Football fancies itself the game of the unquantifiable, where guile and grit meet or exceed talent on the scale of importance. The sport where je ne sais quois is sui generis.
Listen to any football talking head describe a quarterback—including and especially Jon Gruden— and inevitably you’ll hear a stack of of esoteric compliments about “football IQ,” “clutchness,” “poise” and a host of others.
Trent Dilfer is fond of using the phrase “Dude qualities” (DQ for short) to describe things like innate charisma and leadership. The guy to whom, in a room full of other quarterbacks, everyone throws the keys before they head to the movies.
But sports analytics have pushed back on the intangibles status quo. First in baseball, then the NBA, and now the NFL has slowly, but surely embraced the math movement. Nerd culture and jock culture unite … sort of.
Now, journalists and even the average number-crunching fan can help quantify the previously unquantifiable. That’s brought us Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus, Advanced Football Analytics, RotoViz and countless other analytic-based football models.
Many coaches and franchise remain somewhere on a scale between math truther and advanced analytic troglodyte, but great work is being done just the same.
Efficiency now reigns as an avalanche of advanced analytics—which is really just a fancy way of saying “math”— allow us to look at much of the old way of scouting and analyzing players as flawed and out of date.
Gaudy stat lines can be tempered and mediocre ones bolstered. It’s less a matter of “what” and more a matter of “how.”
The numbers tell us things our eyes may mistake, or miss. They’re not the only tool, but they’re a power drill when we used to have an old, rusty screwdriver.
Much in the same way we’ve seen players in baseball and basketball evolve, we’re seeing teams and players start to adapt to the information we’re getting from analytics. Quarterbacks can’t get by on moxy alone, no matter how much we like Tim Tebow as a dude, or want to have a beer—or six—with Johnny Manziel.
Enter Aaron Rodgers: the quarterback for the modern analytic age.
To explain why, here’s a graph from Chase Stewart (@TBGchase) that shows where Rodgers stands all time throwing touchdowns and interceptions.
As of the end of September, he was 25th in career touchdown passes and 205th in career interceptions. Rodgers is separated by the red dot here. (He’s now 23rd in touchdowns and 201st in interceptions).
That’s not just a statistical outlier, that’s a statistical near impossibility.
Let’s save the indolent ‘Where does Aaron Rodgers rank all time’ discussion for another day, preferably once he’s retired and we have the full scope of his career.
By passer rating, Rodgers easily ranked best all time, his 106.5 mark a full 8.9 points ahead of Tony Romo who is second (Rodgers rating is 117.4 this season). That’s the same gap as between Romo and Matt Schaub, who is 13th on the all-time list.
As you can imagine from Stewart’s analysis, Rodgers holds the career record for interception rate at 1.6%. Tom Brady is second at 2% and that gap may seem small, but it’s the same as Alex Smith at 9th all time.
In other words, when it comes to protecting the ball, Aaron Rodgers makes Tom Brady look like Alex Smith. No, seriously.
Rodgers is .4% off Drew Brees for the all-time lead in completion percentage, and is actually completing nearly 71% of his passes this season. He could cruise pass Brees just on the back of this season alone.
You want serious math? How about adjusted yards per pass attempt leaders all time, which accounts for yards, touchdowns, interceptions and attempts. (Yards+20*TD-45*interceptions/attempts)
Rodgers’ 8.81 is head and shoulders above the rest of the league over its history. He’s as far ahead of Steve Young in second as Young is ahead of Roger Staubach at 15th.
O.K., O.K., Rodgers isn’t atop the all-time touchdown percentage lead. He’s tied for 4th. Rodgers is also the only quarterback in the modern era to be anywhere in the top 14. His lead over Peyton Manning at 15 is the same as Manning’s lead over Dan Marino at 43.
In 2014, Rodgers cruised to the league lead in Win Percentage and Estimated Points Added, stats by advanced metrics guru Brian Burke. Ditto for Football Outsider’s Defense Adjusted Value Over Average and Yards Above Replacement.
And just for fun, Rodgers just became the fastest player, by attempts, to make it to 30,000 yards in NFL history. This is emblematic of Rodgers: it took him fewer attempts to produce the best results than anyone ever.
Are you getting bored yet? This is a math lesson of sorts.
That’s where we are with Rodgers. His greatness has become boring. We’re numb to his efficiency. Even his wow plays, the times he throws with both feet off the ground, rolling left, into a mailbox-sized opening while making a pizza and watching Netflix.
If anyone else wins the MVP over the next three to five years it’ll be because Rodgers gets hurt or AP voters get bored.
But not to be lost in the overwhelming and indomitable greatness of Rodgers is the way he represents not just the analytic age of quarterbacking, but the evolution of offense.
Rodgers is arguably the best pocket passer in the league. He’s also the most dangerous quarterback outside the pocket to either run or pass. He controls the line of scrimmage like no one ever, making even great defenses like Seattle and Kansas City look disorganized and underprepared.
Rodgers is more talented than almost any quarterback we’ve seen come through the league in terms of a complete skill set, maximizing every phase of the game. But there’s one thing the numbers overwhelmingly point to: efficiency.
There’s certainly the case of efficiency to a fault (See Smith, Alex). But those players tend not to have long-term success—There’s a reason Smith wasn’t even an average NFL quarterback until well into his career.
Defining “efficiency” is important, but also simple. When you throw, you pick up chunks of yards, score often, and don’t turn it over. Passer rating, yards per attempt, DVOA, and ESPN’s QBR are all really just measures of efficiency.
Russell Wilson led college football in efficiency. It’s worth pointing out, Football Outsider’s projection model had Wilson as one of the best prospects ever, ahead of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, to the point they felt it necessary to temper the expectations of its own model.
Teddy Bridgewater was preposterously efficiency at Louisville. Ditto for Cam Newton and Luck. The numbers Griffin put up at Baylor were head-scratchingly efficient. Marcus Mariota might be the most efficient quarterback in the history of college football.
Go back and look at some of the first-round quarterback flops of the last 10 years and it’s not hard to see the contrast. Matthew Stafford wasn’t particularly efficient at Georgia, nor was Jay Cutler at Vanderbilt. Tim Tebow might be the greatest college quarterback ever, but he wasn’t an efficient passer. Blaine Gabbert, even in the defense-optional Big 12 wasn’t anything resembling efficient through the air.
Efficiency is a skill and it’s one that tends to translates, assuming minimum physical touchstones are met. (Incredibly efficient college quarterbacks like Kellen Moore or Rakeem Cato just aren’t big enough or strong enough to be NFL players). It should be noted efficiency doesn’t guarantee success, but inefficiency should be a major red flag.
The big counting stats look pretty, but we’re beginning to see how flawed they can be. Splash plays are nice, but they don’t make a career. Ask the aforementioned RG3.
Fourth quarter dramatics make for great drama, but Rodgers will tell you he’s led plenty of game-winning drives in the second and third quarters.
Johnny Manziel was drafted before Teddy Bridgewater because he had “it,” and Teddy supposedly didn’t. Bridgewater was one of the best quarterbacks in football over the second half of last season for one critical reason: efficiency.
Jameis Winston was picked ahead of Marcus Mariota because Winston was supposedly oozing with Trent Dilfer’s DQ’s.
Mariota is the 10th-highest rated quarterback in football through six weeks and while he hasn’t quite been Oregon efficient, he’s been well above average. Winston, meanwhile, has been a turnover machine.
NFL Film’s Greg Cossell is fond of saying that all the intangibles manifest themselves in a tangible way on the field. That’s another way of saying, the production is the thing.
As we get better at measuring production, delineating between what matters and what doesn’t, we can hone in on what qualities and what traits define not just what a good player is but what determines what the “best” player is.
And right now, the analytics, no matter which ones you want to use, says that player is Aaron Rodgers.