Quickie on Cowherd and QB Stats (almost alliterative)

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On Friday’s The Herd, CC had lots to say about this golden age of passing in the NFL we are currently living in, inspired by the crazy good night Peyton Manning had against the Ravens in Thursday night’s season opener (I am in a fantasy league, and Peyton is my QB, so I was pretty psyched about it myself). CC noted that you can’t compare QB numbers in the current era to those of earlier eras, because the game is fundamentally different. He concluded from this that you can’t really look at passing numbers at all – that only your “eyes” are a reasonable guide to quarterback play.

This, of course, makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Anyone who has thought about the subject for more than five seconds knows that when you do look at stats, you look at them in context. We know that ten homeruns in 2013 does not mean the same thing as ten homeruns in 1918. We know that a 50-goal season in hockey in 1982 isn’t the same as one in 2012. And we know that 4,000 yard passing seasons today don’t mean what they once did. But what has that got to do with the blessed “eye test?” Cowherd brought up Joe Namath to make his point. But you can look at Namath’s numbers, if you put them in the right context. Among other things, – you most certainly can compare them to quarterbacks in the era in which Namath played. And in that era, according to Coldhardfootballfacts, which does a really good job of putting stats in proper perspective, Namath wasn’t a good QB at all. In fact, they rate him as the most overrated QB of all time. We can debate that. But CHFF understood perfectly well that the problem with Namath isn’t that he doesn’t put up Drew Brees numbers. The problem is that he was worse than most of his contemporaries. The data make that clear.

CHFF has been on this beat for years. They’ve appropriately labeled the period from 1961-1977 (before the 1978 rules changes) the “deadball era” of pro football. And like anyone who knows baseball history at all, they know that comparing the stats of players in the deadball era to other eras needs to be done with care and caution. Football Outsiders, Aaron Schatz, KC Joyner and a phalanx of analysts have developed perfectly sensible ways of evaluating the numbers with these simple truths in mind. It’s not an exact science. But it’s not some cosmic mystery either.

And given how different the game is today, what does the eye test really tell us if we are trying to compare QBs across eras anyway? For one thing, like football players in general, QBs now are giants compared to their counterparts in the 1960s and 1970s. Furthermore, QBs are now sacred property. If quarterbacks 30 or 40 years ago could be battered silly, so that they were probably regularly in a fugue state by the 3rd quarter, how do our eyes help us compare them to the relatively pampered quarterbacks of today (unless the QB today is under the “care” of, say, Mike Shanahan)? Cowherd kept invoking passing yards to make his case that stats can’t tell us anything useful about quarterback play. But who seriously believes that passing yards are the stat to use in evaluating signal-caller performance? If we’re comparing QBs only within their own eras, is there a person on the planet who thought Matthew Stafford was better than Aaron Rodgers in 2011 because he threw for 5,000 yards and Rodgers didn’t? We know Rodgers was better and it wasn’t only or even primarily because it’s obvious to the eye that Rodgers is better. We know Rodgers was better because he outperformed Stafford in every single statistical category that matters.

It’s true that it would be really dumb to use passing yards to compare Peyton Manning to Sammy Baugh. But since no one’s doing that, CC’s call to junk QB stats is just silly. Please tell me you know that, Colin.

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