Shutdown Corner - NFL

Has ESPN created the perfect quarterback rating? Not just yet…

The longtime quarterback rating system, which tops out at a potentially perfect 158.3 for whatever reason, has been around since the late 1960s and makes about as much sense these days as the notion of using a typewriter to file a story on a deadline. Through the years, as Bill James spread the word about sabermetrics in sports, there's been a wave of analysis trying to put a better and more accurate number out there to represent every aspect of sports. In recent years, entities like STATS, Inc. and Football Outsiders have drilled down to match metrics and performance, and a new wave has broken out from those initial efforts.

On Monday, ESPN announced a new statistic called Total Quarterback Rating (Total QBR), which the "Worldwide Leader" says will be the standard used when discussing the position from now on. (Nice humility as usual there, guys). From the press release:

Total QBR is based on all of a quarterback's plays (rushing, passing, sacks, fumbles, interceptions, penalties, etc.), and it calculates the per-play net impact of the quarterback on the ability to score. Each play is weighted by the situation (i.e., down and distance, field position, time during the game) and its importance to the game's outcome. For example, a completed five-yard pass on 3rd-and-3 would increase a quarterback's QBR more than a five-yard completion on 3rd-and-15 because the former continues the drive and thus improves the team's chance of scoring. Also, plays in closely contested games carry a greater value than plays in less competitive situations.

There will be a "SportsCenter" special about the new stat this Friday at 8 p.m. ET. Former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer described the effect of the stat with his usual gift for hyperbole:

"Forever we've lacked a quantitative way of explaining winning or losing quarterback play. The old passer efficiency rating had nothing to do with winning or losing because it gave every down an equal weight and it credited the quarterback for something that was more influenced by the receiver or offensive line, or punished the quarterback for something he had no say in. By filtering it down to critical downs and weighing the importance of each down, the really smart people in ESPN Stats & Information have come up with a number that will best describe how much the quarterback contributed to winning or losing a football game. This is a total game-changer."

Well, it is to a point. The stat was put together by some very impressive people, including sports analytical consultants Dean Oliver and Dr. Benjamin Alamar. Several former players were consulted, including Dilfer and fellow ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski. ESPN's Stats and Info stuff is always interesting, but the one thing I don't see in the description for Total QBR is any kind of opponent adjustment.

When I first saw Football Outsiders' advanced stats in 2004 (Disclaimer: Yes, I do write for the site), the main thing that impressed me was that not only did the FO numbers developed by Aaron Schatz take situational context into account, they also adjusted for opponent, based on a baseline set to every play that happens in a season. What FO's metrics do that Total QBR doesn't seem to is to reward or penalize quarterbacks (and other "skill position" players) based on the teams they're playing. How can Total QBR claim to be comprehensive if, for example, Peyton Manning(notes) gets the same rating for shredding the Houston Texans' 2010 Swiss cheese pass defense as he does for putting up big numbers against the defenses established by Dick LeBeau and Rex Ryan?

I'm very intrigued to see where ESPN is going with Total QBR, but I won't be totally on board until it's used with more of a 3-D view, and players are held accountable for beating up on easy defenses, and rewarded for solving more challenging ones.

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