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2010’s Luckiest Quarterback Seasons

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 26: Mark Sanchez  of the New York Jets slips as he tosses the ball to a running back as Anthony Adams  and Israel Idonije  of the Chicago Bears rush at Soldier Field on December 26, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Jets 38-34. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

When it comes time to grade performance for a given year — particularly the performance of individual players — the use of statistics can create some major complications in analysis.  Statistics are excellent at showing us what has happened in a given timeframe.

For example, all of the following claims are true:

  • The Kansas City Chiefs won the AFC West division with a record of 10-6.
  • They accomplished this behind an offensive DVOA rating of 7.8%, and more specifically a pass offense rating of 21.5%, above the league average.
  • With just one wide receiver of note (plus a back who is a match-up nightmare), QB Matt Cassel threw 27 TDs, 7 interceptions, and lost just one fumble, accounting personally for most of the Chiefs offensive (and thusly, team) success.
  • Cassel was not the best player on the offense, with the season Jamaal Charles had, but with questionable contribution from Thomas Jones, Cassel was the difference between a below average offense in spite of Charles, and an above average offense featuring Charles.

These claims make it very clear: Matt Cassel was a very valuable player for the Kansas City Chiefs, probably the difference between them winning the division, and finishing third and out of the playoff race.  That right there should be enough to assume that Matt Cassel was the difference in the Chiefs season and specifically, the improvement he made from 2009 to 2010 under the tutelage of Charlie Weis.  More facts: Cassel went from a QB rating of 69.9 in 2009 to one of 93.0 in 2010 and from a DVOA of -23.3% to one of 15.2%.  It’s hard to overstate that uptick in performance, and what it meant to the Chiefs franchise.

If only analysis were that simple.  Cassel’s improvement across the board was easily measurable, but any of Cassel’s value above league average is likely tied up in simple touchdown to interception ratio.  Throwing four times as many TDs as INTs qualifies as a great season, but also a lucky one.  Why do I assert this?  Because if quarterbacks were truly skilled in a way where they could manipulate their interceptions and touchdown passes to greatly outpace their other statistics, every passer would do so.  But a quick PFR play index search of Cassel’s feat shows that Cassel’s feat of 3x INTs to TDs, while rare enough to put him among the list of some of the best ever, also puts into context how QB rating should love a season where such a feat was accomplished.  Cassel is one of just four players to 1) throw fewer than 10 INTs in a season, 2) throw three times as many TDs as INTs, and 3) fail to score 100.0 or better in QB rating.

One of the three seasons that are lumped in with Cassel, Matt Ryan’s 2010, provides another important contextual argument.  Cassel played one of the lightest schedules of pass defenses in the league, including Denver, Houston, Jacksonville, and the entire NFC West.  Had he not been injured, he would have faced San Diego a second time, but avoided them.  Ryan played a much harder schedule of defenses in relation to Cassel, accomplishing much of the same feats, but doing a little better than 10-5 on the season.  Rich Gannon’s 2001 is pretty much the same story: easy pass defenses helped bolster TD-INT ratios.  Gannon, at least, was less subjected to bad bounces of the ball because he completed passes at a rate 8% higher than Cassel did.  Jeff George’s 97 was a fluke season.  He struggled even more than Cassel did.  This is best explained by what happened the subsequent year: Gannon won the NFL MVP award.  George lost his job.

Because it’s such a rare feat, three times as many TDs as INTs is a strong indicator of future success.  However, the players who failed afterward all showed the same flaws as Cassel has this season: struggles in big games, low completion percentage for the season, unsustainable fumble rates on sacks, and career numbers that are completely out of line with the ‘fluky’ season.  Cassel’s 2010 pretty much falls in line with all of the above.  Tom Brady (and if you raise the baseline from 9 INTs to 12, Peyton Manning as well) is the only quarterback to hit this ratio twice in his career.  Gannon got close two other times.  George never got remotely close again.

Cassel is treading in rare territory.  These heights would have been really rare had Cassel not had a disaster game against the Raiders on Sunday, throwing 2 INTs in his own territory and taking 6 sacks while completing just a third of his passes.  This, of course, is part of my greater point: Cassel’s game was not the worst of his career.  He posted a 14.6 QB rating in a blowout loss to Denver at home last season, and was almost as bad at home vs. San Diego and against Buffalo the same year.  Gannon, for example, did not have such a game in the two years preceding his 2001 season, nor in the three years to follow.  All of which suggests that Cassel’s season is more an example of circumstance than of Cassel’s greatness.  Even George never had a period of struggles like Cassel has had in Kansas City.

Without some other strong statistical indicators to back up his performance, Matt Cassel’s 27-7 TD-INT ratio ranks as the luckiest QB season of 2010.  It is not the only one.

Mark Sanchez

Mark Sanchez has a mediocre 75.3 QB rating this year behind the strength of a low interception rate, in the 2.6% range.  This may be entirely because opponents have dropped more of Mark Sanchez’ interceptions than any other player in football this season.  If Mark Sanchez had benefited from only seven dropped interceptions instead of 12, that would tie him for the league lead in that good fortune category.  But Sanchez would have thrown 18 interceptions this year in that case.  This Mark Sanchez has an adjusted quarterback rating of 71.2, and had virtually no value as an NFL quarterback.

Perhaps the best season had by a quarterback with those kind of numbers that Sanchez would have put up but for the dropped interceptions: Miami’s Chad Henne, in 2010.  Henne, of course, had an identical QB rating to what Sanchez did have, not to mention, he only had one dropped interception on the season.  Matt Cassel (of course) was one of a couple other full time QB in 2010 who had fewer than four of his potential INTs dropped.  If just two more of Henne’s INTs are dropped by the opponent, and we adjusted for tipped INTs and hail mary’s, Henne has just 15 INTs on the year.  This Chad Henne has a 78.8 QB rating, his true talent level as of right now.  With a real number one receiver (9 TDs instead of Brandon Marshall’s 3), Henne has an 82.9 adjusted QB rating.

This supports an assertion that the Dolphins have an average starting quarterback, while the Jets have a poor one.  The difference, as it typically is, would be circumstance.  Sanchez’ good fortune and Henne’s poor fortune have put the Jets at 11 wins and the Dolphins at 7.  Playing the same 2010 season over again could have those fortunes flipped.

Michael Vick

The guy who has clearly been the best performer on this list of lucky quarterbacks has been an MVP candidate since the middle of the season, as he enjoys his best season as a passer in the NFL.  Kudos to Mike Vick for accomplishing what he has against all the odds.

What he has accomplished has been somewhat inflated by good fortune, perhaps timely fortune considering the type of lifestyle Vick has been forced through following his arrest in 2006.  While Vick’s accuracy from the pocket has established him once again as a premier NFL talent, his pocket play (as a whole) has once again been poor this season.  Vick appeared in just 12 games, starting just 11 and one of those starts he left with an injury in the first quarter.  So in just over 10 games of total action, Vick has sensationalized with 21 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.  He has also fumbled 11 times, leading the league.  To win as many games as they have, the Eagles have needed to recover as many fumbles as they have: all but two.

This 25+ sack, 8+ fumble truncated regular season has been accomplished numerous times, in fact, 70 times according to the PFR  play index.  These have mostly not been good seasons.  The best seasons ever per the criteria have been had by a pair of George Seifert 49ers QBs, Joe Montana and Steve Young.  More recently, Ben Roethisberger had a pretty nice season in 2007 despite being sacked 10% of the time, fumbling 9 times.  He went to the pro-bowl that year, much like Vick, and has won a super bowl since.  If that’s the company Vick is in, Eagles fans can’t complain, because they didn’t give up much of anything to get him.

Of course, most of the players on this list had terrible passing years.  Vick’s last two years with the Falcons appear on this list, as does Vince Young’s awful 2007 season, as do recent formative seasons by Mark Sanchez, Charlie Frye, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Kyle Orton’s rookie season with the Bears.  Vick’s feats of ineptitude in the pocket have been joined by some of the worst QB seasons in recent memory, but perhaps more troubling, by Vick himself.  While you have to enjoy the improvements that Michael Vick has made in his downfield passing accuracy, that may very well be the only difference between pre-prison Vick and the current QB of the Eagles.

Maybe, just maybe, that means he’s not an MVP candidate.  And that when the downfield accuracy leaves him, days like Vick had vs. the Vikings are more of a reality than the hype would lead one to believe.

***

This was an in-depth look at a bunch of passers who had value to their teams in 2010, who are unlikely to retain that value into the future.  For guys like Michael Vick, Mark Sanchez, and Matt Cassel, consider the role that good fortune has played in their seasons to this point before buying yourself an authentic jersey or drafting them high on your fantasy team.  2011 might not be kind to their personal stats, or the win loss records of their teams.  This is not, however, a mirage effect.  They just ran into a series of good games in 2010 helping them to secure jobs that otherwise would have remained, at best, insecure at the end of the season.

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