Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Most Accomplished Postseason QBs

By Brad Oremland

Evaluating NFL players exclusively by statistics is silly. It can be fun and interesting, but it's silly. Evaluating players exclusively by team success is even sillier. And yet, that's what I'm doing here.

In fact, I'm doing it three times. I set out to create a very basic rating system of quarterbacks' postseason success, based on team wins in the playoffs and Super Bowl. I looked only at active QBs, so you won't find Hall of Famers like Terry Bradshaw or Joe Montana on these lists. I came up with a system that seemed reasonable, but I wanted something that would reflect conventional wisdom a bit more, so I tweaked it and eventually ended up with three lists. None of them reflect my own opinion on the best postseason quarterbacks; I've already written about that. These lists are silly, but hopefully they're interesting.

The first is designed to most closely reflect popular opinion. This list doesn't tell you anything new; it's just a way of quantifying what most fans already feel. It awards one point for a playoff win, three points for a Super Bowl win, and minus one for a playoff or Super Bowl loss. Only active QBs with at least three playoff games are listed.

1. Tom Brady, +15
2. Ben Roethlisberger, +10
3. Eli Manning, +9
4. Joe Flacco, +7
5. Aaron Rodgers, +4
6. Drew Brees, +3
7. Mark Sanchez, +2
8. Colin Kaepernick, +1
t9. Rex Grossman, 0
t9. Peyton Manning, 0
t11. Matt Hasselbeck, -1
t11. Philip Rivers, -1
t11. Michael Vick, -1
14. Tony Romo, -2
15. Matt Ryan, -3

I think most fans would find that list roughly mirrors their perceptions of how these players have performed in the postseason. The top six are all Super Bowl winners, and none of the others are, except for Peyton Manning, whom a lot of fans still perceive as a choker or playoff underachiever. One interesting point ... if you broke Tom Brady into two players — 2001-04 and 2005-12 — the 01-04 Brady would rate +14 and Brady from the last eight seasons would rate +1, tied with Kaepernick.

I believe that ranking does what it's designed to do: reflect conventional wisdom. But most playoff teams lose eventually, and a lot of our perceptions are shaped by expectations. Losing a playoff home game — when you're probably the better team and you get homefield advantage — is seen as a choke job, where losing on the road usually is not. A QB with a lot of road games will be underrated by the system above. Another issue is that you face higher-quality opponents late in the playoffs, and a first-round bye deprives good teams of the opportunity for an easy +1 win in the wild card round.

Thus, the formula for the next list is a little more complicated. A first-round bye is +1 (QB must have thrown at least 2/3 of his team's passes during the regular season), all postseason wins — including the Super Bowl — are +2, road losses and Super Bowl losses are -1, and home losses are -2. That may seem to underrate winning a championship, but a Super Bowl-winning QB gets +7 or +8 for that one season, depending on whether he had a wild card win or a first-round bye.

1. Tom Brady, +29
2. Ben Roethlisberger, +17
3. Joe Flacco, +15
4. Eli Manning, +12
t5. Drew Brees, +7
t5. Peyton Manning, +7
t5. Aaron Rodgers, +7
8. Mark Sanchez, +6
9. Matt Hasselbeck, +4
10. Colin Kaepernick, +3
t11. Rex Grossman, +2
t11. Philip Rivers, +2
13. Michael Vick, +1
14. Tony Romo, -1
15. Matt Ryan, -2

That's a similar order, of course, the difference mostly that this one rewards playoff experience. Look at Peyton Manning, the player most affected by the changes. He's now less penalized for all those road losses, and he benefits from the bonus for first-round byes. I think most fans would agree that if the Colts had a first-round game in '05 or '07 or '09, they probably would have won, and likewise for the Broncos in 2012. A +1 bonus for automatically reaching the second round seems conservative to replace the +2 for winning a wild card game to reach the second round.

The final list, the one I think is most detached from popular perception but most fair to the players being rated, awards +1 for a bye or a home win, +2 for a win on the road or in the Super Bowl, -1 for a loss on the road or in the Super Bowl, and -2 for a loss at home. It's basically the same as the previous system, except that home wins are only +1 (instead of +2). This actually makes a big difference for some players.

1. Tom Brady, +18
2. Joe Flacco, +13
3. Ben Roethlisberger, +12
4. Eli Manning, +11
t5. Aaron Rodgers, +6
t5. Mark Sanchez, +6
7. Drew Brees, +3
8. Colin Kaepernick, +2
9. Peyton Manning, +1
t10. Rex Grossman, 0
t10. Philip Rivers, 0
t10. Michael Vick, 0
13. Matt Hasselbeck, -1
14. Tony Romo, -2
15. Matt Ryan, -3

The problem with all these lists — apart from the fundamental inanity of rating individual players by the results of their whole teams — is the quick-rise, slow-fall nature of the rankings. For instance, Eli Manning has two terrific postseasons, both featuring three wins followed by a Super Bowl victory. That's +15 on this list, just for two seasons. You could add 16 seasons losing his first playoff game, and Eli would still rank ahead of poor Tony Romo, who is 1-3 in the postseason.

You'll note, too, that Eli is -4 in his other seasons. The Giants lost their first playoff game in 2005, 2006, and 2008, two of them at home. Eli has lost his first playoff game more frequently than he has won it, but he's effectively immune to a negative rating just from a pair of hot streaks. The same applies to Ben Roethlisberger, who didn't play particularly well in either of his team's Super Bowl wins, and to Brady, who's been coasting on early glory for years now.

These rankings need about a hundred different disclaimers, and they're just a messing-around exercise for those of us who already miss football. I actually find myself going back to the list at the top, which I think is least fair to the players but most closely reflects the way they're perceived, effectively quantifying popular opinion. Maybe there's a certain value in that.

By the way, you can't really do math with these figures, but it is interesting to think of Flacco as Aaron Rodgers + Drew Brees.

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