close games - I don't know. That fact is, wins don't define a quarterback. On the field play does.
Good quarterback play will often times result in wins. But if a quarterback doesn't win - if a passer doesn't make the playoffs - we shouldn't automatically dub that passer as any more or less of a failure than someone who does make the playoffs. There's more to football than that.
The Upcoming Super Bowl
The reason I bring all of this up is because we’re on the verge of hearing about it almost non-stop as we approach this year’s Super Bowl. Peyton Manning needs to “win” another championship so that he can defend himself as one of the best of all time. Russell Wilson just “wins”, especially when he plays at home.
While both Super Bowl passers are more than deserving when it comes to playing in the Super Bowl (I firmly believe that Russell Wilson is one of the best young quarterbacks we've ever seen), we all need to take a step back and understand what got these players here. It wasn’t all them. And because of that, we can’t accurately associate wins to their name.