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I love sports, and of course I love sports announcing. Though a San Francisco Giants fan1, I’ll definitely watch any west coast Dodger game just to enjoy the magnificence that is Vin Scully.2 And where would I be in the Olympics without Bob Costas guiding me along in the studio? I’ve never had quite as much love for any football game commentators, with the possible exception of Pat Summerall and John Madden. Generally, I feel they do a good job– it actually isn’t easy to sit down for three hours and talk during a football game while being appealing to millions of viewers– but they say many silly things. Or things that are just wrong. I find this most aggravating when it’s the “expert” color commentator, guaranteed to be a former player or coach, whom I feel people usually, often wrongly, trust. While they may offer some fascinating insights, they may also offer some terrible ones. It is rare that I watch a game and at no point think to myself “That’s wrong,” or “That doesn’t make any sense.” Yesterday as usual I started watching football at noon, and unusually finished at 11:30 pm thanks to an overtime thriller in Foxborough. While not a comprehensive list, I tried to make a note when a commentator said something silly.3 Here we go.

With the Ravens trailing the Jets 3-0 and 4:10 remaining in the first quarter, Ray Rice gained two yards on a 2nd&1 from the Jet 28.

CBS play-by-play man Greg Gumbel remarked:

Ray has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.

And color commentator Dan Dierdorf, 13 year NFL veteran, five-time First-team All-Pro selection, replied in his infinite wisdom:

Well he did, an- and because the criticism was all on him, when in reality I saw a whole bunch of tape on these guys where there were no holes whatsoever. Ray Rice was being met at the line of scrimmage.

At the moment Ray Rice has the worst Pro Football Focus grade4 among all running backs in the NFL, and it’s not close. With a -0.2 in the passing game, a -11.6 in the run game, a -3.1 as a blocker, and a -0.5 in penalties, he totals a -15.4. The next worst running back, C.J. Spiller, checks in with a -11.2, and third worst, Darren McFadden, registers a -7.9. PFF’s “Elusive Rating” is a statistic designed to gauge how well a running back evades tacklers, controlling for the quality of his blocking. Ray Rice is dead last among the 50 running backs with enough snaps to qualify with a 7.0; tops is Marshawn Lynch with a 72.7. (The rating roughly scales from 1-100.) So I know Dan Dierdof “saw a whole bunch of tape” and I believe him. But a whole bunch of guys at PFF saw all of the tape, and firmly conclude that Ray Rice has played abysmally this season. So if you caught a few Ravens’ games and heard Dierdof’s remarks and thought “Oh, it isn’t on Ray Rice, it’s the people around him,” rest assured: it is on Ray Rice. He has truly earned the second worst running back contract in football. Which is to say, he has not earned his contract at all.

With the Steelers leading the Browns 10-3 on a 2nd&10 from the Brown 14 with 20 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Ben Roethlisberger’s pass for Antonio Brown in the end zone was broken up by Joe Haden.

Solomon Wilcots, six year NFL veteran and color commentator of CBS, broke down what happened:

This is a great play by Joe Haden. Watch him knife in underneath. He understands that down around the goal line, look at that play! You have to get between the quarterback and the receiver. He allowed himself to slip underneath, he had great position.

It’s great, except CBS is showing the replay as Wilcots is saying this, the replay in which Haden very clearly grabs Brown’s jersey with his left hand and holds on for a good moment. It wasn’t blatant pass interference, but it was pass interference. It’s one thing for the officials to miss it live; it’s another for Haden to miss it during the slow motion replay, as he remarks what a terrific play it was by Haden. And even though this is the type of penalty that may not be called most of the time, Wilcots doesn’t acknowledge that Haden grabbed Brown at all. Fans at home, Joe Haden is a very good corner in the National Football League, but that doesn’t always mean “slipping underneath”. Sometimes it may mean “gets overly physical without getting whistled”.

Down 10-3 at home after an incomplete Case Keenum pass on 3rd&goal from the Jaguar two yard line with 8:34 remaining in the third quarter, the Texans took their offense off the field to kick a field goal.

Said CBS color commentator Steve Tasker, 13 year veteran, seven-time All-Pro:

And that’s going to force the field goal, the fans aren’t happy about it but it’s the right move.

Of course if you’ve ever heard of Brian Burke, or know the difference between actual good strategy in the NFL and the still-prevailing conventional wisdom, you know that’s the wrong call. A quick rundown of the numbers: on average going for it in that situation produces a win probability of 0.38; kicking a field goal produces a win probability of 0.31.  From up in the press box Kubiak’s decision cost his team a 7% chance of winning the game.5 For going for it to be worthwhile in this situation, the Texans need to convert only 26% of the time. It’s two yards, and lest we forget, THEY’RE PLAYING THE JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS! For Tasker to dismiss this as “the right move” is just… how can he… it’s so obviously… RAGE!!! Furious George, L.O.L. I didn’t watch the end of the game, which the Texans went on to lose 13-6, but I bet at no point during the Texans’ final drive6 did Tasker point out “HEY, the would only need a field goal right now if they had gone for it on fourth down earlier and scored a touchdown, as was quite likely given that they only had two yards to go. And as it is, they STILL need to score a touchdown and are in a situation where they have to go for it on fourth down anyway, even if it’s way more than two yards to go. Jeez, I guess I was just saying what I always say and talking out of my @#$ earlier, huh Bill?” Of course if he did point that out, then, well, tip of the hat to him. But I kinda doubt it.

On a 1st&10 with 8:22 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Packers, down 20-7 to the Vikings, replaced Scott Tolzien with Matt Flynn, who promptly completed his first pass for nine yards.

Fox play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt stated:

A completion. And it’s got this crowd back in the game.

Color commentator and 15 year NFL veteran, four-time All-Pro safety John Lynch chimed in:

He goes to Matt Flynn and they get a little momentum right away.

Whether or not you “believe” in momentum in sports or not, you probably know there is no factual evidence for it if you feel strongly about it one way or the other. Bill Barnwell, of the great Grantland.com, has sort of made “Nomentum” a thing this year, bringing facts a bit further into the mainstream. I’ll only say this: what do you mean when you refer to “momentum”, exactly? Lynch said they got “a little momentum right away.” Scott Tolzien, just benched, had pulled off two nifty moves on a six yard touchdown run earlier in the game. Did that play accrue momentum? And if so, it must have disappeared, since Tolzien was benched? So was the momentum from this pass from Flynn more noteworthy than any momentum Tolzien had gained, an indication that the Packers’ fortunes would be reversed and cause for the fans to rejoice? I, uhh, kinda doubt it. On the next play James Starks ran for 34 yards, setting up 1st&10 from the Viking 37. The momentum must really be going now, right!?! Then Starks ran for two yards, Flynn threw an incomplete pass, and Flynn threw a pass for a loss of five yards, leaving the Packers with 4th&13 from the Vikings 40. They punted. Tragically neither Burkhardt nor Lynch explained where that momentum had gone, and what impact, if any, it had on the game.

Up 24-3 facing 3rd&1 from the Colt 45 with 4:13 remaining in the 2nd quarter, the Cardinals’ Andre Ellington was stuffed for a loss of two.

After the play, CBS color commentator Dan Fouts, 15 year NFL veteran and two-time First-team All-Pro, praised the Colts for the stop, saying:

It looked like the Colts- er, the Cardinals had momentum.

What a curious statement! It LOOKED like the Cardinals had the momentum. But in fact, the Colts now have the momentum? The Cardinals had the momentum because they were up by three touchdowns at home and driving in their opponent’s territory? But then, in one fell swoop, the Colts got a stop and now they have the momentum? Or some momentum? The Cardinals have less momentum now? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN, DAN??? You know, I think I know. I was never the quarterback for any football team, let alone the San Diego Chargers, and I’m not in the NFL Hall of Fame, but hear me out: “momentum” is when a team improves their situation, relative to the previous situation. And it gets thrown around for a variety of situation types: momentum accrued from a winning streak (sometimes dating back to last season!), unanswered points, a string of good plays, or just one good play, or penalty, whatever. So far as I’m aware, there is A LOT of anecdotal, personal claims that such “momentum” helps a team or player perform, but actually zero (scientific) evidence that it does. Certainly, that’s the case in other sports7, and given the fickle nature of momentum’s tangible effects on performance, I sure don’t see a case otherwise.

On 4th&4 down 27-3 with 11:14 left in the third quarter, Andrew Luck’s pass from the Cardinal 36 was batted into the air and nearly intercepted on the Cardinal 20 before hitting the turf.

Fouts pointed out:

Well they’re better off not catching that ball.

And good for him, it’s a good point and he is totally right. On 4th down, unless there’s a good run back opportunity, the defense improves field position by batting the ball down instead of catching it. And then play-by-play man Ian Eagle chimed in:

It doesn’t matter other than the yardage. So you can pad your stats as a defensive player, but you actually are going to benefit if it’s incomplete.

Eagle sort hits on the right point (after Fouts brought it up), but uhhh… “It doesn’t matter other than the yardage”? Yeah, that’s what the teams are doing in football, trying to gain yards and get to the end zone. The yardage matters! According to Advanced NFL Stats‘ Win Probability Calculator, in this situation the yardage matters to the tune of a single percent chance of winning. Starting on their 36, the Cardinals had a win probability of 95%; starting on their 20, it would have been 94%. That’s not a lot, but disregarding yards in a football game, especially 16 of them (nearly a fifth of the field), is pretty silly.

With 4:52 left in the fourth quarter of Sunday Night Football, down 31-24, Wes Welker dropped a pass over the middle on a 1st&10 from the Patriot 36.

Cris Collinsworth, eight year NFL veteran and three-time Second-team All-Pro selection, wondered of Welker’s drop:

How many times do you see that?

Fortunately, NBC play-by-play caller Al Michaels jumped right in:

Once too many for some New England fans.

Fans who don’t obsess over the numbers but just enjoy watching football (God bless ’em) may well think Wes Welker has terrific hands, because nearly without fail, every time he drops a pass, whoever is announcing the game remarks “Oh, a rare drop from Wes Welker!” Except Welker’s drops are hardly rare, so over the course of a season it is a pretty regular occurrence to hear a rare Wes Welker drop proclaimed on television. Going as far back as PFF data goes, through the 2008 season, Welker’s drop rate is the following (league-wide rank among players with 25% of their team’s targets or more in parentheses):

  • 2008: 6.03% (19th of 81)
  • 2009: 4.65% (24th of 101)
  • 2010: 13.13% (70th of 89)
  • 2011: 9.63% (48th of 95)
  • 2012: 11.28% (58th of 82)
  • 2013: 9.72% (54th of 97)

Welker certainly doesn’t have the worst hands in the NFL, but he’s hardly elite. Larry Fitzgerald, for example, finished 13th or higher all of those seasons except 2012, when he finished 24th. To answer Collinsworth’s question, counting 2013, the last four seasons Welker has dropped 9% or more of his catchable passes. Counting last night, so far in 2013 he’s dropped seven passes; only seven players have dropped more than him this season. Kudos to Michaels for hinting to Collinsworth that, in fact, a Wes Welker drop is not all that unusual.

Lastly, I just thought I’d remind everyone who the Top 10 quarterbacks have been in fantasy football this week, pending MNF (standard points in parentheses):

  • 1. Philip Rivers (27.78)
  • 2. Tom Brady (24.76)
  • 3. Ryan Fitzpatrick (24.4)
  • 4. Alex Smith (21.46)
  • 5. Carson Palmer (20.56)
  • 6. Cam Newton (20.06)
  • 7. Drew Brees (18.52)
  • 8. Josh McCown (18.48)
  • 9. Ryan Tannehill (18)
  • 10. Matthew Stafford (16.48)

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, and Josh McCown all cracked the Top 10. What is the world coming to? Although to be fair, yesterday at mid-afternoon Mike Glennon, Christian Ponder, Kellen Clemens, and bad quarterback superstar Brandon Weeden were also in the running. Mike Glennon actually scored more points (16.18) than Peyton Manning (13). I give up. Go 49ers!


  1. And also a Seattle Mariners fan. That Pacific Northwest life, being close to the homeland in Alaska. Incidentally my mother’s two favorite baseball teams are the Washington Nationals, where she grew up, and the Mariners, closest to where she lives now. They are the only two active Major League Baseball franchises that do not have a single appearance in the World Series. (Yes, even before when the Nationals were the Montreal Expos.) It’s a hard life. 
  2. Also, Vin Scully had the call for “The Catch”, so it’s even more okay. 
  3. How did I catch calls from so many different games? DirecTV’s NFL Red Zone Channel. God bless DirecTV’s NFL Red Zone Channel. 
  4. Among running backs who’ve played 25% or more of their team’s snaps. PFF has multiple analysts grade every player on every snap of every game. Click here to learn more about PFF’s grading system. 
  5. Poor Kubiak. His recent health scare is keeping him from the sidelines, and after losing to the Jaguars, at home, you’ve got to wonder if he’ll be coaching the Texans next season, or even at the end of this one. I only take issue with his chosen strategy in this case; I’m sure he’s a wonderful human being and I wish him and his family the best. 
  6. Which ended on a Case Keenum interception from the Jaguar 41. If the Texans had only needed a field goal to tie then, they might have squeaked it out. 
  7. See all scientific findings regarding “the hot hand”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot-hand_fallacy 
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It’s Tuesday, Week 11 is in the books, I lost fantasy football 107.22-105.52 (within the margin of a 17 yard Rob Gronkowski catch, or a Matt Prater field goal, or the Seahawks not getting a return touchdown, etc.), and my 49ers lost two games in a row for the second time under Jim Harbaugh, and the second time this season, and I’m still not sure I’m ready to talk about it. But a couple things Harbaugh did are bothering challenging me quite a bit. A couple challenges, as it were.

With two timeouts and 3:33 remaining in the first quarter of a 0-0 game, Harbaugh challenged that Drew Brees had crossed the line of scrimmage before completing an 8 yard pass to Darren Sproles on a 1st&10 from the 49er 25. Many people, including 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco, have pointed out that the challenge was terrible, as replays clearly indicated Drew Brees wasn’t close to crossing the line of scrimmage. After the game, Harbaugh confessed “We didn’t have a video review [on that challenge].” Challenging a ruling that was obviously correct is, uh, obviously bad, and revealing that you challenged it without any evidence to the contrary, um, also obviously bad, but I wondered: why challenge this play in the first place? 2nd&10 is harder than 2nd&2, sure, but worth one of your two (or three) challenges and the risk of losing a time out? This isn’t the Jacksonville Jaguars of Week 8, it’s Drew Brees and the Saints of Week 11. Over the course of the game the Saints averaged 5.8 yards per offensive play. Even if Harbaugh had challenged on firmer ground, and the call was reversed… so what? The Saints were already looking at a 42 yard field goal (in a dome), and there were still a few yards between them and the end zone. To save the touchdown, the defense would need a stop either way, and it could come on a new set of downs. To shut them out, the defense would need to create a turnover. Both of these situations are quite possible whether the Saints have 2nd&10 or 2nd&2, so why risk it?

Surprise! The numbers from Brian Burke’s Advanced NFL StatsWin Probability Calculator suggest there is good value in challenging.1 In the Saints’ resulting situation, 2nd&2 from the opponent’s 17 in a 0-0 game with 3:22 left in the first quarter, their probability of ultimately winning was 0.65.2 If Harbaugh had won the challenge, making it 2nd&10 from the 25, the Saints’ win probability would have been 0.61.3 Increasing your chances of winning by 4% isn’t a lot, only actually it kind of is. (You may remember, this game came down to the final play, when the Saints’ Garrett Hartley kicked a game-winning 31 yard field goal.) In an article last month on AdvancedNFLStats.com, Kevin Meers, Co-President of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, laid out some neat work he’s done on coaches’ challenges. Using the difference in win probability resulting from winning the challenge minus that resulting from losing the challenge, which he dubs “leverage”, Meers charts all challenges in the 2012 season.

2012 Challenges by Leverage

Neat huh? That first challenge’s leverage was 0.04, and probably worth going after, again forgetting, as Harbaugh did, the replay which guaranteed the original call would stand. But you know, if what Harbaugh thought had happened had actually happened, it would have been an okay move. And that’s actually more than many NFL coaches can say. 15% of all challenges last season had zero leverage– whether they were successful or not had no discernible impact on the outcome of the game. In that article Meers also attempts to value timeouts, gauging them to be worth around 0.03 in win probability. I won’t get into his methodology (though I may try to build on his foundation in the coming weeks), and you can read it for yourself, but just take that 0.03 number for a moment. In terms of the lost timeout, it’s worth challenging when you yield 0.04 in win probability if you win the challenge 42.9% of the time. While I wouldn’t take that 0.03 number as a universal truth, and it’s worth mentioning again that these win probabilities are averages not personally tailored to a team’s own defense or offense, it’s still interesting. Mostly, it’s suggestive of the cool things we can learn once these types of models are further refined and improved.

Harbaugh’s second challenge was a similar story. Down 7-0 with 10:21 left in the second quarter, Harbaugh challenged that Kaepernick’s pass to Jon Baldwin in the end zone on 1st and 10 from the Saints’ 11, ruled incomplete, was in fact a touchdown. This was the ole’ Calvin Johnson rule about securing the ball for 547 minutes after you make a catch and go out of bounds, and while stupid, is a rule that coaches and players (and fans) know about. Under the rule, it was clearly an incomplete pass, leaving the 49ers with 2nd and 10. This was a little more troubling than the first failed challenge. Harbaugh said of the decision to challenge the play “I was talking to Eric [Mangini, our challenge consultant up in the booth]”. Cleveland Browns fans surely won’t be surprised by Mangini’s involvement, as he, uh, never really panned out as their head coach. Unfortunately he seems to have brought some similar failings to his new post. But failings aside, how often would the 49ers need to win this challenge for it to be worthwhile? 30% of the time.4 Given the replay (and the fact the game was in New Orleans), I’d say the chances of an overturn were zero, maybe 10% being generous. Nonetheless, that wasn’t Harbaugh’s area. Hearing the false possibility from Mangini, and not knowing the 49ers would score on the next play, this Harbaugh challenge was much more defensible.


  1. Assuming the challenges themselves aren’t completely hopeless. That’s still on Harbaugh. Well, actually the truth may be more complicated. More on that later. 
  2. Also, their probability of gaining a first down was 0.75; a field goal 0.41; and a touchdown also 0.41. 
  3. First down probability 0.52, field goal 0.37, touchdown 0.34. 
  4. The 49ers had a 0.48 probability of winning if they won the challenge, and a 0.41 probability if they lost, for a challenge leverage of 0.07. 

Lines from Sportsbook.com; home team in CAPS

BUCS (0) over Falcons

First time I’m keeping track of my picks, and there’s no spread. When in doubt, go with the good defense right? Or the home team?

Jets (-1) over BILLS

Maybe the defense more than the home team.

Lions (-2.5) over STEELERS

If they can beat the Bears in Chicago, surely they can beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh… right? Right??

The Washington D.C. Football Team (+4) over EAGLES

I’m still undecided on the whole racist names in sports things. I mean I recognize that the names are racist. But there was some article that talked about how some Native Americans don’t care about the Redskins, since the term originates from natives themselves, but rather want to see the end of the Kansas City Chiefs and stuff. He also talks about high schools in predominantly native communities with the same nickname, who love it. But I don’t think a lot of Native Americans are in the Washington D.C. Football Team organization. Anyway, I’m starting Nick Foles in fantasy football this week. Last time I started him the Eagles offense scored zero points. Plus Washington is going to play better after losing to the Vikings. Regression to the mean. You don’t just play at a level of losing to the Vikings week after week. You just don’t.

BEARS (-3) over Ravens

Chicago is down, but not out. Also, right now, in a vacuum, would you rather have Josh McCown or Joe Flacco as your quarterback?

Browns (+6.5) over BENGALS

Cincy is weird. Cleveland is weird. Geno Atkins is out for the season. Plus, wouldn’t it be great if neither of Cleveland’s two first round picks were among the first 16?

Raiders (+9) over TEXANS

So close to buying shares of Case Keenum stock. But not yet.

JAGUARS (+9) over Cardinals

Come on Jags, at home, you can lose by one possession or fewer. You can do it!

Chargers (-2.5) over DOLPHINS

It is entirely possible that Philip Rivers is better at playing quarterback (this season) than the Miami Dolphins are at generating headlines (this season).

Vikings (+12.5) over SEAHAWKS

Something about not thinking double digit favorites come in often against teams that are not the Jacksonville Jaguars.

SAINTS (-3.5) over 49ers

A concussion on each side of the ball. Michael Crabtree still not back. The Saints are coming off a blowout win, but still, I don’t think Drew Brees is going to throw two pick-sixes like he did last year. (Gosh that was nice.)

GIANTS (-5) over Packers

Is Eli Manning done throwing 3+ interceptions a game? Maybe? Thing is, Giants actually have an excellent run defense.

BRONCOS (-7.5) over the Kansas City Football Team

Alex Smith did beat Drew Brees once, in a playoff game. At home.

PANTHERS (-1.5) over Patriots

<

p>Turns out that Carolina defense is pretty good, especially against the run, and the Patriots can’t throw, or rather, the Patriots can only throw to Gronkowski in double coverage.

I suck at gambling!

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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