In general, I have nothing but respect for what Pro Football Focus does. In terms of statistical dissemination, there is no better source at laying out information in an easy-to-organize fashion. I did not purchase Pro Football Focus this past year, but I am considering to do so for next season just because the kind of information that they disseminate is difficult to find elsewhere.
However, despite this positive impression of their statistics, I still had a major problem when I read their reasoning as to why Tom Brady should be ranked the 33rd best player, and the 6th best QB, in the 2010 NFL season. I understand the perspective that they are coming from, but in some cases they are simply incorrect in their rationalizations.
I will now compare Brady to all of the quarterbacks ranked above him in PFF’s rankings: Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers. Let us see if the assertion that Brady was the sixth best quarterback in football actually holds up when pressed to true statistical analysis.
1. The YAC Myth
One of the biggest reasons that PFF was so low on Tom Brady was because of the perception that he often has his receivers rack up yards after catch for him rather than sling passes deep. As the author of the article, Khaled Elsayed said:
"Nobody, especially not I, is saying Brady isn’t a better quarterback then all these men, or that if you asked me tomorrow to choose a quarterback to build a franchise around, it wouldn’t be Brady. What I am saying, though, is when the ball was snapped, Brady didn’t do as much as the other guys in making plays beyond what’s expected from the average quarterback."
Really? Let’s look at the average yards after catch number for each of the quarterbacks in questions (statistics courtesy of Football Outsiders.)
Brady – 5.5 yards after catch – 9th in NFL
Brees – 4.6 yards after catch – 34th in NFL
Manning – 4.2 yards after catch – 41st in NFL
Rivers – 6.3 yards after catch – 4th in NFL
Ryan – 3.8 yards after catch – 44th in NFL
Rodgers – 5.7 yards after catch – 6th in NFL
I’m perfectly fine with saying that Brady certainly benefits more from yards after the catch than, say, a Brees or Manning does (both of whom play in more vertical passing offenses.) However, to knock Brady due to his offensive scheme and then to laud Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers for transcending theirs is simply disengenuous. I personally do not think that any of them are bad quarterbacks; I think that the great ones are able to put their receivers into space and let them get yards after the catch on a regular basis rather than just bomb it down the field every single play. However, I still find it problematic to apply a certain set of standards to one player and then throw it out when looking at others. Brady certainly got some YAC last year, but it was not the be-all/end-all of his game, and he did not benefit from it as much as other top quarterbacks in the league did.
2. Dropped Interceptions
Another oft-levied accusation against Tom Brady is that, while he only gave up 4 interceptions on the year, many of his passes could have been picked off: they were dropped by opposing defenders due to luck. This is a viable thing to say: I, myself, remember that he nearly had a couple of balls returned the other way this past year. However, even with the dropped INTs, his numbers would not have been nearly as bad as for other top quarterbacks. Football Outsiders, once again, did a really interesting study where, through their game-charting project, they analyzed how many true dropped interceptions (not iffy balls, balls that hit defenders in the hands/chest and then bounced off) each quarterback had this past season. They also factored out Hail Mary interceptions and tipped INTs, as those were mainly due to bad luck for the quarterbacks. The results of the study were quite interesting.
Brady – 4 INTs – 1 HM + 3 drops = 6 INTs – 1.2 INT%
Manning – 17 INTs – 1 HM + 7 drops = 23 INTs – 3.5 INT%
Brees – 21 INT – 1 HM + 5 drops – 2 tips = 23 INTs – 3.6 INT%
Rivers – 12 INTs + 3 drops – 1 tip = 14 INTs – 2.6 INT%
Ryan – 9 INTs + 6 drops – 1 tip = 14 INTs – 2.5 INT%
Rodgers – 10 INTs – 1 HM + 5 drops = 14 INTs – 2.9 INT%
In summary, every single quarterback, even with dropped interceptions included, would still have had markedly higher interception percentages than Brady would have. Even Rodgers and Rivers, the two quarterbacks who benefitted more from yards after the catch than Brady this past year, had more dropped interceptions than Tom did. Brady was simply much more efficient, even though he did not benefit the most from yards after the catch. What he did, in any context, was exemplary.
3. The difficulty of defenses
Finally, Brady had to face more difficult defenses than any of his opponents this past season. We can analyze this by looking at his Defense Adjusted Yards Above Replacement subtracted with his unaltered Yards Above Replacement to see this discrepancy. Then, we can analyze the rest of the top quarterbacks.
Brady: 2137-1987 = 150 yard boost
Manning: 1679-1880 = -201 yard boost
Brees: 1360-1336 = 24 yard boost
Rivers: 1652-1853 = -201 yard boost
Ryan: 1348-1308 = 30 yard boost
Rodgers: 1514-1467 = 47 yard boost
We can also look at the Defense Value over Average as opposed to the Value over Average to see the effect of strong defenses on Brady’s numbers.
Brady: 53.3-48.8 = 4.5% difference
Manning: 25.0-29.4 = -4.4% difference
Brees: 19.3-18.8 = 0.5% difference
Rivers: 34-39.4 – -5.4% difference
Ryan: 23.9-22.9 = 1.0% difference
Rodgers: 33.6-32.2 = 1.4% difference
So, to recap, Tom Brady played defenses that were much more valuable than any of the other top competitors at the position. He beat his next closest competition, Aaron Rodgers, by over 100 yards. Is this a huge amount when extrapolated over the entire season? Possibly not, but it still does indicate the difficulty of defenses that Brady had to face, especially considering that two of his top competitors, Manning and Rivers, actually saw their altered numbers FALL due to the defenses that they played. Brady faced a tougher slate of defenses than any other quarterback this past season, and these two statistics make it quite clear.
So, to recap:
1. Tom Brady does get some benefit from YAC, but not as much as Philip Rivers or Aaron Rodgers did this past season.
2. Despite his interception numbers, even with drops tallied into the equation, Brady is still far and away the most efficient quarterback in the group of elites.
3. Brady faced the most difficult schedule this year BY FAR, and still put up the most efficient/best numbers.
What does this mean? To me, it seems like Brady, at the very least, has to be above Rivers and Manning, two quarterbacks who made a ton of mistakes this past year, one of whom got more help in terms of YAC than Brady did, and both of whom played exceedingly easy schedules. Brees was also extremely inefficient with the ball in his hands and played an easy schedule compared to his competition, so I would drop him as well. Matt Ryan had as many dropped interceptions this past season as Rodgers did, so he was clearly a bit less efficient than Brady although he played against weaker defenses. I think it is fair to drop him from contention.
That leaves Brady and Rodgers, and quite frankly, I can see the argument for Rodgers, at the very least, being above Brady. But, to be blunt, these two players should not be 30 spots apart on a list that was supposedly done by stats gurus. The numbers simply do not hold up when put under scrutiny.
I found it interesting that, in the aforementioned PFF article, no actual statistics were mentioned when ranking the players: the author referred to the subjective point system used by game charters. That is probably because no real statistics would have backed up their assertion. Tom Brady, by all statistical measures, was a top 2 quarterback in the NFL last year, and a very, very strong argument can be made that he was number one.