Thursday, January 5

Life's a Brees

New Orleans QB Drew Brees set the single-season passing record in 2011, throwing for 5476 yards and easily eclipsing Dan Marino's 1984 mark of 5084. Ordinarily, this accomplishment would be highly celebrated, but I've found that this one has come with more caveats than kudos. "Of course someone broke the record," people are saying - the NFL's modern rules make it much easier to pass for a lot of yards. Marino had to do it at a time when more hitting of receivers and quarterbacks was allowed, while today's lax rules have resulted in a proliferation of 4000+ yard passers. Brees' "record" thus isn't nearly as impressive as Marino's. It's a sham. On this topic, Bill Simmons writes:

Was it right that I didn't get excited about Drew Brees' new passing yards record? It reminds me of Oscar Robertson averaging a triple-double, or any of the Bonds/McGwire home run records; it's impossible to separate the era from the accomplishment itself. When Dan Marino threw for 5,084 yards in 1984, you were allowed to (a) pummel the QB every chance you had, (b) dive at the QB's knees as he was throwing the ball, (c) crush any receiver coming over the middle, and (d) jam receivers at the line by any means necessary, even if you had to use a crowbar or a chainsaw. It was impossible to throw for 5,000 yards back then. Only two other 1984 QBs cracked 4,000 yards (Neil Lomax and Phil Simms); nobody else cracked 3,800 yards; and only five guys even attempted 500+ passes (Marino's 564 was the highest). In 2011? Ten QBs will crack 4,000 yards; six will crack 4,500 yards; two (including Tom Brady) will crack 5,000 yards. Heading into Week 17, ten 2011 QBs have already thrown more than 500+ passes, with Brees leading the way with 622. It's a totally different game. Heading forward, we're going to see multiple QBs throw for 5,000 yards every season … right?

All of this is true...except that it's not.

The key misstatement that Simmons makes is that, "it's impossible to separate the era from the accomplishment itself." This is quite simply not true - the league and individual statistics are so readily available that there's no excuse for making a statement like this. Baseball has taken it further, with numbers like WAR and Win Shares that translate across eras. There's a little more heavy lifting to be done in football, but it's very much possible to consider various achievements with respect to their eras. Consider Robertson's triple-double that Simmons cites; I've seen articles explaining how, once you adjust for posessions per game, LeBron's numbers far exceed the Big O's. That's an inverse situation from Brees/Marino, because it's actually gotten more difficult, but the point is that you can readily make that comparison with available information. And Bonds and McGwire did steroids - I have no idea what he's trying to gain there.

Yes, the rules have made passing easier in today's NFL than it was 27 years ago (except, apparently, if you're the Cleveland Browns), and it's fair to discount Brees' gaudy numbers somewhat on that basis. But have those casually dismissing his achievement (and, for that matter, the stellar season of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers) bothered to actually look at the numbers? This is the kind of lazy non-analysis typically performed by people who can't be bothered to look up or understand an OPS+ - I'm dismayed to see this insidious mode of thinking has made its way into football as well.
First, a quick comparison across eras:

League Average Passer Rating: 73.2
League Average YPG passing: 205.9

League Average Passer Rating: 82.5
League Average YPG passing: 229.7

Again, I'm not disputing that teams have become more adept and efficient at piling on passing yards - they clearly have based on these figures, and the rule changes have no doubt aided that transition. I am saying, though, that you need to make a baseline comparison before just sloughing off a guy who threw for over 350 yards a game. I mean, what if Brees threw for 100000 yards this year? Would it still not be a significant accomplishment? Is Marinos's record always going to be the height of quarterbacking, no matter what, because of these rule changes that took place? Of course not - a shrewd analyst compares across eras and evaluates from that standpoint. Knowing the differences between seasons, let's compare our elite passers to that season's averages:

Marino Passer Rating: 108.7 (+35.5)
Marino YPG passing: 317.8 (+111.9)

Brees Passer Rating: 110.6 (+28.1)
Brees YPG passing: 342.3 (+112.6)

Rodgers Passer Rating: 122.5 (+40)
Rodgers YPG passing: 309.5 (+79.8)

The pro-Marino argument typically rests on how much better he was than any other QB when he set his mark, and indeed he exceeded the league-average YPG by just under 112 yards a contest. That's a lot. Drew Brees, slacker that he was, playing in today's wildly inflated conditions, only managed...just over 112 YPG more than league-average. Inasmuch as the record in question was for passing yardage, this seems the most relevant number, no? I mean, if Brees passed for exactly 5085 yards, then we'd write a different story, but since he outpaced his league by basically the same number as Dynamic Dan, can we maybe give the guy a little bit of credit for passing for 400 more yards than anyone ever?

Rodgers may not have amassed the same yardage (in part because he sat Week 16 while Matt Flynn shredded the Detroit defense for over 500 yards), but his season also compares favorably to Marino's epic '84 campaign. Again, the whole Marino case rests on differences between eras, on how much better his numbers were than his peers', and his advantage of 35.5 Passer Rating points over the NFL average is indeed remarkable. Well, Rodgers' edge was 40, and his yardage disadvantage with respect to Brees and Marino probably has something to do with the Packers firebombing teams week in and week out and running late to seal wins.

The point of this piece isn't to knock Marino - I've liked Marino since I sported a #13 Dolphins jersey as a kid. In fact, I basically feel the same way about Brees now as I did Marino in the '80's. I don't have a horse in this race, other than gaining proper understanding. I actually think Marino's combination of yardage and efficiency, relative to the competition, actually gives his season a slight edge over the NFC's top two gunslingers. The point I'm making is that Brees' accomplishment is impressive after one actually accounts numerically for the differences between 1984 and 2011, instead of simply citing those differences and declaring Marino the unimpeachable best.

1 comment:

Joe Figgs said...

Love this article. I think the Old Heads of today simply refuse to believe anyone today can be better than their heroes growing up. In thinking this, they lack perspective. My brother and I have gotten into the arguement with my dad on hundreds of occasions about his thinking Wilt Chamberlain was the best big man of all time. I'm sorry, but take Wilt in his prime, and post him up against a defender like Shaq in his prime or Dwight Howard today, and he's not putting up even close to the inflated numbers he did when he played.
The NFL has changed the way they officiate DBs, this is true. But for that to be someones only arguement is pretty short sighted. Just take the comparisons and skewed opinions out of it and simply watch Brees, Rogers, Brady and Manning (when healthy) throw the football. That's what I do and I am highly entertained every Sunday. (On an unrelated note, it is somewhat depressing that I have to wait for the Browns game to end to watch these men play and be entertained on Sundays, but I digress). Throw in Eli, Rivers, and up and comers like Newton, Dalton, Bradford and Luck, and this is the age of the quarterback my friends. Those of you over 50 can watch your highlights of Terry Bradshaws' wounded ducks and Bart Starr handing the ball off if you like. But I'll watch these guys do their thing and love every minute of it.