Lab Notes

How should we evaluate NFL quarterbacks?

We can all agree, the Vikings are not good at evaluating quarterbacks.

It’s hard to make the right decision when looking at 20 or 21 year old college QBs to draft. But we can tell who is better between past or current quarterbacks, right?

Seems like most agree that Matt Cassel is better than Christian Ponder. So why does Leslie Frazier continue to believe Ponder is the guy? Higher ceiling, maybe. But based on what exactly? Gut?

How about looking historically.

We can all agree that Daunte Culpepper is the best quarterback in Vikings history, right?

This isn’t an opinion, by the way. It’s a fact.

But it’s based on analyzing Culpepper’s career using the NFL’s own “official” metric for quarterback quality, the Passer Rating. That stat ranks him higher than any other Viking QB, including Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton.

Pretty sure a lot of people would take Fran over Daunte.

The Passer Rating highlights how hard it is to find good, meaningful stats in any industry.

To evaluate NFL quarterback play, some people just look at Wins. But Wins are a single stat, impacted by so many other factors, and you could debate the difference between winning and losing all day. That’s why there’s 24-hour talk radio.

But in the NFL as in any business, clear, actionable stats matter because they help simplify decision making.

In the world of apps and websites, where we work, organizations closely count the number of downloads and registered users. By themselves, these statistics are akin to looking at QB completions without considering incompletions.

Looking at the wrong stats is as good as looking at none, perhaps worse.

Imagine picking your QB by his total passing yards without considering his winning percentage.

If you did that, Vinny Testaverde (7th all-time/passing yards) would be your starter and Roger Staubach (2nd all-time/winning percentage) his backup.

Now, that’s crazy talk.

Take the Passer Rating, again. Established in the early 70’s, it uses four stats (completion percentage, average yards per attempt, percentage of touchdown passes and percentage of interceptions), weighs them so they can be compared to one another and adjusts them according to league averages.

The formula seemed perfectly fine for crowning the league’s top QB 40 years ago, but it hasn’t evolved.

It doesn’t account for today’s better completion rates and pass-friendly rule changes.

This explains why Tarkenton is in the Hall of Fame but trails Culpepper (and Cassel) terribly in the all-time Passer Rating rankings, failing to crack even the Top 50.

Thankfully, like Randy Moss running a deep route a decade ago, all metrics are wide open for debate. And, ultimately, you can choose which ones to rely on.

Need help finding the actionable stats to lead your business to victories? Brian Poe helps fuel the Digital Marketing & Analytics practice at GoKart Labs. We also specialize in Invention & Business Strategy, Web & Mobile Software Development, and User Experience & Design. To find out more about becoming a client, call 612.454.4012.

Brian Poe is a Senior Web Analyst that's the rare mix of creative and analytical. A beer brewer who tells stories with numbers, he builds beautiful dashboards to focus our businesses on the metrics that matter.

  1. There are current ways to measure a quarterback, but that is not going to be public knowledge. There are experts that understand far better than a sports writer, what it takes, given the rule changes to the game and the style of play. The strength of the defenses in their division is a big factor since those games count the most. I am not sure of the percentage of plays called from the sideline to the quarterback, but I am sure far more are called from the sidelines in today’s game.
    I am not sure how to measure this, but drive sustainability could be fair. Keeping the drive alive, gaining field position, not turning the ball over, throwing an incompletion instead getting sacked and not having to make too many 3rd and longs for a first down.
    John Elway comes to mind and even gutsy Doug Flutie. And of course, Fran Tarkenton was a gamer, a excellent scrambler.