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QBR ranks: Alex Smith sets 2011 standard

10/10/2011

Make available all the relevant NFC West quarterbacks in a league-wide draft and Sam Bradford would probably be the first one selected, even with the St. Louis Rams at 0-4.

It is time, however, to re-assess the position within the division.

2011 NFC West QB Play

The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks were the teams with unsettled quarterback situations heading into the season. They're also the teams getting the best quarterback play through Week 5.

In fact, the 49ers' Alex Smith emerged from a 48-3 victory over Tampa Bay with the highest single-game Total QBR score of this NFL season, a 98.2 that reflected nearly flawless play.

Removing Smith from the game with nearly a full quarter remaining prevented the 49ers' quarterback from further padding his stat line. But the truly meaningful work was finished when Smith left the game after his third touchdown pass extended the 49ers' lead to 38 points early in the fourth quarter. And because QBR rewards players for production in meaningful situations, discounting stats meaningless to the game's outcome, Smith stood little to gain by that measure anyway.

Smith led the 49ers to touchdowns on their first possessions of each quarter. He completed 6 of 7 passes for 92 yards with five first downs on the 49ers' first three drives. Another one of his passes helped draw a 24-yard penalty for pass interference, setting up first-and-goal from the 1. That play also factored into his QBR score, which beat out performances from Matt Hasselbeck (97.8, Week 4), Aaron Rodgers (96.2, Week 4), Tony Romo (94.6, Week 2) and Jason Campbell (93.3, Week 2) for the top spot in 2011.

Quick thoughts on how NFC West passers graded out as they did by Total QBR in Week 5, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point:

  • Alex Smith, 49ers (98.2 QBR, 127.2 NFL rating): Smith completed 11 of 19 passes for 170 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He took no sacks. Other quarterbacks have put up far flashier stats this season, so why haven't any exceeded Smith's QBR score for this game? A couple variables were key. QBR determined Smith played a leading role in the 49ers jumping to a huge lead early in the game, pumping up their win probability into the 95 percent range after only a few drives. The fact that Smith was able to produce such spectacular results in a limited time worked in his favor because QBR is a rate statistic, not a cumulative one.

  • Charlie Whitehurst, Seahawks (61.7 QBR, 100.5 NFL rating): Whitehurst completed 11 of 19 passes for 149 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions and two sacks. Whitehurst threw the winning touchdown pass to Doug Baldwin late in the game. He finished the game with the highest clutch weight average in the league Sunday. That doesn't reflect how he played in the clutch, but rather the fact that he played in more critical situations, on the whole, than any quarterback in the league. That makes sense given that Whitehurst did not enter the game until relative late.

  • Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle Seahawks (29.9 QBR, 86.6 NFL rating): Jackson completed 15 of 22 passes for 166 yards with one touchdown, one interception and four sacks. The sacks dragged down his QBR. Only Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Blaine Gabbert fared worse in expected points lost through sacks in Week 5. The negatives were amplified for Jackson because the Seahawks' game was so tightly contested. Had Jackson taken sacks in a blowout, the effect would have been diminished.

  • Kevin Kolb, Cardinals (5.4 QBR, 46.9 NFL rating): Kolb completed 21 of 42 passes for 232 yards with no touchdowns, two interceptions, four sacks and one lost fumble. QBR has sniffed out Kolb's problems all season, docking him hard for the sacks he takes and turnovers he commits, particularly in critical situations. Only Denver's Kyle Orton finished with a lower QBR this week. Kolb ranks 26th among qualifying NFL players in QBR this season at 37.1, with 50 being average. His minus-22.7 score in the expected points relating to sacks stands as by far the worst in the league. The 49ers' Smith is next at minus-14.2. Even though Kolb's passing numbers outshine those his predecessors posted in 2010, his overall QBR is only slightly better. The team has actually gone backward at the position in terms of the costliness of interceptions and fumbles.

Colin Kaepernick and Rich Bartel also played quarterback for NFC West teams this week, but neither participated in enough plays to qualify, and neither was playing in meaningful situations, anyway.

The chart shows QBR scores for the seven quarterbacks most relevant to NFC West outcomes in Week 5.

It's tough for me to understand, on the surface, why the Vikings' Donovan McNabb would score higher than Whitehurst. Yes, the Viking won big, but they seemed to do so more in spite of McNabb than because of him. Whitehurst added more expected points to his team, 3.9 to 1.3, and he did so in far more critical game situations. But McNabb was slightly higher in QBR, 63.0 to 61.7.

Why?

Dean Oliver, director of analytics for ESPN, provided the following explanation:

"Whitehurst vs. McNabb gets at one of the important but understated aspects of QBR -- the opportunity for clutch play is accounted for. Rewarding players for having more opportunities in the clutch is something no one wanted to do.

"Good quarterbacks who get ahead so much that they have few clutch opportunities (Tom Brady) shouldn’t get penalized. Quarterbacks with bad defenses allowing the opponents back in the game shouldn’t get better QBR values than those with good defenses keeping it a blowout. This is a case where McNabb got ahead early and generally did things to avoid losing the game.

"Whitehurst’s performance was good and, overall, added more points to the bottom line, but QBR is an efficiency stat and, on a per-clutch-opportunity based efficiency, McNabb did more with less. Actually, it was essentially the same."

Now, on to the chart.

2011 Relevant NFC West QBR Ranks: Week 5