San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers recently told XX Sports Radio in his team's hometown that he's not so sure about a new ESPN quarterback ranking system that put him ninth overall in its metrics for the 2010 season. Rivers was a legitimate MVP candidate last season, despite his Chargers missing the playoffs, because he had one of his best seasons without his best receiver (Vincent Jackson), half a season without his best target (tight end Antonio Gates), and a running game that was decidedly below average.
Lack of context seems to limit ESPN's new Total QBR metric — Football Outsiders' DYAR stat, which predates Total QBR by years, applies the same metrics and also adjusts for opponent, has Rivers third in each of the past three seasons. Basically, when you throw opponent-adjusted context in and add a few more different dimensions, Rivers ranks as one of the four best quarterbacks in the league over the last three years — the only people who have trumped him in season-cumulative value in the last three seasons are Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. In FO's DVOA metric, which is tabulated based on per-play efficiency as opposed to a cumulative total, Rivers has ranked first (2009), second (2008) and third (2010) in the last three seasons.
So, yeah — you'll have to forgive Rivers if he's a bit mystified by the ranking. "I don't take too much stock into that, but I did see it, though," he said of QBR. "I still don't get it. I think it's more complicated now. I got to the point where you could almost know what the rating would be based on what you play. Now I don't know. They're judging situation of the game and what impact that throw had and this throw, yards after catch. It's crazy. I'm not saying it didn't make sense."
Rivers told the station that he wasn't exactly sure where he was on the list — it was more about what the stat didn't say. "It shuffled some guys around. It's not like it told a complete different story than the other quarterback ranking. And I couldn't tell you exactly where I ended up."
But according to the NFL's old-school quarterback rating, Rivers ranked second, behind only Tom Brady — which means that based on opponent-adjusted context-driven metrics, whether by mistake or not, quarterback rating presents a closer picture.
In Rivers' mind, there's one stat you can use when it comes to predetermining or reflecting winning and losing, and it isn't the result of anyone's formula. "I think the number one stat that is a direct correlation on winning and losing is turnovers. I think if you looked at that one stat over the years, every game we played, if we don't turn it over or we win the turnover battle … I would say we win over 90 percent of the time … In the first like six or seven weeks, we almost turned it over as many times as we did the whole previous season when we were 13-3. There's not many times you can turn it over three or four times in a game and win and we almost won some of those games. It shows how well we were playing except for those critical errors."
The great baseball broadcaster Vin Scully once said that "statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination." Unless and until as much context as possible is driven into the numbers, that couldn't be more true. And context doesn't just mean an arbitrary "Win Share" number that stands the same no matter the situation. Quarterbacks don't exist in a vacuum, and until the big brains at ESPN figure that out, the players will continue to question the value and accuracy of the metrics attached to their performances.
And unfortunately, they'll be right in doing so.