More McNabb (lets talk about Eras)

Didn’t really mean for this to become a multi-day subject (naive), but given what I’ve seen in the comments and on Twitter, it’s clear my job isn’t finished yet.  To refresh, I posted yesterday about McNabb’s career and why he deserves a lot more credit than he gets.  I made a few player comparisons with other great QBs to show McNabb is not out-of-place in that company.

In response to this, several people mentioned that the players I cited (Jim Kelly for example) played in a different era, and therefore it is not fair to compare things like QB Rating.  McNabb’s habit of throwing the ball into the ground was also mentioned.  I’ll address both of those “weaknesses” now.

QB Rating and other stats across Eras

Before I even try to account for this, let me say I remain unconvinced by this argument.  The formula for QB Rating has not changed.  It’s an apples-to-apples comparison.  This argument is most compelling when we talk about advanced statistics.  In baseball, for example, you could argue that previous eras should not be judged with stats like on-base percentage or WAR, because the players in those days did not know what those stats were.  If they did, it’s logical to believe they would have adjusted their individual games to improve.

However, this argument doesn’t hold for many NFL stats.  The importance of throwing many more TDs than INTs is not a new concept.  Similarly, I wasn’t there but I’m pretty sure everyone knew that completing a high percentage of your passes was a good thing.

Regardless, that’s the argument I’m facing (QB Rating inflation, offensive inflation, etc…), so let’s take a shot at it.

First, let’s adjust for league-average play.  I’m going to lean heavily on Pro-Football-Reference.com today.  If you don’t visit that site, you’re missing out.  In fact, if I had just one website to choose for NFL access, it’d be that one.  Anyway, among the valuable stats on there is Rate+.  Basically, this compares each QB’s rating each year to league average.  100 is average, with higher numbers equalling better performance.  So this accounts for changes in the league.  Here are the season breakdowns for 3 different players.  See if you can guess who they are.

Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 8.26.07 AMScreen Shot 2013-07-30 at 8.22.48 AM Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 8.25.18 AM

Any ideas?  Obviously one of them is McNabb, but which one?

The point isn’t that any one of these careers is better than the others; the point is that it’s very difficult to discern which is best.  What do you value?  Is it the # of above average seasons?  Is it the highest “peak”?

The three players, in order from left to right, are Jim Kelly, Donovan McNabb, and Troy Aikman.

Notes:

– Kelly had 10 seasons of 100 or better (average or better).  Aikman had 9.  McNabb had 9 (and a 99 and 98).  Keep in mind that the key here is longevity.  Obviously, HOF QBs need to be well above average.  However, being above average for a decade is very difficult to do.

– How about “good” seasons?  Let’s look at seasons in which each player recorded a Rate+ measure of 110 or greater.  Kelly has 5, McNabb has 5, Aikman has 5.

Again, the point is not that McNabb is BETTER than either of these players (though he was, definitely better than Aikman), it’s that they clearly belong in the same category.  The reason I typically don’t use Aikman for comparison is because his SB rings distort the argument (everyone values titles differently).

Also, remember that this is just PASSER RATING.  It does not take into account the 29 TDs that McNabb ran for (or the 3400+ yards).  That’s a huge part of McNabb’s resume that people are overlooking in the QB comparisons.

So that’s QB Rating, adjusted for league changes and different “eras”.  What else can we look at?

Remember Approximate Value?  That’s the PFR statistic that attempts to create an apples-to-apples comparison for every player, regardless of position.  I used it for the draft skill vs. luck series.  It’s far from perfect, but since we’re comparing players of the same position, I’m very comfortable using it.

So here’s our next mystery game.  Guess who?

Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 8.37.14 AM  Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 9.01.08 AM  Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 9.03.38 AM  Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 9.02.37 AM

Rather than just reveal the names, I’ve put them in a chart (below) so you can see the career progression of each QB.

Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 9.15.27 AM

I realize that Bradshaw and Aikman both get bonus points for SB wins, but if that’s the point of differentiation, then Kelly is still unexplained and you’re saying McNabb was 4 points away from being a HOFer, a ridiculously fine line to draw.  Overall, using Approximate Value, it’s clear that McNabb, once again, belongs among this group.

The “Worm-Burner” Weakness

The next aspect of the anti-McNabb case I want to address is the point people use to discredit the strongest part of McNabb’s resume.  Donovan McNabb has one of the most impressive TD/INT ratios of all-time (2.0).  He also has one of the lowest interception rates ever (2.2%, 4th overall behind Rodgers, Brady, and Neil O’Donnell).

The man did not throw interceptions.  That’s a very good thing.

However, in response to this, people frequently mention that McNabb played too conservatively.  Many times, he threw the ball into the ground, giving nobody a chance to catch it.  The common refrain is that he didn’t “give his guys a chance”.

Is this a fair critique?

Well let me put this a different way.

Imagine you are McNabb.  Your best receivers each year are: Chad Lewis, James Thrash, Todd Pinkston, Reggie Brown, Kevin Curtis.  No joke, those were the Eagles leading recievers from 2000-2008, with TO excluded.

Now tell me, with those WRs, how comfortable would you be throwing 50/50 balls?  Do you think it’s an admirable decision to let James Thrash fight it out with a DB for the pass? Reggie Brown?

Donovan McNabb had just one full season with an elite WR, 2004.  That year, he completed 64% of his passes, threw for 31 TDs with just 8 interceptions.  He also led his team to the Super Bowl, losing by 3 points to Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Given just one chance, McNabb took full advantage of having an elite WR, putting up historically great numbers and getting to the Super Bowl.  Also note, he played with the same roster in the playoffs as in the regular season.

Compare that to Jim Kelly’s Buffalo Bills, with Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed.  Or to Troy Aikman’s Cowboys, with Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin (among others).

McNabb put up similar numbers (better if you include the running stats) with a FAR inferior cast around him.  That has to count for something.  His reticence to “force the throw” is completely understandable, and in fact was likely the optimal play the vast majority of the time.  Not sure I can make it any clearer: based upon the standard set by the current HOF QBs, McNabb definitely belongs.  At least the Eagles franchise has recognized that and will retire his number.  Forget all the bullshit (you’d be bitter too) and focus on the numbers, it’s not nearly as “borderline” as people make it.

What else you got?

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7 thoughts on “More McNabb (lets talk about Eras)

  1. I’m a McNabb fan and agree with you on everything but the “worm-burners” were a serious problem. I don’t have game tape but recall there were many games where the first 2 or 3 passes, which were short screens with no one close to the receiver, where McNabb simply could not avoid hitting the ground with the ball. And it seemed to me whenever he started the game with one of those passes, he was off the entire game.

    Of course, this is purely anecdotal and from my relatively poor memory : )

    mark

  2. A couple of quick counterpoints:

    1. In the same way that Aikman and Bradshaw get boosts for their rings, Jim Kelly most definitely got a boost for winning his conference four years in a row. Take three of those AFC Championships away and pretend that the Bills lost earlier in the playoffs, and I don’t think Kelly gets in.

    2. Granted that the equation for passer rating has not been altered in the past 15 years, but (as you have documented in your analysis of the best offenses) the changes to expected offensive production are real, and you can root a lot that in rule changes that have restricted defenses since 2004. Ghastly things like Eli Manning throwing for 5,000 yards in a season is a function of this. It’s not unreasonable to argue that a Boomer Esiason or Jim Kelly would be putting of those sort of numbers if they played today.

    You started to allude to it in your post, but I think Donovan’s running ability might be his one chance to make it – which is especially ironic given his disdain for this label. In the MLB HOF, considerations like “Did this player revolutionize the sport in any way?” factor into the debate. Obviously there were rushing quarterbacks before Donovan (Tarkenton, Cunningham, and Young come to mind), and McNabb’s career rushing numbers suffer a bit by the fact that for multiple reasons (injuries, weight gain, desire to change perception) he stopped running in 2004. But, during McNabb’s prime as a rusher (2000-2002), his skill set was considered the future of the position, and if you look around now, he was a huge cog in the evolutionary chain towards the running quarterbacks of today.

    • All good points. SB value is the toughest thing to account for.

      Kelly certainly got a big boost from getting to the SB 4 straight times, but he also played terribly in those games, so Im confused by the people who use that as a huge + for him (not saying you did, just that its the case I’ve seen elsewhere).

      The rushing is huge. 29 TDs is A LOT for a QB, there are just a few in history with more (Vick, Steve Young, Culpepper? off the top of my head).

      My biggest point was that, while offensive inflation is real and perhaps knocks McNabb down to just behind Kelly statistically, you have to then account for the rushing stats as well as the offensive weaponry. Those things, in my opinion, more than make up for any loss McNabb suffers for playing in a slightly more offensive era.

      I think in a few years, this is going to tip towards McNabb. A lot of people dislike him personally, which is coloring their judgement. That type of thing tends to fade a bit with time.

  3. Ive reflected on yesterday’s response and this article. We seem to be in agreement about McNabb’s performance, but are at a fundamental impasse over what criteria qualified someone for the HOF. You would permit McNabb based on those who have come before, whereas I discount all NFL play before the present day and rate McNabb based on where the league was during his career. Classic tradition vs progression perspective divergence.

    Side note: I understand why you chose to look at deviations from averages, but i find them useless when discussing HOF quarterbacks. I rather place a guy into the HOF who had a QBR of 140 thrice and 80 the other seven times (avg. 98), than a guy who had a constant 99 QBR. Not sure the example gets much milage, but the point was that HOF players need to DOMINATE the league a few times, not consistently hover in the top six. McNabb, for whatever reason, never made those marks.

    • The dreaded impasse…

      I definitely understand your point about needed to see some very high-level seasons, I guess I just think McNabb’s best years were better than you consider them to be.

      Also, my general rule of thumb for HOFs is that the bar is set by the people who are already in. If it were me, Id have a much higher bar for HOF entry. However, I just don’t see any fair way to do it other than to use that rule. Still consider each player within his own era, but I don’t think you should get caught up in making sure no more than X players make it from each era.

      Finally, if, knowing what I do now, I had to pick a QB to lead my team for the next 5-10 years, assuming I’d get the player in their prime, I go McNabb over Kelly and Aikman without a doubt.

      • Heh. Let’s just hope that the Eagles’ QBOTF makes sure to erase all doubts in his way to Canton!

  4. Awesome analysis, but I still have a few issues with the overall thesis presented here. First and foremost is the reliance on cross era comparisons of statistics. You do as good of a job as you can to iron out some of the discrepancies especially in using the rate+ data, however, you can’t get away from the fact that you are comparing stats between a group of players to a second player that played in an era where it was EASIER to generate stats. QBR hasn’t changed, higher completion percentages were always considered good, more TDs and less INTs were always good, but it has been proven many times over that it was easier to complete more passes, and score more TDs and throw less INTs in McNabbs era with the rule changes and the rule enforcement changes. Not to mention to trend towards more passing based offenses which allowed higher stats to accumulate.

    I think a much more interesting study would compare McNabb to the clear elite QBs from his era (Brady, Manning, Brees, Warner, Favre). I’d love to see those charts. It might further prove your point, or it might disprove it…either way it would be illuminating. This brings me to my second issue with the study. You seem to feel that the best way to determine someone’s Hall worthiness is to compare him statistically to past greats already inducted. While there’s no hard and fast rule that would discredit this approach, I simply feel that the fairest way to determine Hall worthiness would be to compare player to other similar players from the SAME era. I feel this way, because I feel induction into the Hall says that you were a dominant elite player in your time period, not that you compare statistically to past players who played under different rules and regulations and really in a different game, statistically speaking.

    My other gripe is that you only compare McNabb to 3 of the most fringe players (statistically speaking) at his position. And, even though you are only comparing him to these fringe HOF players, he only grades out at best to be equal. Which dovetails nicely with my final complaint. Your analysis shows that McNabb is statistically equivalent to three players who played in an era where it was harder to generate said statistics and who made it in with a large push from their “legacy” (accumulation of big games/big moments/memorable plays/SB wins/appearances/effect on the game), while McNabbs “legacy” clearly falls short of the players he’s being compared to. So if he’s statistically equivalent to players got in with fringe statistics based on a push from their legacy and his legacy is not up to the same par, wouldn’t that prove that he is just as much a fringe HOF candidate as many claim. In fact, I don’t think Aikman, Kelly and Bradshaw make it into the Hall with a single Super Bowl appearance loss either. Again, I’d love to see his stats compared to Marino, Montana, Elway, Unitas and not the Aikman, Kelly, Bradshaws of the world.

    In conclusion, I really feel that the Hall of Fame is just that…a Hall of FAME, not a Hall of statistical above averageness. Fame, for lack of a better word, must be included. One’s legacy and mark on the game is important and difficult to quantify statistically. That’s why entrance into the Hall is based on votes not on statistical mile markers. One must be one of the few elite members of their class. They must rise to the occasion at big moments and win big games or be so statistically superior that their inclusion is a foregone conclusion. In my opinion, McNabb should be in the conversation, based on the stats you present. But, I think the stats bare out that he can’t be carried in based solely on those stats. The only people to make it in with similar stats are those that had much higher legacy scores than our friend McNabb. What I see in your stats, is 4 years of really excellent QB play from 2000-2004 (minus 2003), with only 1 year of GREAT/ELITE play (2004) followed by years of mediocrity. 2005 – poor play followed by season ending injury, 2006 – mediocre play followed by season ending injury, 2007 – mediocre play while recovering from ACL(never looked right all year), 2008 – mediocre play for most of the year that got him benched mid season before turning it on for late season run, 2009 – decent play, not great, but embarrassed to end the season in two straight games, 2010 and 2011 were awful where he was benched for middling QBs. If he continued on his pace from 2000-2004 for a couple more years he’d be a sure thing HOFer, but he didn’t and his legacy shows that. His last 7 years in the league were no where near HOF worthy and were only slightly above average. Spending the majority of your career as an average to slightly above average QB (the 10th best QB in the league) is not HOF worthy. And, that is why I don’t think McNabb will be a shoe in for the Hall.

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