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The final game of the 2013-14 NFL Wildcard Round ended about 46 hours ago. I returned back to Chicago from my day trip to Green Bay about 42 hours ago. That is not enough time for me to process and properly express just How. Freaking. Awesome. going to that game was. But likely there will never be enough time, so here I go.

Road to Lambeau

the view from my apartment’s front door, 9 a.m. 1/5/14

After a plan to leave at 8 a.m, and a contingency plan to leave at 8:30, we left a little after 9, after five Mexicans helped get the car out of the snow. Just don’t ask. Then we were on the road…

four (!) snow plows lead the way north up Lake Shore Drive; slower, but safer?

four (!) snow plows lead the way north up Lake Shore Drive; slower, but safer?

…Where eventually much friendlier road conditions welcomed us in Wisconsin. At least their manifestation of the polar vortex1 didn’t involve roads covered in ice and swirling in snow.

the view after crossing into Wisconsin, realm of Mars Cheese Castle

the view after crossing into Wisconsin, realm of Mars Cheese Castle

We stopped at a Walmart in Sheboygan to change into our battle gear (five upper body layers for me, three for my legs, the thickest wool socks, boots, a gaiter, hat and gloves). Like every other entity (living and otherwise) in the region, the Walmart seemed to be supporting the Packers.

IMG_4331

an entire section devoted to Green Bay Packer slippers

Now ready, Green Bay was on the horizon!

whoot whoot

are we there yet? almost…

And it turned out, I would not be the only 49ers fan at this game! An Alex Smith jersey! Alright!

fans head to the game on S Aneida St

fans head to the game on S Aneida St

And then we were there!

Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI

Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI

After paying a Green Bay homeowner $20 to let us park in their driveway (what all the cool kids do on game days), this was the scene at the gate:

Curly Lambeau wants YOU! to root for the Packers

Curly Lambeau wants YOU! to root for the Packers

Note the open containers in the bottom left corner (small and blurry as they are). They were everywhere. Right before taking this picture two guys shouted out “ANYONE WANT A BEER?”. I would have taken more pictures but doing so required un-gloving my hands, which became unpleasant after five seconds and alarmingly cold after one minute.

Lambeau Field, brought to you by Miller Lite

Lambeau Field, brought to you by Miller Lite

But before I had time to really be cold, this was happening:

national anthem selfie!

national anthem selfie!

And then this:

sdf

first play from scrimmage

AAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUGGGGGHHHHHHH!

The Atmosphere

Goodness. I’ve written before about the lack of momentum in sports, and coaches’ flawed decision-making, etc. The inefficiencies of the game. Well like most things, it’s one thing to talk about that in the abstract and a whole different thing to believe it on the field. I still do “believe” in numbers on the field, but wow, is it hard. I’m guessing it’s because I know and understand these things as scientific truths, what probability means and how it works, that home field advantage manifests itself by the fans affecting the referees, not the players2, that Aaron Rodgers isn’t more likely to throw for a touchdown on this drive just because he did on the last one3, etc. I know those things are true, scientifically. But damn, the game is something of an art form, too. Having been there, it’s amazing to me that the 49ers won.

It’s LOUD. There is no yellow line on the field indicating a first down, no live aerial view of the defense. Breathe, and your exhaust poofs in front of your face, impairing your vision. There are well-to-do mothers of four, ‘F’-ing soccer moms, screaming they want you dead, along with 70,000 other people, many of whom are drunk, who’ve spent hundreds of dollars and hours of time to see you lose, and every time you succeed, they get angry. Oh, and you’re supposed to play football in a windchill of negative 10. Just another hum-drum road game in Lambeau Field. Duh, of course all that’s going on! It goes on all the time, in pretty much every road game in professional sports. It’s amazing, and easy to forget, just hearing the general roar on television. But it isn’t general. It’s personal. This is Green Bay. This is where the Packers play football, and where they win football.

The 49ers (as well as the Packers) are pros. By and large they were focused, by and large they executed. And they won. And they weren’t the only road team to do so last weekend, joining the Saints and the Chargers. It’s crazy that professional athletes can do that. Imagine doing your job, or public speaking, in that environment. I would probably bail within five minutes. No wonder these guys make millions.

The Fans

I certainly haven’t been around the block in terms of professional sports games, but Packers fans must have a strong case for being the best. From what I could tell, there were two other 49ers fans in our section, one of whom was a few seats down from me wearing a 49ers beanie (like a jack@#%, in my opinion). While refraining from physical violence, nearby fans addressed him as “@#%hat”. And there I was, with my 49ers throw wrapped around my chest, tightly secured underneath two jackets lest it slip out and reveal my true identity.4

Despite my preparation, I had not adequately readied behavior. How many team-unspecific cheers are there? I should have had a ready list. Mostly I used “Focus!”, “Fight!” and just “Go team!”. These were good because even my intensity did not give me away; if it’s particularly important for one team to focus, it usually is for the other team, too. But what was I to do when offered a high-five after a good Packers play? Slap away, of course! In my own way, I was pretty much celebrating the same thing: f^!%ing awesomeness. The Packers made some awesome plays, the 49ers made some awesome plays, the game was freaking awesome, Green Bay is freaking awesome, football is freaking awesome, and a United States of America where all this can happen, just for fun, is, well… awesome.

Ultimately, what might have given me away to those close by was my frequent use of “you guys” when addressing Chaia, my friend and certified coolest person I’ve ever known, who took me to the game. “You guys are playing well.” “You guys have gotten some favorable calls.” “You guys have Aaron Rodgers.” “I can’t believe you guys have Aaron Rodgers.” “You guys don’t even need an offensive line, you have Aaron Rodgers.” You get the idea. And a few people next to us might have as well, but they kept their peace. Point is, you’re the best, Packers fans. I know you’ll be back next year, maybe with a little less bad injury luck.

The Game

The game happened, people watched it, it was incredible, blah-blah. Seriously it was phenomenal. And not actually that cold, avoiding record-setting temperatures with five whole degrees above zero at kickoff (something like -10 with the windchill). It was physical, despite on account of the referees, who let a bunch of stuff go. Before the 49ers’ second field goal, Davon House interfered Michael Crabtree in the end zone, no call. On the Packers’ first touchdown David Bakhtiari wrapped his arms around a rushing Aldon Smith,  no call. Both were right in front of me. Without specifics, I know some of these went the 49ers way as well. And on Rodgers’ miracle fourth down conversion, Evan Dietrich-Smith went for Ray McDonald’s neck to keep him at bay. Of course in the end, as before, it was Kaepernick’s fleet feet that stood out the most, personally at least. And here we were at the final play of the game:

Dawson sets to kick field goal on final play

Dawson sets to kick field goal on final play

49ers 23 – Packers 20. Helluva game.

Additional Photos

the teams get set

the teams get set

excitement!

excitement!

Phil Dawson stands alone...

Phil Dawson stands alone…

not alone!

not alone!

My toes got cold with 8:00 left in the first quarter. I stuffed hand warmers in my boots at half time. Worked for maybe 10 minutes.

My toes got cold with 8:00 left in the first quarter. I stuffed hand warmers in my boots at half time. Worked for maybe 10 minutes.

the end zone

the end zone

Chaia Huff!

Chaia Huff!

9ers win! 9ers win!

9ers win! 9ers win!

... aaaaand, it's still a little chilly outside.

… aaaaand, it was still a little chilly outside.


  1. After going with “Arctic blast,” and then “Arctic outbreak”, the weather people eventually declared it a “polar vortex”. As I understand it, a “polar vortex” is when everyone not wearing at least three layers dies instantly. It doesn’t even matter if you’re inside. Polar vortexes are not to be trifled with. 
  2. See Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, “So What Is Driving the Home Field Advantage?” 
  3. He might be because he figured out the defense, or defensive players were injured and came off the field, etc. That would make him more likely to score on each remaining drive. But the act of scoring on the previous drive, in of itself, is independent of the chances of scoring on the next drive. See here
  4. My plan was to rep my 9ers pride if and only if we lost. Rubbing that in after a win, especially a win like that, is unspeakably low. Plus, if we were in San Francisco, I would want to think that we had filled Candlestick with 49ers fans only, so in Lambeau I deemed it polite to create the analogue. 
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Last time I checked the temperature in Vegas was December 26th, last Thursday. Five whole days ago! I remember thinking throwing some money at Green Bay and/or Carolina might not be a bad idea. Rodgers was probably coming back (week 8 of a typically 4-6 week injury), and the playoff odds report from Football Outsiders suggested that New England might have good value (which I ignored due to their injury plague), as well as Carolina (which I didn’t, with encouraging signs from Steve Smith). Here’s a little doohickey of how the early Super Bowl bets looked back then (and here’s everything I wrote last time):

Super Bowl XLVIII Odds- 12/26/2013

Team American Odds Odds To One Break Even FO Chance Expected Payout Rank
NE 1000 10 9.09% 14.2% 5.11% 1
CAR 850 8.5 10.53% 15.2% 4.67% 2
PHI 3000 30 3.23% 4% 0.77% 3
CIN 1800 18 5.26% 5.9% 0.64% 4
NO 2500 25 3.85% 4% 0.15% 5
KC 3500 35 2.78% 2.9% 0.12% 6
PIT 20000 200 0.50% 0.1% -0.40% 7
ARI 9000 90 1.10% 0.6% -0.50% 8
DAL 10000 100 0.99% 0.2% -0.79% 9
MIA 9000 90 1.10% 0.3% -0.80% 10
BAL 10000 100 0.99% 0.1% -0.89% 11
SD 10000 100 0.99% 0.1% -0.89% 11
CHI 6000 60 1.64% 0.7% -0.94% 13
IND 3500 35 2.78% 1.1% -1.68% 14
GB 4000 40 2.44% 0.2% -2.24% 15
DEN 300 3 25.00% 20.3% -4.70% 16
SF 750 7.5 11.76% 5.7% -6.06% 17
SEA 220 2.2 31.25% 24.3% -6.95% 18

As always, the odds are from Sportsbook.com. Break Even informs how often the bet needs to cash for you to break even at those odds; Football Outsiders provides estimates of how often the bet will actually cash; and the long run Expected Payout is the difference. Those Football Outsiders’ numbers use their core DVOA metric, weighted towards the end of the season, and also attempt to account for home-field advantage. I don’t believe they are exactly the true probabilities of each team winning the Super Bowl, but they are (“probably”) close. Are they closer than Vegas’ probabilities? Well, here are the updated Super Bowl odds, as of this afternoon:

Super Bowl XLVIII Odds- 12/31/2013

Team American Odds Odds To One Break Even FO Chance Expected Payout Rank
CAR 1100 11 8.33% 14.5% 6.17% 1
NE 850 8.5 10.53% 14.7% 4.17% 2
PHI 2000 20 4.76% 6.5% 1.74% 3
KC 3200 32 3.03% 3.4% 0.37% 4
SD 5000 50 1.96% 1.8% -0.16% 5
CIN 1800 18 5.26% 4.7% -0.56% 6
NO 2500 25 3.85% 2.8% -1.05% 7
IND 3000 30 3.23% 0.6% -2.63% 8
SEA 260 2.6 27.78% 24.9% -2.88% 9
GB 1800 18 5.26% 2.3% -2.96% 10
DEN 300 3 25.00% 20.2% -4.80% 11
SF 750 7.5 11.76% 3.5% -8.26% 12

Six teams have been eliminated, defrosting the picture a little. Remember five days ago when Green Bay was 40-to-1? And then remember this? Green Bay’s price in the betting world has more than doubled since then, now at 18-to-1. With Rodgers’ return, Football Outsiders made their projections using only data from games in which Rodgers played the majority of snaps. Given that they’ve got the Packers as winning it all only 2.3% of the time with Rodgers, and that Clay Matthews keeps getting surgery, 18-1 is too high a price for me now. But stranger things have happened.

What hasn’t happened is a similar shortening of the odds for the Carolina Panthers. In fact, their odds are longer! So let me get this straight: Carolina beat the 49ers in San Francisco by one point in a game in which the 49ers couldn’t score a touchdown (albeit without Michael Crabtree), secured a first-round bye (and time for Steve Smith to heal), will quite possibly host the Eagles for their first playoff game1, and the 49ers, down in the fifth seed, heading to Lambeau Field to face Aaron Rodgers, are more favored? Oh, I guess it’s because Carolina looked a little shaky last Sunday on the road against the 4-12 Atlanta Falcons, before sneaking out the win. OH WAIT the 49ers did the Exact. Same. Thing. Eight days ago. Remember this? Well I guess it’s because Carolina doesn’t have as good a defense… oh, right. Well, as good a young, mobile quarterback, then… oh, right. What the hell is going on here? This is Drew Brees’ face. And this is his face when he plays the Carolina Panthers. What else do you need?

As I’ve mentioned before, I think the reason Carolina is so low is because they haven’t been here before. Just a couple of months ago they were 1-3, and people were writing articles like this, agreeing when Rodney Harrison said in Week 5 that the Panthers should bench Cam Newton. Well, you don’t lose close games forever. The Panthers are legit. Yes, they could lose the Super Bowl, or in Seattle, or even their home divisional match-up next week. Every bet has risks. But at 11-to-1 (!!!), the Panthers are a risk worth taking.

That’s the Super Bowl odds. But you can also foolishly gamble on the conference champions! Here’s the same table for the conference champions:

2013-2014 NFL Conference Champions’ Odds- 12/31/2013

Team American Odds Odds To One Break Even FO Chance Expected Payout Rank
CAR 500 5 16.67% 27.5% 10.83% 1
NE 350 3.5 22.22% 31.9% 9.68% 2
PHI 1000 10 9.09% 12.3% 3.21% 3
KC 1600 16 5.88% 8.2% 2.32% 4
SD 2400 24 4.00% 4.4% 0.40% 5
CIN 650 6.5 13.33% 11% -2.33% 7
NO 1500 15 6.25% 5.4% -0.85% 6
IND 1200 12 7.69% 2.5% -5.19% 9
SEA 90.9 0.9 52.38% 42.1% -10.28% 10
GB 950 9.5 9.52% 5.6% -3.92% 8
DEN 66.7 0.67 60.00% 42% -18.00% 12
SF 400 4 20.00% 7% -13.00% 11

Again, I like Carolina, and while I don’t really like Philly to take the NFC, I might like them at that price. As for being overvalued, certainly my 49ers seem to be (because of the last two years I guess, or possibly all the Pro Bowlers we don’t deserve?), and I’m guessing the Broncos are because people forget the enormous impact of Von Miller? Who the hell knows.2 Anyway, that’s my gambling outlook at the moment, once again courtesy of Sportsbook.com and the insightful people at Football Outsiders. Check back after Round One for an update. Salaam.


  1. I think the Eagles are the least scary of the NFC teams playing this weekend: 49ers, Packers, Saints, Eagles. It’s just my opinion. 
  2. That was not a question. I’m telling you, who the hell knows. Nobody, that’s who. 

Last Week: 10-5. My entire life: 30-26-2.

Last week was the craziest week of football I remember. The Abominable SnowMegatron in Philly. The most snow for a Ravens game in M&T Bank Stadium ever, and positive freakishness in Baltimore. The Cleveland Browns (and terrible officiating). The sideline in Pittsburgh ruining Antonio Brown’s truly miraculous near-comeback.1 Me taking the Seahawks at +2.5 in San Francisco and having it come through AND having the 49ers actually win by 2! There were some downers, a couple of injuries and that picture of the start of the 3rd quarter in FedExField, but all in all, an incredible day. It’s got me feeling good heading into Week 15, so this’ll probably be a disaster. As always, lines from Sportsbook.com; home team in CAPS.

Chargers (+10.5) over BRONCOS

I’ve got a good run going of picking a double-digit underdog against the Broncos, only for the Broncos to cover anyway because Peyton Manning and touchdowns all-day-‘erry-day and stuff. Pythagorean points suggest the Chargers have been the fifth unluckiest team in the league, underperforming by more than a win, so maybe Vegas is giving them a few too many points. Screw it.

UPDATE: Felt terrible about this after that opening drive. Felt good after that Broncos’ neutral zone infraction that gave the Chargers a new set of downs, and it went well from there.

FALCONS (-7) over The Washington D.C. Football Team

Both of these teams are bad. It’s possible we’re overreacting to that crushing D.C. loss last week, but also maybe expecting Cousins to be better than he really is? The Falcons defense should make him look good, but for now, I’ll take Matt Ryan.

BUCS (+6) over 49ers

Let down game and cross-country flight for the 49ers, slipping into the early game slot for the first time in a while. The Bucs defense is good, and I’m still not convinced our offense is.

Seahawks (-7) over GIANTS

If only the Giants had something to play for…

Bears (-1.5) over BROWNS

At this point, we’ve got to be able to count on Cleveland to go for a good draft pick, right? Even if they have to chain Josh Gordon in the locker room to do it? ‘Cause he has been so unstoppable, even having Brandon Weeden throw him the ball might not be enough.

Texans (+6) over COLTS

The Colts already clinched their division, and they’re two games behind a tie for the two seed in the AFC. They’re pretty much locked in to the four seed. The Texans might just confuse everyone, opening the door to the first overall pick with their first ever win in Indianapolis. Or not. I don’t care, I’m gunning for it.

JAGUARS (+1.5) over Bills

Here’s to hoping Gus Bradley actually has them playing better now than in the beginning of the season, and hasn’t just gotten lucky the past few weeks.

DOLPHINS (+1) over Patriots

The Pats have been very lucky, even eking out a win after poor Gronkowski went down and out with that injury. But I think it stops here.

Eagles (-6) over VIKINGS

If not taking the Vikings on the road won’t work for me, I’ll try not taking them at home, damn it! I’m not taking them.

PANTHERS (-11.5) over Jets

The Jets do not deserve their six wins. The 9-4 Panthers might deserve 10. Plus, they’re going to be pissed after a little embarrassment on Sunday Night Football right? Or at least regress to their mean?

The Kansas City Football Team (-6) over RAIDERS

Kansas City has nothing to play for either, but… whatever.

Cardinals (-3) over TITANS

Arizona’s playoff prospects are dimming, but until they’re extinguished, I expect them to keep it up, Honey Badger or no.

Saints (-6.5) over RAMS

Even after that last win, Saints with plenty to prove, and the NFC two seed to secure.

Packers (+7) over COWBOYS

Rodgers hasn’t been cleared. I reserve the right to reverse this pick if he isn’t. But I really, really think he will be. The Packers are a half game back. And the Cowboys are coming off a short week in which Josh McCown scored on them every time he got the ball.

UPDATE: Sportsbook has actually dropped this game for the moment, and an hour or so ago Rodgers was ruled out. So no action here.

Bengals (-2.5) over STEELERS

I just took five four road teams in a row. Oh dear.

LIONS (-6) over Ravens

With that half-game lead, the Lions can’t let up. Also the Ravens might be a little emotionally drained after experiencing five touchdowns in the final 2:07 of regulation last week.

And that’s another week in the books! With football season drawing to a close, I’m going to have to learn how to look stupid guessing basketball and hockey games soon. Stay tuned.


  1. I would put it behind The Play, but possibly ahead of the Music City Miracle2 and the Immaculate Reception, and definitely ahead of the Toucherception from last year, as well as the Miracle at the Meadowlands and the Miracle at the New Meadowlands. The Music City Miracle and the Immaculate Reception were in the playoffs, but this would have been almost as good, with the Steelers and Dolphins still very much in the hunt. There was more controversy in Tennessee and in Pittsburgh in 1972, but there was almost even more in Pittsburgh last Sunday: imagine if the snow had obscured the sideline, leaving them no choice but to call it a TD even on replay? Sigh… 
  2. Inception footnotes! I love how immediately after the Music City Miracle, one announcer notes that “All that’s missing is the band!” 

Last Week: 8-7-1. My entire life: 20-21-2.

The (NFL) week has started most excellently. Last night I finished watching season 4 of Archer, shortly after the Jaguars covered +3 against the Texans, winning outright for the first time at home since November 25th… 2012. (BOOM!) I don’t even want to guess how many headlines across east Texas already said this, but Houston, we have a problem. A bunch of problems. And as I’m going to make foolish predictions anyway, I’m going to say the Texans take a dose of the ole’ improve-quarterback-play-and-coaching-amid-the-backdrop-of-an-already-talented-team, a la the 2011 49ers and the 2013 Chiefs, and make the playoffs next season. As for this one, here are my Week 14 picks. Lines from Sportsbook.com; home team in CAPS.

JAGUARS (+3) over Texans

That went surprisingly well!

The Kansas City Football Team (-3.5) over THE WASHINGTON D.C. FOOTBALL TEAM

I’m torn here, because Brian Burke actually gave Washington a slight edge, and Bill Simmons pointed out that Kansas City has pretty much nothing at all to play for, being assured of not catching Denver and not getting caught by anyone else for the five seed. I have RGIII in fantasy, but then I also have KC’s defense and special teams. My opponent has Alex Smith at quarterback, but Fred Davis at tight end. I seem to recall the 2011 Alex-Smith-led 49ers winning in D.C, so that’s that.

RAVENS (-7) over Vikings

I made a promise to not take the Vikings on the road for the rest of the season.

Browns (+13) over PATRIOTS

What’s less impressive, the Browns running game or the Patriots run defense? The Browns quarterback situation or the Patriots wide receiver situation? Anyway, I’m reading this as “Josh Gordon (+13) over AQIB TALIB”, and I feel a little better.

Raiders (+2.5) over JETS

As I’ve mentioned, the Jets’ point differential indicates that their record is way, way better than it should be.

BENGALS (-6.5) over Colts

I wonder how much this line would be if we could make them swap quarterbacks?

EAGLES (-3) over Lions

Doesn’t everybody know this season is going to crush Chicago Bears fans’ hopes for the playoffs in the most depressing way imaginable? There’s no drama if Bears fans don’t have to see themselves with the same record as the Lions but actually a game behind because they lost to them twice. Plus it could even give some hope to Packers fans! Come on Vegas! Easy money.

STEELERS (-3.5) over Dolphins

Again, it’s about the drama. Drama, when 10 AFC teams still have a hope come Week 17.

BUCS (-3) over Bills

Some home rookie quarterback who could be good over some away rookie quarterback who could be good.

Titans (+13) over BRONCOS

Yeah…

CARDINALS (-6) over Rams

Yeah…

CHARGERS (-3.5) over Giants

Yeah… wait, it’s the Philip Rivers-Eli Manning revenge bowl!

Seahawks (+2.5) over 49ers

At last! The 49ers have some definite advantages: an extra day of rest with the Seahawks playing on Monday night, the potential for a Seahawks letdown after a super-hyped blowout against the Saints, being good despite not doing anything to have the Seahawks take us seriously the last two times we played, having a little more to play for as the Seahawks have leads of three games in the division and two in the conference with only four games left, elite offensive tackle Joe Staley might actually play a week after spraining his MCL, and Jim Harbaugh’s dislike of Pete Carroll. BUT normally when we play the Seahawks, someone good on the 49ers gets injured in the first half and can’t return (last time it was Vernon Davis and Eric Reid), so if Staley does play, how long does he last? Also guard Mike Iupati is still out.

SAINTS (-3.5) over Panthers

If we believe the Saints are down but not out (I do), then they’ve got to be pretty pissed off, and looking to set the record straight with the national television audience.

Cowboys (-1) over BEARS

After watching Detroit open the door on Sunday, losing on Monday night seems the only way to go for Bears fans.

And that’s what’s happening Week 14. You may notice a game is missing. Where’s the Falcons at the Packers? Staying the hell out of casino books until we know whether Aaron Rodgers is playing. You remember, Aaron Rodgers, the guy who swung a game’s line by nine points earlier this season when the Packers announced he was out. Yeah. That guy.

Debating the best quarterbacks is a ceaseless venture for nearly all followers of football. Excluding special teams positions, quarterback is the only responsibility shouldered by one player (ideally), and one player alone. They’re the most talked about, most paid, and have won most of the NFL MVP Awards1, honestly with pretty good reason. When Aaron Rodgers was ruled out for the Green Bay Packers game against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, the betting line in Las Vegas swung 10 points in Philly’s favor. For comparison, when elite Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson was ruled out for a game against those same Packers earlier this year, the line swung 2.5 points to Green Bay. Quarterbacks are, and I don’t know how to put this, but kind of a big deal.

So who’s the best? I dunno. And really, neither does anyone else, not for sure. Even if it was clear what “best” meant (in the 4th quarter? this week? on the road? this season? his career? his potential?), there is no clear winner. For this season, most would say Peyton Manning (he is on pace to set single season records for passing touchdowns and yards), which is fine. The good people at Pro Football Focus, who grade every NFL player on every play throughout the season, concur. Here are PFF’s Top 5 quarterbacks so far this season, among those who have played 25% or more of their team’s snaps (grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Peyton Manning, DEN (24.2)
  • 2. Philip Rivers, SD (19.1)
  • 3. Matthew Stafford, DET (18.1)
  • 4. Aaron Rodgers, GB (18)
  • 5. Drew Brees, NO (15.8)

And here are PFF’s Bottom 5:

  • 34. Chad Henne, JAC (-12.4)
  • 35. Joe Flacco, BAL (-12.7)
  • 36. E.J. Manuel, BUF (-14.2)
  • 37. Terrelle Pryor, OAK (-14.5)
  • 38. Geno Smith, NYJ (-15.1)

PFF grades aren’t perfect. Their biggest flaw is that they don’t adjust for the competition. Pump-faking New England Patriots’ safety Devin McCourty (PFF grade 17.9) to the wrong side before completing a pass counts the same as pump-faking Chicago Bears’ Major Wright (PFF grade -17.1). Nonetheless, they’re an objective analysis independent of a single expert or opinion, grounded in repeated scrutiny and facts. So sure, Peyton Manning is the best quarterback so far this season, well on the way to a record 5th most valuable player award.2 But exactly how much do the Denver Broncos value him?

Under his five year contract with the Broncos, Manning’s average annual salary of $19.2 million ranks third in the league among quarterbacks. (Also all players. Those quarterbacks get paid a lot.) The Broncos are paying the most valuable player (so far) the third most value. Neat. But is that the best? Forget what team is getting the most out of their quarterback, what team is getting the most out of their quarterback for their money? 

For starters, among quarterbacks who have played 25% or more of their team’s snaps, here are the Top 5 Most Paid (millions of dollars in parentheses), using their average annual salary under their current contracts as reported by the online professional athlete salary database Spotrac.com:

  • 1. Joe Flacco, BAL ($20.1 million)
  • 2. Drew Brees, NO ($20m)
  • 3. Peyton Manning, DEN ($19.2m)
  • 4. Matt Ryan, ATL ($18.958m)
  • 5. Aaron Rodgers, GB ($18.679m)

And here are the 5 Lowest Paid:

  • 34. Russell Wilson, SEA ($0.749m)
  • 35. Nick Foles, PHI ($0.677m)
  • 36. Terrelle Pryor, OAK ($0.59m)
  • 37. Thaddeus Lewis, BUF ($0.51m)
  • 38. Case Keenum, HOU (0.45m)

Yes, Joe Flacco is the 4th worst performing quarterback (so far) and the best paid. (Enjoy that Super Bowl championship, Ravens fans.) Among the lowest paid quarterbacks, Wilson is alone in starting all his team’s games this season, with Foles, Lewis, and Keenum starting for injured first-stringers and Pryor emerging (somewhat, again second worst grade) while missing time for injuries himself. 12 of the 32 teams have started more than one quarterback this season. All told, which have gotten the most for the least?

A good way to answer involves standard deviations. A standard deviation (henceforth SD) is a measure of variability for a group of numbers, in relation to the average. The SD of NFL quarterback salaries (who’ve played 25% of snaps or more) is $6.4 million. That means 68.2% of all quarterbacks have a salary within $6.41 million of the mean salary, $7.818 million. The SD is almost as large as the mean itself, indicating a lot of variability. The SD of quarterbacks’ PFF grades is 10.2, many times the average grade of 1.4; again, A Lot of variability. What do these numbers tell us about how much the Broncos pay Manning?

Manning’s salary ($19.2m) is 1.65 SDs above the mean. Manning’s grade (24.2) is 2.18 SDs above the mean. Relative to his peers, Manning makes an extreme amount of money. His relative performance, however, is even more extreme. That is good for the Broncos, and suggests that they are not overpaying him. Subtracting Manning’s salary SD from his PFF grade SD equals 0.53. What is 0.53? It’s a measure of Manning’s performance (“extremeness”) relative to his salary (“extremeness”). If it were 0, the Broncos would be paying him exactly how much he was worth. (Well, conceptually. The truth is more complicated.) 0.53 represents Manning’s “contract quality”. That the units are standard deviations, which themselves are in different units (the US Dollar and the PFF Grade) is not important, in terms of general understanding. The higher a player’s contract quality, the better deal it is for his organization. The lower the contract quality, the worse the deal.

The highest contract quality among all NFL quarterbacks is Russell Wilson, of the Seattle Seahawks. With a salary SD of -1.02 and a PFF grade SD of 1.33, Wilson’s contract quality of 2.35 is tops by a sound margin. This should not be surprising to football fans, as Wilson has played well (6th best this year, 15.3 grade) ever since starting as a rookie, all after being drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, which enabled the Seahawks to pay him so little (5th lowest this year, $0.749m). With that, this Economics and Sports Management (or ESPM) recurring segment presents the mid-season award for best quarterback contract to Seattle’s General Manager John Schneider. Congratulations!

Here are the Top 5 NFL Quarterback Contracts (contract quality in parentheses)

  • 1. Russell Wilson, SEA (2.35)
  • 2. Ryan Tannehill, MIA (1.87)
  • 3. Andrew Luck, IND (1.32)
  • 4. Nick Foles, PHI (1.21)
  • 5. Case Keenum, HOU (1.19)

Notice anything? All of them entered the NFL in 2012, with Keenum the only one going undrafted. None of the best performing five quarterbacks makes the list, with Rivers coming the closest, 8th best with a 0.79 contract quality, and Brees being the only one seemingly overpaid, finishing 23rd with a -0.39 contract quality. There is a reason teams like collecting draft picks. Free agents are more expensive. Speaking of which, what are the worst quarterback contracts in the NFL this season?

  • 34. Tom Brady, NE (-0.93)
  • 35. Matt Ryan, ATL (-1.05)
  • 36. Eli Manning, NYG (-1.45)
  • 37. Matt Schaub, HOU (-1.62)
  • 38. Joe Flacco, BAL (-3.13) (Seriously, Ravens fans, enjoy that championship.)

Turns out, all of the worst contracts are free agent signings, with Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco tanking the way. Yikes.

Aside from learning the ole’ don’t-resign-players-who-play-well-even-really-well-in-a-few-games–even-if-those-few-games-are-the-playoffs-and-super-bowl-when-the-rest-of-their-careers-say-otherwise trick, there is a larger lesson to be learned here. Football analysts and commentators often speak of a “championship window”, which seemingly means a variety of things. But maybe there’s something to it. Those young guys leading the league in contract value now will be able to renegotiate after the 2014-2015 season, and become free agents in 2016 if they don’t. That will result in significantly less money for their teams to spend elsewhere. Russell Wilson accounts for 0.5% of the Seahawks’ salary cap this year. Peyton Manning accounts for 12.5% of the Broncos’. (His brother Eli Manning accounts for 17.1% of the Giants’. Yeesh.) So enjoy, Seattle. Nothing lasts forever.


  1. Quarterbacks have won 37 of the 58 NFL MVP Awards (63.8%). Running backs have won 18 (31%), and one defensive tackle, kicker, and linebacker have won one each (1.7% each). 
  2. He already has the current record with four. Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas, and Jim Brown are tied for second with three each. 
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