Randball feature: "Behind the Stats Curtain"

16 Jan

I am doing a new feature for Randball in which I introduce and explain advanced statistics in a hopefully humorous manner. My first article is cross-posted below.


Featured stat: Passer Rating (NFL)

Where did it originate?

Passer Rating, aka QB Rating, was invented back in 1971 by a committee of football experts. Before that, NFL passing leaders were crowned using a basic statistic that changed every few years for no apparent reason, including passing yards, completion percentage, and a strange ranking system using a bunch of different stats that makes no sense to me. Finally, in 1971, the earliest known stat geeks got together and created Passer Rating. There were a few tweaks made in the following years, but the formula, much like Chris Berman’s pop culture reference repertoire, hasn’t been updated since 1973.

What does it measure?

The goal is to measure a quarterback’s passing effectiveness, using four main criteria: Completion Percentage, Yards Per Attempt, Percentage of Touchdown Passes, Percentage of Interceptions. The inventors of the stat focused on passing only and have never claimed it to be a quality judge of a QB’s overall effectiveness, which is good because it’s not.

Is it widely used/accepted?

UH YEAH OBVS. Passer Rating is far and away the most cited quarterback statistic today. Why this super-complicated number has been embraced by even the Neanderthaliest of analysts while other, more accurate stats are shunned as pointless diversions for our nation’s pocket-protector-wearing basement-dwellers comes down to two factors: familiarity and a simple-sounding name. Same goes for every other statistic in every other sport.

Not like I care, but how is the number equated?

If you don’t care to learn how most statistics are calculated, you REALLY won’t care about Passer Rating’s equation. First you take the completion percentage and multiply by 5 for some reason, then yards per attempt is multiplied by 0.25, then touchdown percentage is multiplied by 20, then interception percentage is multiplied by 25, and once you have added in a few other factors to put everything on the same scale, you take THOSE numbers and oh who cares no one is reading anymore I can say whatever I want Wilson Phillips was underrated.

Can it measure heart?

Not even a little bit. It’s focused strictly on compiling just four statistics. Game situations are not taken into affect, nor is clutchness, intensity of pre-game speech, smile-wattage or outwardly expressed love for the game. Even lifelong chokers who don’t show heart and guts and motor can do OK in Passer Rating (like that good-for-nothing Donovan McNabb, for example).

Will it make me question my heroes?

Maybe. A quick glance at the 2010 QB Rating leaderboard shows that Josh Freeman had a better season than Peyton Manning and that Matt Schaub outgunned Drew Brees. Thankfully, most everyone with a modicum of common sense freely admits QB Rating is rife with flaws, so no need to go tearing down your Jay Cutler Fathead off the wall just yet. On the other hand, yes there is.

How valuable is it?

I’ll give it the old shrug-and-wavy-hand combo. The statistics included in Passer Rating are each valuable, but I would argue that they aren’t all *equally* important. And don’t even ask how a QB can score a “perfect” rating in a game during which he threw a bunch of incompletions, a fact that does more harm to the legitimacy of the stat than any hardcore nerd could ever dream of (though taking down a popular statistic is likely *exactly* what nerds dream of). Not to mention the important aspects that aren’t accounted for, including the QB’s rushing stats, quality of opponent, era…

BAH. Too much thinking. Just know that QB Rating is a flawed statistic that is simultaneously overly complicated *and* far too limiting. It will confirm what you knew already (the best and worst QBs) but everything in between is more or less a crapshoot.

Final Grade: C


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