The Help (A Quarterback Gets)

NOTE: There are some other good fanposts comparing Wilson and Luck that you might want to check out if you enjoy reading this, especially"My response to Chris Wesseling's put down of Wilson. Russell gets no respect!" and "Young QBs pt 1".

NOTE (PART 2): Thanks to Zach Whitman for helping me figure out how to import pictures.

It will likely be decades before we know if Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck is the better quarterback. Right now, I have no idea which one will have the better career (Spoiler Alert: It’s Wilson). However, with 2 full years of data now, it is pretty clear that Russell Wilson has been the better QB. But I’m not here to compare Luck and Wilson’s stats, because inevitably, the notion of QB "help" comes up. Often, Luck supporters bring up the fact that Wilson has had a historic defense, a great RB, or a better offensive line. All of these make his job easier and therefore, his stats should be discounted. While this seems reasonable, seeming reasonable doesn’t mean that it’s true. I decided to look at the numbers of 4 QBs and see whether there is any truth to the QB help argument.

I examined the careers of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Tony Romo, and Jay Cutler. They have all be in the league for a while and have never been benched for performance. I discarded any seasons in which they played fewer than 10 games. I also assumed that if they were playing, they were 100% healthy. I realize this is likely untrue, but I don’t have the time to A) figure out if they were injured and B) decided if that should affect my analysis. I also discarded any QB rushing numbers. The metric of choice is ANY/A, or adjusted net yards per attempt, which accounts for interceptions, touchdowns, and sacks. I’m sure Kenneth will have an article explaining it in the foreseeable future, but I’ll just say that it is more correlated with Wins than any other stat besides QBR. And since wins are the point of football, the QB with the better ANY/A is likely the better QB. Now, onto the findings.

First, the "He has a great defense so he doesn’t have to do much" argument. I could write a whole lot of words, but I have 4 pictures and that’s essentially 4,000 words right there.





These graphs chart the ANY/A of the quarterback and the Defensive DVOA of the team (remember, negative numbers for Def DVOA means the defense was better). There are three possible conclusions to derive from these graphs.

1. Some quarterbacks are affected by the quality of the defense, and play better with better defenses and some quarterbacks are unaffected or play better with shitty defense. ote how Romo’s worst seasons (by ANY/A) were when he had the worst defense. Additionally, Manning seems to play a little better when he has a good defense. However, Cutler and Brady’s graphs show a little bit of an increase in ANY/A when their defense rates poorly by DVOA.

2. Defense doesn’t mean shit when talking about QB performance.

3. Not even data to be conclusive either way.

Conclusion 3 is the only one that I can emphatically stand behind, but frankly, it seems that there is no correlation between defense and ANY/A. All of the R2 values are less than .5, indicating that the data isn’t very correlated in any direction. The fact that elite QBs like Manning and Brady have opposite trends (Brady plays better with crappy defense, Manning plays better with good defense) makes me think this isn’t some difference between "The Best" and "The Rest" but just statistical noise. Since defense cannot be on the field as the same time as an offense, it makes sense that any connection is tenuous. A turnover is rare and doesn’t necessarily come with great field position (Hail Mary passes that get intercepted). So while a great defense might cause a slight uptick in TD%, I doubt it is significant. However, there is a potential factor that is on the field at the same time, the rushing game.

Here are another 4000 words in picture form.





This charts all indicate an increase of ANY/A with a better running game (measured by Rushing DVOA). This could indicate that, to an extent, a good running game can carry a QB. However, there are two flaws with that line of reasoning. First, Christian Ponder. One of, if not the best RB in the league, and his ANY/A has never eclipsed 5.0, In Adrian Peterson’s insane 2000+ yard season, Ponder had 4.99 ANY/A That is worse than all but two of the QB seasons I’m using in my dataset (Cutler and Manning’s first seasons as starters). Ponder is a crappy QB, and perhaps not representative of QBing, but this does damage the argument that a running back can carry a QB. Second, the chicken-or-the-egg argument. Does a talented QB make rushing easier or does a talented RB making passing easier. The answer is that it works both ways (to what extent, I couldn't tell you). However, I found some data, or it was pointed out to me on Twitter by GreetingsFromLordHumongous, that sheds some light (unfortunately not too much) on the effect of running backs. It counts the times that RBs faced 8 or more men in the box when that RB carried the ball. It doesn’t look at the total number of snaps that an offense faced 8 men in the box so take it with as many grains of salt as you wish.




%8 man box

relative to average







T. Brady






T. Romo






J. Cutler






League average



Again, I have to ask you to increase your salt intake, because this sample is far too small to derive meaningful conclusions from. If we look at the elite QBs, Manning had slightly better numbers than Brady with his RBs facing less than half of the league average for 8 man boxes, while Brady faced about average number of 8 man boxes. Meanwhile, in the good category, Cutler and Romo faced a similar difference in 8 man boxes, but Romo had a far better season by ANY/A. This could mean that Romo can take advantage of 8 man boxes while Cutler cannot, which seems unlikely since both QBs have brought their teams to the playoffs. The point is, that it isn’t clear that RB’s make much of a difference on QB statistics. I don’t think the difference is negligible, but I don’t think adding Adrian Peterson to a team will bump the QB's ANY/A up by more than .3 or so (totally spitballing here).

That wraps up the stats from me. But I would like to draw you attention to another interesting case. Alex Smith. Widely regarded as a first round bust, he struggled for years before turning it around under Jim Harbaugh. While the 49ers changed over the years he QBed them, the talent didn’t dramatically increase around him in the years immediately preceding the hiring of Harbaugh. Therefore, coaching and system might have more of an effect on QB stats than the quality of players on the field.

Thanks for reading!

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