Perhaps it’s because I spend my life immersed in trying to evaluate players with numbers that I get so frustrated with football statistics.
It happens at a number of levels: first, how totally useless they can be at giving even the most basic understanding of how someone performed, secondly, their misuse by any number of people who should know a lot better.
Lastly, because, when I let my guard down, they seduce me too with their insidious temptations into thinking (or saying) something completely irrational.
And so it was this week as I graded the Bears-Patriots game and found that the raw numbers and the clear picture didn’t add up as it pertained to a certain soon-to-be MVP quarterback.
This week, I drew the Bears-Patriots matchup as one of my games to analyze and immediately fell into the surrounding hype and numbers. I was hugely looking forward to one of the great QB displays of all time, as in a driving snowstorm Tom Brady dismantled the fine Chicago defense to the tune of 369 yards, two TDs and zero interceptions. I also did the unthinkable: had a quick look at the sacks against, saw three and assumed that he must have been under significant pressure from the Bears D-Line throughout.
As is almost always the case when you start breaking stuff down, the reality was somewhat different. By the time I finished the game and tallied everything up, Brady had a grade of +1.1 — a touch below average, not terrible, but not spectacular. A second run-through by our Sam Monson verified it: Brady did not, in fact, have a great football game.
The virtual ink was barely dry when our site editor phoned me up to ask me if I had lost my mind. How could Brady get such a pedestrian grade after the naked eye (and the stat sheet) showed such obvious mastery? Why, Jake Bleeding Delhomme got a +1.6 for his efforts in a 13-6 loss to Buffalo!
For the love of all things football, what’s going on here?!
Calm down, I told him. Just let me explain …
One thing I’ve found over the three seasons we’ve been doing this full-time is that people tend to see what they want to see.
When the quarterback throws a touchdown pass, it triggers a rush of endorphins and gets looped endlessly on SportsCenter. When he throws an interception, it sticks to the mind like glue.
Similarly, when a team wins a game, all flaws tend to be forgotten. A fumble that goes into the hands of a teammate is no big deal, while one that ends up going the other way for six points is cause for riot.
And so it was for Brady on Sunday.
What we do here at Pro Football Focus is try our best to determine how individual players are performing, without bias. Brady’s performance Sunday was a classic case of how much more complex things are than simply “Raw Stats + Team Success = QB Greatness.”
This was a legendary game, but for the Patriots’ team as a whole. They played quite remarkably. What was most impressive of all was the consistency of every player — there really wasn’t a bad performance and there were many excellent ones. On 45 dropbacks the offensive line surrendered only four hurries, which is absolutely superb. Deion Branch and Wes Welker looked as if they were indoors running routes while the Bears’ DBs were on a skating rink. And if anything, their defense was even better. Blitzing only five times, the front four got consistent pressure and, unlike their opponents, the Patriots’ cornerbacks stuck to their men like glue. On the back of this, cornerback Devin McCourty is certainly getting my Pro Bowl vote. It was magnificent across the board.
And then there was Brady, who is a marvelous quarterback that certainly deserves to be in the discussion for MVP this season.
Was this a great performance from the future Hall of Famer? I doubt he’d see it that way. I’m sure he was very satisfied with the win and some of the throws he made — including the 59-yard touchdown pass to Branch just before halftime.
But on three occasions defenders got their hands on the ball in instances that, on any other day, could have been interceptions. It was simply down to Brady not reading (or seeing) the underneath coverage and in all cases the passes were poor decisions. Just from those three throws, his stat line could as easily have read 250 yards, one TD and three INTs — which would have been a passer rating of 63.54 instead of the 113.4 he actually received. That’s a pretty good example of the limits of the rating, that three bounces either way can result in a 50-point difference.
I’m also sure there were a number of throws he’d like back, even excluding the balls that could have been intercepted,. He had next to no pressure, receivers running open and there were still balls he put into the ground or behind receivers. And as for the three sacks from the fearsome Chicago pass rush, two of those were on him as well, as he had time but decided to scramble and give the defense leverage.
In summary, he did well. He certainly gets extra credit because of the weather and the proverbial win is a win. But if time moves the victory solely onto his shoulders (if the media hasn’t put it there already), I’m not sure that would sit easy with anyone but those young enough to have posters of him in their bedrooms.
Base statistics don’t show the bad throws that should have been intercepted, only the ones that are (even though that could easily be down to someone else, other than the QB). An incomplete pass (or in Aaron Rodgers case, an interception) could be a perfectly thrown 50-yard bomb that a receiver drops, a throw away into the crowd, a spike or many other things.
We’re not saying that our system is perfect. We like it quite a bit, and we think that the attention to individual players is unique and important. But our grades don’t reflect weather (except in a case where a gust of wind might knock a ball clearly off-axis), nor do they reflect the relative (and subjective) strength of the opponent.
So, as the New England coach might say, the grade “is what it is.” It’s a way of quantifying how one player did his job, from the outside looking in. It’s to be used as a tool to understand the game a little better, and to understand who really does what and what makes a football team tick.
The feedback we’ve gotten from NFL scouts, players, front-office folks and agents suggest that we’re getting it right, and we strive to keep getting it better.
In the end, our site editor thought my explanation of the Brady grade was good enough that I should write a piece explaining it so that others would understand as well. And here it is.
Perhaps I should give Brady himself the last word.
“I think we took advantage of some opportunities we got on offense,” he told reporters after the game. “We also didn’t take advantage of some of the opportunities that we had on offense. Our defense gave it to us on a short field. Some great punt returns. But, it was a fun day. We’ll remember that one.”
Sounds like a man who understands that the NFL is truly a team game, and not one won solely by players with endorsement deals and a million Pro Bowl votes.