January 01, 2017

Great quarterbacks, regular season edition

As you have no doubt heard, there is a new man for our era, a quarterback who - finally - can be compared to the great Joe Montana.  I ordinarily take up this topic only once per year, after the playoffs, when we can review the various claimants (solely) on the basis of their playoff performance.  I do it this way on the theory that the playoffs are real football, and we ought not to base our assessment of a quarterback's quality on his ability to shell the Cardinals in a meaningless late season game.

But still.  There must be something we can add from the regular season to see how Montana is doing against that other guy.

So, I took the regular season data for some famous quarterbacks and computed IAYPA for their careers (omitting poor rookie and final seasons in some cases).  The results were as clear as mud:

One problem is that Montana looks fairly ordinary here. I wondered if changes in the game had diminished his accomplishments when viewed in hindsight. It turns out that this is the case:  adding the trend in IAYPA shows it has been rising steadily throughout the time period, and especially in the past 10 years or so:

We can normalize the data by subtracting the League average from each player's annual performance:

This seems better. Just looking at peaks we see Marino, Montana, Young, Manning, Brady, and Rodgers all reaching about the same elite level.  A couple of guys (Elway, Favre) start to drop out of the conversation.  And we can conclude that Marino, Manning, and Favre stuck around too long.

But the data's still too noisy.  It's crude, but here are the relative IAYPA career averages for each quarterback (I cut out a couple more bad end-of-career years for Favre and Manning):

So...Marino=Manning, Manning=Marino.  Works for me.  Elway and Favre just weren't as good as the rest of these guys, and that shows up more clearly here.  There's Steve Young, of course, whose peculiar career has always stood out on a IAYPA basis.  Montana and Young both arguably need to be adjusted down somewhat for the simple fact that they were both throwing to the Greatest Football Player of All Time, but I'll leave those adjustments to others.  You could take a half yard out of both of those guys and they still beat everyone.

Everyone, that is, except for Aaron Rodgers.  At the age of 33, Rodgers has delivered regular season performances that were, on average, as scintillating as Montana's, and almost a half-yard better than anyone else's (and anyone else was 0.5 - 1.5 yards better than the League).

Brady?  Sure, he's good - one of the best quarterbacks who ever lived, and the most viable challenger to Montana on the Immortality Screen.  But there's nothing in his regular season data that would make you revise your opinion of him above Montana, or, for that matter, Peyton Manning or Dan Marino.  And he's sure no Aaron Rodgers.

So this year's playoffs will be of great interest to me.  With one great game, Brady can claim a spot at the summit with Montana in terms of playoff performance.  Rodgers would need two.  But if Brady were to get one and Rodgers two, I'd say we have to look at the regular season data.  And when we do that I think it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that Aaron Rodgers has been better than Brady, and (given Montana's advantages in coaching and receivers) the greatest quarterback who ever played.

And yes, the Packers are going to be in the playoffs (and Rodgers, who had this nice play, may be MVP).

So much for the regular season.  Now let's play for money.


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