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Trying To Get Beyond The "Elite Quarterback" Argument

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Rankings and ratings abound during the offseason. But how much do they tell about whether a quarterback helps or hurts his team?

Let's crunch some more numbers.
Let's crunch some more numbers.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The always perceptive OCC just took a look at the whole idea of the "elite quarterback" in the NFL. I was very interested in this, because it was serendipitous for some thoughts I had been kicking around just a couple of days before. The quarterback position is generally the most important one on any NFL team. But all the various ways of looking at who is better or worse than others who play the position don't seem to adequately take into consideration what may be the most important thing about the players: Who helps his team, who hurts it, and who is more or less a neutral influence on the outcome of games?

Fans of the Dallas Cowboys get very invested in QB comparisons because Tony Romo has been a real lightning rod in these kinds of discussions ever since that horrendous bobbled field goal try against the Seattle Seahawks. Every mistake late in a game is held up as evidence of him being a choker, while the many other times he rallied the team to victory, often with injuries, are discounted. Based on the record, he has led the sixth-most fourth quarter comebacks among active quarterbacks. And he is getting better as his career goes on, with 2014 tied for most in his career at five (including the playoff win over the Detroit Lions). Despite the still lingering view that he is likely to throw a game away late, it seems clear that an objective view is that the team has a much better chance of winning a close game late with him at the helm than with most other quarterbacks in the league.

The problem with evaluating quarterbacks is that they are just one player on the field. The rest of the offense, the defense, and the special teams also determine how the game turns out. But the QB does have a larger role individually than anyone else. So how do you rate the signal callers?

I think there are several categories that these highly paid, crucial player fall into. (One note: All we have to really go on is the history of players at this point. Some will of course be better or worse on the field this year, but that remains to be determined.)

Plus players. These are those who elevate their offense. They make the team better on offense by being on the field. This is more important than the idea of "elite", because it doesn't matter how many or how few there are. Looking at the current expected starters for 2015 (per Sports Illustrated), the following names would appear to be in this list. The order is derived from the Passer Rating Index OCC used in his article, which is noted by each name. To establish a cutoff, the arbitrary cutoff here was a PRI of greater than 110.

Aaron Rodgers 126

Peyton Manning 120

Tom Brady 117

Tony Romo 117

Drew Brees 115

Russell Wilson 115

Philip Rivers 114

Ben Roethlisberger 113

That is it. These eight quarterbacks almost always help their team. All of them have an occasional clunker, but game in and game out, you are in good shape with one of these players taking snaps. Only Russell Wilson has a relatively small sample size that may be misleading. The others all have a solid body of work to bear out their value.

Minus players. They are a drag on the team. The sad fact of the matter is that many NFL teams have quarterbacks that hold them back. Among the projected starters for this season, these players look to be drags on their team, no matter the level of talent around them. (The order is from worst to, umm, less worse using the PRI. The cutoff, again admittedly somewhat arbitrary, is a PRI of 95 or lower.)

Geno Smith 79

Derek Carr 86

Brian Hoyer 87

Josh McCown 91

Sam Bradford 93

Matt Cassel 95

Neutrals. They don't help or hurt. The ones who are called "game managers" fall into this category. The term is a bit misused, since all QBs have to manage the game, but the common use is that it refers to a player that isn't going to beat you, but who does not cause his team to lose. It is possible for a team with a good defense and/or some really good offensive parts to go with him to be successful. Otherwise, players like Jim McMahon and Trent Dilfer would not have Super Bowl rings. There are actually two flavors, if you will, of these. One is the group that plays at more or less a steady level, while the others can be very good one week and really stink it up the next, with no real way to know which version is going to show up, and this can even extend to entire seasons (see Manning, Eli). Ranking here is from better to worse under the PRI. One thing that jumps out, and that had something to do with the range of PRI selected for this article, is how closely spaced many of these "middling" QBs are.

Nick Foles 110

Matt Ryan 108

Robert Griffin III 105

Carson Palmer 104

Jay Cutler 101

Joe Flacco 100

Andrew Luck 100

Andy Dalton 99

Cam Newton 99

Eli Manning 98

Alex Smith 98

Matthew Stafford 98

Ryan Tannehill 97

There are several players who have played in less than a full season's games, like Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles, and obviously the rookies who are expected to start, that are not included anywhere for lack of data.

Obviously some of these players are very close to moving up or down in this particular ranking, but the top eight looks like a very solid group of quarterbacks to ride to success. Something that jumps out is how many of these players are in that mid-range. They have their teams in something that Joe Bussell, known on Twitter as NFLosophy. calls "quarterback purgatory". They are just good enough to keep the team competitive in the 8-8 league called the NFL, but unless you surround them with really strong supporting players, their team has only a marginal chance to getting to the playoffs, and almost no possibility of making a deep run (Dalton is perhaps the poster child for this). Some of the younger players like Luck are predicted to have a good future ahead of them, but in his case in particular, he seems to be getting a lot better press than he has earned.

Like all attempts at statistically valuing players, the PRI is not perfect. But it is interesting to see how the quarterbacks rank out here when you take all the emotion and prejudice out of it. It shows that Romo is in very good company, with all the other top eight except Rivers having already won at least one championship. It also tracks with the perception that both Flacco and Eli Manning rode very good defenses to their rings. And it lends some credence to the belief that the Cowboys are in by far the best shape at quarterback of any team in the NFC East.

Past performance is no guarantee of continued success, of course. Great quarterbacks can decline, but the best ones tend to have a gradual fall rather than a sudden step off a cliff. Likewise, for some, particularly younger ones, things can suddenly click. But overall, for the teams with one of those top eight, and perhaps a few at the upper range of the "neutrals" with a lot of other talent on the roster, the outlook for 2015 should be bright.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB