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Total QBR: Ranking NFL QBs by the statistical company they keep

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

David Walliams Book Signing - London Photo by Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images

Today we’re going to look at an EPA-based metric to see how today’s NFL QBs hold up under an advanced stats microscope, and to do that, we turn to ESPN’s Total QBR. Why not simply use the better-know passer rating? Because the trusty NFL passer rating was designed to evaluate the passing game only. It does not account for a quarterback’s running game, his ability generate first downs, the amount of sacks he takes, penalties, garbage time stats, and many other things.

ESPN’s QBR is an attempt to fix some of the weaknesses of the traditional passer rating. ESPN’s Sharon Katz and Brian Burke explain the concept:

Traditional box score stats distort the performances [...] because they (1) fail to account for all of the ways a quarterback can affect a game, (2) don’t put plays into the proper context (a 5-yard gain on second-and-5 is very different from a 5-yard gain on third-and-10), and 3) don’t acknowledge that a quarterback has teammates who affect each play and should also get credit for everything that happens on the field.

Total QBR, much like the Expected Points concept, looks at every single play, adds context (e.g. down-and-distance, score differential, win probability etc.) and then allocates credit to the quarterback and his teammates to produce a clearer measure of quarterback efficiency. Uniquely to ESPN’s Total QBR, the resulting metric is expressed as a number on a 0-to-100 scale to produce a player’s Total QBR.

An average quarterback will have a QBR around 50, and a Pro Bowl-level player will have a QBR around 75 for the season. On a game level, however, a QBR of 75 means that holding all other factors constant (defense, offensive teammates, etc.), a quarterback’s team would be expected to win about 75 percent of time, given that level of QB play.

In the tables further down this post is a look at 38 active NFL quarterbacks (plus Drew Brees and Eli Manning, for reasons that will become clear later) and the games they played between 2016 and 2020. In games in which those 40 QBs had at least 10 pass attempts and posted a QBR of 75 or higher, they are a combined 450-129-1 for a win percentage of .776, which is pretty close to the 75 percent ESPN talks about above.

If we accept that a Total QBR of 75 or more denotes a good game by the QB, it follows that a QB with a lot of 75+ QBR games is a good quarterback.

Similarly, if we look at the games in our sample with a Total QBR below 45, those 40 QBs combined for a 162-402-4 record, a measly .282 win percentage or about 25 percent.

It follows that if a Total QBR above 75 is a good game, a Total QBR below 45 is a bad game.

But instead of simply summing up the number of good games for each quarterback, we’ll use “Good game percentage” (Games with a Total QBR above 75 as a percentage of total games started) as our metric of choice. This accounts for the fact that the quarterbacks in this analysis have played a different number of games over the last five seasons. Russell Wilson for example has played all 80 games over the last five years, while Patrick Mahomes has only 45. Looking at “Good game percentage” corrects for that.

And with all that out of the way, here’s a look at the 30 NFL QBs with at least 30 starts since 2016 along with their “Good game percentage”. We’ll look at the QBs with less than 30 starts a little farther down this post.

The table is color coded into tiers to improve legibility, and I’ll expand on those tiers after the table.

QBs with 30+ starts Games Started
(min 10 PA)
"Good Games"
(QBR >75)
Good game percentage
Patrick Mahomes 45 24 53.3%
Lamar Jackson 36 17 47.2%
Drew Brees (ret.) 69 32 46.4%
Tom Brady 76 33 43.4%
Russell Wilson 80 34 42.5%
Josh Allen 41 17 41.5%
Dak Prescott 68 28 41.2%
Matt Ryan 79 31 39.2%
Deshaun Watson 54 20 37.0%
Aaron Rodgers 69 25 36.2%
Ben Roethlisberger 61 22 36.1%
Ryan Tannehill 48 17 35.4%
Matthew Stafford 71 24 33.8%
Baker Mayfield 46 15 32.6%
Kirk Cousins 79 24 30.4%
Kyler Murray 31 9 29.0%
Ryan Fitzpatrick 49 14 28.6%
Carson Wentz 68 19 27.9%
Jameis Winston 56 15 26.8%
Jimmy Garoppolo 30 8 26.7%
Derek Carr 77 19 24.7%
Jared Goff 69 17 24.6%
Marcus Mariota 50 11 22.0%
Sam Darnold 38 8 21.1%
Cam Newton 59 12 20.3%
Case Keenum 47 9 19.1%
Mitchell Trubisky 47 9 19.1%
Eli Manning (ret.) 49 7 14.3%
Joe Flacco 53 7 13.2%
Andy Dalton 64 7 10.9%

Tier 1: Planet Mahomes

Patrick Mahomes is the clear standout here, and his first four years have surpassed anything we’ve seen in the league so far. I have no qualms about calling him the best QB playing in the NFL today, and any questions about whether he could keep up his early pace have been answered.

Circling Planet Mahomes is Lamar Jackson, who has also put up some astonishing numbers (and a 30-7 record) in his three years in the league. Jackson may not be quite at the level of Mahomes, but the Chiefs and Ravens will dominate this decade with these two quarterbacks.

Tier 2: The HOFers

Drew Brees and Tom Brady are both HOF-bound, and looking only at the last five seasons obviously doesn’t do their career justice. Brady and Brees are easily the two best QBs over the last decade and the only two QBs truly deserving of the word “elite”, in large part because they’ve sustained elite performance over more than a decade, something Mahomes and Jackson still have to show.

And even in the waning years of their careers, they still put up numbers most other QBs would sell their soul for.

Tier 3: Borderline Top 5

Behind Brady and Brees there is a third tier of QBs that are not at the same level as Brady, Brees, Mahomes and Jackson, but stand out against the rest of their peers by a significant margin. This tier includes Russell Wilson, Josh Allen, Dak Prescott, and Matt Ryan. This tier may extend to include Deshaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers and perhaps even Ben Roethlisberger, depending on where you feel the cutoff point should be for that third tier.

With Brees retired, there are two spots left open in the Top 5 behind Mahomes, Jackson, and Brady. Any one of these borderline guys can make a claim to be included in the top 5. In any case, if you want a quarterback that can win games for your team, with his arm, with his feet, with his late-game heroics, or in any other manner, these are the guys for you.

Tier 4: Above average

This fourth tier includes QBs that have an above average good game percentage (the 40 QB average is 30.6%). It includes Deshaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Tannehill, Matthew Stafford, Baker Mayfield, and - just barely - Kirk Cousins.

Remember, this is only about the last five years, from 2016 to 2020. You could easily argue that this is unfair for someone like Aaron Rodgers: From 2010-2016, Rodgers was cruising at a 46.6% “good game percentage”, which would rank him third overall in the list above. But Rodgers hit a slump from 2017-2019 with a percentage of just 20.5% over the three years, before rebounding last year to 62.5%.

For large parts of his career, Rodgers was easily up there in the HOF tier, but this sample gives him an unfavorable look; such are the vagaries of arbitrary cut-off points in statistics.

Also of note: of the 15 QBs at the top of the list we’ve reviewed so far, only two (Matthew Stafford and Baker Mayfield) were taken No.1 overall. The other active former No. 1 picks show up in the below average section of this list.

Tier 5: The bus drivers

This tier contains a bunch of below-average QBs that have a progressively worse good-game percentages. For a younger guy like Kyle Murray, there at least remains the hope that he can still move up the ranks. Murray and Derek Carr are the only QBs in this tier still with their original team, all others are at least on their second team. Those second teams are obviously banking on their QB’s ability to move up the ranks with their new team; that’s highly unlikely to happen. If an NFL QB doesn’t put it together in his first four years as a starter, he never will.

Tier 5: The Eli Manning pit of endless misery

This final tier is made up mostly of QBs whose draft pedigree has kept them in the league much longer than they should have been. If Marcus Mariota (second overall), Sam Darnold (third), Cam Newton (first), or Mitchell Trubiski (second), were called Ben DiNucci (UDFA) they’d be looking for a job as a backup QB in the indoor football league. But alas, hope springs eternal for a first-round pedigreed underperformer.

On to the mostly younger QBs with less than 30 starts over the last five years. I felt that the small sample size could possibly distort the overall picture, which is why I’m listing them separately.

QBs with <30 starts Games Started
(min 10 PA)
"Good Games"
(QBR >75)
Good game percentage
Justin Herbert 15 8 53.3%
Joe Burrow 10 4 40.0%
Kyle Allen 17 5 29.4%
Teddy Bridgewater 22 6 27.3%
Mason Rudolph 9 2 22.2%
Daniel Jones 25 5 20.0%
Gardner Minshew 23 4 17.4%
Nick Foles 21 3 14.3%
Tua Tagovailoa 9 1 11.1%
Jalen Hurts 4 -- 0.0%

Sticking to the logic of the tiers we used above, Justin Herbert is the clear standout here, and Joe Burrow looks like he’s off to a good start. But can both keep it up in their second year?

For the rest, the future looks bleak, even if there is good news for Cowboys fans:

  • Daniel Jones is nothing more than an Eli Manning clone impersonating an NFL-quality starter. Unless they move on from Jones, the Giants will continue to play with a below-average QB for a few more years.
  • In Washington, both Ryan Fitzpatrick (28.6%) and Kyle Allen (29.4%) will provide average QB play at best.
  • And who knows what will happen in Philly. Too early to evaluate Jalen Hurts, and neither Joe Flacco (13.2%) nor Nick Mullens (16.7%) are scaring anybody, not even the 2021 Cowboys secondary, and that’s saying something.

Beyond that, we have a bunch of below average QBs, most of whom have already been relegated to backup duty.

“So,” some might say, “Dak has had some good games. But my eye test tells me he’s had a lot of bad games. Why are we not looking at those?”

Every QB has bad games. But some QBs stink it up more than others, even if you only have eyes for Dak Prescott.

In our sample size, 31% of games had the QB with a QBR >75, 30% of games had a QB with a QBR <45%.

So here’s the same exercise as above, except with games with a QBR below 45. We’ll start off with the 30 QBs with more than 30 starts again, though this time a low “Bad-game percentage” is what you are looking for.

QBs with 30+ starts Games Started
(min 10 PA)
"Bad Games"
(QBR <45)
Bad game percentage
Patrick Mahomes 45 1 2%
Drew Brees 69 11 16%
Deshaun Watson 54 9 17%
Dak Prescott 68 12 18%
Matthew Stafford 71 13 18%
Lamar Jackson 36 7 19%
Aaron Rodgers 69 15 22%
Kyler Murray 31 7 23%
Matt Ryan 79 18 23%
Ben Roethlisberger 61 15 25%
Russell Wilson 80 20 25%
Tom Brady 76 20 26%
Jimmy Garoppolo 30 8 27%
Kirk Cousins 79 22 28%
Carson Wentz 68 19 28%
Derek Carr 77 23 30%
Marcus Mariota 50 15 30%
Josh Allen 41 13 32%
Jameis Winston 56 19 34%
Ryan Tannehill 48 17 35%
Case Keenum 47 18 38%
Andy Dalton 64 25 39%
Jared Goff 69 27 39%
Baker Mayfield 46 18 39%
Joe Flacco 53 21 40%
Mitchell Trubisky 47 19 40%
Cam Newton 59 24 41%
Ryan Fitzpatrick 49 20 41%
Eli Manning 49 22 45%
Sam Darnold 38 19 50%

This list is utterly dominated by Patrick Mahomes. Incredibly, he’s had just one game so far with a QBR below 45. Relative to his peers, Mahomes is truly on a different planet.

The second tier here (Drew Brees, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott, Matthew Stafford, Lamar Jackson) are QBs that simply don’t have a lot of stinkers on their ledger, which means their performance very rarely is the reason their team loses. That does not automatically make them elite QBs, but the numbers here suggests they minimize their errors and bad plays and consistently keep their teams in the game, losing efforts notwithstanding.

The third tier consists of a bevy of well-known names in Aaron Rodgers, Kyler Murray, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and Russell Wilson. Still above average (the 40-QB average is 30%), but not quite at the level of the top guys.

The fourth tier (in orange) is just above average, and it’s a small list with Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, and Carson Wentz.

After that, it gets progressively worse with a list of below-average QBs, and at the very bottom the Eli Manning pit of endless misery contains many of the same players we also saw in that tier in the first table of this post.

One thing of note here are the W/L records in these bad games. Guys like Dak Prescott (1-11 in sub-45 QBR games), Matthew Stafford (2-11), or Derek Carr (4-19) have really bad win percentages in these games. Others, like Aaron Rodgers (9-6), Lamar Jackson (4-3), or Tom Brady (11-9) have much better win percentages, which suggests their teams are better able to overcome a bad day by the QB, whereas the QBs in the first group seem to play on teams that are unable to bail them out on a bad day.

On to the players with less than 30 starts, same procedure as above.

QBs with <30 starts Games Started
(min 10 PA)
"Bad Games"
(QBR <45)
Bad game percentage
Justin Herbert 15 3 20%
Teddy Bridgewater 22 6 27%
Daniel Jones 25 7 28%
Joe Burrow 10 3 30%
Kyle Allen 17 7 41%
Mason Rudolph 9 4 44%
Tua Tagovailoa 9 4 44%
Gardner Minshew 23 11 48%
Jalen Hurts 4 2 50%
Nick Foles 21 11 52%

Not much of a surprise here. Justin Herbert once again leads the under 30 list, Teddy Bridgewater, Daniel Jones, and Joe Borrow are around average, the rest of the players listed are struggling to meet the requirements of being an NFL QB.

In principle, you want a QB who doesn’t cost you too many games (and ideally wins a few games for you too). Posting a QBR below 40 is a good way to lose games, even if you have a team that can bail you out on occasion with a good running game, a strong defense, or a big-play special teams unit.

And if you want to be a top QB in this league, it’s not enough to have a bunch of 75+ QBR games that give your team a good chance to win. It’s at least equally important to minimize the number of bad games in which QBs actively lose games for their teams.

Over 68 games (with min 10 pass attempts), Dak Prescott had 28 75+ QBR games. Only five of his active peers have a better good-game percentage. And he’s had just 12 sub-45 QBR games. Only three of his peers have a lower bad-game percentage.

Over the last five years, Prescott has a record of 21-7 (.750) in his 28 games with a QBR above 75. For comparison, Aaron Rodgers has a 22-3 record (.880) in such games, thanks in in large part to a much better supporting staff on his teams. Similarly, Prescott is 1-11 (.083) in games with a QBR below 45, where Rodgers is 9-6 (.600).

Applying Rodgers’ win percentages to Prescott’s record in these game would improve it from 22-18 to 32-8, a 10-win swing, or an average of two extra wins per season over the last five years. Those two extra wins would have meant making the playoffs in each of the last five years. That’s what a better supporting staff, better coaching, and better talent acquisition by the front office could be worth for the Cowboys.

Ultimately, it’s not one player that wins and loses games. Dak Prescott has more than his fair share of detractors, and even more so among Cowboys fans it seems. But if you judge a QB by the statistical company he keeps, Dak Prescott is at the very top of the game.

Now if only the rest of the team would catch up.