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The flaws with "Elite QB" lists that exclude Russell Wilson

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How do so many sports writers consistently get this so wrong?

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

While NFL team Power Rankings have been around for decades, the proliferation of "Elite Quarterback" Rankings is relatively new. It's a tidy little niche for sports writers trying to generate content, and one which (they hope) is less likely to lead to embarrassment when subsequent events prove them wrong.

In case you missed it a few weeks ago, let me be the first to tell you that Eric Mandel of Mynorthwest Sports tells us that Brock and Salk reported that Mike Sando of ESPN told them that he expects NFL coaches and scouts to tell him that Russell Wilson is not an elite quarterback.

You can get the same opinion, of course, from various hack journalists to whom I won't be linking. Instead, I'm going to turn the tables and rank the flaws in their quarterback rankings.

#1 There is no incentive to get it right

Suppose you were an 18th-Century Internet science blogger assigned to write about the effects of phlogiston and to debate the levels of such occurring in undephlogisticated materials. It wouldn't help your livelihood at all to reveal that combustion is a chemical reaction involving oxygen. But then along comes Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier. Lavoisier doesn't have a paid writing gig. All he cares about is figuring out the truth and getting it written down as quickly as possible so he can bed his wife.

Fortunately for science and the amorous Lvoisiers, there's a whole lot of practical value in understanding why things burn. So the truth quickly won out and Phlogiston Theory was dropped like a hot rock (pun intended). But no such check exists for the validity of quarterback rankings.

And they aren't necessarily getting it wrong on purpose. The pressure to constantly generate new content inevitably leads to unsupportable nonsense and outright contradictions which, through sheer dint of volume, overwhelm the few independent writers who don't see the point in publishing the exact same (accurate) analysis over and over and over.

#2 They have cognitive deficiencies

I'm not saying they're stupid (implying it, maybe...). Everyone has their relative strengths and, by extension, weaknesses. In this case it is related to numbers.

Human beings are naturally adept at dealing with ordinal numbers. They can understand that Matthew Stafford is taller than Drew Brees, Brees is taller than Wilson, and therefore Stafford is also taller than Wilson. But not everyone is capable of processing measurement as a primary means of knowledge.

For example, Brees is 6'0" and Wilson is 5'10 5/8" tall. Wilson is slightly shorter. To people like me who have a science-y mind, the first statement is clear and complete, but the second is ambiguous. For others, the numeric statement is too abstract and must be translated into the qualitative statement ("Wilson is shorter") before it carries any meaning in their minds.

So for innumerable journalists (pun intended), it is possible to understand that A is better than B, and Y is better than Z, but they are at a complete loss when trying to compare A + Z to B + Y. This is why coaches kick field goals on 4th and goal-- they cannot incorporate the value of pinning their opponent deep (after a failing on 4th down) in their risk assessment. It's why journalists say "passing is more important than running, and I think this guys is better at passing, so that's all there is to it."

Perhaps ironically, it's not the absence of measurement, but the poor understanding thereof which leads to wrong conclusions. They'd probably do better if they stuck to the eye test. Instead, they fixate on one measurement which (they think) they understand-- probably fantasy points-- and use it to form an ordinal (or qualitative) conclusion, dismissing all other numbers as less significant or inaccurate.

If this sounds like a preposterous claim, you should read about Sabermetrics and how long it took people with a direct financial stake to embrace it. And keep in mind that writers who can process numbers are actually handicapped in the journalistic selection process, because the simpler (dumber) understanding plays to a broader (dumber) readership.

#3 They rely on innuendo

This is the dirtiest, most destructive and hateful trick in all realms of debate. Outright lies are preferable. Innuendo starts out like this:

"Russell Wilson is asked to do less."

And goes... nowhere. It is not said how this produces misleading statistics, or gives Wilson some unfair performance advantage, or whatever it is supposed to do. Dull readers assume that the writer is more clever than they are, and so nod their heads in agreement. Clever readers who dispute the point are left to guess what conclusions the original writer is trying to draw, and so forced to make arguments on their behalf before they can even begin to rebut them.

For example, I could (I think) easily correct the above notion by pointing out that Wilson actually does plenty:

2012-2015 regular season drives, team is trailing, tied, or up by no more than six points

table 1

Team Pts/Drive INT% (per drive)
Patriots 2.53 5.1%
Broncos 2.42 9.7%
Saints 2.29 10.1%
Packers 2.25 6.1%
Seahawks 2.21 5.8%
Bengals 2.09 9.1%
Falcons 2.08 10.4%
Steelers 2.07 8.3%
Panthers 2.07 7.8%
Cowboys 2.06 10.7%
League Average 1.87 8.8%

Seattle is in the top five when they need to be, and taking interceptions into account, only the Patriots are clearly any better than the offense led by Wilson. But although I think I've answered this handily, the original claimant will no doubt say something like "I meant he doesn't throw the ball as much" or "the defense sets them up", spiraling into more innuendo that cannot be rebutted.

#4 They completely misinterpret the relationship between the offense and defense

If you're only talking about wins, then sure, Wilson is aided by the Seahawks' outstanding defense (but I'll take a moment to point out that in Cam Newton's 2015 MVP season, the Panthers were 2nd in defense while the Seahawks were 4th, whereas the Panthers were only 8th in offense and the Seahawks were 1st).

But that's it. Good field position leads to slightly more scoring, but a chunk of that is field goals, which don't help a quarterback's stat line. Quite the opposite-- with a short field, there is less chance to fatigue the defense and you have more plays in the compressed red zone, all of which are bad for the offense's rate stats. (Drives starting at your own 20-yard line average 5.51 yards/play, drives starting between your opponent's 45 and opponent's 40 average 4.23 yards/play. That's very close to the difference between the league's best and worst offenses).

On the other hand, there is the very real effect of fatigue. We can estimate this by looking at how many plays are run on each side of the ball, as well as how much time is used.

(Adjusted Plays adds one for each score and subtracts one for each turnover: On offense, this better reflects how much rest you allow your defense because of the special teams plays; on defense, this reflects how much rest you allow the opposition defense for the same reason).

Time and plays per drive, 2012-2015

table 2

Squad Avg Time
Time Rank
(highest to lowest)
Plays Rank
(highest to lowest)
Adj Plays Rank
(highest to lowest)
Seahawks Offense 173 2 5.9 8 6.23 7
Average Offense 157 n/a 5.76 n/a 5.99 n/a
Seahawks Defense 162 9 5.7 20 5.82 27
Average Defense 157 n/a 5.76 n/a 5.98 n/a

Obviously, you gain the fatigue advantage by running more plays on offense and fewer on defense. But what about time? Partly, elapsed time reflects an actual difference in how long a team takes between plays, although incomplete passes (which stop the clock) have a larger impact. But regardless of the cause, using more time-- on either side of the ball-- helps both defenses. When more time is used, there are fewer possessions in each half, allowing more rest. From 2012-2015, Seattle Seahawk games included a total of 1350 drives, lowest in the league and more than 100 fewer than the average of 1451.

And even that is an understatement. The NFL has a commercial break quota for each half. With a stingy Seahawk defense and fewer overall drives, this means that Seahawk games very rarely reach the point late in the half where the quota is met and play proceeds uninterrupted between possessions.

To put a more comprehensive number on fatigue effects, let's combine plays-per-drive and time-per-drive as follows:

Offense helps offense will be plays-per-drive divided by seconds-per-drive (more plays fatigues the opponent, more time rests the opponent)

Offense helps defense will be adjusted plays multiplied by seconds (both give more rest)

Defense helps defense will be seconds divided by plays (more time is good for rest, more plays is bad)

Defense helps offense will be the inverse of adjusted plays multiplied by the inverse of seconds (running more plays and using more time are both bad for your offense, because the other defense will rest more)

If you you don't like these metrics for fatigue, please feel free to devise your own before you bitch about them.


table 3

Squad Offensive
Off Help
Def Help
Seahawks Offense 0.0341 32 1078 5
Average Offense 0.0368 n/a 942 n/a
Seahawks Defense 0.00106 17 28.4 2
Average Defense 0.00107 n/a 27.3 n/a

Whether by design, accident, or a combination of both, everything the Seahawks do on both sides of the ball maximizes the rest allowed to the defense. The offense, meanwhile, is left with an uphill battle.

#5 They've gotten lazy

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have headlined the "elite quarterbacks" for over a decade. Somewhat more recently,

Brees was an easy pick to crack the top tier thanks to a Super Bowl win and his high volume of passing; the prolific and efficient Aaron Rodgers was an even easier pick.

Top Quarterbacks from 2004 to 2011 (minimum AV of 8 per season, minimum ANY/A of 6.3)

table 4

Player Seasons TD% ANY/A Win% AV
Drew Brees 2004 - 2011 5.5 7.16 65% 128
Peyton Manning 2004 - 2010 6.1 7.62 78% 125
Tom Brady 2004 - 2011 6.1 7.55 80% 123
Philip Rivers 2004 - 2011 5.4 7.16 66% 101
Ben Roethlisberger 2004 - 2011 5 6.42 71% 95
Donovan McNabb 2004 - 2011 4.5 6.5 57% 81
Tony Romo 2004 - 2011 5.7 7.2 61% 72
Aaron Rodgers 2005 - 2011 6.2 8.66 66% 72

Not only was it easy to pick out the good quarterbacks, it was an easy sell that made readers happy: The Cowboys are "America's Team", the Steelers and Packers have nationwide fans, the Saints have nationwide sympathy, and everyone likes Manning. Nobody outside New England likes Brady and the Patriots, but hey, close enough.

On top of all that, the elite quarterbacks generally lined up pretty well with their fantasy stats. And all this worked for a span of eight seasons.

Quarterbacks meeting the same conditions from 2012-2015 look like this:

table 5

Player Seasons TD% ANY/A Win% AV
Russell Wilson 2012 - 2015 6.1 7.15 72% 70
Tom Brady 2012 - 2015 5.2 7.02 75% 64
Drew Brees 2012 - 2015 5.6 7.18 51% 62
Aaron Rodgers 2012 - 2015 6.5 7.41 68% 60
Matt Ryan 2012 - 2015 4.3 6.44 48% 59
Peyton Manning 2012 - 2015 6.5 7.61 79% 52
Philip Rivers 2012 - 2015 5.1 6.53 45% 50
Ben Roethlisberger 2012 - 2015 5.1 7.01 59% 50
Andy Dalton 2012 - 2015 5.2 6.36 68% 50
Tony Romo 2012 - 2015 5.6 6.76 62% 44
Carson Palmer 2012 - 2015 4.8 6.74 62% 41

Someone on there is messing with their comfort level, and they can't digest it because...

#6 They are prejudiced

Russell Wilson is a (relatively) low-volume passer and an excellent runner. He's short, quick, African-American, devilishly handsome, and plays for the Seattle Seahawks. To the lazy observer, he looks more like Shaun Alexander than the next great quarterback.

To be clear, I'm not accusing a single one of these sports writers of being racist. No, no, no. These are liberal arts majors who've had every last vestige of that beaten/educated out of them. But they are also journalism majors infected with a terrible case of narrativism.

And it works both ways.

Exhibit A, courtesy Chris Wesserling of Is Cam Newton the greatest dual-threat QB in history?

To be fair, Cam Newton has had a very solid career, and he put up great numbers all around in 2015. But Wesserling is clearly just as impressed-- if not more-- by the way Newton looks in the process. He comments on Newton's "chiseled 6-foot-5" frame, is astounded by the strength with which Newton "carried safety Chris Clemons for an 11-yard gain", and gushes over a somersault into the end zone.

Narrative, narrative, narrative. But how good is he really?

Running quarterbacks 2012-2015, minimum 1000 pass attempts and 500 yards rushing:

table 6

Player Rush Att Yards Yards/Att TD% 1st Down%
Jay Cutler 95 764 8.04 3.2% 55%
Blake Bortles 97 731 7.54 2.1% 55%
Aaron Rodgers 140 1043 7.45 3.6% 52%
Russell Wilson 352 2496 7.09 3.4% 39%
Colin Kaepernick 269 1870 6.95 4.5% 34%
Andrew Luck 168 1147 6.83 7.1% 48%
Ryan Tannehill 136 928 6.82 3.7% 40%
Alex Smith 202 1378 6.82 2.0% 39%
Robert Griffin 230 1507 6.55 4.3% 35%
Cam Newton 434 2534 5.84 6.9% 47%
Ryan Fitzpatrick 162 924 5.70 4.9% 38%
Matthew Stafford 113 503 4.45 8.0% 43%
Andy Dalton 166 667 4.02 7.8% 39%

The top 10 quarterbacks average around 11.7 yards per completion and 6.9 net yards per pass attempt. Newton's 5.84 yards/rush attempt doesn't come close to cracking either of those numbers (in fact, he's never been in the top 10 in quarterback rushing DVOA in his career). Even throwing in the touchdowns, his running production per play is about the same as his passing. In other words, Cam Newton accounts for a greater portion of his team's offense than his passing yardage would suggest (which is significant), but if you want to compare him with other quarterbacks, his passing rate stats pretty much tell the story.

So who is the greatest dual-threat quarterback in NFL history? I expect Wilson to hold the title eventually. But for now, discounting differences in era, the answer is Aaron Rodgers. And it ain't even close. Rodgers is elusive in the pocket, deadly efficient when running, and as good as they come passing. Sorry he doesn't look the part.

The same could be said of Andrew Luck and Jay Cutler. Both are highly effective but rarely given their due as running quarterbacks, simply because they aren't as exciting to watch as a Wilson or Colin Kaepernick.

Exhibit B: Luck, the quarterback from the 2012 class who has been listed, quite frequently, among the supposed "elite": Tall white guy. First overall pick. Goofy face, but likable. His team throws the ball a lot, dominates a weak division, and sucks in the playoffs.

He also has a horseshoe on his helmet.

Think that matters? You're damn right it does.

Everything about Luck reminds them of Manning, including an ambiguous start to his career. They believe, perhaps subconsciously, that certain teams have a magical aurora that produces good quarterbacks. Rodgers cracked their elite easily after taking over for Brett Favre, Rivers replaced Pro Bowl quarterback Brees, and Brady supplanted former #1 overall pick Drew Bledsoe. Eli is highly regarded for being named "Manning".

In contrast, there's Alex Smith who runs too much, Matt Ryan who's just plain boring, and Andy Dalton who, for God's sake, plays for the Bengals. I wouldn't call these guys elite, but they are better than a lot of top draft picks (Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford) and just as good as Luck. They are probably underrated, and at any rate, they are in no danger whatsoever of being overrated.

Then there's Wilson and Roethlisberger. Both joined teams historically known for their defense (but not their quarterbacks) and both won an early Super Bowl on the strength of said defense. Narrative says "not elite". Both are mobile (at least, Roethlisberger was), leading journalists to dismiss their passing accomplishments whilst simultaneously undervaluing their ability to run the ball and deal with bad pass-blocking.

Finally, I would be much remiss if I didn't mention the ironic tragicomedy that is Tony Romo. You'd think that playing for the Cowboys would make him an overrated media darling. And, in fact, Romo has the 4th highest career ANY/A in NFL history, ahead of Brady, Rivers, and Brees. But in the murky journalistic mind, a great Dallas Cowboys quarterback isn't a prolific passer, a great Dallas Cowboys quarterback wins playoff games. See how confused they are? Wilson and Roethlisberger must not be very good because their teams' defenses are good, whereas Romo must not be very good because the Cowboys' defense is so very, very bad.

#π They ignore advanced analytics

Which will be presented in my next article on the subject.