President Harry Truman is credited with saying, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” This is not entirely true, but it is the case that a talented mathematician can manipulate statistics to prove any point.
I’m not a talented mathematician, but I have learned that if you take a hard look at year-end NFL statistics, they paint an interesting and revealing picture. They are also as an unbiased benchmark when evaluating players and/or teams. In a sport heavily laden with buzzwords, cliches, narratives and myths, they often act as a leveling force.
We decided to look at the leading passers whose teams made the playoffs by a number of specific categories. It starts with the NFL’s passer rating. While passer rating may not be ideal in the minds of the analytic folks, it is universally accepted by football people as a common-sense measure of passer performance. We will then compare quarterback performance with team performance and playoff position.
The categories we will measure are as follows: passer rating, completion percentage, yards per pass attempt, and ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions.
The target numbers necessary to win change over time as coaching and scheme changes evolve. For example, during my time in the league, a touchdown ratio of two touchdowns to one interception was the accepted success level. Thanks largely to Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and their coaches, the ideal ratio has moved to 3-to-1.
The same is true for completion percentage. The winning standard used to be 55 percent. It is now well over 60 percent. With yards per pass attempt, the same is true. The winning number used to be 7 yards per attempt. Among genuine Super Bowl contenders, it is now closer to 7.5.
One of the criticisms of passer rating is that it puts too much negative emphasis on interceptions. I respectfully disagree. Turnovers are the No. 1 cause of defeat in the NFL. Lose the turnover battle and there’s a very high probability that you lose the game.
With all that said, let’s look at the regular-season numbers and players (with TD-to-INT ratio, we have rounded to a whole number).
|Player||Passer Rating||Comp Pct.||YPA||TDs||INTs||Ratio|
*Tagovailoa was in and out of the lineup all season because of concussion issues. He did not play in the wild-card game against Buffalo.
**Jackson missed the last six games of the regular season and the wild-card playoff game against Cincinnati because of injury.
The one remaining AFC quarterback with a rating of more than 90.0 was Ryan Tannehill. His numbers are as follows: 94.6 passer rating, 65.2 completion percentage, 7.8 yards per attempt, 13 touchdowns, six interceptions, 2-to-1 ratio. His team, the Tennessee Titans, did not make the playoffs, largely because he was injured and missed the last three games of the regular season.
Though I won’t list the names of the remaining AFC quarterbacks, their numbers tell an interesting story. Not one had a passer rating above 90, nor a TD-to-interception ratio above 2-to-1.
In the AFC, the playoff results as we enter Championship Sunday mirror exactly the ratings. Patrick Mahomes squared off against Trevor Lawrence and Josh Allen met Joe Burrow in the Divisional Round. Mahomes and Burrow advanced to the championship game, the exact result the regular-season numbers predicted.
The NFC is not quite as clear as the AFC. Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy, individually, lead the conference in passer rating at 103.0 and 107.3. Garoppolo had 308 pass attempts before being hurt. Purdy had 170 attempts while finishing the regular season as the 49ers’ starter. As I mentioned earlier, I’m the farthest from a math whiz, so I won’t try to meld the two.
Where we have solid numbers is in the TD-to-INT ratio. Garoppolo’s was 16 and four. Purdy’s was 13 and four. That’s a grand total of 29 and eight, well within the 3-to-1 ratio. We therefore cede the number one position to San Francisco and now compare all the other NFC playoff teams’ quarterbacks.
|Player||Passer Rating||Comp. Pct.||YPA||TDs||INTs||Ratio|
In the playoffs, the only “upset,” according to the numbers, was Daniel Jones and the Giants over Kirk Cousins and the Vikings. Though both men were tied in passer rating, Jones, as the numbers clearly showed, had the advantage with fewer interceptions (five to Cousins’ 14) and a better TD-to-INT ratio, 15-to-5 (3-to-1) vs. Cousins’ 29 and 14 (2-to-1). In all other NFC playoff games, the higher-rated quarterback’s team won. The two highest-rated quarterbacks in the NFC – Purdy and Jalen Hurts – will square off for the NFC Championship.
There were three other NFC quarterbacks who had passer ratings of 90.0 or better: Jared Goff at 99.3 and a TD-to-interception ratio of 4-to-1, Andy Dalton at 95.2 and 2-to-1, Aaron Rodgers at 91.2 and 2-to-1. Goff, by any measure, had a great year, but his team, largely because of sub-par defense, just failed to make the playoffs. Dalton and Rodgers, who each had 2-to-1 TD-to-interception ratios, were below the playoff line.
By the way, in the category of yards per attempt, Daniel Jones and Tom Brady, at 6.8 and 6.4 respectively, are below the line. Jones’ number clearly reflects the Giants’ dearth of quality receivers. Brady’s case is puzzling and requires more research. His team, however, was eliminated in the Wild Card Round, so it just may be that they lack overall talented personnel. Every other remaining NFC starting quarterback had a passer rating below 90.0 and a TD-to-INT ratio of 2-to-1 or below.
What this exercise clearly shows is that playoff quarterback numbers have moved. A passer rating of 91.0 or better is a must. A completion percentage of well over 60 percent and a yards per pass attempt average of well over 7.0 are minimum requirements. Top-flight passers are in the 7.5 YPA area or above. A TD-to-interception ratio of 3-to-1 is an absolute must and the highly important gross number of interceptions needs to be in single digits.
The definition of an elite quarterback is often in the eye of the beholder. To each his own. The numbers, however, tell us that if you want to make the playoffs and advance, your quarterback must have elite numbers.
As told to Vic Carucci
Bill Polian is a former front office executive and a six-time Executive of the Year award winner who won Super Bowl XLI with the Indianapolis Colts. Polian’s career as an executive earned him an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.