Mike On Sports: Weird Thinking and the NFL

There is no sport in our world more team-oriented than the NFL.  Baseball is largely defined by individual match-ups. Basketball teams can and often are carried by a single great player. In hockey, a hot goaltender can carry a team deep into a playoff tournament. In soccer, it is those little bits of individual brilliance that separate good teams from the not so good. Not so with the NFL, where the success of most plays is dependent on the execution of the whole squad. With all of this emphasis on team, one might expect decision makers in the sport to heavily weight team performance and composition when evaluating individual players.

In the strange television dominated world of the NFL, many decisions are made solely on individual perceptions of ability completely removed from the measurable statistics of the player. When the right commentator, ex-coach, or columnist tells the right audience that a player is good, no amount of bad stats will change the minds of the average sports fan. When the same sources decide a player is poor, the reaction from the fans, at the stadiums and on sports talk radio, is ruthless. In the ultimate team sport, players and coaches are anointed as successful, whether the stats support the benediction or not.

While the strange standards exist at all positions, quarterback is the one spot that provides the most clear illustration. For your consideration I will present two cases:

Case One: New York Quarterbacks vs. Kyle Orton

Eli Manning IS the starting quarterback of the New York Giants. He was anointed as a future great (because he is Peyton’s brother), stayed in the job (because the Giants invested too much to bench him), and became solid in the job (because David Tyree made a ridiculous catch in the Superbowl). Mark Sanchez IS the franchise quarterback for the New York Jets. He was anointed (because he was the QB at college juggernaut USC), and became solid in the job (because he “led” the team into the playoffs as a rookie). Kyle Orton is an afterthought with the Denver Broncos, replaced as he was by media darling Saint Tim Tebow (who is not responsible for his press…he does seem a good kid).

Eli Manning’s stat lines for 2009 and 2010:

2010 New York Giants 16 16 339 539 62.9 4,002 7.4 31 25 16 117 85.3 32 70 2.2 0 7 5
2009 New York Giants 16 16 317 509 62.3 4,021 7.9 27 14 30 216 93.1 17 65 3.8 0 13 8

Mark Sanchez’s stat lines for 2009 and 2010:

2010 New York Jets 16 16 278 507 54.8 3,291 6.5 17 13 27 171 75.3 30 105 3.5 3 9 1
2009 New York Jets 15 15 196 364 53.8 2,444 6.7 12 20 26 195 63.0 36 106 2.9 3 10 3

Kyle Orton’s stat lines for 2009 and 2010:

2010 Denver Broncos 13 13 293 498 58.8 3,653 7.3 20 9 34 243 87.5 22 98 4.5 0 4 4
2009 Denver Broncos 16 15 336 541 62.1 3,802 7.0 21 12 29 159 86.8 24 71 3.0 0 4 2

Please note that, of the three QB’s, Eli Manning’s stats are the best by the smallest of margins over Kyle Orton’s. Manning has no threats waiting to replace him, a reliable running game, established receivers, consistent coaching, and a defense ready to take some of the pressure off his shoulders. Despite this, he is only marginally better (statistically) than Orton, who is blessed with none of those considerations. Mark Sanchez has, arguably, even better support surrounding him, and his numbers are atrocious. They are in fact the numbers of a young quarterback who might, someday, be a good pro. Just for kicks, compare Sanchez’s numbers with those of Derek Anderson:

2010 Arizona Cardinals 12 9 169 327 51.7 2,065 6.3 7 10 25 176 65.9 5 25 5.0 0 6 3
2009 Cleveland Browns 8 7 81 182 44.5 888 4.9 3 10 11 75 42.1 10 8 0.8 2 5 3

Sanchez, with all of the benefits described above, is better than Anderson, but not by much. How about another comparison?

Case Two: Kyle Orton vs. Jay Cutler

Orton is the throwaway quarterback, unwanted in Chicago and loathed in Denver where the Cutler trade was seen as a giveaway. The national football media anointed the trade between the two teams as Chicago’s aggressive move to solve that team’s eternal quest for a Superbowl quality quarterback. Orton, as we noted, is now on the outs, again.

Kyle Orton’s stats for 2008-2010:

2010 Denver Broncos 13 13 293 498 58.8 3,653 7.3 20 9 34 243 87.5 22 98 4.5 0 4 4
2009 Denver Broncos 16 15 336 541 62.1 3,802 7.0 21 12 29 159 86.8 24 71 3.0 0 4 2
2008 Chicago Bears 15 15 272 465 58.5 2,972 6.4 18 12 27 160 79.6 24 49 2.0 3 6 5

Jay Cutler’s stats for 2008-2010:

2010 Chicago Bears 15 15 261 432 60.4 3,274 7.6 23 16 52 352 86.3 50 232 4.6 1 10 6
2009 Chicago Bears 16 16 336 555 60.5 3,666 6.6 27 26 35 204 76.8 40 173 4.3 1 9 1
2008 Denver Broncos 16 16 384 616 62.3 4,526 7.3 25 18 11 69 86.0 57 200 3.5 2 5 2

Go ahead and take a good look, because not only are Cutler’s statistics not dramatically different from Orton’s, but Orton has an argument for being the better QB. You wouldn’t know considering the performances of these two men though, based on the coverage from the football media. Lets look at one final quarterback comparison.

Case Three: Donovan McNabb vs. Jason Campbell:

Jason Campbell is the man who managed to put up good numbers despite playing for a terrible coaching staff, behind an awful offensive line, with pedestrian receivers, along side an indifferent running game. Despite his numbers and the poor quality of his supporting cast, the football media decided after 2009 that the Redskins needed a franchise quarterback. Coach Mike Shanahan traded for Donovan McNabb (and then promptly treated the future Hall of Famer like dirt) and cut Campbell loose for nothing. Lets take a look at the numbers for both men.

Donovan McNabb’s stats for 2008-2010:

2010 Washington Redskins 13 13 275 472 58.3 3,377 7.2 14 15 37 271 77.1 29 151 5.2 0 10 1
2009 Philadelphia Eagles 14 14 267 443 60.3 3,553 8.0 22 10 35 264 92.9 37 140 3.8 2 10 3
2008 Philadelphia Eagles 16 16 345 571 60.4 3,916 6.9 23 11 23 149 86.4 39 147 3.8 2 7 5

Jason Campbell’s stats for 2008-2010:

2010 Oakland Raiders 13 12 194 329 59.0 2,387 7.3 13 8 33 208 84.5 47 222 4.7 1 9 1
2009 Washington Redskins 16 16 327 507 64.5 3,618 7.1 20 15 43 285 86.4 46 236 5.1 1 13 3
2008 Washington Redskins 16 16 315 506 62.3 3,245 6.4 13 6 38 266 84.3 47 258 5.5 1 7 1

Please note what happens to McNabb’s numbers when he is forced to play with the cast of characters that Campbell suffered with in Washington. Please also note what Campbell was able to do with the upstart Raiders this season.

Some football fans will insist that the real focus is on winning, which I have no argument against. Winning is the name of the game, but in the ultimate team sport, a quarterback cannot lift a bad team into the playoffs. Quarterback ratings tell a powerful story in the NFL, as do all of the components of that statistic. Don’t believe me? If I told you that the five best quarterbacks in the NFL are Tom Brady, Phillip Rivers, Aaron Rogers, Michael Vick, and Ben Roethlisberger, would you agree? They are the five highest-rated passers in the league this year. Enjoy the playoffs!

All stats courtesy of nfl.com

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