Everyone from coaches to players to fantasy league geeks make a point to check out the NFL quarterback ratings each week. And more times than not, they find it difficult to tell up from down, good from bad.
Meet the NFL passer rating system, which is the most maligned, least understood individual statistic in all of professional team sports.
“In a number of cases, I wouldn’t say the current system is an accurate reflection of a quarterback’s ability,” former Bears offensive coordinator Terry Shea told me years ago. “Look at the ratings as they exist today and you see guys at the top who don’t belong there.
"At the same time, you see guys in the middle or even near the bottom who don’t belong there, either. The system doesn’t necessarily reflect the quarterbacks who do the things that it takes to win games.”
In the 1950s, NFL quarterbacks were ranked on the basis of gross yards per pass attempt. While oh-so-simple, the system was a fairly accurate gauge of efficiency. But, quarterback being the glamour position that it always has been and will be, the league decided to take it to another level in 1973, when it concocted the QB passer rating formula.
The rather complicated system is based on a cumulative point total in four categories—completion percentage, interception percentage per attempt, touchdown percentage per attempt and average yards per attempt.
How much stock do you put in the NFL rating system as an accurate gauge of quarterback efficiency?
As many football people outside NFL headquarters will tell you, the system has obvious flaws. For one, it benefits quarterbacks who play it safe. Whether a quarterback completes five 2-yard passes in 10 attempts or five 20-yarders in 10 tries, he’s credited with a .500 completion percentage just the same.
Quarterbacks who played in less-sophisticated or more wide-open times are pretty much out of luck. Of the top 20 career passer ratings, every one was achieved after the AFL-NFL merger. The list includes the likes of Marc Bulger, Rich Gannon, Jeff Garcia and Chad Pennington, but nowhere to be found are Otto Graham and Johnny Unitas, two of the four quarterbacks selected to the NFL’s 75th anniversary all-time team.
From a ratings standpoint, it’s better for a quarterback to be sacked, fumble and have it returned for a touchdown than to throw an incomplete pass. The reason is, sacks, sack yardage and fumbles are not part of the formula, but incompletions are included.
Therein lies the major problem with the system.
Nothing hurts an offense more than turnovers and plays for negative yardage. Nonetheless, the system does not reward quarterbacks who avoid losses on a consistent basis, nor does it punish those who go down often.
The main contention against the inclusion of sacks is that sacks are too dependent on the success or failure of the offensive line, an area that quarterbacks cannot control.
There is some truth to the belief that a quarterback is only as good as the horses in front of him, but the same holds true for running backs, who are ranked solely on the basis of net yards gained.
Besides, a sack is considered to be a pass play. In that case, shouldn’t it be part of the pass formula?
Enough already. I decided it was time to scrap the current system and start over again.
The result is the Quarterback Efficiency Rating (QBER), also know as the "Dew Decimal System" for self-promotion purposes, which I believe is far more comprehensive and much easier to understand than the current model.
What I’ve done is divide the system into the three tangibles that matter most when it comes to quarterback play in the pass game—ability to move the ball, avoid turnovers and score touchdowns.
The QBER formula includes pass yards, sack yards, fumbles lost on pass plays, fumble return yards and touchdowns, interceptions, interception return yards and touchdowns, touchdown passes and touchdown runs and safeties on pass plays.
(Where is pass completion percentage? Sorry, dinkers and dunkers. The statistic didn’t make the cut because it’s based on the nature of the play call more than anything else.)
The numbers are measured against the league average per pass play (passes plus runs plus sacks) in each of the three categories. The sum is divided by three and multiplied by 100. The average rating is 100.0, a number that makes it easier to compare a player to the league standard in the given criteria. In other words, a quarterback with a 125.0 rating is 25 percent better than average.
Here is the QBER in Week One of the season (in order to qualify, a quarterback had to take part in at least 18 pass plays, or one-half of the league average):
1. Drew Brees 277.1
2. Tony Romo 234.4
3. Donovan McNabb 184.4
4. Brodie Coyle 172.3
5. Trent Edwards 167.8
6. Matt Ryan 149.5
7. Matt Hasselbeck 139.9
8. Kyle Orton 136.9
9. Joe Flacco 137.2
10. Byron Leftwich 126.3
11. Brett Favre 124.9
12. Mark Sanchez 115.5
13. Aaron Rodgers 110.0
14. Kerry Collins 107.2
15. Peyton Manning 107.0
16. Philip Rivers 102.2
17. Tom Brady 101.6
18. Shaun Hill 98.7
19. Matt Bulger 90.1
20. David Garrard 88.7
21. Ben Roethlisberger 84.6
22. JaMarcus Russell 84.2
23. Eli Manning 82.2
24. Kurt Warner 80.6
25. Brady Quinn 75.8
26. Matt Schaub 67.5
27. Chad Pennington 61.5
28. Carson Palmer 57.6
29. Matthew Stafford 40.8
30. Jason Campbell 39.5
31. Jay Cutler 24.3
32. Jake Delhomme -86.4
Brees and Romo were off-the-charts good and would fare well in any system. Still, it’s hard to believe that Brees could throw six TD passes and only one interception and not be the top-rated quarterback in the league, which he is not if you're using the old quarterback rating system.
The QBER system has him ranked No. 1.
But what about McNabb, who accounted for three TDs in only 22 pass plays? His efficiency was rewarded in the QBER formula (No. 3) but not in the NFL system (22nd), which refuses to take into account what a quarterback does with his feet in the pass game.
Really, is a 15-yard scramble any different than a 15-yard completion? Not in the QBER system.
The flip side is Brady, Campbell and Peyton Manning, who scored noticeably higher in NFL system because of their gaudy completion percentages.
The QBER system places more emphasis on where it belongs -- yards and turnovers. Remember, it’s first-and-10 yards, not first-and-two completions.
Collins, Leftwich and Sanchez also fared better in the QBER system, primarily because they moved the ball fairly consistently and were guilty of few mistakes.
Fair and simple enough?