I watch baseball. I watch a lot of baseball, and when I watch baseball I don’t care which starting pitcher gets the win, or which one gets the loss. When I watch the team that I support despite repeated punches to the groin region recently (the Toronto Blue Jays, and their injury-ravaged pitching staff and imploding bullpen), my level of caring about the pitching wins stat sinks exceedingly low. I want to see success, and the minimum amount of opposing bats hitting balls, and runs scoring. I want my team to win. The individual wins stat is the most irrelevant number in baseball, a sport filled with far more useful and intelligent stats.
I mention this because the concept of wins and winning and who’s a winner and who’s a loser and who can win when it’s winning time and winning being the winningest thing a player can do is at the core of the debate around Amani Toomer’s comments yesterday that have pissed off so many, so deeply. Toomer didn’t mention winning specifically, and in fact, he prefaces his comment that Tony Romo is statistically better than Eli Manning by saying that opinion applies every time except crunch time.
Before we continue further, here’s what Toomer said during an interview on NFL Radio:
“Tony Romo is probably, if you look at him statistically, the best quarterback in the NFC East. I mean, you look at Eli Manning and what he does in the fourth quarter, but you talk about consistency ‒ talk about 31 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. That guy can play. For me, if I wanted a guy that is going to throw less interceptions, more productive, higher completion percentage, I’m going to go with Tony Romo. At crunch time, he’s not as good as Eli, but every other time, he’s pretty darn good.”
The resulting debate spiraled into the hackneyed insistence that one quarterback must be a winner, while the other is a loser. Those are the only two polarizing extremes on which a quarterback can exist, and thus Romo is lumped with JaMarcus Russell, and Manning belongs in the same legendary group as Johnny Unitas. Most of the time there is no good, or great, or average. Just winners and losers.
What’s odd about the cult of curmudgeons that insist on judging the value of a quarterback purely on games he wins–as if he’s always solely responsible for those wins–is that even the most basic statistic is treated like it was printed with the devil’s ink. That’s the primary driver behind the scorn directed at Toomer’s comments, and he’s not entirely right, but he’s not wrong either. The truth is that statistically there’s not much of a difference between Romo and Manning, and that’s allowed.
Forget passing yardage. This is a passing era, one in which two quarterbacks broke Dan Marino’s single-season yardage record last year, and a rookie had 400 or more yards in each of his first two games. In the simplest terms possible, a quarterback’s job is to complete forward passes, and move the offense down the field to be in an ideal position to score points. Both Romo and Manning execute those basic functions well, and efficiently use each pass attempt. Romo averaged 8.0 yards per attempt, while Manning averaged 8.4, both very good numbers and–dare I say it–elite.
Then on to completion percentage, another basic yet important stat that’s mentioned specifically by Toomer, and is so willfully disregarded by so many others. That Tebow kid completed less than half of his passes, but all he did is win baby. Right?
Manning clipped along at a 61.0 completion percentage last year, while Romo was much better at 66.3. For those keeping score (and you’re all keeping score), we have a tie game.
Toomer already mentions Romo’s better TD/INT ratio (Romo was +21 in 2011, while Manning was +13), but what about productivity? And what the hell does that mean, exactly? It’s a vague word, but for most it refers to how often a quarterback can turn a drive into points. The best statistical metric for that is touchdown percentage. For those who are still petrified of squiggly lines with numerical value, that simply measures the amount of a quarterback’s throws that turn into touchdowns.
Romo finished the 2011 regular season with a 5.9 touchdown rate and a 1.9 interception rate. Meanwhile, Manning had a 4.9 touchdown rate, and a 2.7 interception rate. Romo 2, Manning 1, and that point’s a big one for Toomer’s thinking, and his reference to more productivity from Romo.
You get the point. There isn’t a chasm here, but one has been created simply by the perception that one quarterback is a winner. Manning was terrific in the playoffs and especially during the Super Bowl, but we quickly forget that the Giants had to squeak into the post-season, and that winner QB only won three of his last eight games during the Giants’ clawing late-season run/near collapse.
The NFL tracks quarterback wins as an official stat, but in basic stat lines it’s a number that’s never featured prominently, and not nearly as often as the wins stat for pitchers in baseball and goalies in hockey. We dealt with the many flaws of the QB wins stat at the peak of #Tebowtime, and it’s a stat that will sadly never, ever die. There will always be curmudgeons who think–no, believe–that wins are the standard and dividing factor, and they completely disregard the many variables far removed from the quarterback’s control that go into winning a game. That includes the running game, the efficiency or inefficiency of the offensive line, and defense’s ability to limit the opposition, and a wide receiver’s ability to catch footballs.
Why do we stubbornly insist on using such an arbitrary and archaic stat while trying to have intelligent debates about a quarterback’s value? And why is it just reserved for quarterbacks? I’ll take this a step further, and invite even greater blasphemy. Championships can be part of the equation, but they should never be referenced as the main dividing line between good and great, or great and elite.
Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl, so therefore he’s better than Marino and Romo. Do you see how ridiculous that sounds?
Manning has been on two Giants teams that won Super Bowls, but he’s never won a Super Bowl. Not individually, and never on his own by himself. He’s clearly played a massive role, and was on the throwing end of two of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history. But didn’t David Tyree have to make that catch? And didn’t Mario Manningham have to make that catch? And what happens if Wes Welker makes his catch this past February, and maybe seals the game for New England? I suppose Manning isn’t a winner then. Instead, Tom Brady gets that interchangeable title.
We’re really dealing with simple common sense here, and the aforementioned statistics that compared Manning and Romo weren’t some kind of advanced calculator creations akin to those used by the baseball sabermetric spreadsheet junkies. They’re core, simple stats that measure a quarterback’s ability to complete passes, and help his offense score points.
That shouldn’t turn this into a stats vs. wins argument either, and those who push that debate miss the point of the discussion. When we compare quarterbacks (or really, any two players at any position), we’re comparing their skill, not their legacy. Individual skills are analyzed two ways: through individual game tape, and individual stats. Wins are a team-oriented stat that’s determined by a team, not any one player.
Yet minds in the mainsteam media are still forever locked deep in a dark closet. Let’s meet Bart Hubbuch from the New York Post. He had an enlightening conversation earlier today with my former colleague here at GLS and current friend Brad Gagnon.
Again, skill is central to this discussion, and the wins stat doesn’t reflect sheer skill.
We’re making progress, though, thankfully. Greg Cosell, the noted film guru at NFL Films, used Brady as an example and gave supporters of the wins stat an excellent question to ponder:
Brady won his first 10 playoff games, including, of course, those three championships. And he only threw three interceptions in the process. Since then, he’s 6-6 in the playoffs with two Super Bowl losses. In those 12 games, he’s thrown 17 interceptions.
Consequently, we’re left with a pair of much larger questions about quarterback evaluation and judgment: Is Brady, celebrated as one of the great “winners” of all time after his third championship in 2004, no longer a winner? How does one reconcile Brady’s clear improvement over the last five years with his inability to replicate the phenomenal playoff success he enjoyed in his first five?
So I’ll leave you with another question about another player.
Terry Bradshaw was a great quarterback, and he’s a hall of fame quarterback with four Super Bowl rings. But he won those championships with the help of one of the greatest defenses in league history, and throughout his 14-year career he had just two more touchdowns (212) than interceptions (210) to go along with a lowly completion percentage of 51.9, and a passer rating of 70.9.
Jump in your NFL time machine, and put Romo and Bradshaw in their prime. Forget about the wins and the Super Bowls. Who is the more skilled quarterback?
There is no right answer here, but there isn’t an advantage gained by a team-oriented stat either.