Skip to main content

Defending traditional passer rating


Venerable old passer rating is under siege in the explosive Ardennes Forest of football analysis. Serious fans should race to its defense and dig a foxhole alongside their statistical Band of Brothers, the Cold, Hard Football Facts.

Our heroic paratroopers of pigskin descended on the battlefield in 2004 and have proved over the years that passer rating is one of the greatest indicators of success not just in football, but in all of North American sports.

But some folks don't appreciate passer rating's magical powers to separate winners from losers and champs from chumps.

ESPN is one of those groups. The worldwide leader is introducing its own version of passer rating Friday night, one that boldly purports to take into account every aspect of quarterbacking. "Total Quarterback Rating" (QBR for short) beats the old passer rating in every conceivable fashion," boasts ESPN's NFC West reporter Mike Sando.

Except, you know, it won't.

Put most simply, you cannot be a smart football analyst and dismiss passer rating. In fact, it's impossible to look at the incredible correlation to victory of passer rating and then dismiss it. You might as well dismiss the score of a game when determining a winner.

Passer Rating: A Deadly Accurate Indicator of Team Success

In ESPN's defense, the purpose of its effort is to find a better way to measure the all-around game of an individual quarterback. And "Total Quarterback Rating" may one day prove a great indicator of an individual quarterback's own personal abilities. Existing passer rating, meanwhile, purports to tell us only one thing: which quarterback is the most efficient passer.

So we appreciate the effort to find new ways to measure a quarterback's abilities. But the Cold, Hard Football Facts will repel any attack upon the existing passer rating's incredible record of success.

In fact, we'll venture out into no man's land and guarantee ESPN and anyone else that the new Total Quarterback Rating will not "beat old passer rating" in one key area: it will NOT be more indicative of team success. And if a stat is not more indicative of team success, what good is it, really?

Great teams are almost ALWAYS those teams that dominate passer rating or one of its corollary "Quality Stats" we use at Cold, Hard Football Defensive Passer Rating and Passer Rating Differential. We discussed the importance of each indicator earlier this year here on Defensive Passer Rating here and Passer Rating Differential here (we called PRD "the most important stat in football").

In many cases, passer rating is a more telling indicator of success than points scored and points allowed. Look no further than the 2010 season: Super Bowl champion Green Bay went just 10-6, it was No. 10 in scoring offense, No. 2 in scoring defense and No. 2 in scoring differential.

But the Packers totally dominated the skies over NFL battlefields: They were No. 3 in offensive passer rating, No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential. Super Bowl runner-up Pittsburgh, by the way, was No. 2 in both DPR and PRD.

These teams won their respective conferences for the same reasons almost every team throughout history has won championships: because they dominated the passing lanes -- as measured by passer rating.

If anything, passer rating's profile should have risen in recent years. The Super Bowl champion 2009 Saints finished No. 1 in offensive passer rating, No. 3 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential. The 2010 Packers, as noted above, finished No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating and Passer Rating Differential.

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

Green Bay quarterback and reigning Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers enters the 2011 season with the highest career passer rating in both regular season and postseason NFL history. He's a great quarterback because he has a high passer rating. But he's a champion because the Packers have paired a great quarterback with a great pass defense, as measured by Defensive Passer Rating.

Passer Rating has ALWAYS Been an Indicator of Success

Many fans and analysts say that the passing game has grown in importance in recent years. But that's not true. Teams certainly pass more often today than they did in the past. But passing is not more important and the success of the Saints, Packers and Rodgers are not recent phenomena.

The NFL has ALWAYS been dominated by teams that dominate the skies, as measured by passer rating.

• an incredible 40 of 69* NFL champions (58 percent) since 1940 finished the year No. 1 or No. 2 in Passer Rating Differential

• 67 of 69* champions (97 percent) since 1940 finished the year ranked in the top 10 in Passer Rating Differential.

For a little perspective, consider that 68 of 69 champions finished in the top 10 in scoring differential. That's right. Passer rating is nearly as effective at identifying winners as points.

The average NFL champion, for example, ranked No. 2.7 in scoring differential. They ranked 3.4 in Passer Rating Differential.

And it's always been this way: the Bears dominated the 1940s with four NFL titles. They led the NFL in Passer Rating Differential in 1941, 1943 and 1946 and won championships each season.

Johnny Unitas and the Colts famously won back-to-back titles in 1958 and 1959. They led the NFL in all three categories (offensive passer rating, Defensive Passer Rating and Passer Rating Differential) both seasons.

The Packers dominated the 1960s with five championships. They led the NFL in Defensive Passer Rating in 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967; and in Passer Rating Differential in 1961, 1962, 1965 and 1966. They won titles each of those years. Put another way, the Packers dominated the NFL because they dominated the skies -- as measured by passer rating.

By the way, the highest-rated passer in postseason history before Aaron Rodgers rewrote the record books in Super Bowl XLV? Yes, none other than Green Bay Hall of Famer and ultimate big-game assassin Bart Starr (104.8 postseason passer rating).

Starr is the only guy with a championship ring for every finger on his throwing hand. It is NO coincidence that he held the postseason passer rating record for more than 40 years.

The Steelers dominated the 1970s with four Super Bowl titles. They finished No. 1 or No. 2 in Passer Rating Differential in 1975, 1978 and 1979, winning Super Bowls each of those years.

Finally, Bill Walsh is recognized as a genius for his so-called "West Coast" offense. But his true genius was that he quietly pieced together one of the great defensive dynasties of all time. San Francisco went a record 17 straight seasons without surrendering more than 300 points in a single campaign. And it finished No. 1 or No. 2 in Passer Rating Differential in 1981, 1984, 1989 and 1994 -- winning Super Bowls each year.

An Incredible "Correlation to Victory"

Passer rating is so important it can even help us identify winners and losers each week in the NFL. With the upcoming Cold, Hard Football Facts Insider, which will debut before the start of the season, we're going to track the "correlation to victory" and "predictive rate of victory" of many of our Quality Stats and other commonly used stats.

Few, if any, are more indicative of wins and losses than passer rating. Teams that posted a higher passer rating went 203-53 (.793) in 2010 and an incredible 151-29 (.839) after Week 5.

Don't tell us that a stat that identifies winners all by itself 80 percent of the time isn't one of the most important stats in sports.

Passer rating has its flaws. It's a little unwieldy. The number it spits out has little relationship to typical measures of success such as yards and points. It has artificial caps on it that limit so-called "perfect" to a rating of 158.3. And nobody can really explain the formula.

ESPN's indicator, meanwhile, will not solve the simplicity problem. In fact, it will be far more complex than passer rating.

But we'll remain steadfast in its defense. When you're battling on the fields of gridiron analysis, you're virtually defenseless without the artillery support provided by passer rating.

(Footnote: *There have been 71 NFL or Super Bowl champions since 1940. We did not include the 1968 Super Bowl champion Jets or 1969 champion Chiefs in our calculations; both were from the AFL and there was no interleague play in those two years, so no way for us to compare their rankings fairly with the NFL.) is dedicated to cutting-edge analysis and to the "gridiron lifestyle" of beer, food and football. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook. E-mail comments to