Monday, January 28, 2008

Brady 07: Best Ever?

Around the time Jimmy Carter was giving way to Ronald Reagan, the NFL was rapidly evolving from a Run First to a Pass First League. In retrospect, three pivotal events in a 5 year period made this clear:

1979: Dan Fouts, in San Diego's Air Coryell offense, became the first quarterback to throw for 4000 yards

1981: Joe Montana, running Bill Walsh's version of the pass-oriented West Coast offense, won the first of many 49er Super Bowls.

1983: Six quarterbacks were taken in the NFL draft; 4 of them would play in Super Bowls (with 10 starts and 2 Wins) and 3 of them would be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

It was now a quarterback's league. But which quarterback had the greatest single season since that series of events? Tom Brady's record-breaking 50 TDs, combined with the Patriots record-breaking scoring season, have people wondering if his 2007 campaign fits the bill.

There are three contenders: Dan Marino in 1984, Peyton Manning in 2004, and now Tom Brady in 2007. Let's look first at the main statistics people associate with the quarterback:

Based on this, you'd have to give the edge to Brady. More yards than Manning, fewer picks than Marino, and more TDs and higher pass % than either.

But...the TD differential is statistically insignificant. And while Brady easily beats Marino in % and picks, it's really too close to call with Manning. Still, he threw for 250 more yards. Time to expand the categories a bit: it's getting interesting. Brady threw 34 more passes than Marino, and 81 more passes than Manning. In Manning's case, the Colts wrapped up their division early and Manning rested significantly down the stretch in 04. Jim Sorgi played parts of 4 games, even threw 2 TDs. It's likely Manning would have thrown more TD passes and more yards than Brady if he had played those quarters.

But more important is that YPA - Yards Per Attempt. YPA is considered the most meaningful quarterback statistic, and for good reason. It measures, obviously, how much production you are getting out of each pass. Brady's 8.3 is very good - it led the league in 2007.

But it's not great. In fact, it's a very low total for a league leader - in the Super Bowl era 36 league leaders have had a higher YPA. Romo led the league last year with 8.6. Big Ben had 8.9 the year before that. Guys like Eric Hipple and Jay Schroeder and Chris Chandler have led the league with higher YPAs. Leading the league with an 8.3 YPA is like winning a batting title with a .324 average.

Brady had a great season in 2007. But every category is either incredibly close (%, TDs, QB rating, INTs), or Brady's totals were inflated by throwing more passes (yardage). Manning has a clear statistical edge over Brady in a hugely important statistic. This, coupled with Marino's 17 INTs, gives the nod to Manning 04 as the most productive season a QB has ever had.

Note to Stat Haters
Please don't tell me stats are meaningless. You're the same guy who will be sitting in a bar using stats to proclaim Brady was the best in 07 ("He had 50 TD passes, man! Manning only had 49!"). You'll just be using the wrong stats, or not enough stats.

Note to Stat Lovers

For a discussion of how Yards Per Attempt and QB Rating correlate to Winning, go here. QB Rating is often knocked, but it does seem to correlate to Winning. Manning's QB Rating in 04 was an NFL record.

Bonus Fun Fact
While passing yardage and TD passes have increased through the years, YPA has remained fairly constant since WWII. In fact, the only QBs with a single-season YPA higher than 10 were Norm Van Brocklin ('54), Otto Graham ('55 and '47), and Sid Luckman ('43).

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