Comparing four young signal-callers and dispelling the nonsense surrounding each
Despite the fact that the National Football League is extremely complex, certain buzzwords and sentiments become en vogue and are repeated, endlessly, whether they are true or not. Groupthink begins to take over, churning cycles full of clichés, stereotypes and misleading information into public opinion.
Nowhere is this clearer than the evaluation of young quarterbacks. As a product of the early success of Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Andrew Luck, much is immediately expected from the young men playing the most difficult position in sports. One is either a “bum” or a “budding superstar”, depending upon how their last drive ended. The backup quarterback is still a popular man in some NFL cities, despite the fact that few teams are actually making bad long-term decisions at that position.
Nearly one-thirds of the league was using a first-or-second year quarterback as its starter when the 2012 season opened; more than half (17) of the league’s starters have four seasons of experience or fewer. Teams no longer spend time on journeymen veterans, leaving their youngsters holding a clipboard on the sideline; everyone wants to know what they have, and right now.
Comparing quarterbacks can be a tricky endeavor. Even basic statistics can be a bit misleading, and the situation on every team is different. What skill position players does a QB have to work with? How about his offensive line? What schedule has he played, easy defenses, or a lot of tough ones? Yet pundits and casual fans alike love to debate who they like more, Eli or Peyton, Rodgers or Brady, Cutler or Stafford, rarely taking the whole picture into view. Quarterbacks never face one another, head to head, in a vacuum, a la Lebron James and Kobe Bryant on a basketball court. But we persist in cross-referencing one quarterback’s numbers and style with others.
Some comparisons are made because of race, and aren’t necessarily valid (Cam Newton – Robert Griffin III), some are made smartly, because of body size and arm strength (Josh Freeman – Ben Roethlisberger) and some are flat-out hilarious (Tim Tebow throwing left handed – Peyton Manning throwing left-handed). But often it’s the comparison you wouldn’t necessarily consider that can be the most informative.
What follows are two sets of comparisons – and a few conclusions, cautiously drawn from (attempting to) dissect each quarterback’s play from all angles.
Quarterback A, 2011-2012: 19 starts, 340/575, 59.1%, 3,659 yards, 23 touchdowns, 21 interceptions
Quarterback B, 2011-2012: 18 starts, 344/606, 56.8%, 3,961 yards, 14 touchdowns, 13 interceptions
The first guy is clearly better, right?
Quarterback A, 2011-12: 6.4 yards per attempt, 10.8 yards per completion, 76.0 passer rating, 2011 QBR: 33.73, 2012 QBR: 46.84.
Quarterback B, 2011-12: 6.5 yards per attempt, 11.5 yards per completion, 75.4 passer rating, 2011 QBR: 28.58, 2012 QBR: 46.15.
Well, maybe they’re more similar than we thought…
Quarterback A’s offensive line: 18th rated for the run, 32nd for the pass in 2011, 5th and 26th (respectively) in 2012. In 19 career starts, he’s had 8 different linemen blocking for him amid 5 different line configurations. This season, his line has been intact for all nine of his games.
Quarterback B’s offensive line: 30th rated for the run, 28th for the pass in 2011, 16th and 27th (respectively) in 2012. In 18 starts over the past two seasons, 17 different offensive linemen have started a game, amid 10 line configurations. This season, he averages about one new lineman per week.
Are you starting to wonder if QB-B even gets to learn his offensive lineman’s names before a new one comes along?
Quarterback A: 2011 opponents ranked an average of 19.0 on Football Outsiders’ defensive ratings.[i] 2012 opponents, to this point, are at 17.6 – meaning he faces below average defenses on a week-to-week basis.
Quarterback B: 2011 opponents ranked an average of 15.2… and so far this year, the figure is 11.0, meaning he faces above average defenses regularly.
Any guesses as to who they might be?
Quarterback A is Christian Ponder.
Quarterback B is Sam Bradford.
Ponder’s “traditional” statistics are much better than Bradford’s – he has more touchdowns, a higher completion percentage, a better record (7-12 career, whereas Bradford is 4-14 the past two seasons) and more rushing yards (346-87).
But when you factor in all of Ponder’s ancillary advantages – a better (though still mediocre) offensive line, one of the best running backs in football (Adrian Peterson), a dynamic receiver (Percy Harvin) and a toolsy, pass-catching tight end (Kyle Rudolph), he should have much better production than Bradford. The Rams quarterback has been going to battle with the aging Steven Jackson in the backfield, the enigmatic drop machine Lance Kendricks at tight end and a collection of nobodies (save the oft-injured Danny Amendola) at wideout. Bradford’s had three offensive coordinators in his three seasons; Ponder has had one in his two years as the Vikings signal-caller.
The party line coming out of Minnesota this week is that fans need to remain patient with Christian Ponder – that he doesn’t have much to work with. It’s too early to tell if either quarterback is a bust – but Ponder apologists are on shakier ground than they think. Sam Bradford would love to have the toys, and the healthy offensive line, that Ponder gets to play with. It’s fair to say Christian Ponder has been a major disappointment in his second season – and unless he’s playing through an underreported injury, it’s fair to say that he shoulders much of the blame for what’s holding the Vikings back.
Bradford, on the other hand, is beginning to hear it from critics, questioning why he’s being outplayed within his own division by a rookie (Russell Wilson) and a much-maligned quarterback who was once left for dead (Alex Smith). Patience is, perhaps, beginning to run out on Bradford – which is a shame. He’s been dealt a difficult hand – is he the current incarnation of Jason Campbell, a talented guy with terrible luck (coordinators, injuries, etc)? Time will tell if he goes the way of Campbell, who now toils on the Bears’ bench.
The ruling: Ponder deserves more blame, Bradford deserves more time.
Quarterback C, 2012: 8 starts, 182/285, 63.9%, 2,130 yards, 14 touchdowns, 11 interceptions
Quarterback D, 2012: 9 starts, 145/234, 62.0%, 1,639 yards, 13 touchdowns, 8 interceptions
They appear to be a lot alike…
Quarterback C, 2012: 7.5 yards per attempt, 11.7 yards per completion, 86.7 passer rating, QBR: 50.71
Quarterback D, 2012: 7.0 yards per attempt, 11.3 yards per completion, 87.0 passer rating, QBR: 56.85
It’s possible they’re the same person…
Quarterback C: Not drafted in the first round, but immediately started for his team.
Quarterback D: Not drafted in the first round, but immediately started for his team.
Well, that’s just anecdotal evidence, right?
Quarterback C, career (24 games): 60.2% completions, 34 TDs, 24 INTs, 12-12 record.
Quarterback D, career (projected through 24 games): 62.0% completions, 35 TDs, 21 INTs, 13-11 record.
Is it getting creepy, yet?
Quarterback C is everybody’s favorite ginger, Andy Dalton.
Quarterback D is everybody’s favorite “guy who’s too short to play quarterback”, Russell Wilson.
Physical differences aside, these two have remarkably similar stories, though I have yet to read a comparison between the two from one of the national football writers. They must be too busy comparing Cam Newton to Vince Young[ii] or Phillip Rivers to Dan Marino[iii] or something. Abandon the racial element, gentlemen! Dalton slipped to the 2nd round of the 2011 NFL Draft, behind fellow QBs Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder. If they could do it over, I’m sure the Panthers would stick with Newton, but the Titans, Jaguars and Vikings might make a different decision.
Dalton led the Cincinnati Bengals to a 9-7 record his rookie season, good enough to earn a playoff berth, the franchise’s 3rd in the past 21 years. This season, despite an offensive line that struggles mightily in pass protection (25th-rated unit by Football Outsiders) his completion percentage and yards per attempt both increased dramatically.
Wilson, listed at 5-11, 204 pounds, played minor league baseball in the Colorado Rockies organization and transferred schools when North Carolina State decided to part ways with him. He led Wisconsin to a Rose Bowl berth in 2011, leading the nation in passing efficiency, completing 73% of his passes, and sporting a 33-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio.
Despite his efforts, he slid all the way to the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Though he’s been a tad inconsistent at times, and has had rough stretches, he’s been occasionally transcendent – especially in a 293 yard, 3 TD game against New England and this past Sunday’s 173 yard, 3 TD game against Minnesota. He’s only faced one defense all season outside the top-17 of Football Outsiders’ defensive ranks – meaning his numbers are likely to improve as the schedule gets easier.
The book on both of them seems to be that they are “game managers” – ironic, as Dalton averages more yards per attempt than Drew Brees, and Wilson tops Matthew Stafford in that same category. The downfield accuracy of each will improve with time – and the development of each as franchise quarterbacks from overlooked beginnings is a story that should resonate with NFL fans across the league.
The ruling – give both of them a lot more credit, because they’re pretty good. Also, enough of the Andy Dalton “ginger” jokes… and stop selling Russell Wilson short… get it? Short? Ah, you get the point.
BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!
[i] Football Outsiders is an amazing website that utilizes innovative statistics to evaluate and dissect the NFL. In other words, if you’re a football nerd, it’s the perfect site for you: http://footballoutsiders.com/stats/teamdef2012