Publish date:

Ratings scam


I was on a talk show the other day and the host asked me what the things are that I hate most.

"Too many to list," I told him.

"Well, just give me the highlights," he said.

"Those lying, sneaky airlines and their bag of tricks. Guys who come to your house to fix something and tell you, 'It shouldn't be doing that.' Hostess seating, gourmet dining, valet parking, 'Have a nice day,' 'No problem,' and...whoops, I almost forgot ...The NFL passer rating system."

He didn't press me on that last one or we'd still be talking about it, and he probably wouldn't grasp it if I'd explain that it's a prehistoric monster that no one understands, an illogical piece of antiquity that influences so much of the game when it shouldn't. It affects what is written, what is discussed, what becomes the basis, in some cases, of salary structure and bonuses for players and coordinators.

Steve Young, who has the highest career passer rating in history, admits that he's "not quite sure how the system works."

Charley Casserly, who as Redskins general manager was quite aware that some clauses were built into contracts that reflected the rating points, says, "No, I couldn't tell you exactly how they determine the ratings."

Bill Parcells, whose 11-point dictum to quarterbacks came from years of study of the position, says, "I don't know how they arrive at their ratings and I don't care. I don't pay any attention to them. I have my own system for evaluating quarterbacks."

So who are these people that have imposed such a law upon the game? How did they ever arrive at it? Why do they stay in business, operating out of a dark cave everyone is unwilling to explore?

Ah, your faithful narrator is just the man to explain this to you, because he has been battling these people, with no success, for many years. They are the Elias Sports Bureau on Fifth Avenue in New York. Professional statistics people for many sports, for many years. NFL statistics had been a jumbled, confused mess ever since they were first recognized in 1932. I looked through my old Spalding Official NFL Guides of the 1930s and it was tough to tell exactly how passers were rated ... one year by total yards, then completion percentage, then yards per pass attempt, then a combination. So Elias was called in to bring some order to the whole area of statistics keeping.

After the 1972 season the bookkeepers at Elias tweaked the official system, which was based on proficiency in four categories -- completion percentage, plus three more relating to passes thrown, interceptions, TDs and yards. If a passer was first in the league in one of those categories, he got a one. Second, a two, and so forth. At the end, the four numbers were added. Low score wins. Elias retained the four categories, but worked out a points system for each mark a passer put up in every one of them. Then a total score was tallied.

Average grades were in the 60s and 70s. En masse, NFL passers in 1972 completed 51.7 percent of their heaves. A mark like that would earn a player a grade of 72.3. Average, in other words. Interception percentage, or number of interceptions per 100 passes thrown, was 5.3, league-wide. A grade of 70. Touchdowns per pass attempts averaged out to 4.5, a grade of 60, and yards per pass attempt came out to 6.82, which got a mark of 63.7.

Put all those figures together and you've got a number of 66.5 for a dead average player, hitting the norm in each category. Higher achievements, of course, would bring higher grades.

Now here's the snapper. Achievements have gone way above the old standards, but Elias has maintained that same system for 35 years, with the same benchmarks and the same schedule of rewards. The passing game has changed dramatically, but Elias plods on, stuck in its standards of 1973, when its system came in. It's the kind of thinking that convinced the Polish army it could withstand the might of the Wermacht's tanks with its mounted cavalry troops, that would cause an old admiral to maintain, in the era of atomic powered craft, that the battlewagon was still queen of the seas.

I have called Elias during the years to holler that the system had to be updated. I found many of their statistical anomalies maddening, the kinds of things devised by CPAs, not football people. I spoke to Steve Hirdt, the functional head of the bureau, nicknamed Lord Hirdt because of his unbridled arrogance.

SI Recommends

I said that their practice of including quarterback kneels at the end of the game in the rushing stats was wrong and misleading. It penalized the good teams, which won, therefore had QB kneels. It could knock a team's rushing stats down from 4.0 to 3.7 by artificial means. Just have an asterisk designation ... "Three kneels for minus three yards, not to be included in the official statistics."

He said, "We have a system in place." Gosh, how could I tell?

I screamed about spikes being scored as incompletions thereby penalizing the QBs from bad teams, which always were catching up, hence spiking the ball. Why should they influence a passer's accuracy? He said, "We can't change our system."

I said the track and field world regularly changed its decathlon tables to reflect modern progress. Why couldn't his passer-rating system do likewise? Lord Hirdt, clearly tired of the conversation, said, "We can't change our whole system just because you don't like it."

It was time to go to war. I had a talk with Pete Rozelle, the commissioner. I explained the anomalies and incongruities in the league's statistical system. I said, "The Elias people are your employees, not vice-versa. Why are you unwilling to take them on?" He said he'd see what could be done. I could just hear him telling his wife, Carrie, that night. "With all the problems I've got, now I have to worry about ... " Etc.

League insiders told me to go to the real football guys in the league office, John Beake, Pete Hadhazy. I did. They expressed interest. When George Young, a personal friend, came in, I laid out the whole scenario to him. He said he'd look into it. Another zero. I wrote a long letter to Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee, who had shown some interest. A noise like an oyster followed. Last year I sent a message to Roger Goodell. Ditto. I mean there are fines and punishments to worry about, to say nothing about selling more T-shirts.

Me and Quixote, boy, we know what it's like. Lemme tell you, those windmills are tough. Blade comes down and hits you right in the head, clunk!

An ally emerged in San Francisco, Ira Miller, the columnist for the Chronicle. He was upset about another of Elias' freaky stats-wackies, the fact that field goal attempts are included in number of plays in a drive, but then are not counted as scrimmage plays at the end of the game. He called Greg Aiello, the league's PR Director. "We'll take care of it," Aiello told him. Zippadee-doo-dah.

OK, here's the major problem with that long outdated passer-rating system, the cheapening of the grades. As of this week, all the ranked quarterbacks in the league average 63.3 percent completions. In 1972, the year that keyed the standards put in, that was a stunning statistic. Only one passer even topped 60 percent, Norm Snead of the Giants at 60.3. A mark of 63.8 percent would have gotten you a rating in that category of 110.9, a Pro Bowl number. Guess what? It still does today. In other words, average equals excellent.

The same for interception percentage. The zone defenses weren't as sophisticated in 1972, but things were tougher for passers and receivers. Cornerbacks could bump and jam all the way down the field. "Legalized muggings," Chuck Noll called it. Defensive linemen could head slap their way in to the quarterbacks, who weren't wrapped in cellophane by the officials, as they are now. And the offensive linemen couldn't hold as much as they do today.

Passers weren't dinkers and dunkers. They threw downfield and took their chances. The interception rate was, as I've mentioned, 5.3 per hundred passes. Now the average of all the rated passers is 2.98. A mark of 2.98 in the old days, my gosh, terrific. Only two passers in 1972 beat that, Ken Anderson at 2.3 and Marty Domres at 2.7. A gaudy grade of 109.7 would go with a 2.98 rate. It still does. Again, if a guy hits the league average he scores a rating jackpot. Average equals superb, according to Elias' system that still reflects 1972 standards.

The two other categories aren't as dramatic. TD rate was higher then. The yards per attempt figure was slightly lower because the completion percentage was so much lower, but believe me, quarterbacks went downfield a lot more often. Five receivers in 1972 averaged 20 yards or more per catch, beginning with JohnGilliam's 22.0. Right now there are no 20-yard wideouts, in fact only two of them are at 19.0 or more.

Since passers now are destroying the old standards for completion percentage and fewer interceptions, their ratings are out of sight, compared to what was originally intended. In 1973, the first year of the system, Roger Staubach led the NFL with a rating of 94.6. Fran Tarkenton was second at 93.1. And they were the only ones over 90, which was the original intention. A grade of 90 was superb, 100 was spectacular.

Right now six passers are over 100. Four more over 90. And take a look at these single game ratings from last weekend:

Chad Pennington: 111.2Jeff Garcia: 110.7Ben Roethlisberger: 108.0Byron Leftwich: 97.2Sage Rosenfels: 91.4Donovan McNabb: 91.1

In each case, the passer with those gaudy numbers lost ... repeat: lost the game. And yet many people rely on them to judge the quarterbacks. A safety-first mentality has been created. Throw the 8-yard checkdown on third-and-12; it'll work wonders for the rating chart. Avoid interceptions at all cost, don't be bold, take care. Remember, your contract is tied to it.

Institutional quarterbacks abound, ratings freaks. So you ask me why I hate that system? Pull up a chair. There's a lot more to it, a lot more I can tell you about what's wrong with it. Just listen.