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Monday, October 10, 2011
QBR ranks: Alex Smith sets 2011 standard

By Mike Sando

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.

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: 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.


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.