Wins Over Average: Which NFL Quarterbacks Are Winning Games For Their Teams?

Jim Rogash

The QB, whether you like it or not, is the only player on a football team who has a W/L record in his personal stats. We look at a metric called 'Wins Over Average' to understand which QBs, and by extension their offenses, contributed to wins for their teams.

Tom Brady started in 46 games in which his defense held the opponent to 10 points or less, the highest value among active quarterbacks. Would you be shocked to find out that Tom Brady (and the Patriots) are 46-0 in those games?

As it turns out, that record isn't really such a great accomplishment. Peyton Manning is 35-0 when the opponent scores 10 points or less, Joe Flacco is 26-0, even Eli Manning is unbeaten at 26-0, and there are many more QBs who have never lost such a game. Most of the remaining QBs in the league today have lost only one such game, Ben Roethlisberger for example is 45-1 in those games. In fact, of the currently active QBs in the league only two QBs have lost more than one game when the opponent was held to 10 points or less: Jay Cutler lost two, Mark Sanchez lost four.

The reality is, it's hard to lose a game where the opponent is held to below 10 points. Yet if you were to read some of the headlines floating around after gameday - and if you were to give those reports any credence - you could easily get the impression that it was the QB all by his lonesome who won those games.

But think back to the Week 2 game between the Cowboys and the Chiefs that ended 17-16 for the Chiefs. Did Tony Romo lose that game, or did Alex Smith win the game?

At first glance, this may sound like semantics, but it really isn't. Are the Patriots 3-0 only as a result of Tom Brady's offensive prowess, or was the Patriots defense (who have allowed the second lowest points total in the league over three games) an equally strong but perhaps more under-appreciated driver of these results?

The QB, whether you like it or not, is the only player on a football team who has a W/L record in his personal stats. But that doesn't mean the QB is actually winning games for his team. Teams can win games with a strong defense and a good ground game despite the QB, yet the QB will get the win against his record.

Which is why we'll attempt a more objective, stat-based approach to figure out which NFL quarterbacks are winning games for their teams, and which aren't. Today, we'll look at 'wins over average' to understand which QBs, and by extension their offenses, contributed to wins for their teams. 'Wins over average' (WOA) is a metric developed by Doug Drinen at Pro-football-reference.com (PFR) in a post on adjusting QB records. I've taken his approach and modified it slightly for this post.

The underlying assumption for WOA is that it's a lot easier for a QB to win games when the defense holds the opponent to 10 points than it would be if the defense gave up 30 points (Excuse me for that blinding flash of the obvious, but I had to get that out of my system).

What WOA does is it calculates a QB's winning percentage against a given bracket of points scored by the opponent (e.g., 0-10 points, 11-17 points etc.) and then compares how many games that quarterback won versus how many games an NFL-average QB would have been expected to win.

To calculate WOA, we first need a baseline to determine what 'NFL average performance' looks like. For our purposes here we'll use the league average winning percentage in regular season games between 2008 and 2012. In the table below I've crunched the numbers for all 2,560 NFL regular season games for the last five seasons, and I've formed five clusters by points allowed for which I've calculated the winning percentages for the offenses.

NFL W/L record vs Points Allowed, 2008-2012
0-10 11-17 18-24 25-31 32+
W/L record 381-21 415-144 324-330 120-386 40-399
Win % .948 .742 .495 .237 .091

How to read the table: A QB (and by extension, the team) will almost always win the game when the defense holds the opposing team to 10 points or less (381-21 winning record). The NFL average winning percentage is .948 against the '0-10' points bracket. The more points a team allows, the lower their chances of winning the game. When your defense allows 32 points or more, your QB's chances of winning the game are very low (.091 winning percentage, 40-399 record).

What separates the good from the merely average QBs is their ability to win games that an average QB would not win. And that is exactly what WOA measures. We'll use Tony Romo's 96 career starts to further explain the concept.

Tony Romo's Wins Over Average versus Points Allowed
Points Allowed
0-10
11-17
18-24 25-31 32+ Total
W/L record 18-1 15-4 17-9 4-11 3-14 57-39
Win % .933 .769 .688 .333 .200 .635
Wins Over Average 0.0 +0.9 +4.1 +0.4 +1.5 +6.9

Tony Romo and Wins Over Average: Tony Romo has a record of 17-9 as a starter in 26 games when the defense allowed between 18 and 24 points. The average NFL QB would be expected to win 12.9 of those games (26 games x .495 NFL average), so Romo has delivered +4.1 wins over average in this points bracket. In the 11-17 points bracket, Romo has a 15-4 record in 19 games, an average NFL QB would be expected to win 14.1 games (19 games x .742), Romo therefore gets +0.9 WOA. Across all brackets, Tony Romo has accumulated +6.9 WOA as per the table above.

So statistically, over the course of his seven years as a starter, Tony Romo accounted for seven more wins for the Cowboys than an average NFL quarterback would have. At first glance, that doesn't sound like all that much, so in the next step we'll try to understand how that number compares to other quarterbacks around the league.

Before we do that though, keep in mind that when I say "Tony Romo", I'm actually talking about Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Jason Witten, Jason Garrett and many more people who make up or influence the Dallas Cowboys offense. Quarterbacks don't win or lose games, teams do. But if quarterbacks are going to be measured by wins, let's at least make sure we understand the quality of those wins.

In the next table, I've listed the 29 active (or relatively active) quarterbacks with the most career regular season starts. I've calculated their Wins Over Average in the same way I've calculated Romo's numbers above. Since every QB on the list has started in a different number of games I've added an additional column in which I divided the WOA by the total number of regular season games started. This should allow for a better comparison of the quarterbacks, regardless of how many games they started.

Career Wins Over Average by Quarterback, regular season games.

QB Games started Wins Losses Ties WOA WOA in % of Games
Brady 178 139 39 33.0 18.5%
P. Manning 227 157 70 40.3 17.8%
Ryan 81 57 24 11.3 13.9%
Rodgers 81 53 28 9.2 11.3%
Brees 172 102 70 18.4 10.7%
Rivers 115 71 44 9.8 8.5%
Cutler 96 54 42 7.6 7.9%
Schaub 85 46 39 6.5 7.7%
E. Manning 138 78 60 10.1 7.3%
Romo
96 57 39 6.9 7.2%
Roethlisberger 129 87 42 4.3 3.4%
Flacco 83 56 27 2.7 3.3%
Vick 104 57 46 1 3.3 3.2%
Stafford 48 19 29 1.5 3.1%
Dalton 35 21 14 0.9 2.7%
Ponder 29 12 17 0.7 2.4%
Palmer 124 55 69 -3.4 -2.7%
Sanchez 61 32 29 -1.8 -3.0%
A. Smith 78 41 36 1 -2.6 -3.3%
Newton 35 14 21 -1.6 -4.6%
Freeman 59 24 35 -3.1 -5.3%
Henne 39 14 25 -3.5 -9.0%
Bradford 45 16 28 1 -6.3 -14.0%
McCoy 21 6 15 -4.8 -23.1%
Gabbert 25 5 20 -6.1 -24.4%
Less than 20 career starts
Luck 19 13 6 3.3 17.5%
Griffin 18 9 9 2.8 15.6%
Wilson 18 13 5 0.6 3.3%
Tannehill 19 10 9 -0.8 -4.1%

Couple of observations about the table above, starting with Tony Romo. Romo's numbers obviously took a hit in the 2010 season. If I were to exclude his six starts in 2010, Romo would have a WOA percentage of 9.2%, which would place him just outside the top 5 of active NFL quarterbacks. But 2010 happened, and we can't just pretend it didn't.

At the end of the day, Tony Romo wins games for the Cowboys. And he wins more games for the Cowboys than many other QBs win for their teams. That's really all I need to know - but please read on anyway.

No real surprises at the top, where Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are in a class of their own. For people who haven't been watching the Falcons over the past couple of years, a surprise here may be the 3rd-ranked Matt Ryan. The numbers here suggest that Ryan (and his offense) have been winning a lot of games for the Falcons. The Falcons have stumbled out of the gate a little this year, but with the recent additions to their offense, Ryan's numbers should only get better. Ryan is clearly in the top tier of QBs, his missing Super Bowl ring notwithstanding.

Just below the top tier QBs with double digit WOA percentages is a tightly bunched group of five above average QBs, who can all play spectacularly at times but are also prone to inconsistent performances. This group, which contains Philip Rivers, Jay Cutler, Matt Schaub, Eli Manning, and Tony Romo is so tightly bunched that a single win in a shootout or a loss in a low-scoring game could rearrange the order completely.

There's a considerable gap between this second tier group and a group of slightly above average QBs who have a positive WOA value. This group is followed by a group of QBs with negative WOA values, and many of them may soon find, or already have found, themselves out of a starting job.

I've listed three second-year QBs at the bottom of the table, because we're running into sample size issues when we drop below 20 career starts. But I wanted to include them anyway, because Luck's and Griffin's rookie performance has been particularly impressive in terms of WOA. Consider that they have a higher WOA in one season than Joe Flacco managed in five years as an NFL starter. If both QBs can maintain their performance, we could soon see them ranked at the very top of this list.

Obviously, there are many ways to evaluate a QB's performance. This is one way that may be slightly off the beaten path, but taken with other valid metrics out there, it helps solidify an overall picture of today's NFL quarterbacks, and perhaps raises a question or two.

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