Quarterback Ratings Tell Half the Story

For some reason, I have found myself wasting my valuable time researching quarterback stats.  Of particular interest to me, of course, is my main man, Aaron Rodgers.  The debate rages on as to whether he is the greatest of all time.  Of course, if you are a Packer fan, the debate rages on as to whether he is even as good as Brett Favre.   We Packer fans are, of course, living in a most heady time to even have such a conversation.   Would be nice if the bubble were never to burst.  But, alas, we recently found out just how temporary and tenuous our advantage really is.   In the meantime, what fun!

Quarterback ratings have come up a lot when speaking of Rodgers, Favre and others in terms of who is or was the best.  The rating is a little hard to really understand.  But, I think it mainly boils down to average yards per pass and touchdown to interception ration.  Since Rodgers is loath to throw interceptions and has uncorked his share of long throws and touch downs, he leads in career rating.  Favre, in the other hand, led the league in interceptions, so his TD/Int ratio greatly tempers his rating.

Now, I’m not here to say that Aaron is a chump.  No, I think he probably is the best QB in the game today, and he can stand right up there with Moon, Marino, Young, Brady and Aikman as the best pure passer we have ever seen.  But I’m not so ready to dismiss Brett as a chump either.  You can look at a lot of QBs over the years who had much better passer ratings.  But non of them ever came close to getting a whiff of playing in a Superbowl.  For some, you can say they didn’t have the team it takes to be successful.  But, in large part, there are a lot of intangibles that never show up in a quarterback rating.

Yes, Brett Favre led the league in interceptions.  I would like someone to do some research, though, and tell me how many of those interceptions came on third and long.  And I would like to know how far he threw the ball on average in those instances.  Because what the numbers don’t tell you is the “taking a chance at a big play” to “field position” ratio.  In other words, what happens if you just throw the ball away on third down?  You punt.  And what happens when you punt?  You trade field position for possession.  An long interception on third down equals a punt on fourth down.  So, in essence, besides the fact that Favre successfully extended possessions half the time, the other half of the time he was one of the best punters Green Bay ever had!  Of course, you can also point to the fact that he effectively punted on downs other than third a lot of the time, but that brings me to my next point.

When you are playing against a good defense, the chances to score diminish greatly.  Sustaining fifteen play drives against them is highly unlikely.  The odds are against you.   Sometimes the odds are so much against you that the low percentage pass is actually better odds.  I can think of a lot of games the Favre played against a lot of really good defenses.  In a lot of those games, he threw one, maybe two, inceptions early in the game, only to come back with great plays in the second half to pull out the victory.  Many were the times, or course, when it didn’t work out so well.  But none of us who watched and struggled with the bad moments were about to have wished that Favre didn’t play for our side.  When he was good, he was phenomenal.

The Packers had another great pocket passer who never gets much mention because he played in the decades of mediocrity and had more interceptions than touchdowns–one Lynn Dickey.  Playing behind a suspect line and being too hobbled to move, he still had some phenomenal outings, not unlike Dan Marino.  And, although he had James Lofton as a deep threat, he wasn’t blessed, like Marino, with the likes of Mark Duper and Mark Clayton and a whole field of talented receivers.  One has to wonder whether Dickey would have gotten a lot more love on a better team.  Archie Manning was considered a wunderkind, but he drew a career with the Saints.  Enough said.

And, of course, there is Bart Starr.  Starr was probably the Rodgers of his time.  Stats can’t prove it, though, since it was a different era and Lombardi was into running.  Plus, his touchdown to interception ratio barely beat 1:1.  You could make a case that Unitas was much better as a pure passer, but his ratio wasn’t much better.  But then, Favrelous Favre’s ratio was about 3:2.   Yet no one can take away six championships from Starr or that he was the brains behind the most potent offense of his day.

So, we have quarterback ratings and we have wins and championships.  And we have Joe Montana, barely in the individual record book, possessor or only three seasons with a rating over 100, TD/int ratio of 2:1 and four rings, and still considered by many to be the greatest quarterback ever.  Favre’s biggest knock, on the other hand, is that he only made the big show twice, only won it once, and made his mistakes in the games that everyone watched and the ones that mattered.  In the final analysis, being able to win the big ones seem to be what really gets you rated at the top.  And maybe that’s how it should be.  But,  I still put Marino up there, and Dickey, and a of others who never won the big show.  Maybe I don’t put them at the absolute top.  But I don’t hold it against them either.

Now we look again at Rodgers, the modern game, and the QB rating.  It means a lot more today, because a lot more rides on the quarterback in the modern game.  Rodger has won the big one once.  He has also had some off days in the playoffs.  Peyton Manning has won the big one once, his brother Ely twice.  And both of them have lost big ones as well.  Does that make Ely better than Peyton?  What about head to heads.  Doesn’t Brady own both of them?  And he has more Superbowl wins–and losses.  Rodgers is one for one in the big show.  Head and shoulders ahead in all time QB rating.  Does that mean he needs a few more Superbowl wins to be the greatest?

It’s all apples and oranges.  No one in the game was doing the kind of passing that occurs now.  Perhaps we must measure players by how much they stood out from their surroundings.  In that case, maybe Don Hudson was the greatest ever.  Or Jim Brown.  Sticking to quarterbacks, do we define them by sheer talent or by championships.  If the former, there is a case for Rodgers.  If the latter, then the likes of Brady, Bradshaw and Montana are hard to dispute.

Finally, what do we do with one-hit wonders?  Do they lose points because they weren’t ironmen like Favre, Brady, Manning and Warren Moon?  Or do they have a special place as shooting stars, who glowed, perhaps, the brightest of all for a brief shining moment?  And what role does luck play in stats and our assessment, or the ability of the receivers, or the game planning or the coaches?  Do we downgrade Montana because of Jerry Rice or Bill Walsh?  Does Brady become what he is without Belichick?  Too many variables, too little time to compare apples and oranges.

In the end, outside of our respective teams and their fortunes, we remember championships.  And, usually, championship are won by great quarterbacks.  Those that aren’t are won with great defenses (Seahawks, 2000 Ravens, 85 Bears, etc.)  So, put Bradshaw, Staubach, Aikman, Brady, Montana, and Elway into the mix.  Perhaps we add some Mannings and a Rodgers in due time.  They are all special.  Which one is the most special will always be open for debate.  And QB rating will only be half the story.

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