Here’s a football question that sounds like it came out of a nightmare you had when you fell asleep in introductory macroeconomics, intro microeconomics or statistics:
You’re offered the choice between two sets of quarterbacks: pool A and pool B. Each pool has four quarterbacks. You will receive one of the four quarterbacks, chosen randomly, from your chosen pool. Your only objective is to win the Super Bowl this year. Pool A consists of Philip Rivers, Chad Pennington, Kurt Warner and Drew Brees. Pool B consists of Brett Favre, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and JaMarcus Russell. Which pool do you choose?
Those of us who know a pigskin from a ham sandwich know that pool B’s quarterbacks, while they lack experience, are among the most “talented” players in the NFL. They were drafted No. 33 (Favre), No. 18 (Flacco), No. 11 (Roethlisberger) and No. 1 (Russell) in their respective drafts. They all have rifles for arms (except Favre — his arm predates the rifle, so it’s more like a cannon … or a bow and arrow). They can all make every throw on the field. Two have won Super Bowl rings. Most fans who know football would select this pool over pretty much any other pool of NFL quarterbacks.
The relative weakness of pool A makes the contrast even more stark. Each of the four quarterbacks in this pool has some major flaw in his game. Brees is one of the shortest quarterbacks in the NFL, standing about 3 feet 11 inches. He says he can see over his offensive linemen when he is standing on a stepladder. Rivers throws the ball with an unconventional motion that scouts have always said will get him into trouble, though he was still extremely highly regarded coming out of college. Kurt Warner never had any of the skills teams look for in a quarterback, though he has put up some great numbers when he had great players around him. And he’s almost as old as Brett Favre, which means they probably fought together during the Civil War. As for Chad Pennington, he has less arm strength than does a 9-year-old girl. A quadriplegic 9-year-old girl.
Here’s the twist: Pool B’s quarterbacks all ranked between 21 and 26 out of 32 quarterbacks in terms of passer rating, one of the primary stats used to evaluate quarterback performance. Pool A’s quarterbacks were the top four.
So what does that statistic prove?
It really shows that factors like arm strength, potential, experience and draft position do not necessarily correlate with success in a given season. Unfortunately for football talent evaluators, the common factor between the quarterbacks in pool A is that they’re among the most careful quarterbacks who make the best decisions with the football. Those in pool B are known as gunslingers and loose cannons, guys who try to make the big play by opting for risky throws.
Rather than seeing how far a quarterback can throw from his knees or how many targets he can hit moving across a football field, general managers need to do more in terms of looking at a quarterback’s mental composition and the way in which he uses his skills. The quality of a player’s skills are less important than how they’re used.
Talent evaluators attempt to use measures like the Wonderlic test to gauge the mental component of a player’s game. But nothing can tell you about a quarterback’s style like his passer rating and the number of interceptions he throws.
So here are a couple of guys to watch for … and a couple to watch out for in the coming year.
Matt Cassel, Matt Schaub and Jeff Garcia, all regarded as good quarterbacks who are not quite elite, had top-10 quarterback ratings last season. They combined for only 27 interceptions. These guys seem poised for huge seasons once again; well, Cassel and Schaub are. Garcia needs a team to realize just how good he is and give him a chance to play. They all have some of the physical skills necessary to succeed, but more importantly, they play with intelligence and protect the football.
Jay Cutler, David Garrard and Marc Bulger, all thought to be good quarterbacks with the ability to be great, don’t manage the game quite as well as fans expect. They all ranked outside the top 15 in the league in terms of passer rating and threw an astonishing 44 combined interceptions.
So don’t bet your fantasy team on the guy with the superstar arm. And don’t put your franchise in the hands of a “take the bad with the good” type of guy. Quarterbacks who understand how to protect the ball and rack up yards and points without turning it over end up with the better passer ratings and, when surrounded with a good cast and paired with a good defense, put up wins.
Collin Gutman is a senior in Pierson College.