What does Marcus Mariota's perfect NFL debut portend for his future?
Football perfection is nearly impossible to achieve. Even technical perfection is marked by a very imperfect figure: 158.3.
It’s an ugly number that only a math geek could love. It doesn’t look like anything extraordinary at face value, and it isn’t easy to interpret the way ‘bowling a 300’ or ‘27-up, 27-down’ can be. There also are a number of ways to scrape that quantitative ceiling, from Daryl Lamonica’s 10-attempt relief performance in 1972 to Nick Foles’ 406-yard, seven-touchdown barnburner in 2013.
On Sunday, Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota put his own unique spin on 158.3, becoming the 50th quarterback since the 1970 merger to do it, but the first ever to post it in his first career start. What does this mean for the rest of his rookie season and his career? By examining the history of those who have reached that rarefied air before him, we can get some hints.
To do this, we’ll analyze quarterbacks based on Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A) and the standard Quarterback Efficiency Rating (Rating) for both the season in which the perfect rating occurred, and for the player’s overall career. We also factored in Pro Bowl appearances for the season in question, and if the QB made the Hall of Fame.
Of the 44 starting quarterbacks who’ve posted perfect passer ratings since 1970 (six others did it in relief), six are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame:
- Fran Tarkenton
- Dan Fouts
- Terry Bradshaw
- Bob Griese
- Steve Young
- Joe Montana
(Of note, Steve Young and Joe Montana both achieved their perfect rating in 1989, less than a month apart, as teammates on a San Francisco 49ers team that stomped the Denver Broncos 55–10 in Super Bowl XXIV.)
Another six are recent or active players who could be headed for Canton:
- Kurt Warner (three times)
- Peyton Manning (four times, the most ever)
- Ben Roethlisberger (three times)
- Tom Brady (twice)
- Eli Manning
- Drew Brees
(Your mileage on Eli Manning’s HoF cred may vary. With two rings, it’s hard to see him not getting in, even though he’s been a slightly above-average quarterback, at best, for much of his career.)
There’s also a healthy contingent of “Hall of Very Good”-type quarterbacks who likely won’t sniff the bronze of a Hall of Fame bust, but had productive NFL careers, including (in chronological order): Daryle Lamonica, Ken Anderson, Steve Grogan, Craig Morton, Dave Krieg, Ken O’Brien, Rich Gannon, Drew Bledsoe, Kerry Collins, Chad Pennington, Trent Green, Donovan McNabb and Alex Smith. That’s 25 of the 44 (56.8%), which on the surface would appear to give Mariota a decent chance at blossoming into something special over the course of a career.
Shortening to season-specific projections, slightly more than half (23) of the 158.3 Club made the Pro Bowl in the season in which they hit the mark, including modestly notable players like James Harris, Bobby Hebert, Jeff Blake, Robert Griffin III (also a rookie when he hit the mark) and Nick Foles. During the season in which a quarterback achieved a perfect passer rating for a single game, the median ANY/A posted was 6.14, and the median Rating checked in at 88.8. If you’re looking for a current comparable, it's something like Alex Smith’s season from a year ago.
But the more you dig into the history of the single-game perfect passer rating, the more a trend jumps out at you. From the 1970 merger through 1995, quarterbacks posted a perfect mark 29 times and included a slew of (mostly) forgotten names like Bob Lee, Scott Hunter, Dick Shiner, Vince Evans, Jim Hart, Mike Buck, Craig Erickson, Steve Bartkowski and Brian Sipe.
After a three-season drought following Jeff Blake’s 1995 perfect game, though, the figure has become almost exclusively the domain of great quarterbacks. Of the 23 times (pre-Mariota) since Kurt Warner’s 1999 perfect performance with the “Greatest Show on Turf,” only once has a quarterback posted such a high mark during a season you could argue was anything less than stellar: Geno Smith, in the final game of 2014, putting a finishing flourish on a 4–10 starting campaign during which he posted a 77.5 rating (29th among 34 qualified QBs), a 5.14 ANY/A (31st) and was benched at one point for Michael Vick.
In fact, if you truncate the data to only the QBs (including Geno!) who have posted a single-game perfect passer rating since 1999, they averaged a 7.12 ANY/A and a 97.8 rating. If you’re looking for a 2014 comparison, look no further than Super Bowl XLIX-winning quarterback Tom Brady, who checked in at a robust 7.01 ANY/A (fifth of 34 qualified QBs) and a sterling 97.8 rating (eighth) last season.
So does this likely make Mariota a top-10 NFL quarterback? Should we start fitting him for a ring? The possibilities are tantalizing, but the probability is low. Mariota is still a rookie, and there’s a far larger sample of those than there are QBs who’ve posted a 158.3 in a single game. Some regression to the typical rookie norms should be expected; even Andrew Luck (5.66 ANY/A, 76.5 rating) was fairly pedestrian in his rookie season. In the end, we may find that his performance says more about the quality of the Bucs’ defense than about his passing abilities.
Still, the club of 44 single-game perfect passers is a fairly select group ; by comparison, 127 quarterbacks have thrown for more than 400 yards in a game. Mariota's keeping exclusive company right now, and we have 15 more games this year to find out if he can stay there, or if he peaked sooner than any of us saw coming. It should be fun to watch. Mariota may never again achieve perfection, but he still has the rest of his career to surpass it.