Keeping up with the Giants

With the sixth pick in the 2019 Draft, the New York Giants selected Daniel Jones, heir apparent to the most prolific quarterback in franchise history, ninth all-time in passing yardage and keeper of two Pete Rozelle trophies (as Super Bowl MVP), Eli Manning. Within three games, Jones was starting for the Giants and the media did not like what it saw.

Three years later, Jones still isn’t anyone’s favorite. He had serious rookie struggles in 2019, didn’t get anything resembling a sophomore bump in 2020 and “broke out” with a slightly below-average season in 2021. He is 12-25 as a starter and the Giants haven’t been in the playoffs since 2016 and have not won a playoff game since Super Bowl XLII.

Is Jones the reason? Hard to say. With the sixth overall pick, you’re no longer looking at quarterbacks who are expected to take the league by storm. But you should get a franchise guy as often as not. Jones isn’t exactly a bust. But he plays too safe and doesn’t move the offense well. When the Giants get near the goal line, no one really has that feeling that Jones will get them across somehow.

One annual deadline that doesn’t get a lot of press is “fifth-year” day, which takes place Monday, just after the draft. What this means is any player (not just a quarterback) drafted in the first round three years ago and playing under his initial four-year contract can be signed to a guaranteed fifth year for a single-season price that’s somewhat lower than that of a franchise player. This affects two quarterbacks this year – Jones and Arizona’s Kyler Murray. The third first-round quarterback from 2019 (Dwayne Haskins) didn’t stick with his initial team and is sadly no longer with us.

Today, the Giants apparently signaled that they would not pick up that option. Since they hold the 5th and 7th picks in the first round tonight, I’m not sure why they would make this announcement until the last possible minute. I don’t pretend to know everything about how these decisions are conveyed. How do these signals work? What does the Twitterverse say? Does Elon Musk have a take? He must. He’s everywhere else.

Since the Giants have, at backup, career journeyman Tyrod Taylor, a high-run quarterback with 11 years of experience (for high-run quarterbacks, this means they’re likely at the tail end of their careers), this probably means Jones will play out his contract and the next Giants starter at the position is not currently on the roster.

Will they draft a new quarterback tonight? The consensus is that there are no likely franchise quarterbacks available. I’m very enthused about Malik Willis, thinking his accuracy and footwork issues are curable. I am not enthused about any other quarterback. But the Giants’ staff, obviously, does this for a living and would have different ideas. With both the 5th and 7th pick, if there was a true franchise guy, they could have traded up. That doesn’t seem to be the case.

Most mocks I’ve seen indicate Willis is likely the first quarterback off the board and a team will likely have to trade into the low teens to get him. So if you see the Giants trade down in the first round, that might be what they have in mind. Teams get crazy about quarterbacks during the draft, though, so if someone is truly sold on Willis, they’ll be watching the teams that have a need and thinking about maneuvering ahead. That’s why it seems so strange that the option news on Jones is coming out now rather than tomorrow.

Playing 3D chess here, I think this means the Giants do not want a new quarterback and might want to draw a specific team into trading up to six for a quarterback so that they get the offensive lineman they want at seven. They are willing to start Jones this season and if he suddenly breaks out, franchise him in 2023 or give him the $35-$40 million per year on a longer deal that he’d get if he does break out. It’s a gamble. But if they lose this gamble, they will draft high in 2023 and there are more and better quarterback options. Or maybe they want Baker Mayfield. It’s surprising that no one else does.

Book ’em, Roger

Ian Book, New Orleans’ fourth-round pick in the 2021 draft, made his professional debut at quarterback in tonight’s Monday Night game against Miami.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t go well. Book didn’t pass the Akili Line until a long catch-and-run late in the fourth quarter (56 yards to Lil’Jordan Humphrey). He ended up 12-20-135 with two interceptions. The first was a pick-six on his second career pass attempt. This essentially put the game out of reach in a 20-3 loss. This included eight sacks (the second-most a quarterback has gone down in the NFL this season). The Saints generated only 81 passing yards for the game.

The Akili Line is named for Akili Smith, the third overall pick in the 1999 draft. Smith stuck around for four seasons for Cincinnati, starting 17 games and averaging 125 passing yards in those starts (by far the lowest average in the NFL in the last 50 years for quarterbacks with more than ten starts). The Bengals went 3-14 in those games.

It’s inspired by the Mendoza Line in baseball, named for Mario Mendoza, who was a decent-fielding shortstop in the 1970s who failed to hit .200 for a season as often as not. Anyone struggling to reach a .200 batting average is said to be having trouble reaching the Mendoza Line.

Similarly, any quarterback who struggles to throw for 100 yards in a game is struggling with the Akili Line. Ironically, Smith was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates (the same team that discovered Mendoza and signed him) in the seventh round years before he played college football, but he was released for failing to get even close to .200 as a hitter in parts of three seasons in the low minors.

Book may be a fine quarterback in the making. But he’s not ready to play in the NFL and he was fourth on the depth chart going into the season, kept inactive each week as he learned in practice. However, starter Jameis Winston suffered a season-ending injury a few weeks ago. The two backups, Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian, are in the COVID protocol this week. Drew Brees apparently considered and declined an offer to come out of retirement and play this week.

The NFL is proud of the fact that during the COVID crisis, every game on the schedule has been played. You might remember last season’s Broncos/Saints game, when the entire Bronco quarterback room was out with COVID and wide receiver Kendall Hinton started at quarterback in a 31-3 loss, completing only one pass. This spectacle helped change the roster rules a little, but when a team is suddenly, without any warning, down to its fourth quarterback on the depth chart, it’s still a spectacle.

The Broncos were 5-11 last season, and 4-6 and still fighting when they had to start Hinton. New Orleans is 7-8 now, and a win tonight would have seen them tied for the last playoff spots.

I’m not sure what you can do as a league when you have 18 weeks to play 17 games and a spike in COVID knocks more than 100 players out of games in just a few days. But I don’t think this was fair to Saints players or fans or even to Book.

Since it seems that COVID and its variants are here to stay and even evade vaccines (far more easily than Book evaded Miami pass rushers), it would be nice to see a schedule for 2022 that makes room for games to move in the event that a team can’t put a professional product on the field – whether it’s due to quarterback outages or large numbers of outages elsewhere. Either that or hope that the newer variants pose less of a risk of serious harm to otherwise young, healthy individuals – enough so that the league can consider dropping the protocol. Obviously, medical professionals need to learn more before that could be considered. Our knowledge of COVID changes every week.

The Year of the Blowout

If Week 10 seemed a little devoid of drama to you, you’re not wrong. Of the 15 games, only one saw a lead change in the fourth quarter. That happened when Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell converted a field goal early in the fourth quarter to tie Detroit. The rest of that game belongs in the archives of unintentional humor and viewer torture.

Seven of last week’s games ended with a three-score margin of victory or higher. Is this representative of a trend in the NFL? While the average margin of victory this season, 12.17, is above last year’s 11.04 and is the highest the league has seen since 2014, the average over the last 48 seasons is 11.70 and there are quite a few 12s in there. 2016’s 10.42 points per game is the lowest on the list.

We talk a lot about the salary cap offering closer games, but the first 24 seasons on the list, 11.72 was the average margin. The most recent 24 seasons have averaged 11.69. The salary cap helps prevent stockpiling of non-playing talent, but it didn’t completely change the game. I’m inclined to think of last week’s non-drama as a rare blip in what’s usually an entertaining schedule.

In the meantime, the last three weeks have seen some quarterback adjustment. Jalen Hurts is getting into a good rhythm in Philadelphia and Ben Roethlisberger is looking stronger (he was out with COVID for the aforementioned Lionsday comedy festival), while several quarterbacks (Baker Mayfield, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert and Matthew Stafford) have had a rough time. Trevor Siemian is not the answer in New Orleans. Nor is Taylor Heinicke in Washington, as much as I’d like to see the undrafted guy succeed. Sam Darnold, now sidelined with a shoulder injury, will likely be a very expensive backup next year.

Justin Fields has looked a little better in his last two starts. But both were losses. He ran for more than 100 yards in the 33-22 Week 8 loss to San Francisco, becoming the second quarterback to reach 100 yards in a game this season (Lamar Jackson did it early this season, and then again a couple of weeks ago).

Quarterbacks have rushed for 100 or more yards 56 times since 1998. In those games, their teams have gone 37-18-1. Interestingly, Colin Kaepernick, one of the best running quarterbacks in NFL history, is 1-3 in those games and the only player with more than two losses. But the one victory was that 183-yard playoff performance against Green Bay (I don’t include kneel-downs – the official total was 181 yards) which is the league’s all-time quarterback rushing record.

Lamar Jackson is 11-1. Michael Vick was also 11-1, and he neither started nor should be credited with the loss in that 12th game. And in another unusual bit of trivia (you won’t win your bar game with something this esoteric), Josh Allen is 1-2, and those three games were in consecutive weeks in 2018 (more esoterica – the first of those three – and the only win – isn’t official since he had 99 yards counting two game-ending kneel-downs).

Examining the QB Situation by Team

Seven weeks into this first post-COVID (or neo-COVID, because it’s still around, even if it’s not affecting sports much any more) season, also the first with 17 regular-season games per team, I thought I’d look into the league quarterbacking situation.

As always, I’m using my quarterback metric, which attempts to normalize performance within a small set of years. For now, I’m using the 2020 normalized values, since there’s not enough 2021 information at this point to see where it might differ. Differences are always tiny from year-to-year.

Overall, performance is a bit down in the NFL this season. Teams are averaging 23.6 points per game, down from last season’s record 24.7. The metric is about one point per performance lower, suggesting that quarterback play is a big reason for the drop (I’ll assume this is the retirements of Philip Rivers and Drew Brees combined with the rookie struggles of an unusually large quarterback draft class).

A team-by-team list, starting with the best QB performance averages this season (an average performance from a starting QB is about 52):

Los Angeles Rams: Matthew Stafford, 63.4 average (last season 54.1 with the Lions). Stafford has the third-highest personal increase from last season and is playing at an MVP level. The Rams paid a huge price for this trade, but so far, they’re looking smart for making it.

Cincinnati: Joe Burrow, 62.0 (52.0 last season). Like about half of the quarterbacks drafted with the first overall pick, Burrow is leaping forward in his sophomore year and might be the AFC MVP so far. A pick like this transforms a franchise. The Bengals last won a playoff game on January 6, 1991, 31 seasons back. This is the longest drought in the NFL, beating out the Detroit Lions by 364 days. It looks like Detroit will take over in a couple of months.

Minnesota: Kirk Cousins, 59.5 (54.1). With Philip Rivers retired, he’s the new “really good, but can he lead you deep into the playoffs?” guy.
Dallas: Dak Prescott, 59.2 (58.2). Prescott will lead the Cowboys there sooner or later.
Arizona: Kyler Murray, 59.0 (59.9). Murray took that sophomore leap last season.
Seattle: Russell Wilson, 58.0 (53.4).
Washington: Taylor Heinicke, 57.4 (limited action last season). Heinicke, undrafted six years ago, is the only undrafted quarterback starting this season. The Football Team does not play defense.
Tampa Bay: Tom Brady, 56.7 (55.8).
Buffalo: Josh Allen, 56.7 (57.4).
Green Bay: Aaron Rodgers, 56.6 (62.1).
Kansas City: Patrick Mahomes, 56.4 (63.6). Tied for the biggest drop in the league from last season’s performance, but a loaded early schedule has a lot to do with it.
New England: Mac Jones, 55.9 (rookie). Surprisingly, the 15th overall pick (and fifth quarterback selected) has been the most effective of the rookies.
Denver: Teddy Bridgewater, 55.3 (56.8).
Tennessee: Ryan Tannehill, 55.1 (59.7).
Cleveland: Baker Mayfield, 54.8 (53.8).
Los Angeles Chargers: Justin Herbert, 54.7 (53.9).
New Orleans: Jameis Winston, 54.3 (limited action last season).
New York Giants: Daniel Jones, 54.1 (45.6). After a poor sophomore season, Jones is showing signs that he might become a franchise guy.
San Francisco: Jimmy Garoppolo, 53.4 (46.3). Does it seem like losing the Super Bowl simply breaks 49ers quarterbacks? They were 5-0 in the big game until the 2012 season.
Miami: Tua Tagovailoa, 53.3 (52.9). Not sure why they’re apparently willing to trade everything because the number-five pick from last season is about what one could expect from that draft position.
Las Vegas: Derek Carr, 52.9 (55.9).
Atlanta: Matt Ryan, 52.8 (53.2).
Indianapolis: Carson Wentz, 50.6 (37.8). The biggest riser this year, but he’s lucky he’s still starting after last year’s performance.
Jacksonville: Trevor Lawrence, 50.5 (rookie).
Philadelphia: Jalen Hurts, 49.9 (44.4). The Eagles might be asking too much from Hurts, but he’s still in there fighting.
Baltimore: Lamar Jackson, 49.9 (53.8). I’ve spent a lot of time reviewing the numbers the last couple of years because it’s so clear that Jackson does so much out there. I’ve added measures for quarterbacks who run a lot. It’s difficult to measure degree of difficulty because of its subjective nature. What would Baltimore be without Jackson? Very different. There’s never been a quarterback quite like him. And no guarantee that Baltimore could replace what he does with less option. It’s tough being a sample size of one.
Pittsburgh: Ben Roethlisberger, 48.3 (51.9). Seems like the end of the line for a great competitor. Who knows?
Detroit: Jared Goff, 47.3 (54.5). Sorry, Lions. I guess it was you all along.
Carolina: Sam Darnold, 46.0 (44.8). I suppose the price (second, fourth and sixth) for a recent number-three overall pick already reflects his value. But he got paid. And it looks like he’s not NFL starting material.
Houston: Davis Mills, 42.2 (rookie). If you’re determined to start a third-rounder from the most recent draft, this is what you get. Just a bad situation for the Texans. My hope is that Deshaun Watson is cleared of all charges and finds he likes Houston after all and resumes what looked like a very promising career. Reality isn’t so kind.
New York Jets: Zach Wilson, 40.0 (rookie). Reality is sometimes realistic, too. Nowhere near time to seriously worry about the pick, though.
Chicago: Justin Fields, 39.2 (rookie). This is a tougher situation. Fields has had a couple of games that could mess with his head, long-term. They have two veteran quarterbacks on the roster. I do not think the Bears are doing the right thing here.

The NFL and the AARP

From time to time, broadcasters talk about age in the NFL, especially as Tom Brady seeks to redefine it. I wanted to write an article discussing Brady’s accomplishments as he heads into the latter stages of his career.

Briefly, your standard NFL trivia: George Blanda last played with the 1975 Oakland Raiders and threw a handful of passes that season. He retired at age 48, the oldest to play a game in NFL history.

That paints a picture of longevity that Brady, who will turn 44 just before the 2021 season begins, probably won’t match.

Not to diminish Blanda’s accomplishments, I’ll bring a little perspective to the argument. Blanda last started a game at age 41 and last lined up for more than a handful of plays at quarterback at age 42. Oakland had signed him for his last few seasons pretty much strictly as a kicker, which he did quite well until his retirement. Blanda’s career was remarkable.

About 60 players have played into their 40s in the entire history of the NFL. About half were kickers. It has been rare for a quarterback to play effectively after about the age of 37, but a few have.

John Elway retired after winning the Super Bowl with Denver at age 38 and seven months. Peyton Manning retired after winning the Super Bowl with Denver at age 39 and ten months. Brett Favre last started with Minnesota in 2010, at age 41 and two months. At the time, he was the second-oldest quarterback ever to hold the regular starting quarterback for an NFL team.

There are six quarterbacks who have started games at age 42 or later in NFL history. On January 17 of this year, two of them started against each other in the playoffs. Drew Brees was 42 and two days old. Brady was 43 and five months at the time. Brees’ New Orleans Saints lost and he has since retired.

Doug Flutie last started a game at age 42 and two months with San Diego in 2005, four years after he was last a regular starter. Brady is now fourth on the list of oldest quarterbacks to start a game.

Warren Moon was eight days past his 44th birthday when he last started a game with Kansas City in 2000. Vinny Testaverde was 26 days past his 44th birthday when he lasted started a game with Carolina in 2007. Both had been primarily backups for at least two seasons before those starts. Brady will pass both of them the next time he starts a game.

Moon started regularly for Seattle until four days past his 42nd birthday. That made him the oldest regular starting NFL quarterback in NFL history until Brady passed him in 2019. Brees would have passed Moon for second place had the Saints beaten Brady’s Buccaneers in the divisional playoffs earlier this year.

That leaves the oldest quarterback to start an NFL game: Steve DeBerg. On October 25, 1998, as the backup with Atlanta for Chris Chandler (who took that team to the Super Bowl, where they lost in Elway’s career finale), DeBerg started a game at age 44 years and nine months. DeBerg had been retired for five years before his old coach in Denver, Dan Reeves, talked him into that one season as a backup (DeBerg had spent a good portion of his career backing up Elway).

If Brady continues to start into the 2022 season, he will be the oldest quarterback ever to start a game. You’d also have to go back to the 1920s to find a non-kicker who even played in the league at that age.

I write this to underline the backstory behind the well-known Blanda trivia question. What Brady is doing has never been done before. In fact, aside from Brady, Moon, Brees and Favre, no quarterback in NFL history has even held a regular starting role as a quarterback after turning 41.

Does this mean 44 is the new 34? I doubt it. Extreme longevity is still players like Eli Manning retiring at 38 and Philip Rivers retiring (this year) just days past his 40th birthday. That’s more consistent with NFL history and advances in training. Brady simply defies age and I would be surprised if the records he’s setting are ever seriously challenged.

A Trade that Sounds Like an Auteur Trying to be a Trade

This doesn’t happen in the NFL.

On Sunday, two number-one overall picks from past drafts were traded… for each other. Both are quarterbacks playing under “you’re my franchise guy” contracts. Combined, $40 million in dead cap space was added to 2021 rosters in a season where the salary cap is expected to significantly drop.

How is this possible?

Let’s look at the players involved. The Lions traded Matthew Stafford, the first pick of the 2009 draft. He will be 33 entering next season. He has a career record (74-93-1) well under .500 in a world where under .500 guarantees you’re holding a clipboard, at best. Quarterbacks are paid to win. Nevertheless, Stafford’s physical skills are quite impressive and his statistics, for a team that is usually inconsistent or worse at running the ball, reveal someone who is a little above average for an NFL starter.

After another season of Lions failure and another fired head coach, Stafford, who has never won a playoff game, was reportedly seeking a new home.

The Rams traded Jared Goff, the first pick of the 2016 draft. He will be 26 entering next season. His career record is very good (45-30), and he has even played in a Super Bowl (though the Patriots solved him quite effectively in that game). He did not play that well down the stretch this season, broke his thumb in week 16, came back two weeks later, despite playing with pins in his thumb, to relieve injured replacement John Wolford and won a wild card game. The Rams then lost in Green Bay a week later.

Goff was rumored to be out of favor in Los Angeles.

Statistically, both quarterbacks are good. Aside from the record, which depends on team situations, I look at interception percentage and yards per dropback when first evaluating performance. Goff is at 2.2% interceptions and 6.72 yards for his career. Stafford, 2.3% and 6.49 yards. The average for the top 50 winning quarterbacks in modern NFL history is 3.1% and 6.65 yards. Both quarterbacks have earned starting roles.

With Stafford, you see the potential for improvement in a better situation. Goff has played his entire career under an ideal situation. Analysts seem to agree that Goff is not developing as he should and Stafford is still elite.

In the NFL, the money you receive after your first contract expires generally demonstrates your perceived value. Goff signed a contract worth $33.5 million per year before the 2019 season started. Stafford signed a contract worth $27 million per year before the 2017 season started. Both were elite contracts at the time.

I can’t say what changed between then and now. Goff did not have a great 2019 season and while he improved a bit this season, the key numbers are still a bit low. My quarterback metric, which correlates quarterback stats with winning in the NFL, shows that both are solidly above average and that Goff’s 2020 season was pretty good despite a large drop in yards per attempt.

At any rate, the Rams are also giving up first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 (they already traded away this year’s) and a third-round pick this year. This suggests Goff is being valued as a premium backup or stopgap starter. That could be because he objectively is playing at that level or the Rams, initiating trades, are signalling to the rest of the league that his value, internally, is near zero.

I don’t agree with this assessment. Goff has always had accuracy issues when pressured, but he protects the ball well and is an important piece of what has made the Rams a decent team the last few years. While Stafford has this unique position in the NFL of being a sub-.500 quarterback who performs very well and is perceived as elite, I don’t know that he’s all that much better than Goff. He also benefited from having one of the greatest talents in NFL history sharing his huddle – Calvin Johnson – for much of his career.

So, what happened? What’s obvious is Rams management gave up on Goff. They committed to finding a new quarterback for 2021. They got one for two years – the first at an extraordinary cost when you consider the dead cap space added from Goff’s contract. They are about $35 million over what the cap is expected to be in 2021 and they’re essentially sitting out the draft. Somehow, they’ll figure out how to fit under the cap, but it will be a challenge to do so without losing any key pieces.

Franchise quarterbacks generally spend most, if not all, of their productive careers with the team that drafted them. Sometimes, like with Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady (and Brett Favre with the team that traded for him not that long after he was drafted), they join a new team at the end of a long career. They rarely, if ever, switch teams once they’re established in their prime.

That may be changing. Deshaun Watson just received his “you’re my franchise guy” contract and is demanding a trade. If a better-than-average 33-year-old can garner two firsts and a third, what is the value of a 26-year-old quarterback who isn’t that far from MVP level? But the implied corollary is that contracts are less binding and any guy on your team is only as valuable as what he’s currently paid. No easy re-signings, no worries about a cap algorithm that favors long-term player retention (spreading bonuses to future years). If this trend continues, teams will start focusing more on immediate salaries and less on big bonuses. In the short term, with the cap dropping so much, there will be many teams out there who won’t be able to pay more than minimum salaries for many positions – even starting positions.

Still, Rams management, through its actions, signaled a team that believed it could win championships if only it had a better quarterback. Self-fulfilling prophecy, or reality? Whenever stakes are so high, with coaches and management fired for winning less than it should, perception is paramount. The NFL is set up to reward those who convince the rest of us that they alone can orchestrate a championship.

In the film industry, with movies constructed under budget constraints, a film-maker who creates a unique vision can be called an Auteur. A coveted moniker. But what separates true artistic genius from some Poseur who decides tripods are superfluous and coherent scripts are unnecessary? I don’t know what will happen with the Rams and Stafford. This trade feels very forced, like someone wanting to make a name, rather than a solid team-building strategy. The Rams have serious cap issues and throw away first-round picks like they believe the draft is no deeper than the NBA’s version.

On the flip side, the Lions get to start Dan Campbell’s reign with extra first-round picks and if they can absorb the 2021 cap hit from this deal (no easy task, but they’re in far better shape than the Rams), either they have a decent young franchise quarterback to resign or they can use one of those extra picks to draft one. They’re in building mode, Stafford wanted out, and the Rams just gave them a late Christmas.

A New Quarterback Rating

Over the years, I’ve focused a lot of my original statistical analysis on the quarterback position. The idea behind this is the more I understand about the most complex job in professional sports, the more I understand about sports. Most of this analysis isn’t ever part of a game. It’s more like a hobby. If I gain an insight that helps my work, that’s great.

I’ve put together a fairly extensive spreadsheet of quarterback performance going back to 1974 (insert oft-repeated explanation about NFL passing rules changes here). It was a different game before the rules changes. None of the timing routes or combination routes that have defined modern NFL offenses would have been possible under the old rules.

Still, the game constantly changes. Back in the late ’70s, the league’s interception rate was around 5.2%. Then 4.2% in the ’80s, 3.4% in the ’90s, 3.2% in the ’00s and 2.6% in the ’10s. Completion percentage has risen in a similar manner and yards per catch has dropped.

The most interesting question I’d like to answer is what makes an NFL quarterback? I’ve written a lot about this as well, but in 1998, the year I left the corporate megalith world and began Front Office Football, there was a critical question for Bill Polian, as General Manager of the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts were drafting first overall and needed a quarterback. Two quarterbacks were scouted as being worthy of a number-one pick.

Polian picked correctly, and he’s in the NFL Hall of Fame. Much has been written about Polian’s decision, and I think it would be a fantastic game to recreate that process and have people run drafts and make similar decisions. The problem there is that while we know the answer to Polian’s question, without any trace of doubt, we don’t know exactly what, in all the information he had available, truly determined the outcome.

In order to create a simulation, you have to model something. The more you incorporate into your model, the more engrossing the simulation. But that means you have to make more decisions about what you’re modeling. Some random chance is necessary – you can’t have a sports simulation without some elements of randomness. But somewhere in the data you present to GMs is a piece of information that Polian would see and would lead him to the correct decision.

And once you know, you know. The uncertainty of knowing whether a certain player fails is no longer a mystery. You see attribute X on a rookie’s card, and you know that there’s a high probability he will never develop into a good player. So I try to model that part of the decision process as little as possible. There’s no “well, he’s checking his phone and wearing headphones instead of interacting with his teammates” rating. Scouting error is higher for draftees and there’s a known variable, volatility, which, when triggered, forces a huge change in a player’s ratings. It sure doesn’t feel great (or realistic) when your top pick suddenly gets the volatility drop, but the alternative is a map of Polian’s black box which could never be unseen once revealed.

A while back, I created my own quarterback rating system. I took the major statistical categories, and determined how much they correlated with “winning” football games. This varies a bit from year to year. Since the ultimate intent of this data is to study career paths, I wanted a data set that’s normalized from year to year. This is unlike the oft-published quarterback rating, which has risen considerably as offensive strategies improve.

The system I came up with seemed pretty good, but it doesn’t offer enough credit for the quarterbacks who are more of a threat to run the ball. Now part of that effect takes care of itself. If defenses have to keep a linebacker or a nickel in a short zone as a “spy” in order to protect against a long quarterback run, presumably receivers will have an easier time getting open. But that doesn’t take into account the rushing yardage the quarterback gains, which may be more valuable because quarterback-rushers have a much higher yardage per carry than running backs. Just the nature of these plays.

I’ve spent a lot of trial-and-error time determining what stats correlate best to winning. I found that quarterback rushing yardage was enough of a positive to warrant breaking out on its own. I also hadn’t built sack numbers into the system, and getting sacked is also pretty bad for winning percentage.

I needed to improve my quarterback database, so I decided to take sack and quarterback running numbers back to 1998. I also tried to remove plays where the quarterback takes a knee at the end of a half, since that muddies the quarterback rushing picture. I also removed quarterback spikes from passing attempts.

From there, I put together a list of quarterbacks who have made about 50 or more starts since 1998, adding in top draft picks since 1998 and quarterbacks of significance who were still active in 1998, but had fewer games played later. I ended up with a list of 109 quarterbacks and I included their full careers, modifying the formula to remove fumbles from the rating before 1994 (it’s hard to find consistent fumble data before then).

Each performance is then normalized based on the correlations for that season. I use rolling seven-year averages to smooth out the correlations, because there are wide year-to-year swings. These allow the rating to change gradually, on the hypothesis that each season is one trial – one that could be skewed to one side of the expected result distribution – on an unknowable league mean.

As it turns out, Peyton Manning is ranked #1 of 109 in average quarterback rating over his career and Ryan Leaf is ranked #109. Polian not only made a great decision; it might objectively be the best decision ever made in sports drafting. Imagine – pick correctly and you get the best quarterback of his generation. Pick wrong, and you not only waste the pick, but you’re starting the worst quarterback of his generation for a couple of years.

Another reason I wanted to make sure I was more effectively crediting quarterbacks who run the ball a lot was that I wanted to separate running quarterbacks from those who rarely run the ball and see what I could learn. So I divided the 109 quarterbacks into quintiles based on the percentage of plays they either run the ball or get sacked, or throw the ball.

I found that the rating was almost flat through the top three quintiles – those who ran/were sacked the most. In fact, the top quintile saw a bit of an improvement over the next two. But the fourth quintile was considerably higher than the first and the fifth quintile (those who run/were sacked the least) a huge improvement over those numbers. This was reflected in winning percentages as well.

Keeping in mind that there are only about 22 quarterbacks in each quintile, and Manning and Tom Brady are in that fifth quintile, that might not mean all that much.

I noticed two other important pieces of data. First, quarterbacks in the first quintile reached their performance peaks after less than two years of starting. That’s about a year ahead of every other group. And second, quarterbacks in the first quintile had the shortest careers on average – about seven years. That rises to eight for the second and third quintiles, eleven for the fourth and twelve years for the fifth.

Starting is about opportunity and opportunity comes from winning. With small samples, just a couple of players can make a difference. It doesn’t mean that running quarterbacks can’t win. The first quintile includes Hall of Famer Steve Young, and Russell Wilson seems to be having a very similar career (he’ll be in Canton, I have no doubt). Of today’s young stars, Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson are in the first quintile – Watson and Patrick Mahomes (third quintile) have average ratings already at a Hall of Fame level.

Interestingly enough, college performances from the first quintile were by far the best in terms of college quarterback rating. College defenses simply can’t handle a fast quarterback with a good arm who is always a threat to run the ball. The rest of the group had similar college performances, but the fifth quintile included quarterbacks who had a lot more experience in college throwing the ball. This group threw about 25% more passes than the other four quintiles, on average, even though Brady himself was rather inexperienced coming out of college.

My takeaway? It’s hard to find a good quarterback in the NFL, so you have to take the best one when you need one. A good runner is a bonus at the position, and they tend to develop faster but they have shorter careers. As quarterbacks develop, if they need to stay in the pocket, they need to learn to get the ball out quickly. You’ll find all five quintiles represented among the twelve of the 109 quarterbacks studied who are either in the Hall of Fame or definitely Canton-bound.

However, five of the twelve are in the fifth quintile, as are the next three most likely to receive serious consideration. Ideally, if you want your number-one draft pick to develop into a 16-year franchise guy, you want someone who makes quick decisions and not end plays with the ball in his hands.

From the Home of Small Sample Sizes

Continuing with my theme of wondering about the effects of playing in empty or reduced-crowd stadiums, I took a look at late-game comebacks in the NFL.

The base, as I’m using for these studies, is games played from 2002-2019. That’s 18 seasons of data with the current eight-division format. There were 4806 games played, including 57 at neutral sites. Through week 9 of 2020, there were 133 games played, which is a fairly low sample size.

For the purposes of providing a consistent metric for study, I consider a late-game comeback to be a score that puts the winning team in the lead in the last eight minutes of play, where the quarterback, on offense, has a drive that includes at least one first down. This includes most late comebacks, but wouldn’t include, for example, a pick-six that ends overtime.

From 2002-2019, there were 1146 comebacks at non-neutral sites. This encompassed 24.1% of all non-neutral-site games. Of those, 596, or 52.0%, came at home.

If you have perceived 2020 as providing more exciting finishes in the NFL, you’re not wrong. So far in 2020, there have been 35 of these winning drives in 133 games (26.3%). And 18 have come at home (51.4%).

The 26.3% is interesting. But it’s probably insignificant (if the 2002-2019 average held, we’d expect 32 of these drives), or it could be that quarterbacks are more efficient when it’s relatively quiet, or it could be that scoring is up a lot in general. There isn’t enough data to conclude anything at this point, but I thought it was interesting enough to mention.

Again, to non-update FOF9 News, I am still waiting for information related to the project that will determine what I do next. When I have that information, I will let everyone know what will happen. I thought I’d have an announcement back in August, but some things are a lot harder to finish in our new world and I think that’s what causing this delay. Can’t say for certain, only that I know how I’ll proceed either way – it just makes no sense to announce anything under these circumstances. Normally, I’d just keep quiet about everything until I had something to say, but I don’t want people to think I’m holding back on information given that FOF9 was originally announced more than two years ago.

Home Field and Scoring in the NFL, an Update

After four weeks, I noticed (well, everyone noticed) that scoring was increased in the NFL. In addition, the home field advantage didn’t appear to be what it used to be.

We’re now 105 games into the 256-game season. I wanted to apply some basic statistical concepts to the observations.

After week seven, home teams are 53-51-1 (50.9%). The historic winning percentage for home teams is 57.4%. If we assume that home teams win 57.4% of their games, what we’ve observed would give us about a 91% probability that we’re looking at a different home win expectation. That’s a complicated concept. What it means is that given 105 games at a 50.9% winning percentage, there’s a 91% likelihood that the 105-game sample came from a football world where we can no longer assume home teams win 57.4% of the time.

That’s not a very high threshold, and I’d say it’s too early to make that conclusion even though it looks like playing in empty stadiums is removing the home-field advantage.

What about scoring, then? After seven weeks, teams are averaging 25.4 points per game. The league record, set in 2013, is 23.5. The assumption that the 105 games played so far could come from the same football world as 2013 has about a 0.2% likelihood. That’s well above the threshold statisticians would use to test that kind of question. We are very likely in a new world of offense here. Whether that’s empty stadiums, or new offensive innovations or defensive rust is impossible to determine right now.

Meanwhile, I had promised people another Front Office Football update by the end of October. Again, I apologize, but I am still waiting to hear information that would allow me to make the decision whether to proceed with FOF9. Development remains on hold and I continue to learn new techniques. We’ll try again next month. As we all know by now, I am really, really bad at adjusting to the obvious. I beat myself up all the time about it, but unfortunately, it’s just who I am.

An Unusual Signing

Yesterday marked one of the more unusual signings of the NFL year. It isn’t one that’s likely to have any impact on any team’s future performance.

Dallas signed journeyman Garrett Gilbert to a one-year deal worth about $750,000. Presumably, injured starter Dak Prescott, who is definitely out until around the start of next year’s training camp, will go on Injured Reserve.

Gilbert won’t start – that job goes to veteran Andy Dalton, who is third only to Joe Flacco and Alex Smith in career wins by an active quarterback who wasn’t starting prior to last week. In fact, Gilbert has never started an NFL game and has attempted only six passes in his pro career. He’ll likely move ahead of project Ben DiNucci on the QB depth chart. DiNucci was drafted in the seventh round this year, out of James Madison, where he lit up scoreboards but didn’t have to face FBS defenses.

Gilbert was as heralded a high-school signing as anyone, and chose Texas. He didn’t perform well for the Longhorns, and transferred to Southern Methodist, where he had one bad season and one decent season. He has all the obvious tools, and that merited a sixth-round pick from the Rams in 2014. But he was cut before the season even started. He had stints with four other teams, spending almost no time on active rosters, until last year. While it’s impossible to call a sixth-round pick in the NFL a bust, it’s rare that one remains in the league six years without ever seeing meaningful action.

Gilbert joined the Alliance of American Football in early 2019 and proceeded to dominate the league. Since there aren’t many opportunities for players to compete in live games against decent competition once college is over, this was notable and Gilbert earned another look in the NFL. The Browns signed him when the league went under, and they kept him as Baker Mayfield’s backup last season.

Still, Gilbert didn’t impress enough to prevent the Browns from bringing on journeyman Case Keenum in March, and putting Gilbert on the newly expanded practice squad after training camp. That’s where he was until yesterday, when the Cowboys signed him to their active roster.

OK, then. Why is this signing unusual? The NFL rules surrounding practice squads are a bit confusing. Players receive a small portion of the minimum salary and can practice with the team. Any other team is free to sign them at any time, as long as they are signed to an active roster. Each week, teams can protect up to four of their practice squad players. Those players, too, can be signed away, but there’s only a limited window for these transactions – essentially until early Tuesday.

Gilbert had been protected in this fashion by the Browns, but the Cowboys made the signing during the window. Why? This has to greatly annoy the Browns because he’s a quarterback who has spent 18 months in Cleveland and has learned the system as Mayfield has learned it. That has some value. But he’s in that magic bubble between succeeding in the NFL and being so hopeless in practice that teams won’t invest the time. That probably describes about 40-50 quarterbacks right now. Guys who are in shape, healthy, can learn a system, but you don’t want them on the field.

I don’t know of any feuds between the Cowboys and Browns. They played each other a couple of weeks ago and Cleveland embarrassed the Cowboys on their home field. The following day, the Cowboys signed lineman Greg Senat off of the Browns’ practice squad. Generally, feuds don’t begin because one team is historically bad on defense in a game, but one has to wonder if something happened to warrant this reaction. In what’s looking like a lost season in Dallas, stirring stuff up has only the downside of attracting some negative attention. But, for Cleveland, enjoying a solid start that could lead to their first playoff victory since their opponent was New England and Bill Belichick was the head coach on their sidelines, this is an unwelcome distraction.

There is clearly a need for more quarterbacks in the NFL. Anyone who sees any level of success on the field will continue to see new opportunities. Just being able to learn an NFL offense and run it on the field without being overwhelmed by the speed of the game is one of the most challenging tasks in professional sports. Teams like to carry three quarterbacks, and most, unless they’re protecting a young prospect who isn’t quite experienced enough for second string, stash the third one on the practice squad. Dallas could have chosen from the 20-or-so quarterbacks recently released by other teams. They didn’t, and Cleveland will have to find a new third quarterback.

There’s no rule against poaching practice squad players or targeting a particular opponent. And there’s no proof this was anything other than the Cowboys wanting Gilbert because their scouts saw something in those AAF performances. But it’s unusual, and especially with Cooper Rush, who spent 2017-19 with the Cowboys in this capacity, available after being released by the Giants, it’s a situation worth watching.