Settling the Debate: Who Is the Best Quarterback of This Era in Passing Situations?
We’ve developed a metric to rank the top QBs since 2008 in expected passing situations called spread value, which represents how far a signal-caller is above or below the cumulative baseline in that period.
NFL fans have been spoiled by the standard of quarterback play in the 21st century.
A golden age led by Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers is seemingly running right into another, though one largely dominated by quarterbacks with very different skill sets.
Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson have heralded the start of a fascinating new era. The success of Mahomes, Allen and Co. has in part been a product of their ability to make an impact with their legs as well as through the air.
Still, the ultimate test of a quarterback remains his ability to deliver in situations where the defense knows a pass is coming.
The confluence of the final years of the great pocket quarterbacks and the beginning of potential Hall of Fame careers of several dual-threat superstars can make a discussion about which modern-day signal-callers perform best in these scenarios a difficult one to settle.
However, we have developed a metric to rank the top quarterbacks since 2008 in expected passing situations called spread value.
Spread value is calculated using our efficiency versus expected (EVE) metric. For quarterbacks, EVE measures performance in terms of yards added in expected passing situations.
The spread value is generated using the EVE baselines for each season since 2008. In essence, spread value is how far a quarterback is above or below the cumulative baseline in that period, with significantly more weight given to recent results.
That weighting has undoubtedly influenced the quarterback at the top of the standings, though his consistently spectacular play has also played a substantial role.
With the historic pace Mahomes has set since entering the NFL, it’s no surprise the man leading the charge for ‘the new generation’ is atop the rankings.
Mahomes has racked up 18,707 passing yards over his first four seasons as a starter, comfortably surpassing the likes of Manning and Rodgers and putting him on track to go down as an all-time great.
His spread value of 6.429 is a product of Mahomes leading the NFL in EVE in three of his four seasons as a starting quarterback, including in a 2021 campaign that saw questions about his and the Chiefs’ ability to excel against two-high safety defenses.
Mahomes’ task going forward will be to maintain his superiority with a receiving corps absent Tyreek Hill following his trade to the Miami Dolphins.
He will not lack for in-conference challengers, with a further six active AFC quarterbacks inside the top 20 for spread value since 2008. Half of those QBs reside inside his own division, encapsulating the arms race that is the AFC West.
Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers is 11th after finishing fourth in EVE last season, Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders is 17th and new Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson 18th.
The man regarded as Mahomes’ chief rival, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, is 12th behind Herbert. His position below Herbert can be attributed to his early struggles after entering the NFL and a 2020 season regarded to this point as his vintage year only being good enough for 13th in EVE.
Allen did improve to eighth in 2021 and, though some may wonder how much better he can get following his stupendous playoff duel with Mahomes, he will look to take the next step and help the Bills finally overhaul the Chiefs.
Yet for all the talk of the AFC being the deeper conference, there are seven active NFC quarterbacks in the top 20, with Rodgers (third), Dak Prescott (fourth), Matthew Stafford (seventh) and Kirk Cousins (eighth) all residing in the top 10.
A 2021 season in which he was 10th in EVE ensured Kyler Murray of 16th in spread value and, despite the disappointing end to the campaign, underscored the Arizona Cardinals’ need to sign him to an extension. His NFC West rival Jimmy Garoppolo is three spots higher, above even his former New England Patriots mentor in an indication of the level of efficiency successor Trey Lance will need to at least match for the San Francisco 49ers to succeed in 2022 and beyond.
Breesy Does It
Despite a glorious career in which he compiled a plethora of records, some of which Brady has since broken, Drew Brees perhaps does not receive the same level of acclaim as his contemporaries in the NFL’s ‘old guard’ of quarterbacks.
But the New Orleans Saints’ legend is second behind Mahomes in spread value. Immediately trailing him among that veteran group are Rodgers and Philip Rivers in fifth.
Brees’ position is a consequence of him leading the NFL in EVE in expected passing situations for five straight seasons between 2008-12. He regained that spot in 2017 and the final season of his career in 2020 was the only year in which he finished outside the top five.
Those remarkable numbers are a tribute not just to Brees’ accuracy – he was first in well-thrown percentage (min. 100 attempts) in 2019 and fourth in 2020 – but also to the longevity of the connection between him and former Saints coach Sean Payton.
But what of the man who ended Brees’ career and stunned the NFL world by reversing his decision to conclude his own?
Tom Not Terrific?
Brady’s career was over for all of 40 days and it will now continue for as long as the greatest of all time sees fit, even if he appears to have nothing left to prove.
While Brady’s legacy is secure, the extra season(s) could help him climb the ladder in spread value, in which he is a – by his standards – lowly 19th.
His standing is impacted by a 2008 campaign in which he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1 and his final year with the New England Patriots in 2019, which marked his worst EVE performance in expected passing situations over the 14-season span.
Brady’s zenith in that regard came in the spectacular 2016 season in which he led the league in EVE despite playing only 12 games. He also guided the Patriots to Super Bowl glory with a historic comeback against the Atlanta Falcons.
The latest act of his incredible two-plus decades in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has not seen him return to those heights even as he has lifted the Bucs to the league’s elite.
He was 12th in EVE in 2020 as he guided the Bucs to Super Bowl glory and 13th in 2021 in what appeared to be his final season in the league. Here’s the top 10 in spread value in passing situations from the 2021 season:
Brady will want to go out on top of the mountain and the Bucs will hope he is not about to hit the cliff, with two of his greatest rivals having carried on long past their peak.
Quit While You’re Ahead
Given the four Super Bowls they share evenly between them and the prominent role they have played in football in this century, it is quite remarkable to see Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning so low in the spread value rankings.
Roethlisberger is 37th while Manning is way down in 67th, spots that belie their first ballot Hall of Fame resumes.
But it’s the weighting towards recent seasons that goes against Roethlisberger and Manning, both bowing out from pro football on the back of dreadful individual campaigns.
No quarterback with at least 300 attempts in expected passing situations had a worse EVE than Manning in 2015, when he was briefly benched for Brock Osweiler. In his defense, the end came extremely quickly for Manning following an MVP season in 2013 and a Pro Bowl campaign in 2014 and he still managed to do enough to go out by winning a Lombardi Trophy with the Broncos.
Roethlisberger’s awful 2021 was easier to forecast, his mobility and ability to push the ball downfield already having waned before he posted the worst EVE of his career in his final season.
By contrast, Tony Romo called it a career in 2017, but his last full season as a starter was in 2014 when he was seventh in EVE. The former Cowboy stands sixth in spread value as a result.
Brady’s play and his efficiency numbers from his two seasons with the Buccaneers suggests he is more likely to replicate Romo, who may well be his inspiration when he heads into his post-playing career.
Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads contributed. Banner graphic by Matt Sisneros.
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