As I laid out in part I of this series, we know broad metrics like passer rating, adjusted net yards per attempt or ANY/A, QB PFF grade, QB DVOA, EPA, CPOE, WPA, and QBR are all quarterback-centric stats, but what about wins or winning percentage?
Central to the debate over whether wins are in fact a QB stat, rather than a team stat, is to what extent a quarterback’s performance is elevated (or reduced) by the team around him, versus to what extent a quarterback’s performance elevates (or hinders) the team around him.
Other factors may be at play as well - things like coaching and game planning, salary cap and drafting, QB clutch-play ability and field generalship, injuries, luck, and favorable calls.
A quarterback may be influential in all these factors to one degree or another, but ultimately are wins a product of that influence, or are they a product of the overall team more so than the guy behind center?
K. Joudry over at Purple PTSD will argue that wins are a more of a QB stat, while I’ll argue they’re a team stat.
The Case for Wins as a Team Stat
If a quarterback’s performance is the key factor in determining wins, as we are often directly or indirectly led to believe by media focus on quarterback performance, then you would expect that performance to be consistent with winning percentage. But such is not the case. In fact there is a great degree of variance.
Look no further than Jimmy Garoppolo and Aaron Rodgers for example.
The Jimmy G vs. A Rod Comparison
Jimmy Garoppolo’s career winning percentage as a starting quarterback is .702 - same as Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.
Aaron Rodgers’ is .665.
And yet there is no broad-based quarterback stat that suggests Jimmy G is a better quarterback than Aaron Rodgers over their careers, including this year. Indeed, Aaron Rodgers led the league in passer rating and ANY/A this season and will likely be voted to his 4th MVP award. Jimmy G has never received an MVP vote, never made All-Pro, nor even the Pro-Bowl as an alternate.
And there is no question that Rodgers has been the MVP of the Packers and his leadership, presence, and performance on the field has carried the Packers to many wins they may not otherwise have had. Meanwhile Jimmy G’s performance stats if anything overstate his role, given he averages just 15 completions on 23 attempts for 188 yards per game. The other 40 or so plays he hands the ball off. In terms of his leadership and performance internally, he is seen as a hinderance to the team’s success, and the 49ers spent 3 first-round picks on his successor this past off-season. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has made clear the organization’s commitment to Trey Lance as the future 49ers quarterback.
All that is simply to confirm what the eye-test already tells us: Aaron Rodgers has been a much better quarterback on the field, and does more to lift his team, than Jimmy Garoppolo over the course of their careers, and it really isn’t even close. And yet Jimmy G has the better winning percentage.
Even in last weekend’s loss, Rodgers had a 91.7 passer rating, and scored more points than Garoppolo’s offense, who finished with just a 57.1 passer rating. But as that game showed, special teams can play a key role too- and in this case a decisive one in determining the winner, as the 49ers scored a touchdown on a blocked punt, and the Packers missed a field goal as well.
And so, however important the quarterback position is, football is a team game, and you win and lose as a team.
The Matthew Stafford Comparison
Another great comparison when it comes to whether wins are a QB stat or a team stat is when a quarterback changes teams, so same quarterback, different team.
We all know Detroit was not a good team when Matthew Stafford was there, and Stafford’s .451 winning percentage in his 165 starts there reflects that. His .106 winning percentage against teams with a winning record is also reflective of that.
But suddenly, after 12 seasons as a starter in the NFL, we are to believe that Stafford has discovered how to be a top quarterback and lift his team to a deep playoff run, something he never did in Detroit, and outdueling no other than Tom Brady to advance to the NFC Championship game.
He must’ve had quite an off-season program to make that kind of turnaround.
The funny thing about that is if you look at Stafford’s last two seasons in Detroit (8-15-1 QB record), his QB stats aren’t much different than his stats this year with the Rams, where he’s currently 14-5. His passer rating over those last two years in Detroit was 99.8 and his ANY/A was 7.33. This year his passer rating is 102.9 and his ANY/A is 7.45. He also had the same number of 4th quarter comebacks and game winning drives his last year in Detroit as he had this year in LA. So, not much different in broad QB stats or late-game heroics, and yet his winning percentage more than doubled from .348 to .737.
But this year he was on a team that had better coaching, better pass protection, a better defense, and better wide receivers. Maybe this had something to do with it?
This isn’t really a question- of course it did! Once again, just pointing out some stats only confirms the eye-test. Stafford is at least an above average quarterback, who struggled for years with a perennially bad team until finally joining a good team in LA this year. And it was that team that turned his winning percentage around- and not the other way around.
The Jared Goff Comparison
The other side of the Stafford trade sent Jared Goff to Detroit. Goff had a .609 winning percentage with the Rams, and a 91.5 passer rating. His passer rating didn’t change this year in Detroit- still 91.5. But his winning percentage plunged to .231. Why the different results from roughly the same performance? We know the answer: TEAM.
The Tom Brady Comparison
Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff weren’t the only QBs to change teams in recent years - so too did Tom Brady. And it was remarkably successful. After 3 Super Bowl wins in four appearances in his last 6 seasons in New England, Brady moved to Tampa Bay and won the Super Bowl his first season there as well. That of course just adds to the Brady mystic and lionization as the Greatest Of All Time, and deservedly so. No other QB comes close to Brady in Super Bowl rings, and many other stats that relate to winning percentage.
But in QB stats Brady doesn’t stand out as much. He has a career passer rating of 97.6, and an ANY/A of 7.12. Worse than Matthew Stafford on both metrics. But Brady also boasts an incredible .764 career winning percentage, the best other than Patrick Mahomes over a much shorter career, in the modern era.
But in moving from New England to Tampa, Brady went from a team with the top ranked defense to a team that ranked 8th in points allowed and 6th in yards- still very good. Offensively, the Bucs were ranked 3rd in both points and yards the year before Brady arrived, and ranked 3rd and 7th in 2020 when they won the Super Bowl. The biggest difference was that the Bucs defense went from 29th in points allowed to 8th, in part because Jameis Winston and his 30 interceptions were no longer at QB, but also because it wasn’t just Tom Brady that came to Tampa in 2020. It was also Rob Gronkowski, Tristin Wirfs, Antoine Winfield Jr., and Vita Vea. That helped fill-in some other missing pieces for the Bucs, and helped the defense to improve. And let’s not count injury luck either. The Bucs had the least number of games lost due to injury (or Covid) in 2020 of any team in the league.
There is no question that Brady’s presence gave the rest of the team a feeling that they can win it all -after all Brady already had 6 SB rings. But it wasn’t like Brady went to a bad team. Brady had his choice among many teams, and the Bucs were missing just a few pieces and already had a great offensive line and receiver corps - two critical elements for a quarterback to succeed.
This year the Bucs still had a good team- 2nd ranked offense and top ten defense- but weren’t as lucky with injuries. The defense lost a few defensive backs to injury over the course of the season and lost key offensive linemen and receivers for the playoffs which impacted Brady’s offense.
Brady’s personal performance was little changed between this season and last. 102.1 passer rating this year, 102.2 last year. ANY/A was 6.98 this year and 7.12 last year. This year he led the league in completions, attempts, TDs and passing yards per game, with the lowest sack rate in the league. Winning percentage wasn’t much different either, including the playoffs. 15-5 last season, 14-5 this season. But injuries late in the season impacted their playoff run.
The Case Keenum Example
And then there is the Case Keenum example. He’s had a total of one good season in his career- 2017 with the Vikings. Take away that 11-3 season as a starter, and his winning percentage the rest of his career is just .360. His stints as a starter both before and after his one season in Minnesota were not good, and worse after he left the Vikings.
By just about every player account in Minnesota, Keenum was a QB the team could rally behind, and had that presence in the huddle, despite being a backup quarterback. And on the field he was a top 7 or better QB by most major metrics like passer rating, ANY/A and QBR. He dipped and weaved his way out of pressure at times, delivering some key throws despite a poor offensive line. But he had great receivers and the top defense in the league.
But all that was absent both before and after his year with the Vikings. Denver was an average team and Washington was one of the worst in terms of both offensive and defensive rankings while Keenum was there. The year before his arrival in Minnesota, Keenum was a part of the worst offense in the league in St. Louis, and the defense wasn’t much better.
So why has Keenum been a one-season wonder? Did he suddenly figure everything out in 2017 only to forget it again afterward? Of course not. While Keenum easily had his best season statistically with the Vikings, he also enjoyed the best team, including the best receiving corps and best defense, that year too.
That team elevated Keenum’s performance like no other team has during the rest of his career.
Deshaun Watson vs. Patrick Mahomes
Two of the best quarterbacks in the 2017-2020 period have been Patrick Mahomes and DeShaun Watson. And while Mahomes has slightly better QB metrics, the difference in winning percentage is much more dramatic. Over that period Mahomes went 44-10 (.815) including the playoffs, while Watson went just 29-27 (.518). Mahomes had a 109.1 passer rating and an 8.53 ANY/A, while Watson’s passer rating was 104.5 and ANY/A was 7.26. In 2020, Mahomes and Watson were 2nd or 3rd in both metrics (behind Aaron Rodgers), but Mahomes went 14-1 while Watson was just 4-12.
How is it that two of the top three QB performances could result in such dramatically different outcomes in terms of winning percentages? The answer is simple: Team. Houston had one of the worst defenses in the league that year, while Kansas City was top ten. KC also provided much better pass protection for Mahomes than the Texans did for Watson, and the Texans defense ranked last in creating turnovers, while the Chiefs defense was 10th best. All that matters when it comes to wins and losses.
And when the Chiefs’ offensive line got hit with injuries before the Super Bowl, Mahomes had the worst game of his career.
Jim McMahon vs. Dan Marino, Terry Bradshaw vs. Fran Tarkenton
Going back into previous eras finds some comparable results. Dan Marino was a better quarterback in every quarterback metric, and is now a Hall of Famer, but Jim McMahon had the better winning percentage. Not too difficult to see why- the Bears defensive was as dominant in that period as any in the NFL, Walter Payton was in his prime, and the ‘85 Bears 18-1 Super Bowl year was all about that dominant defense. McMahon, who had 15 TDs and 11 INTs that year- in 11 regular season games played- simply enjoyed the ride his defense and running game provided him.
Similarly, Tarkenton outperformed Bradshaw in about every QB metric, but Bradshaw had a winning percentage of .677 while Tarkenton’s was just .532. Both teams had top defenses in the 1970s after Tarkenton returned to the Vikings, but between that and offensive line, running backs and receivers, Pittsburgh was better for longer and Tarkenton struggled with the expansion Vikings early in his career before the Purple People Eaters. Bradshaw always had a good team around him.
The Super Duds
In addition to all of the above comparisons, where QBs with similar or better stats had worse or even dramatically worse winning percentages, or the same QB with similar stats have dramatically different winning percentages on different teams, there are the Super Duds- some QBs that managed to be on Super Bowl winning teams, despite very mediocre quarterback metrics, relative to their era.
Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, Joe Namath, Jim McMahon, Eli Manning, Jim Plunkett, Terry Bradshaw, among others all managed to be starting quarterback on a Super Bowl winning team, despite being average, at best, quarterbacks in their era. Even Peyton Manning with the 2015 Broncos was a Dud that year, due to age and injury, but that dominant Broncos defense led by Von Miller carried him to another Super Bowl championship, despite his own performance which was comparable to Christian Ponder’s career averages in terms of QB metrics.
In all the above cases, it wasn’t the quarterback willing their team to victory, so much as it was the rest of the team compensating for mediocre quarterback performance. Should these QBs be credited with the win? Well, technically so, in so much as every member of the team is credited, but it certainly wasn’t their performance that propelled the team to win the championship- it was the team performance.
Tom Brady. Joe Montana. Peyton Manning. Steve Young. Roger Staubach. Otto Graham. Ben Roethlisberger. Aaron Rodgers. These are some of the best quarterbacks of all time and have the best winning percentages as well.
Different eras, different types of quarterback, but they all have one thing in common: they rarely if ever had a bad team around them. I’m not sure any of them ever had a poor offensive line, and they all had good or great receivers most or all of their careers. Rodgers had years with a poor defense, and Manning did too, but apart from that, they all enjoyed good teams around them, and most of them had some of the best coaches as well. Bill Belichick, Bill Walsh, George Siefert, Mike Tomlin, Tom Landry, Paul Brown.
You can argue that a good quarterback makes a good head coach, and a bad one gets
them fired, and certainly there is truth there, but can you have a quarterback with a high winning percentage without a good team around him?
If there are, in the history of the NFL, I can’t think of any- at least not over any length of time.
I’d say Russell Wilson has done more with less in recent years, and the year Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl in 2006 the Colts defense was poor, but he still had Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne combining for 2,700 yards, and his center and left tackle made the Pro Bowl, so I’m not sure that counts either. You could also argue that Eli Manning carried his team in the playoffs in both their Super Bowl wins, despite not having great season stats or particularly good teams, although in 2011 Nicks and Cruz combined for over 2,700 receiving yards, but that was also short-lived, and Eli Manning was a career .500 quarterback.
As I’ve listed above, there are plenty of examples of good teams carrying mediocre quarterbacks to outsized QB winning percentages. And there are poor teams that have led good quarterbacks to mediocre winning percentages.
But where are the quarterbacks with a high winning percentage carrying poor teams? In the entire history of the NFL, those examples are at best extremely rare and short-lived. If wins should be a QB rather than a team stat, we should see good quarterbacks carrying mediocre teams a lot more often than we do. Instead, we more often see good teams carrying poor quarterbacks, or good teams making good quarterbacks.
Perhaps no quarterback has demonstrated that the team is more important than the quarterback when it comes to winning than the undisputed GOAT - Tom Brady.
Since the beginning of the salary cap era in 1994, no team whose quarterback counted for more than 13% of the salary cap has won the Super Bowl. Tom Brady, without knowing this at first but knowing the value of acquiring talented players around him, has taken a discount to his market value his entire career. Of course he makes more in endorsements
anyway, and his wife is reportedly worth $400 million as well, but it's not like other top quarterbacks are going to be inconvenienced in any meaningful way by taking a discount to their multi-million-dollar salaries. But they don’t. Dak Prescott, after signing his 4-year, $160 million deal, said he owed it to his fellow quarterbacks to maximize his contract. The Cowboys are $21 million over the cap for 2022. Will his team suffer as a result? You bet.
Brady has also been a supporter of his teammates in other ways over the years, sticking up for them in tough times, helping their development in some cases, pushing to acquire them, and never throwing them under the bus or criticizing them publicly. He’s also modest about his own achievements- you hardly ever hear him talking about all his record setting achievements, despite being asked about them continually. He can be demanding of teammates at times, but no more than he is on himself. I’m not sure I’ve heard any criticism of Brady from any of his teammates, past or present- all I’ve heard is praise. Even those few that have been otherwise more critical of the Patriots while he was there still had nothing bad to say about Brady. All that is part of the Patriot Way, to hear it told, being diligent and demanding professionally (‘just do your job’ and ‘no days off’), while supportive personally, and valuing team above personal goals. Many have said Brady was the embodiment of that philosophy.
While certainly every factor imaginable seems to have aligned for Brady to have the success
he’s had over his long career, the greatest quarterback to ever do it, Brady himself knew the value of the team around him. His quotes, his actions, his salary all reflect that.
So, are wins really a QB rather than a team stat? Tom Brady would argue they’re a team stat all the way. Who could argue with him?
K. Joudry over at PurplePTSD takes on that challenge. Take a look at his argument here.
Part III of this series brings the QB wins debate closer to home as we look at how that debate impacts the Vikings' own quarterback, and future contract decisions as well.