Decade of the Quarterback? Why Passing in the NFL Is As Solid As Ever

T.J. DoneganCorrespondent INovember 18, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 01:  Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts throws a pass during the NFL game against the San Francisco 49ers at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 1, 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Patriots? Colts? Steelers?

Brady? Manning? Roethlisberger?

Lost in much of the discussion over which team is the best of the decade is just how much more successful quarterbacks have been at passing the ball as the decade has worn on.

Rule changes, advances in medicine, and a change in the organizational philosophies of NFL teams have led to a league in which passing the football is as efficient as it has ever been.

The adage that "there are three things that can happen when you pass and two of them are bad" only applies to high school football these days, as NFL teams are finding it easier to complete their passes.

There are any number of ways to look at quarterback play statistically, but for the purposes of this article, I'll keep it simple and use a formula we're all familiar with: quarterback rating.

As I've written before, there are big problems with the system. For those not familiar who want a good breakdown of the formula, Wikipedia actually does a serviceable job . (I think my journalism degree just lit itself on fire.)

One of the aspects I don't like about the formula for single-game use is that it normalizes outliers in order to prevent either historically good or historically bad performances from skewing an individual's results for a particular game.

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Since we're talking about historically good quarterbacking, we'll ignore the lower limits for the moment, but the stat ignores when QBs complete more than 77.5 percent of their passes, throw for more than 12.5 yards per attempt, throw TDs more often than every 8.4 attempts, and counts zero interceptions as the max score, regardless of whether that's out of one throw or 100.

Within these parameters, however, it's an effective way to measure complete QB performance across each decade because it ignores certain outliers while still taking into account nearly everything a QB must do with the football.

And, while on a game-by-game basis, the system can ignore a good part of a quarterback's throws, over an entire season no modern quarterback starting at least eight games has been so good as to get the maximum score in any of the four categories, though some have come close. (Damon Huard had that crazy 11:1 TD:INT ratio starting eight games in 2006.)

In fact, even taking into account the terribly skewed rate numbers of early QBs who threw rarely and largely against defenses ill-prepared to stop it, only Sid Luckman's ludicrous 28 touchdowns in only 110 completions in 1943 is wild enough to best the upper cap of that portion of the passer rating formula.

With that said, let's look at the all-time career leaders in QB rating and see if you can notice a trend. Here's the breakdown from the website Pro Football Reference , with active players in bold.

Simply put: That's a lot of bold.

In fact, of the top 30 players in career NFL QB rating, only three (Joe Montana, Roger Staubach, and Otto Graham) began their career before 1980 and only 11 are not currently active.

Of those 11, Jeff Garcia, Brian Griese, Steve McNair, and Trent Green just recently left football for, obviously, varied reasons.

So for those keeping score at home, the stat would seem to suggest that 23 of the best 30 quarterbacks of all time played the majority of their career this decade.

That seem a little odd to anyone else?

Odder still, the league average is still improving, year by year.

Here's just the yearly league-average QB rating this past decade:

1999: 75.1

2000: 76.2

2001: 76.6

2002: 78.6

2003: 76.6

2004: 80.9

2005: 78.2

2006: 78.5

2007: 80.9

2008: 81.5

2009 (through 9 games): 81.4

A nearly 10 percent increase over a decade isn't much to get excited about, but that's a fairly significant trend, non-statistically speaking.

Look at career completion percentage leaders to get a similar taste. Excepting perhaps the immortal Hugh Millen, nearly the entire top of the list is dominated by modern players recently retired, out-of-this-world Hall of Famers from a previous era, and current quarterbacks.

On that list, you have to go all the way to No. 62, Mr. Bart Starr, to find a quarterback who didn't play in the 1980s or later.

Even if you're a single-season kind of guy (and hey, who isn't?), it's clear modern QBs are more than holding their own in the debate.

For one pretty arbitrary example, there have been 34 quarterbacks who started at least eight games in a season and had a passer rating of greater than 100.

Of those on that list, Young, Joe Montana, and Dan Marino account for 10 (yikes) seasons, but 16 of those seasons took place in the last 10 years, including seasons put together by the illustrious group of Chad Pennington, Vinny Testaverde, David Garrard, and a scrappy, young Brian Griese.

Why is this? I think we can rule out that we're just living through an unprecedented era of quarterbacking talent. Byron Leftwich has a respectable 79.6 passer rating after 1,545 career attempts and he looks like he's trying to windmill dunk a basketball rather than throw a football.

Yet, there are the numbers.

Part of the reason is that teams place a bigger emphasis on passing the ball, emulating the success of others, and they are better at giving their quarterbacks throws with a higher likelihood of success, taking chances when it's advantageous.

Beyond that, specific rule changes—and changes to the ways current rules are enforced—have taken away many of the things defensive units use to slow down explosive passing attacks. Namely: physicality.

One of the biggest rule changes, for example, has been the way that contact between receivers and defensive players is called downfield.

There was a perfect example of it in Sunday night's game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts.

In a game defined by the success and failures of each starting quarterback, it was a pass interference call in the fourth quarter that gave the Colts, down 34-21 at the time, new life.

On their 79-yard drive resulting in a touchdown, the largest chunk of yardage gained came when Austin Collie slowed up on a deep post route, causing rookie cornerback Darius Butler to barge into him lightly, drawing a flag worth 31 yards.

Watching the play live, I thought it was a clear pass interference call circa 2009 and was certainly not surprised to see the flag come out. For his part, announcer Cris Collinsworth credited Collie with a "veteran" play to draw the contact.

In 1999? I'm not so sure that penalty gets called given how big the drive was. In 1969? No chance.

The game is simply called differently, and teams know it. The pass interference rule has always been at the head of much controversy, though since the mid-1990s, it has been enforced at a lower threshold, as have other forms of illegal contact downfield.

Part of the reason that play worked out in the Colts' favor has to do with Bill Belichick himself.

Go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and you'll see a copy of his defensive gameplan for the 2001 Super Bowl, where he had defensive backs and linebackers mercilessly rough up the Rams' receivers en route to the upset.

It might have been the undoing for the Greatest Show on Turf and high-octane passing attacks league-wide, but the competition committee stepped in and made sure that referees would flag such illegal contact downfield.

Quarterbacks, too, have been protected more in recent years, especially as clubs have invested more money in these players before they ever take a snap.

Much has been written about that development already—I think Joey Porter has a dissertation on the subject in the works—so I won't spend much more time going into it, but suffice to say that QBs are more protected than ever.

Whether you want to call it the "Brady" rule or the "Palmer" rule or merely "the rule that says you can only make a play on the quarterback if you're on your feet and you hit him above the knees," the effect is the same.

It's very difficult to get at the true figure on injury rates, though, because no matter how protected a player is, it only takes one play to end a career or keep a guy out for next week.

Despite the efforts of the competition committee, there aren't more or less quarterbacks starting each year. Looking at the numbers since 1996, on average about 58 different guys start at least one game, with little variation.

Much of this is due to performance issues rather than injury, as quarterbacks are benched all the time for stinking it up, but there isn't the long-term decline in total starters one might imagine.

Beyond that, there are so many other variables that can't be parsed out—quality of offensive line, quality of competition, quarterback playing style, quality of offensive gameplanning, and the ability of receivers to get open to name a few—without limiting the conclusions that could be drawn from the data.

Still, even the most serious knee injuries, the kind of subject that will quiet even the toughest athletes, haven't been as damaging to careers as they might have once been.

So overall, I don't think quarterbacks are necessarily getting injured less, but when they do, it is perhaps less severe than maybe it once was.

Take the anecdotal evidence of Carson Palmer and Tom Brady. Both suffered knee injuries that might have been catastrophic to their careers just a decade or two ago.

In today's NFL, both still had to go through a great deal of rehab, obviously, but both took only a little more than a year to return to something resembling their pre-injury form, other injuries to Palmer aside.

It's different for other positions like running back or receiver, obviously, as it's also different in other sports, but it's clear that guys can come back again in ways they couldn't do years ago.

If you look at the career leaders in QB rating again, you'll notice another trend: lots of guys who may have been pegged as "game managers" or journeymen, who played late into their 30s.

Many of the "counter" stats that are accrued only over a long career are also dominated by current-era quarterbacks for this reason, with only interceptions (Peyton Manning and Favre aside) really dominated by those of the past.

Guys like Trent Green, Brian Griese, Kerry Collins, Jeff Garcia, etc. They're not likely to make the Hall of Fame anytime soon, but they are, at least statistically speaking, more successful passers than those of past decades whose bronze busts line Ohio hallways.

At the very least, their careers lasted longer, largely by virtue of the changes to the league mentioned above.

Maybe they didn't win as much as their counterparts from earlier eras, but they did what they did longer, with a higher rate of success, and further into their careers than those who came before.

That or there's a league-wide placenta massage racket going on that I'm not aware of.

(So that's what Travis Henry was up to.)

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