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Russell Wilson sits atop PFF’s 2019 WAR ranking

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Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

For everyone who felt like the Seattle Seahawks this season would have been bad without Russell Wilson, we have an update: you are correct.

For those who took it to this level, maybe not so much...

The most recent analysis says that the Seahawks would be 7-9 this season using a replacement quarterback.

Pro Football Focus (PFF) has declared that Russell Wilson was the best player in the NFL this year by Wins Above Replacement (WAR), naming him their Most Valuable Player (MVP) and throwing some shade at Pete Carroll along the way (LOL).

What is PFF WAR? Well, I’d attach a couple of videos here to let the experts themselves walk you through it, but - and I say this with all honesty - they’re not even as good as this article hopes to be, which is to say, they are very bad. PFF is notorious for not explaining anything about what they’re doing. We’ll highlight some of the more interesting features in this piece.

Numbers!

Wilson being in first is as surprising as the Seattle Seahawks running on 1st and 10. Him being in first by that much, however, is more like the success of D.K. Metcalf. We all knew it was possible, but looking at numbers makes you wonder what the other guys did wrong. According to PFF, Wilson was a full 1.12 wins ahead of runner-up Patrick Mahomes.

Russell Wilson won’t win the MVP this year, but his performance lines up with some of the great QB performances of the last decade.

The water is a bit muddy here, but I believe that the biggest difference under PFF’s new formula is accounting for close wins, which has lowered the WAR ceiling across the board. This is their statement on the change

we don’t actually use the number of wins each team achieved in our training of the model to map production to wins. Taking inspiration from Justis Mosqueda, we count all games decided by eight or fewer points as half of a win (regardless of which team actually won), which significantly increases the year-to-year stability in team strength.

14 of Seattle’s games this season qualify as games decided by eight or fewer points, which is kind of nuts.

Here’s how the formula actually works, according to the brief synopsis that PFF offered recently:

Summarizing:

  • They use their standard 1-100 grades wherein somewhere around 88 is doing pretty good.
  • A certain level of mystical sorcery takes place by trying to assign value for each player based on play and position especially (Running backs don’t matter is strong with these folks).
  • Highlight that the Cincinnati Bengals are are worse than a replacement level team.

Where things get really interesting is following PFF’s insistence that most NFL players are within a pretty small range of talent and impact. Below is their attempt to chart the difference in WAR in consecutive seasons.

It does do a phenomenal job of showing how difficult it is to repeat a stellar performance. To oversimplify, a point below the blue line means that a player did not do as well the following season. Anything above the blue line (roughly) would represent what us common folk call “an improvement over last year”. That giant black hole indicates not only that most players play at largely the same level as all other players, but also that they are generally the same year after year.

Notice specifically the right end of the chart - two of the 5.0+ WAR performances far below the median, and the third right at it.

Even more striking, six of the seven 4.0+ WAR seasons were not repeated, while only one was. Wilson’s 2019 campaign put him squarely in the midst of some of the best seasons an NFL player can have. At least, according to Professional Focus on Football.

Here’s what PFF had to offer about the difference in roster between Wilson and his MVP rival Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens:

While Jackson had an entire offense built around his strengths and had a coaching staff that embraced analytics to extend drives and steal fine winning margins, Wilson was dealing with a situation that consistently put him behind the eight ball then asked him to dig the team out of a hole. The fact that he was able to do just that as consistently as he did only stands testament to his MVP-caliber season.

Now we know full well that Carroll is rigidly dedicated to analytics, we’re just not always sure what numbers he’s using.

Refreshingly, however, PFF concluded that in terms of value, Russell Wilson was king.

What we can say, though, is that based on everything PFF is currently able to quantify, Russell Wilson, and not Jackson, added the most value to his team and is, therefore, the league’s MVP. When you try and see the entire board, Wilson dealt with much more adversity than Jackson did and was significantly ahead in terms of PFF WAR. So, Russell Wilson wins the award for a season in which there were two outstanding candidates.

Fascinating that it takes a $35 million average to secure an additional four wins. Equally fascinating that Wilson was an entire win better than anybody else this year.