Ranking NFL QBs in the Postseason

I've been thinking a lot about quarterbacks recently. And not just to lament that people forget Sonny Jurgensen, or to argue about why Otto Graham was better than Norm Van Brocklin.

A couple years ago, I examined postseason won-loss records for active NFL quarterbacks. I'm updating that now, because (1) young players like Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck are on the list now, (2) Tom Brady and the Patriots won another Super Bowl, and (3) I've got a new method to try out.

Evaluating NFL players by team success is unfair and doesn't make sense, but it's something fans and media do. What you'll find below are quantitative methods of measuring QB postseason success. There are three different models, so you can decide which most closely matches your own perceptions. I looked only at active QBs, so you won't find Hall of Famers like Terry Bradshaw or Joe Montana on these lists.

The first method is the same one I used in my previous column, the one 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, +20
t2. Eli Manning, +9
t2. Ben Roethlisberger, +9
4. Joe Flacco, +7
5. Russell Wilson, +6
t6. Drew Brees, +3
t6. Aaron Rodgers, +3
t8. Colin Kaepernick, +2
t8. Mark Sanchez, +2
10. Peyton Manning, 0
t11. Matt Hasselbeck, -1
t11. Andrew Luck, -1
t11. Philip Rivers, -1
t11. Alex Smith, -1
t11. Michael Vick, -1
16. Tony Romo, -2
17. Matt Ryan, -3
18. Andy Dalton, -4

I think most fans would find that list roughly mirrors their perceptions of how these players have performed in the postseason. Brady is by far the best, and the next six are all Super Bowl winners. Peyton Manning, whom a lot of fans still perceive as a choker or playoff underachiever, is the only Super Bowl winner without a positive score, and the much-maligned Andy Dalton comes in last.

I believe that ranking does what it's designed to do: reflect conventional wisdom. But there's a lot missing from that calculation (and not just the other players and coaches). Losing a playoff home game — when you're probably the better team and you get homefield advantage — could be seen as a choke job, where losing on the road probably should not. 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), so we're not punishing QBs who missed the opportunity for an easy win in the wild-card round. Postseason home wins are +1, and home losses are -2. Postseason road wins — including the Super Bowl — are +2, while road losses and Super Bowl losses are -1. The list doesn't change a lot, but it seems more fair to me:

1. Tom Brady, +24
2. Joe Flacco, +14
3. Eli Manning, +11
4. Ben Roethlisberger, +10
t5. Mark Sanchez, +6
t5. Russell Wilson, +6
7. Aaron Rodgers, +5
t8. Drew Brees, +4
t8. Colin Kaepernick, +4
10. Peyton Manning, +2
11. Philip Rivers, +1
12. Michael Vick, 0
t13. Matt Hasselbeck, -1
t13. Andrew Luck, -1
t13. Alex Smith, -1
16. Tony Romo, -2
17. Matt Ryan, -3
18. Andy Dalton, -5

Here, players like Flacco and Sanchez, whose teams went a combined 11-7 on the road (2-0 at home), rise up the list. I believe Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback to ever play, but his teams have as many home losses in the postseason (6) as the next two players on the list combined (Brady and Roethlisberger, 3 each). He retains 10th place by virtue of seven first-round byes. I think everyone agrees that Manning would have several more playoff wins if the Broncos had wild card games the last three years, and the Colts a few more wild cards in the mid-'00s.

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'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.

I also believe it's crazy to lower a player's reputation because his team lost in the playoffs, while someone who missed the playoffs entirely gets a free pass. Judging a quarterback largely (or even exclusively) by his team's postseason results is a relatively new phenomenon, and I'm not convinced we're handling it the right way. The third list is going to look a lot different, though I think it's actually the most fair, because it assigns value to reaching the postseason.

In this final list, which is more about being part of a winning team, we award +1 to any QB who threw at least 2/3 of the regular-season passes for a playoff team and -1 to any QB who threw at least 2/3 of the regular-season passes for a team that missed the playoffs. Then we add +1 for first-round byes and home playoff wins, +2 for road playoff wins (including the Super Bowl), with a -1 penalty for playoff road losses and Super Bowl losses, and -2 for home losses.

This system measures players against expectations. A quarterback whose team misses the postseason scores -1. A QB whose team makes the playoffs but loses on the road scores 0. A playoff appearance (+1), with a road win (+2) followed by a road loss (-1), scores +2. I've broadened the list to include a few players with limited postseason experience, but big names in this era.

1. Tom Brady, +35
2. Joe Flacco, +19
3. Peyton Manning, +14
4. Ben Roethlisberger, +13
5. Eli Manning, +11
t6. Aaron Rodgers, +9
t6. Russell Wilson, +9
8. Mark Sanchez, +6
9. Colin Kaepernick, +4
10. Drew Brees, +3
t11. Andrew Luck, +2
t11. Philip Rivers, +2
13. Matt Hasselbeck, 0
t14. Andy Dalton, -1
t14. Michael Vick, -1
t16. Matt Ryan, -2
t16. Matt Schaub, -2
t16. Matthew Stafford, -2
t19. Cam Newton, -3
t19. Tony Romo, -3
t19. Alex Smith, -3
t22. Jay Cutler, -4
t22. Ryan Fitzpatrick, -4
t22. Kyle Orton, -4
25. Carson Palmer, -5

Obviously, this is a much different list. Peyton Manning, whose teams haven't missed the playoffs since the 2001 season, rates very well on this list. Peyton's had as many first-round byes (7) as Roethlisberger has playoff appearances. Manning has the most postseason losses of any active QB, but he also more wins than anyone but Brady.

The other big riser here is Andy Dalton, whose teams have made the playoffs four times in four years. They've lost their first game each time, but three of those were on the road, with the Bengals underdogs. Dalton only has one game that could really be described as a choke job. Andrew Luck, who has never missed the playoffs, gets a similar rise, from -1 to +2.

The surprise for me is Carson Palmer at the bottom. For the seven years in which Palmer has thrown at least 2/3 of his team's passes, his team has reached the postseason only twice. I didn't count the 2005-06 loss on Palmer's record, since he only played the first series, but in his only other playoff game, Palmer was terrible, and the Bengals lost at home to Mark Sanchez and the Jets. I don't consider Palmer a choker, or a guy who doesn't win, but his teams don't have a very good record.

These rankings need about a hundred different disclaimers, and they're just a messing-around exercise for those of us who already miss football. Which of the three lists you prefer depends upon how you think about these issues. As I noted two years ago, the most interesting list is probably the first one, at the top. I think it's the least fair to the players, but most closely reflects the way they're perceived, effectively quantifying popular opinion. If ESPN made a list of the best playoff QBs, it would probably look a lot like that list. It makes for a handy reference, if nothing else.

Comments and Conversation

March 4, 2015

Sports analyst:

Should also consider who was favored regardless of who the home team was to refine your list even further.
I stopped analyzing your list after the very first entry was found to be wrong.
Brady is 21-8 with 4 SBs won totaling 21 points not 20. If you can’t get the first thing you do correctly, why bother to check out the rest.
Like your lists. Liked them even better when I did this over a decade ago after Brady’s second SB. Give you credit for your second list. I only had your first and third one but I included retired QBs as well. I also tried adding and subtracting points for different variables such as dome play, quality of offensive support players based on pro bowls and Oline efficiency based on sacks allowed. When this is done Peyton falls to the bottom of the list. He had the best support in league history yet failed to produce ending with the least production for the amount of support given.
Montana at 16-7 and 4 SBs won comes in with a score of 17 on list number one. Need to include retired QBs as well otherwise you have fewer QBs between Brady and Peyton, and Peyton is no Brady. He isn’t even a Flacco. Some say he is a Testaverde with media hype. A bit harsh but you get the point. Throughout his career Peyton has had difficulty in beating teams with winning records! And has a losing record in the post season. Hard to think of him as an all time great when the media pumps him up so high every year only to have him lose the big game on an INT or dumb play. He is a stat seeker vice a victory seeker. His stats are inflated based on the variables above, namely, he played in a dome, with all pro receivers and had the Oline that gave up the least amount of sacks. His stats are therefore inflated. Nowhere near being mentioned in the same conversation with Montana. And Montana has been passed by Brady so no comparison there either. Even the last ten years there was no real comparison with Brady. It has been a media hype job for marketing purposes. Brady has done so much more with so much less.

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