Friday, November 16, 2007

The Best NFL Quarterback Playing [EdMcGon]

Over a year ago, I did a post rating the best quarterbacks of all-time. In that post, I excluded quarterbacks currently playing.

With apologies to all the Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson fans out there, there are only four Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks worthy of consideration as the best still playing: Brett Favre, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Kurt Warner. However, I also have to exclude Warner for the simple reason he has only started 78 games in his career, and he is clearly nearing the end, whereas Brady and Manning have both started over 100 games and will undoubtedly play for many more years. (Of course, Favre is the all-time champ with 246 games started.)

While there are certainly young quarterbacks who may yet win a Super Bowl, they have not played long enough to be rated with these three quarterbacks.

I will use the same criteria as I used in my "all-time best" post to rate these three quarterbacks, with a look at percentages since the three have clearly played careers of different lengths. The stats are taken from their career statistics through last weekend:

The first quality all rookie quarterbacks must learn is game management. By this I mean the ability to avoid interceptions and fumbles.

To rate this ability, I will use the interception percentage:

1. Tom Brady: 2.4%
2. Peyton Manning: 2.9%
3. Brett Favre: 3.3%

The key to Brady's success in this category is that he knows how to throw it away instead of making risky throws. Favre may be fun to watch, but he also throws where he shouldn't way too often.

In order to throw a lot of touchdowns, you have to be able to throw the ball in the red zone. You won't make a career out of only lobbing 70 yard bombs. You also have to be able to
toss the little two yard pass to the tackle eligible in the end zone.

A simple look at touchdowns per pass attempt for the three quarterbacks:

1. Peyton Manning: 291/5205= 0.056
2. Tom Brady: 180/3363= 0.054
3. Brett Favre: 430/8577= 0.050

I would consider this category a wash. The statistical difference between these three is insignificant. They can all throw touchdowns quite well, and an easy argument can be made that the differences are due to the quality of teams they have played on over the years. In addition, when you consider Favre has played twice as long as the other two, and an argument can be made that Brady and Manning's touchdown percentages may drop over the remainder of their careers.

A quick release is not necessary to be a great quarterback, but it seems the great ones tend to have quicker releases than most quarterbacks.

The quickest release of all-time belonged to Dan Marino. As a pure pocket passer, it is easy to see how fast he got rid of the ball: In 8,358 pass attempts, he fumbled the ball only 57 times, for a 0.68% rating.

While it is tougher to rate scrambling quarterbacks using this statistic, none of the three quarterbacks we are looking at would be considered a significant scrambler.

Here is how they rate:

1. Peyton Manning: 49/5205= 0.94%
2. Brett Favre: 144/8577= 1.68%
3. Tom Brady: 63/3363= 1.87%

Even though Manning is no Marino, he still gets the ball away faster than anyone today.

By itself, arm strength is nice, but it won't win games.

Early in his career, Doug Williams had the strongest arm I have ever seen. Unfortunately, when he threw little passes into the flat, the ball would bounce off the receiver because it was uncatchable.

For arm strength to be effective, it has to be combined with touch on shorter passes.

In this category, average gain per pass attempted tells us the quarterback is using his arm strength to its ultimate advantage:

1. Peyton Manning: 7.7
2. Tom Brady: 7.2
3. Brett Favre: 7.0

Manning would not rate among the best of all-time in this category, but he is clearly better at getting the most out of his arm strength of these three quarterbacks.

A strong arm needs accuracy to be effective. This is where completion percentage is important, and where Manning rates a slight edge:

1. Peyton Manning: 64.0%
2. Tom Brady: 62.9%
3. Brett Favre: 61.3%

In a team sport, the championship stands out as the ultimate test of how much a quarterback is helping his team. In Super Bowl victories, this is where Tom Brady stands out from the crowd:

1. Tom Brady: 3
2t. Peyton Manning: 1
2t. Brett Favre: 1

None of these three quarterbacks is a great scrambler, like a Mike Vick or a Randall Cunningham. With rushing averages ranging from 1.9 (Brady) to 3.3 (Favre), they won't be winning games by running for 70 yard touchdowns.

Where we can make a comparison is in rushing touchdowns/rushing attempts:

1. Peyton Manning: 16/279= 5.7%
2. Brett Favre: 13/543= 2.39%
3. Tom Brady: 5/256= 2.0%

Manning doesn't run often, but he does make it count more often than the other two. That is good running judgement.

For the record, Manning's percentage is even better than LaDainian Tomlinson's percentage (5.7% vs. 4.9%).

If we throw out the touchdowns as a consideration (for the reason stated earlier), then total their rankings (with lowest total being better), here is how they rank:

1. Peyton Manning: 8
2. Tom Brady: 12
3. Brett Favre: 15

Is this a fair comparison? Absolutely not, when you consider that Manning has had the luxury of playing with an elite receiver (Marvin Harrison) for his entire career. Brady has only had an elite receiver this year (Randy Moss), and it can be argued that Favre has NEVER played with an elite receiver.

To make a fair comparison, let's start with Brady's career numbers prior to this season, against Favre's overall numbers (using the same criteria from above):

Tom Brady: 2.5% interception pct., 4.8% td pct., 1.93% fumble pct., 7.0 yds./attempt, 61.9% completed, 3 championships, 1.26% rush td's/attempts
Brett Favre: 3.3% interception pct., 5.0% td pct., 1.68% fumble pct., 7.0 yds./attempt, 61.3% completed, 1 championship, 2.39% rush td's/attempts

Brady and Favre are virtually identical, with each of them only rating a significant edge in two categories.

Assuming Brady and Favre are comparable, how do we draw a fair comparison to Manning? The best way might be to take Brady's stats from this year, prorate them to a full season, and then compare them to Manning's best season (2004):

Tom Brady: 1.3% interception pct., 11.0% td pct., 1.34% fumble pct., 9.0 yds./attempt, 73.2% completed, 11.8% rush td's/attempt
Peyton Manning: 2.0% interception pct., 9.9% td pct., 1.01% fumble pct., 9.2 yds./attempt, 67.6% completed, 0% rush td's/attempt

Brady rates a slight edge in four categories. But with fewer games completed in this sample, it is hard to call this definitive. However, IF Brady finishes this season with approximately the same stats, then we can conclude that Brady AND Favre (since Favre is comparable to Brady) are better quarterbacks than Manning. But that has yet to be determined.

Since the statistics don't show us a truly objective "best quarterback" among these three quarterbacks, then it comes down to a subjective choice. Assuming Brady continues at his current pace, and I think he will, then it comes down to a choice between Favre and Brady. If you look at the quality of receivers that both of them have had over the years, in my opinion Favre has had better (even if they were not elite) receivers overall, yet has only managed comparable numbers to years when Brady's best receivers were Troy Brown or Deion Branch. Therefore, Tom Brady would be the best quarterback playing now, depending on how he finishes this year.

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