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Ranking NFL Quarterbacks By Their Number Of Bad Games Per Season

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Some QBs stink it up more than others. We take a look at the current crop of NFL QBs and wonder which QBs have more bad games than other.

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

In June this year, in a post titled "Judging NFL QBs By The Company They Keep", we took a look at the number of games in which currently active NFL QBs recorded a passer rating of 100 or more, compared their W/L records in those games and looked at their 100+ rating games as a percentage of games started.

What we found was that some QBs get a lot more help from their teams when they have a good game than others do, a reflection of the fact that it's not one player who wins and loses games. Today we're going to turn things around and look at poor QB performances to see which teams bail out their QBs when they have a bad game.

But how can we define a "bad game?"

When the NFL passer rating (not to be confused with ESPN's QBR) was initially developed in 1973, the objective was to create a single number that would differentiate between outstanding, excellent, average and poor performance. Below are the metrics that the developers of the formula felt best denoted those performances at the time, and which they combined into the passer rating we know today.

Completion Percentage Yards per Attempt Touchdown Percentage Interception Percentage Passer Rating
Outstanding 70% 11.0 10% 1.5% 133.3
Excellent 60% 9.0 7.5% 3.5% 100.0
Average 50% 7.0 5% 5.5% 66.7
Poor 30% 3.0 0% 9.5% 0.0

When the passer rating was initially developed, a passer rating of 66.7 was considered average, and everything below that was obviously below average. In 1973, 61.7 was the average passer rating in the NFL. 40 years later, the NFL average has improved significantly. In 2013, the NFL average passer rating was 84.1. For the purposes of this post, we'll stick to the 66.7 passer rating from the original formula, except we won't consider it an average or below average performance, we'll call it what it is: a poor performance, or a "bad game".

Here are three examples of what such a "bad game" can look like for a QB. The first is Tony Romo's stat line from the 2011 7-34 loss in Philly in which he recorded exactly such a 66.7 passer rating, the second is a Tom Brady loss against the Bengals, the third is a Drew Brees loss against the Falcons.

QB Date
CMP ATT CMP % YDS YPA TD INT Rate
Tony Romo
2011-10-30 18 35 51.4% 203 5.8 1 1 66.7
Tom Brady
2013-10-06 18 38 47.4% 197 5.2 0 1 52.2
Drew Brees
2012-11-29 28 50 56.0% 341 6.8 0 5 37.6

The numbers illustrate that by today's standard (unless you're a Mark Sanchez) anything below 66.7 is a really poor game by the QB. Another reason why 66.7 denotes a poor performance is the W/L record of QBs in such games. Pro-Football-Reference.com shows that there were 82 nominally active QBs in the NFL in 2013 who have thrown for less than a 66.7 passer rating at least once in their career. The combined W/L record of those QBs in such games is 216-814-1 for a decidedly unimpressive .209 winning percentage.

To find out which of the QBs in the league have stunk it up the most, we'll first look at the 31 active NFL QBs who've started more than 32 games in their career and look at some of their metrics in sub 66.7 games. Minor note on the data I'm using: All QB data here is from games in which the QB started, and in which he had at least five completions. This avoids penalizing guys who may have come in late in the game and removes games in which the starter had to leave early, usually due to an injury.

Follow the Pro-Football-Reference link provided above if you want to play around with the base data. For example, you could include all QBs between 1998 and 2013, not just the currently active QBs; you could include playoff games if you wanted to; you could put in a filter for the minimum amount of pass attempts needed to qualify; you can do whatever you want, but for now you're stuck with the parameters I defined.

With that out of the way, here's the data neatly laid out in a sortable table:

Bad Games (click on column headers to sort)

QB Bad games (sub 66.7 Passer Rating games) Games Started (min 5 compl.)
Bad Games in %
Avg. Bad Games per season
Bad Games Win Percentage
Total W L
Aaron Rodgers 6 1 5 86 7.0% 1.1 0.167
Tom Brady 21 8 13 190 11.1% 1.8 0.381
Philip Rivers 15 6 9 128 11.7% 1.9 0.400
Peyton Manning 30 7 23 238 12.6% 2.0 0.233
Tony Romo 14 2 12 106 13.2% 2.1 0.143
Matt Schaub 13 2 11 88 14.8% 2.4 0.154
Ben Roethlisburger 21 6 15 141 14.9% 2.4 0.286
Matt Ryan 14 6 8 93 15.1% 2.4 0.429
Drew Brees 28 6 22 183 15.3% 2.4 0.214
Cam Newton 10 3 7 48 20.8% 3.3 0.300
Carson Palmer 30 11 19 134 22.4% 3.6 0.367
Jason Campbell 18 5 13 79 22.8% 3.6 0.278
Matthew Stafford 14 0 14 61 23.0% 3.7 0.000
Jay Cutler 24 5 19 102 23.5% 3.8 0.208
Joe Flacco 23 8 15 95 24.2% 3.9 0.348
Josh Freeman 16 1 15 60 26.7% 4.3 0.063
Chad Henne 13 1 12 48 27.1% 4.3 0.077
Sam Bradford 14 3 11 49 28.6% 4.6 0.214
Matt Hasselbeck 43 9 34 150 28.7% 4.6 0.209
Josh McGown 11 3 8 38 28.9% 4.6 0.273
Eli Manning 44 15 29 150 29.3% 4.7 0.341
Matt Cassell 20 5 15 68 29.4% 4.7 0.250
Michael Vick 32 11 21 104 30.8% 4.9 0.344
Andy Dalton 15 5 10 48 31.3% 5.0 0.333
Alex Smith 29 7 22 89 32.6% 5.2 0.241
Ryan Fitzpatrick 26 2 24 76 34.2% 5.5 0.077
Tarvaris Jackson 12 4 8 34 35.3% 5.6 0.333
Derek Anderson 16 2 14 42 38.1% 6.1 0.125
Christian Ponder 13 2 11 33 39.4% 6.3 0.154
Mark Sanchez 25 5 20 62 40.3% 6.5 0.200
Rex Grossman 19 8 11 45 42.2% 6.8 0.421

At first glance, this table doesn't tell you much more than "some guys have more bad games than others." And while this is without a doubt a universally applicable truth, there are a lot more interesting details to be found in the table.

Percentage of bad games

The table is already pre-sorted by the column titled "Bad Games in %," which allows you to see the quarterbacks with the lowest percentage of poor games at the top of the table. At the very top of the rankings you'll find Aaron Rodgers with a significant lead over the next best guy. Multiple Super Bowl winners like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning (Hey! You in the back row, stop laughing!) notwithstanding, Aaron Rodgers is probably the best QB in the league.

In 86 games as a starter over six seasons, he's only had six games with a passer rating below 66.7, a "bad game" percentage of just 7%. In my post from June detailing the number of games with a 100+ passer rating, Rodgers led all QBs with the highest percentage of 100+ rating games. If you take the a 100+ rating as an "excellent" game, then Rodgers had a higher percentage of excellent games and a lower percentage of bad games than any QB in the league. That is phenomenal.

There's quite a significant gap between Rodgers and the next best guys, four QBs who are all tightly bunched between 11% and 13% bad game percentage: Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, and Tony Romo make up the first tier of QBs after Rodgers. They are followed by a second tier of four more QBs who all have a bad game percentage of around 15% (Matt Schaub, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees), and this second tier closes out the list of the top QBs in the league with a bad game percentage below 20%.

Average number of bad games per season

Another way of looking at these numbers that makes them perhaps a little more intuitive is to translate them into average bad games per season (appropriately titled "Avg. Bad Games per season" in the table above). In Aaron Rodgers' case 7% of a 16-game regular season is 1.1 bad game per season.

Notice how those numbers dovetail nicely with the idea of tiers: Rodgers stands all by himself at the top of this list with about one bad game per season. The first tier QBs (Brady, Rivers, P. Manning, Romo) average around two bad games per season, the second tier QBs average 2.4 bad games per season. Everyone after that has more than three bad games per season.

You know how there's this meme that "Tony Romo is always good for two or three inexplicably bad games per season"? Well, it's true. But those two bad games rival the very best QBs in the league, and are a lot better than guys like Jay Cutler (3.8), Eli Manning (4.7), Alex Smith (5.2), or even Mark Sanchez (6.5), a guy the Eagles apparently think has some trade value.

Which brings us neatly to the next topic, the W/L record of QBs in games with a passer rating below 66.7:

How teams bail out their QBs on a bad day

The last column in the table above shows the win percentage of QBs in sub 66.7 games. If you sort the table by win percentage, the first thing you may notice is that there's an incredible spread of winning percentages. The Detroit Lions have never won a game in which Matthew Stafford had a passer rating below 66.7, thus Stafford's .000 win percentage.

At the other end of the spectrum, you've got Matt Ryan with a winning record of .429, which is ridiculously high considering that in those games Matt Ryan delivered a dirt-poor performance as a passer. Of note, Matt Ryan also had one of the highest winning percentages in games in which he had a 100+ passer rating. Combined, these two numbers indicate that the rest of the Falcons have a significant positive role in Matt Ryan's career 60-34 record.

Let's do a little Matt Ryan math: The average winning percentage in sub 66.7 games is .209. Applying that to Ryan's 14 sub 66.7 games would result in a 3-10 W/L record instead of Ryan's actual 6-8 record. Similarly, applying the league average win percentage of .805 in 100+ rating games to Ryan's 34-2 record in 100+ rating games would yield only a 29-7 record. In total, that's a swing of eight games in Ryan's favor. With league average win percentages, Ryan would have an "adjusted" W/L record of 52-42 instead of his actual 60-34 record

In other words, Matt Ryan's record is much better than it would be if he were on an average team. It's only because the rest of the Falcons are adept at bailing him out on a bad day, and riding him on a good day that his record is what it is. Which just goes to show that it's not one player that wins and loses games.

Going by the win percentages in the table above, other QBs who have seen their teams bail them out much more often than the average QB include Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco, and Eli Manning.

It's a good thing that, contrary to popular perception, Tony Romo doesn't have a lot of poor games with a sub 66.7 passer rating, because the rest of the Cowboys have left him hanging more often than not. With a .143 winning record in poor games, Tony Romo ranks near the bottom of all active QBs.

Now consider this hypothetical scenario: Tony Romo has an official career W/L record of 63-45. If Romo had Ryan's win percentage of .429 in poor games, his record in those games would change from 2-12 to 6-8. Similarly, if Romo had Ryan's .944 win percentage in 100+ rating games, his record in those games would rocket from 39-15 to 51-3. Combined, that's a 16-game swing that would give Romo a career record of 79-29 instead of the current 63-45. Think about that. That's the type of player Romo could be - with the right team around him.

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I didn't include some of the younger QBs in the table above, because I felt that the small sample size (less than 32 starts) could possibly distort the overall picture. But for completeness's sake, here are the 20 QBs who've had between 13 and 32 starts in their NFL careers so far. Same logic applies as it did in the table above.

Bad Games by young QBs (click on column headers to sort)

QB Bad games (66.7 Passer Rating games) Games Started (min 5 compl.)
Bad Games in %
Avg. Bad Games per season
Bad Games Win Percentage
Total W L
Colin Kaepernick 3 0 3 23 13.0% 2.1 0.000
Robert Griffin 4 0 4 28 14.3% 2.3 0.000
Seneca Wallace 3 0 3 21 14.3% 2.3 0.000
Mike Glennon 2 1 1 13 15.4% 2.5 0.500
Russell Wilson 6 2 4 32 18.8% 3.0 0.333
Nick Foles 3 0 3 16 18.8% 3.0 0.000
Shaun Hill 5 1 4 26 19.2% 3.1 0.200
Kevin Kolb 4 0 4 19 21.1% 3.4 0.000
Colt McCoy 5 1 4 21 23.8% 3.8 0.200
Andrew Luck 8 2 6 32 25.0% 4.0 0.250
Matt Moore 6 1 5 22 27.3% 4.4 0.167
E.J. Manuel 3 1 2 10 30.0% 4.8 0.333
Jake Locker 5 1 4 16 31.3% 5.0 0.200
Ryan Tannehill 10 0 10 31 32.3% 5.2 0.000
Bruce Gradkowski 6 1 5 17 35.3% 5.6 0.167
Geno Smith 6 1 5 15 40.0% 6.4 0.167
Blaine Gabbert 11 1 10 26 42.3% 6.8 0.091
Kellen Klemens 9 2 7 20 45.0% 7.2 0.222
John Skelton 8 3 5 16 50.0% 8.0 0.375
Brady Quinn 14 3 11 19 73.7% 11.8 0.214

In principle, you want a QB who doesn't cost you too many games (and wins the occasional game too). Throwing for a passer rating below 66.7 is a good way to lose games. Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin, Mike Glennon, and Seneca Wallace (now a backup in Green Bay) top this list of young QBs for now

Of course, the numbers for these QBs could quickly change once they play more games and we have a more robust sample size to look at, so we shouldn't place too much weight on their numbers right now. But once you get into numbers in the 30% range, you've got to wonder about how good those guys really are. Then again, Eli Manning has a bad game percentage of close to 30% and plenty of people think he's a good QB, so there's always that.

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If you thought this post has a familiar feel to it, you're right. I published a very similar post last year, but I received a reader request to update it with an extra season's worth of data, so that's exactly what I did. Hope you liked it anyway.