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The Seattle Seahawks have reached this year’s Super Bowl on the strength of the NFL’s top-rated defense and a powerful rushing attack led by Marshawn Lynch. It is the incredibly efficient play of their quarterback, however, that is being overlooked.
While a good defense and running game are nice luxuries to have in the league these days, they are not as crucial as they once were. Seven of the 12 playoff teams this season ranked in the bottom half of the league on defense and four of the top eight rushing teams missed the playoffs – by a lot (those four teams combined to go 22-41-1).
Passing the ball efficiently, however, is critical to a team’s success. The top seven teams in passing yards per attempt all made the playoffs, including both Super Bowl participants (Seattle was second in the league during the regular season, while Denver was third). Of the 14 teams to average over seven yards per attempt, only Detroit (7-9) had a losing record. Kansas City was the only playoff team to place in the bottom 10 of the list.
Russell Wilson has not only been passing the ball efficiently, he has been doing it with historic proficiency. Wilson has thrown for at least 7.9 yards per attempt and fired a touchdown pass on 6.4% of his passes in each of his first two years. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, no other quarterback has done that in each of his first two seasons in the league. In fact, only two other passers since then have even put up those numbers in back-to-back years at any point in their careers (minimum eight starts in a season): Jim Kelly (1989-91) and Tom Brady (2010-11).
Wilson is the 11th quarterback since the merger to have done this in any two years at all (minimum eight starts, not necessarily back-to-back). The other 10 quarterbacks have combined for 27 Super Bowl appearances and 15 rings. Seven of them have been to multiple Super Bowls. Daunte Culpepper is the only player on the list to have not played in a Super Bowl.
Multiple Seasons with 7.9 Yards/Attempt and TD on 6.4% of Throws
(minimum eight starts in a season)
|Quarterback||NFL Seasons||7.9/6.4 Seasons||Super Bowls||Championships|
* Wilson or Manning will add a championship in this year’s Super Bowl
A lot of the attention heading into Super Bowl XLVIII is focused on Denver Broncos’ quarterback, Peyton Manning, and deservedly so. Manning and the Broncos’ offense broke numerous NFL records in 2013, including single-season passing yards, touchdown passes and points scored. But only two years into a promising career, the “other” quarterback in this year’s Big Game has quietly placed himself among some very elite company.
Major League Baseball named the newest members of its Hall of Fame today. One noteworthy player in particular was not voted in this year, however. When his numbers are compared with those of his peers, there may be no larger glaring omission (assuming Pete Rose and steroid users are not considered “omissions” at this point) in Cooperstown. Perhaps the second-greatest player to predominantly play his position over a 35-year span, he was not even on the ballot in 2014.
Consider the following stat lines for four former major leaguers:
WAR*, HR*, R* and RBI* are per 600 plate appearances
All of these players had active seasons that overlapped by at least eight years. So, this is not an exercise in comparing players whose careers were separated by several decades such as, say, Babe Ruth and Ken Griffey, Jr. If Player D, with the best WAR per plate appearance and OPS+ on the list above, was not the greatest player of the group, he was surely as good as any of them. Players A and B are already in the Hall of Fame, while Player C fell a mere two hanging chads short of entry this year after garnering 68.2% of the vote in 2013.
Player D is former Detroit Tigers second baseman, Lou Whitaker. Though his stats match up favorably with Players A (Roberto Alomar), B (Ryne Sandberg) and C (Craig Biggio), he appeared on only 15 total ballots (2.9%) in his first year of eligibility and was subsequently dropped from future Hall of Fame consideration by the Baseball Writers of America.
In the three decades between Jackie Robinson’s retirement and the recent steroid era, Joe Morgan was the only MLB player who predominantly played at second base and was clearly superior to Whitaker. No other second baseman had a stronger line of WAR, OPS+, HR, R and RBI per plate appearance during that span.
Lou Whitaker’s next chance at induction will come in 2015 when the Veteran’s Committee, made up of every living Hall of Fame member, will decide if he should receive a plaque in Cooperstown. If Alomar, Sandberg and Biggio are all in the Hall by then, Whitaker deserves to be alongside them. He certainly should get a lot more than 2.9% of the vote.
To be sure, winning a Super Bowl is extremely impressive. Ask Dan Marino how difficult it is. Marino is in the top handful of names on everyone’s list of “Greatest Quarterbacks of All Time,” but he never got that elusive ring. Peyton Manning has a ring. How he got it (and why he does not have more of them) is a baffling storyline.
Barring injury, Manning is a virtual lock to retire someday with more passing yards and passing touchdowns than any other player who has ever stepped onto an NFL field. His career regular season winning percentage of 70% is almost unfathomable. That is an average of over 11 wins per season. To put that into perspective, only two teams in the last 45 years have missed the playoffs with at least 11 victories.
Great success, however, often leads to great expectations. From 1991-2005, baseball’s Atlanta Braves won 14 straight division titles. That incredibly dominating run, however, yielded only a single World Series title. In fact, the runner-up in the Braves’ division won more championships during that span than the Braves did (the Florida Marlins in 1997 and 2003).
Peyton Manning has been the NFL’s version of the Atlanta Braves. With Manning at quarterback, the Colts won their division seven out of eight years from 2003-2010. The lone year they missed out on the division title during that span, they went 12-4; a record good enough to earn a first-round bye in most seasons. The team averaged a ridiculous 12.3 wins per season during that run and wound up winning a single Super Bowl title.
By now, everyone has heard the knock on Peyton Manning: an inability to have as much success during the postseason as he enjoys during the regular season. In general, quarterbacks often receive too much of the credit for a team’s successes and too much of the blame for a team’s failures. This is a bit unfair, as football is the epitome of a team game, more so than any of the other major sports in this country. Each offensive play requires precise execution by 11 teammates who are asked to block, run routes, pass, catch and run with the ball. That said, no single player in any American sport is more crucial to his team’s success than the quarterback.
The fact that Peyton Manning has been on a playoff team in 13 of his 15 seasons is directly attributable to his immense talent. Through all the players who have blocked for him or caught one of his passes over the years, the one constant was Manning. He is a fixture in the NFL playoffs; the early rounds, anyway.
During his career, Manning has amassed an impressive regular season record of 167-73, but is only 9-11 in the playoffs. While it is certainly true that Manning has faced stiffer competition during the postseason than during the regular season, his Win/Loss Percentage differential is by far the worst of any active NFL quarterback with at least five playoff victories.
|Quarterback||Reg. Season Win %||Playoff Win %||Differential|
That is an incredible decline in winning percentage, particularly given that other than Brady, Manning has played the most playoff games on that list; it is not as though he has a small sample of data. Has Manning been a victim of bad luck for 15 years? Perhaps his defense has consistently underperformed in the playoffs. After all, they are matched up against very good teams in the postseason who likely score a lot of points each game.
The fact is that Manning’s teams have yielded an average of 21.8 points per game in his playoff games, which is nearly a full point per game better than the 22.7 points per game during those same playoffs that every other team averaged. Manning’s offense, on the other hand, has scored 23.0 points per game in the playoffs, just slightly above what the rest of the league was scoring in those postseasons and over four points per game fewer than Manning’s teams had averaged during those regular seasons. It appears the drop in Manning’s teams’ postseason performances can mostly be attributed to the offense.
Of the quarterbacks above, Ben Roethlisberger is the only one with a larger differential between regular season and postseason quarterback rating than Manning (in fact, four of them have a higher quarterback rating in the playoffs than in the regular season). Roethlisberger also is the only one on the list who has a lower percentage of playoff games with a quarterback rating above 100 than Manning. That’s right; Matt Hasselbeck has been more likely to have a game with a rating above 100 in the playoffs than Manning (note that Manning’s career regular season rating is a whopping 17 points higher than Hasselbeck’s).
Manning has gone winless in the playoffs a startling eight out of 12 times. Recall that his teams have averaged over 11 wins per season. So it is not like Manning has been losing games to many superior teams during those early exits. In fact, 20% (four of 20) of the teams in NFL history that failed to win a single playoff game after a regular season with 13 or more victories were quarterbacked by Manning. Read that last sentence again. When looking at active quarterbacks with at least five career postseason games as the favorite, Manning has the worst winning percentage in matchups that his team had been supposed to win.
|Quarterback||Playoff Win % As Favorite|
Despite all of this, Manning did manage to win a Super Bowl ring following the 2006 season. His supporters point to his championship as proof that he can succeed when it matters most. During that postseason run, the Colts went 4-0 and Manning won the Super Bowl MVP. However, his quarterback ratings during those four games were 71.9, 39.6, 79.1 and 81.8; very mediocre numbers, particularly for someone who puts up the kind of statistics in the regular season that Manning does. The highest of those numbers, 81.8, for the sake of perspective, would have been 24th in the league this past season. He passed for a relatively pedestrian 258.5 yards per game and combined to throw for three touchdowns and seven interceptions in those four games. Not very strong numbers, particularly when you consider that outside of that year, Manning is only 5-11 in the playoffs.
It is difficult to comprehend how such an outstanding player can have such polarizing results. Manning has been plagued by this confounding issue since his college days at the University of Tennessee, where he failed in four tries to defeat his school’s rival, the Florida Gators. The year after Manning graduated, Tennessee beat Florida, ran the table and won the National Championship with a quarterback named Tee Martin…who of course never started an NFL game.
Manning will retire as perhaps the greatest regular season quarterback ever. That is quite an impressive legacy. He will own countless passing records and no one can ever take away his Super Bowl championship, no matter how he performed during that title run. But fans will always wonder if Manning should have won more than that lone Super Bowl. Of the 20 quarterbacks who have the most career playoff starts, he has the second-lowest winning percentage. 53 quarterbacks have won an NFL Championship; Manning is one of only four of them with a losing playoff record and he is the only quarterback to have won a Super Bowl and have a career playoff record below .500 (the other three NFL Championship passers with more postseason losses than wins all won their titles prior to the first Super Bowl). It seems fitting that if he fails to win the Super Bowl this year, Peyton Manning will own yet another record: most career playoff losses in NFL history.
With Drew Brees at quarterback, the New Orleans Saints have been one of the NFL’s most successful organizations. Since joining the team in 2006, Brees has a record of 80-47, which works out to an impressive average of 10 wins per season. Following the 2009 season, he won a Super Bowl MVP with a victory over Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts. Twice (2008 and 2011), Brees was named the AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He holds dozens of NFL records; perhaps the most impressive is his streak of throwing at least one touchdown pass in 54 straight games. Brees even held the record for most passing yards in a season, until it was broken this past year by Manning.
Ok, so the guy is good. Really good, even. Yet, he seems to carry a “yeah, but” label; namely, a tendency for his performance to decline on the road.
It is true that Brees has much better statistics while playing in the comfortable environment of the Superdome. He has no wind to contend with, no snow and of course, no hostile crowd. But are his home/road splits that much worse than other NFL quarterbacks?
As a member of the Saints, Brees is 44-20 (69% winning percentage) at home and 36-27 (57%) on the road. Perhaps that seems like a fairly large differential until his peers’ numbers are considered. Ben Roethlisberger, for example, has a similar winning percentage on the road (58%) during his career, but has won 75% of his home games. In fact, of the seven active NFL quarterbacks with the most career starts, Brees has the third-lowest home/road winning percentage differential.
|Quarterback||Home Win %||Road Win %||Differential|
Logic would dictate that a passer’s performance indoors would be significantly boosted by the lack of wind, among other things. This would lead to a reasonable explanation for any excessive home/road win percentage splits. However, of the players listed above who have a higher differential than Brees, none of them has ever played for a team that plays all of its games indoors. It is difficult to recall any conversations in the media regarding the road woes of Hasselbeck or Palmer. Despite playing his home games in perfect indoor conditions, though, it is Brees who somehow has the stigma of not playing so well on the road.
The Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints and St. Louis Rams comprise the six teams that have played all of their home games indoors since Brees joined the Saints in 2006. During that time, the team has had a higher percentage of its wins on the road than any of the other full-time indoor teams. In fact, their percentage is higher than it has been for the average outdoor team.
|Team||Road Wins/Total Wins|
* Indianapolis had a road wins/total wins percentage of 45.9% with Peyton Manning at QB during that time.
It is hard to argue that a franchise getting a higher percentage of its wins on the road than any other dome team (as well as the average outdoor team) is struggling away from home.
Part of the criticism aimed at Brees and the Saints stems from their performances on the road during the postseason over the years. With Brees in New Orleans, the Saints are 5-3 in the playoffs; 4-0 at home, 1-0 at a neutral site (Super Bowl XLIV) and 0-3 on the road. On the surface, it would appear that there is some merit to the criticism. However, the following should be noted, with respect to the performance of Brees during the Saints’ three road playoff losses:
In the worst playoff loss of his Saints’ career, Brees fell to the Chicago Bears in 2006. The 14 points scored that day certainly are not an impressive total, but the Bears’ defensive unit ranked third in the entire league in points allowed that season. Brees still managed to throw for 354 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Even if that game is to be considered subpar for Brees and his team’s offense, the other two games surely were strong efforts.
In each of the other two road losses, to the Seattle Seahawks in 2010 and the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, the margin of defeat was less than a touchdown. The Saints averaged 34 points in those two games as Brees threw for 866 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. His QB rating was in the mid-90s in each of those two losses, which included a game against a 49ers defense that surrendered the second-fewest points during the regular season.
It is always difficult to win on the road during the NFL playoffs. In two of the three road losses above, Brees gave his team an opportunity to win. In fact, in the SF contest, the Saints held a four-point lead before losing on a touchdown with only 14 seconds remaining in the game.
During his eight seasons in New Orleans, Drew Brees has had only two seasons in which his road quarterback rating was below 90 (80 in 2008 and 85 in 2013). Twice, his road quarterback rating exceeded 100 (107 in 2006 and 101 in 2011). Any quarterback would have better statistics playing indoors than outdoors over time (Peyton Manning, who played home games in a dome for 13 of his 15 seasons, has a career quarterback rating six points lower on the road than at home). Brees, despite a natural drop-off in performance outside of a dome, has guided the Saints to win games on the road at a better relative rate than any other dome team, as well as most outdoor teams.
As the NFL enters the postseason, the Saints will open the playoffs on the road in Philadelphia. A lot is being made of the team’s road woes, particularly this season. New Orleans was a mediocre 3-5 on the road in 2013 and scored 14 points fewer away from the Superdome than in it.
Two of the five road losses this year surely were shockers; at the New York Jets and at the St. Louis Rams. Despite missing out on the playoffs, those two teams still managed to combine for a respectable 11-5 record at home. Those are still games the Saints should have won, though, based on talent. The other three road losses for the Saints in 2013 were at the New England Patriots (by three points on a touchdown with 10 seconds remaining), at the Seattle Seahawks and at the Carolina Panthers. Those three teams combined for a ridiculously impressive 22-2 record at home this year. Very few NFL teams would have won any of those three games on the road.
All in all, save for a couple of “bad” losses this past season to teams with surprisingly solid home records, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints have performed quite strongly on the road over the years. It is just hard to notice this based on the unfair labels this team and its quarterback have received.