How to Define a Franchise QB in Today's NFL

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How to Define a Franchise QB in Today's NFL
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
As the face of their respective franchises, Aaron Rodgers (left) and Drew Brees (right) are used to cameras.

How do we define a franchise quarterback?

If it is a quarterback who is seen as the face of the franchise, there are probably no less than 15 franchise signal-callers.

If it is someone who is consistently among the top quarterbacks in the NFL, that dwindles down the selection quite a bit.

So, we must first distinguish a franchise quarterback from an elite quarterback.

The parameters of the former are not nearly as rigid as for the latter.

Really, a franchise quarterback can be anyone who has the support of the organization and who the team is not actively trying to replace. Of course, it takes a few different measures to land in that level of good grace, so let's take a look at some of the areas in which a quarterback must be successful in order to earn the moniker of "franchise quarterback."

While very few quarterbacks will fit the bill for all the criteria, these are just the factors for consideration.

 

Statistical Pedigree

Quarterbacks who pass the ball for big yards grab headlines, but while volume stats captivate the nation, they are rarely the difference between wins and losses.

Accuracy. Efficiency. Those are the best indicators of quality quarterback play.

Franchise quarterbacks consistently make defenses pay when they have the ball in their hands; likewise, they don't waste very many plays by getting sacked, or throwing passes that hit the ground or fall into the hands of their opponent.

Completion percentage and passer rating are two of the most tried-and-true measures of talented quarterbacks. The standard for a starting quarterback is typically set at a 60 percent completion rate, but the league average last year was 60.9 percent. 

Therefore, our number should be higher. Let's add two percentage points, and say anything above 62.9 percent completions earns consideration as a franchise quarterback.

The list of passers who completed over 62.9 percent of their passes last year is just 11 names long. Even Patriots quarterback Tom Brady barely made the cut in 2012.

Obviously, there are more than a few big names who miss the cut.

Completion percentage clearly can't be the exclusive indicator of franchise quarterback material. How could it be, with more than one Super Bowl-winning quarterback falling short in 2012?

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has only once completed more than 62.9 percent of his passes in a season, and the same goes for Giants quarterback Eli Manning.

Likewise, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was on the shorter list of seven quarterbacks to complete over 62.9 percent of his passes in 2011—in a season where the average completion percentage was lower, at 60.1 percent.

We could also use passer rating, the most universal measure of overall efficiency over the course of a season.

The average rating in 2012 was 83.8, so if we add two points to that number and look at quarterbacks who eclipsed an 85.8 passer rating, we get a list of 15 players.

There are a lot of familiar names on this list—completion percentage is a big part of the equation for passer rating—but this list adds a few players we didn't see before who would otherwise be worthy of consideration as a franchise quarterback.

Another important measure of dynamic quarterback play is the ability to beat defenses for big plays. This isn't indicated in simple passing yards but is better measured in yards per pass attempt. The average was 7.1 and the highest was 8.1, so we'll set the bar at 7.6 for this list.

Again, it remains relatively the same, with one new name appearing: Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Not only did he beat defenses for the second-highest YPA, he also racked up a gaudy 13.8 yards-per-completion average, a full half-yard better than second-best (Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman).

Newton showed the ability to throw the ball deep with great accuracy in 2011 and 2012. Last season, he had the third-highest accuracy percentage on deep throws (receivers either caught or dropped 52.4 percent of his attempts traveling 20 yards or more downfield) behind only Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

So, despite what's been a rough couple of seasons for the Panthers, they can feel confident in their quarterback. 

As Patriots head coach Bill Belichick once said, though, "Stats are for losers."

And like it or not, another big part of the equation is...

 

Winning

Yes, overall win-loss record is one of the worst measures of a quarterback. It tells you nothing about the player except that he's on a team that wins. The quarterback is considered the most important player on the field, but in what is frequently called the "ultimate team sport," we shouldn't give one player all the credit for winning or all the blame for losing.

Thankfully, there's a way to measure a quarterback's ability to help his team win without doing any of the above.

Win probability added, or WPA for short, has been used in baseball for years. Now, stats website Advanced NFL Stats has begun applying it to the game of football. ANS founder Brian Burke explains it as follows:

Every situation in a game gives each opponent a particular chance of winning, and a WP model estimates those chances. The model created here at Advanced NFL Stats uses score, time, down, distance, and field position to estimate how likely each team will go on to win the game. For example, at the start of the 2nd quarter, a team down by 7 points with a 2nd down and 5 from their own 25 will win about 36% of the time—in other words a 0.36 WP.

[...] WPA is very sensitive to the context of the game. That same interception that cost -0.08 when a team was down by 7 points in the 2nd quarter would cost much more if it the offense was leading by a point late in the 4th quarter. Putting your opponent in immediate field goal range would be nearly fatal.

So, how can we analyze the data from WPA to help us get closer to defining a franchise quarterback—and finding one?

When we consider that 28 quarterbacks have a per-game WPA over zero, our standards must clearly be higher than that.

With Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers leading the way at a 0.31 WPA/G, let's take the mean of that and zero, and set our "standard" for a franchise quarterback at 0.155 WPA/G.

Our list of names remains relatively similar to what we've already seen to this point, but with two notable exceptions: Cam Newton (who has appeared on just one other list to this point) and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick

One thing that both do exceptionally well? Run with the football. 

In today's NFL, where it seems mobile quarterbacks are becoming the wave of the future, the ability of the passer to also tuck it and run—and to be effective doing so—can take a team a long way.

Interestingly enough, Eli Manning still hasn't made any of our lists, so it's time to get him in the right company.

Winning and losing is part of the equation, but getting to the playoffs, and even better, winning a Super Bowl, can carve it in stone.

There may still be doubts in the minds of some as to a quarterback's status among the "elite" in the league, but upon the point of winning a Super Bowl, there's little, if any, doubt about their status as a franchise quarterback. 

While Super Bowl wins shouldn't be the lone measure, a quarterback who hoists the Lombardi Trophy is usually considered a lock to be with that team for a long time to come (unless we're talking about Trent Dilfer).

 

Dynamic Skill Set 

We've touched on it through stats a few times already, but a quarterback's ability to throw the ball deep with accuracy, to be incredibly accurate, and to beat defenses multiple ways are all part of the equation with a franchise quarterback.

There are two specific areas we haven't hit yet that could fit this description: arm strength and foot speed.

While yards per attempt is a good measure of efficiency, we want to know which quarterbacks have the ability to drive the ball down the field.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), these 12 quarterbacks led the league in accuracy percentage on throws traveling 20 yards or more through the air.

Robert Griffin III didn't throw a lot of deep passes (just 9.2 percent of his throws went 20 yards or more through the air), but he was deadly accurate on those throws with 50 percent of them being either caught or dropped.

We finally get our first occurrence of the name Andrew Luck, who makes the list with 42.6 percent of his deep throws hitting their target.

Luck himself was responsible for much of the Colts' improvement as a team from 2011 to 2012, and his career trajectory is headed in the right direction, regardless of his label as a franchise quarterback.

 

Decision Making

Sometimes, a quarterback can't help it if his offensive line doesn't afford him the protection he needs and allows him to get sacked, but some of the game's best quarterbacks are the ones who get the ball out quickly.

Pro Football Focus tracks the average time it takes a quarterback to attempt a pass. The top quarterbacks here are the ones who get the ball out of their hands the quickest.

This number can be the product of the offense—Bills head coach Chan Gailey tailored the entire offense to Ryan Fitzpatrick's inability to throw deep, which meant a lot of quick rhythm passes—but it's also a good indicator of quick decision making, an important trait for the best quarterbacks.

Unfortunately, like just about anything statistical, it's not a fool-proof measure. Some good quarterbacks, even those who might otherwise fall under the label of "franchise quarterback," hold on to the ball a little longer than others. Names like Cam Newton and Russell Wilson might appear on a list of franchise quarterbacks, despite the fact they take the longest to throw on average of any quarterback on the list.

 

Leadership

This one is nearly impossible to measure by stats, but there are some numbers we can look at to give us a good idea of which quarterbacks possess the better leadership qualities.

How a quarterback performs late in the game and on third down are items we can discuss here, as success in these situations indicates a lot of film study and practice during the week.

Of course, as Drew Brees might tell you, a little motivational leadership can go a long way.

Few quarterbacks in the NFL have as much chutzpah in the huddle as Brees, but those who do include RGIII, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

What about leadership in the biggest situations?

Late-game situations and third downs are the gut-check moments teams hope their quarterbacks thrive in. The quarterbacks who do thrive in these moments are often regarded as quality leaders capable of putting their teams on their backs, taking them to victory.

In 2012, 11 different quarterbacks put together at least three fourth-quarter comebacks, described as leading a team to victory after trailing in the fourth quarter.

Many of these names are among the best quarterbacks in the game, but as always, a few noteworthy names are left off. That being said, Tom Brady has 26 career fourth-quarter comebacks to his name, so no one is going to question his ability to lead his team to victory in crunch time.

A quarterback who can help his team convert key third- and fourth-down situations will also be seen as a franchise player. 

Teams converted an average of 36.4 percent of their third downs when throwing the ball, so adding four percentage points to that, we can narrow down the field to get rid of some of the more average offenses.

Even when you think you have these quarterbacks dead to rights, they can still move the chains and keep the offense alive.

 

Marketability

As nice as it would be if everything revolved around performance on the field, the greatest quarterbacks in the NFL can tell you a thing or two about marketability.

Granted, many of them are marketable because of their talent, but that should tell you something as well.

Peyton Manning has endorsed just about every kind of product under the sun, from MasterCard to Buick to Oreos and so much in between.

That's a product of being one of the best quarterbacks in the game for a long time—not to mention a genuinely funny guy.

Giant UGG advertisement on a building in Boston (via The Boston Herald).
Tom Brady has also appeared in plenty of commercials, including a hilarious and underrated commercial for Snickers.

He has been the object of scorn, at times, for his endorsement of UGG, an Australian footwear company made most noteworthy for its boots, typically worn by women. It's not a sponsorship many men would be brave enough to take, but Tom Brady can do that because he's been so good for so long, the criticism always comes back to his dominance on the field.

In some ways, the play on the field is marketability in and of itself, and it stands to reason that any company would want the best players endorsing its product.

That performance doesn't always have to come over a period of several years.

In fact, Cam Newton was picked up by Under Armour less than a year after being drafted, and even appeared in a commercial with Brady. Newton also became one of the most notable spokesmen for the NFL's Play 60 campaign with his famous "loosening my arm" commercial.

Of course, appearing in commercials is not the measure of a franchise quarterback. Otherwise, we'd have to include Tim Tebow in the discussion for his commercials for TiVo and Focus On The Family.

So, while marketability can have an impact on how a quarterback is perceived, it's impossible to use it as a measure of whether a quarterback is worthy of "franchise" status.

 

Overall

Here, we have discussed eight different stats: completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating, win probability added, Super Bowl wins, deep accuracy, fourth-quarter comebacks/game-winning drives, and third-down conversion percentage.

Any quarterback fitting the bill for at least four of the required categories, or having won the Super bowl, could be considered the face of their franchise.

That leaves us with a list of 11 quarterbacks who qualify as a franchise quarterback. 

There are another three quarterbacks who are right on the fringe of being considered a franchise quarterback, but a good season in 2013 could put them over the edge.

Any of them would give up any label for the label of Super Bowl champion, but that just so happens to be the golden ticket to earning the label of a franchise quarterback.

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained from the Sports-Reference.com network and all quotes obtained firsthand or via team press releases. 

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