NFC West: Philip Rivers

SAN DIEGO – Perhaps the weight of matching wits against Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning last week was too much for the St. Louis Rams defense.

With Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers pushing the buttons on Sunday, the Rams ran into another pre-snap master, the type of quarterback capable of getting his team out of bad plays and into good ones. He doesn’t get the same credit for doing that as Manning, but the Rams got a not-so-subtle reminder of how good Rivers is Sunday afternoon.

Rivers
In guiding San Diego to a 27-24 victory, Rivers looked lost early but quickly found answers to all of the Rams’ questions. The Rams, meanwhile, were unable to adjust as Rivers and the Chargers offense buried them under an avalanche of screens, draws and other assorted short-area plays that often turned into big gains.

“It’s the same stuff they’ve been doing,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “They’re good. Their back is a good, young back and Philip is also pretty good at the line of scrimmage at changing things. We also stopped some draws and stopped some bubble screens on the defensive side.”

For a half, they certainly did. Rivers was able to connect on 15-of-20 first-half pass attempts but those completions netted just 106 yards, an average of just 5.3 yards per attempt as the Rams consistently and quickly made tackles.

In the second half, that changed. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rivers’ average pass traveled just 3.9 yards in the air, his lowest since 2010. But the sure-tackling back seven that had been there for the Rams vanished in the final 30 minutes.

On the day, San Diego’s collection of receivers had 205 yards after the catch, led by wide receiver Keenan Allen’s 81. Rivers finished 29-of-35 for 291 yards with a touchdown and an interception and had a rating of 98.9.

“We just left a few plays out there from that standpoint defensively,” safety Rodney McLeod said. “We kept things in front of us in the back end, but we fell short on tackling today.”

Making matters more difficult was Rivers’ ability to adjust on the fly. Rivers clearly picked up on some of the Rams’ blitzing tendencies in the first half and exploited them in the second.

The Rams blitzed Rivers 16 times, according to ESPN Stats & Information, eight times in each half. In the first half, Rivers was 5-of-8 for 40 yards against the blitz. In the second, he connected on all eight attempts for 108 yards and a touchdown.

“Philip Rivers did a good job of catching on to what we were doing and he checked and audibled and made great calls of throwing screens into where the pressure was coming from,” McLeod said. “It’s just tough when they get the linemen out like that, how fast they were getting out. It was just good execution by them.”

Final 2013 preseason QB snap counts

August, 30, 2013
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Six projected starting quarterbacks played in their teams' final exhibition games of the 2013 preseason. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson and the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick were two of them, and both led touchdown drives before exiting after one series. None of the NFL's projected starters got hurt Thursday night.

The chart shows week-by-week snap counts for quarterbacks I singled out as projected starters heading into preseason. NFC West alums Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn might not start after all, but I've left them in the chart for context.

St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has generally played starters in the final preseason game. He did not this time.

"Typically I have, but I guess in the new world that we’re in, it’s hard to," Fisher told reporters after the Rams' game against Baltimore. "What that implies is that I'm pleased with where they are right now, those guys that sat. They worked hard. We got a great workout and it allowed them to fast-forward their minds to Arizona."

Fisher could have been alluding to the run of higher-profile injuries around the league this summer. Last year, the Rams lost rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers to a high-ankle sprain in the final preseason game.

The Rams emerged from this preseason healthier than their division rivals. That did not stop the 49ers from playing their offensive starters or the Seahawks from playing starters on both sides of the ball Thursday night. The Arizona Cardinals rested most of their starters, though Michael Floyd was one notable exception.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh offered no explanation for playing his starting offense one series. Kaepernick hadn't gotten many snaps through the first three games, however. Getting additional reps for Kaepernick and the team's group of emerging receivers made some sense on the surface.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll went into the final preseason game saying he wanted starters to play because the team values this games as competitive opportunities.

NFL teams have played their most important snaps of the 2013 exhibition season now that every team has played at least three games.

This becomes a good time to check out how many snaps each projected starting quarterback has played. The players listed in the chart below entered preseason as the quarterbacks I considered most likely to start season openers. We might have to make adjustments in some cases.

Teams have different priorities based on a range of factors. This snapshot does provide some context.

A few notes regarding the NFC West info:
  • Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer appeared sharper in the preseason opener than he did subsequently. Pass protection was one problem against San Diego on Saturday night. Palmer still got 37 snaps, his highest total of the preseason. But with the team losing key players Rob Housler and Jonathan Cooper to injuries, snap counts for Palmer were not a leading storyline.
  • St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford has played 25 snaps in each of the last two preseason games. He is averaging 10.2 yards per pass attempt in the preseason and has a 114.1 NFL passer rating to this point (he finished the 2012 preseason with five touchdown passes, no picks and a 116.3 rating). The team's most recent preseason game, at Denver, provided Bradford a good opportunity to connect with Jared Cook, the tight end St. Louis lured away from Tennessee in free agency with $19 million in guarantees. Cook caught four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown.
  • San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick has played fewer snaps than any projected starter other than the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III, who has not yet played in a game since suffering knee injuries in the playoffs last season. Kaepernick finished strong against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night, completing his final six passes, including one for a touchdown.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson took three sacks and threw two interceptions while playing 38 snaps against Green Bay in the most recent preseason game. The Packers, meanwhile, pulled Aaron Rodgers after 10 snaps. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the Packers came after Seattle with scheme-related wrinkles an offense would address in the regular season, but not preseason.

 
Looking back on three things discussed here before the Arizona Cardinals' third exhibition game of the 2013 preseason, a 24-7 defeat at home against the San Diego Chargers on Saturday night:

1. Whisenhunt homecoming. Former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt returned to University of Phoenix Stadium as the Chargers' offensive coordinator. His quarterback, Philip Rivers, averaged only 3.9 yards per attempt and threw one interception with no touchdown passes. However, the Chargers' first-team offense put together a 92-yard touchdown drive and generally outperformed the Cardinals' starting offense on this night. Both teams' running games were effective early. That provided some consolation for the Cardinals until the team lost running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee) and rookie first-round guard Jonathan Cooper (ankle) to injuries of unknown severity. Cooper rode a cart off the field and wasn't putting any weight on his left leg after the injury. Another player flew into his left leg from the side and behind, causing Cooper's left ankle to roll inside out. A serious injury to Cooper would undermine the team's efforts to upgrade the line. That seemed particularly true on this night, when the Chargers' Dwight Freeney dominated against Cardinals left tackle Levi Brown.

2. Williams at running back.Third-year running back Ryan Williams returned to practice late in the week and made his 2013 preseason debut late in the third quarter. Williams, troubled by knee issues lingering from a 2011 injury, gained 5 yards on his first play. He was the fourth running back to get carries in this game, after Mendenhall, Alfonso Smith and Stepfan Taylor. Rookie Andre Ellington was shaken up returning a kick right before Williams went into the game. Ellington then went back into the game on offense, replacing Williams. Williams returned when Ryan Lindley took over at quarterback in the final five minutes. He carried one more time and gained 5 yards. He ran well on his two carries. Time could be running out for Williams. Three other recent high draft choices for Arizona -- Cooper, tight end Rob Housler (ankle) and nose tackle Dan Williams (knee) -- left this game with injuries. Rookie seventh-round tight end D.C. Jefferson also left with an injury. This was a brutal night for Arizona.

3. Red-zone offense. The Cardinals wanted to focus on this area after settling for four field goals and a 12-7 victory in their most recent preseason game. They scored one touchdown in two red-zone possessions against San Diego. Housler dropped an accurate pass from Carson Palmer in the end zone, killing the first opportunity. Receiver Michael Floyd made an impressive leaping grab in the back of the end zone to score on the other red-zone possession. This was progress, in a way, but the shaky pass protection and injuries likely prevented Arizona from enjoying it.
The San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick has played fewer preseason snaps than any projected starting quarterback except for the still-idled Robert Griffin III.

Big deal? Not necessarily.

Injuries, game circumstances, position battles and other factors affect how NFL teams allot playing time during the exhibition season. Kaepernick played 12 snaps in the preseason opener, not far from the 13.8-snap average for projected starters in openers. His four snaps against Kansas City in the 49ers' second preseason game came in well below the 26.6-snap average for the other projected starters in their second preseason games.

"I didn't want anything freakish to happen," Harbaugh told reporters Sunday. "Sometimes you gotta have a plan and you also need a feel, too. So, just felt like he has gotten tremendous amount of work in practice. Though you’d like to have him play more in the preseason games, it comes down to a feel there."

The chart shows how many snaps projected starting quarterbacks have played in the preseason. "DNP" shows when a projected starter did not play. "MNF" reflects the scheduled "Monday Night Football" game between Pittsburgh and Washington.

ESPN's Ron Jaworski recently gave Aaron Rodgers the edge over Peyton Manning for the top spot in his 2013 rankings for NFL starting quarterbacks.

With an eye toward the NFC West, we consider how quarterbacks from this division fared during the 2012 regular season and playoffs against the players listed above them in the rankings. Quarterbacks do not face one another directly, of course, but they're usually pivotal to a game's outcome. Teams with the higher Total QBR scores have won 86.3 percent of games since 2008 (1,103-175-2).
  • 22. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams. 4-5-1 record, 54.8 Total QBR score, 83.5 NFL passer rating. Bradford completed 210 of 336 passes (62.5 percent) with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He averaged 6.8 yards per pass attempt. Bradford was at his best (82.0 QBR score) during a Week 10 tie against the 49ers (Alex Smith started that game, but Kaepernick was behind center most of the way). Bradford also played particularly well during a 31-28 victory over Robert Griffin III's Washington Redskins. He completed 74.3 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and one interception in that game. The Rams either won, tied or lost by fewer than eight points in seven of the 10 games. Bradford was a footnote in lopsided defeats against Brady's Patriots and Rodgers' Packers. Those QBs tossed seven touchdown passes without a pick against the Rams.
  • 23. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals. 1-9 record, 39.3 Total QBR score, 88.5 NFL passer rating. Palmer, playing for the Oakland Raiders last season, was very good (85.1 QBR score with three touchdown passes) during a 34-31 victory over Ben Roethlisberger's Pittsburgh Steelers. He played pretty well in defeat against Philip Rivers' San Diego Chargers. Palmer barely played at all (three pass attempts) during a 17-6 defeat to Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers. Setting aside the Carolina game, Palmer finished five of the remaining nine games with an NFL passer rating of at least 94.2. His Total QBR scores were quite a bit below average (no higher than 42.9) in seven of those nine games, however. That suggests Palmer put up decent passing stats in some of those games without doing much to affect the outcome.

My sense is that Kaepernick, Wilson and Bradford are gaining in these evaluations, and that Palmer should benefit from better talent around him this season. The NFC West in its current form has never projected more positively at quarterback.
While the Arizona Cardinals and four other NFL teams continue to pursue head coaching candidates, I've put together a look at what the candidates might see when considering their options.

Arizona caught a break, it appeared, when one of their candidates, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, became available earlier than expected following a divisional-round playoff defeat.

McCoy will reportedly have a second interview with the Cardinals after meeting with the San Diego Chargers.

The chart shows some of what Arizona has to offer relative to what the four other teams have to offer. Most or all of the other teams appear to have more attractive quarterback situations.

QBR ranks: Canton calls on this showing

December, 18, 2012
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Teams with the higher Total QBR scores posted a 16-0 record in Week 15.

That's not what made this week perfect for using the ESPN metric to more fully evaluate quarterback play in the NFC West, however. This was a perfect week because three quarterbacks from the division put up impressive-looking numbers in different ways.

Seattle's Russell Wilson scored three first-half rushing touchdowns during a 50-17 victory over Buffalo. San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick tossed four touchdown passes -- a first for a 49ers player since 2003 -- during a 41-34 victory at New England. St. Louis' Sam Bradford struggled while falling behind 30-7, only to pass for 229 yards and two touchdowns in the second half of a 36-22 defeat.

Total QBR measures the ways a quarterback contributes to winning. It discounts stats accumulated when a game has all but been decided. It rewards quarterbacks for rushing touchdowns, not just passing ones. While it penalizes quarterbacks for taking sacks and incurring penalties, it gives them credit to the degree a penalty for pass interference improves the chances for scoring.

So, what would it say about NFC West quarterbacks in Week 15?

The scores seem about right: 99.3 for Wilson, 87.7 for Kaepernick, 58.6 for Bradford and 21.5 for Arizona's Ryan Lindley. Note that the 100-point scale is more percentile-based than linear, meaning it's much tougher to jump from 97 to 99 than from, say, 49 to 51.

Wilson became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to finish a game with at least one touchdown pass, three rushing touchdowns and 90 yards rushing. The Pro Football Hall of Fame recognized the performance by acquiring Wilson's game uniform for display in Canton.

Wilson made most of those contributions in the first half, when they were most meaningful. The result was the highest qualifying single-game QBR score in the NFL this season.

Kaepernick posted a very solid 87.7 score for his efforts, which included the game-winning touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree. Recent opponents had limited Kaepernick to shorter passes, but the Patriots failed to do so. Kaepernick's passes traveled 12.3 yards past the line of scrimmage on average, the second-highest figure in the NFL for Week 15. Peyton Manning was at 13.9. The league average was 8.1.

Three of Kaepernick's touchdown passes traveled at least 24 yards past the line of scrimmage before reaching their targets. Receivers gained 2 yards after the catch on those throws. QBR values longer passes over shorter ones. Those touchdowns helped pump up Kaepernick's score more than if the receivers had gained a higher percentage of yards after the catch.

With that, let's take a player-by-player look at NFC West quarterbacks in relation to Total QBR for Week 15:
  • Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (99.2 QBR, 104.4 NFL rating). Wilson completed 14 of 23 passes (60.9 percent) for 205 yards with one touchdown, zero interceptions, two sacks and 10 passing first downs. He carried nine times for 92 yards and three touchdowns, with five first downs rushing. He had no fumbles. The Bills sacked Wilson on the first play of the game. They had a hard time getting a hand on him most of the day, however. The Bills did not touch Wilson on any of the quarterback's nine rushes. Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch continued to play off one another effectively on option runs.
  • Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers (87.7 QBR, 107.7 NFL rating). Kaepernick completed 14 of 25 passes (56 percent) for 221 yards with four touchdowns, one interception, one sack and 11 first downs passing. He rushed seven times for 28 yards and two first downs. Kaepernick fumbled four times, but the 49ers recovered every one. Bad weather and problems with Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork complicated efforts to make clean center-quarterback exchanges. Teammate Frank Gore picked up one of the loose balls and ran into the end zone for a touchdown. Kaepernick's downfield throwing more than offset the one interception he threw while apparently failing to see safety Devin McCourty.
  • Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (58.6 QBR, 94.3 NFL rating). Bradford completed 35 of 55 passes for 377 yards with three touchdowns, one interception and four sacks. He ran twice for 9 yards and zero first downs. Bradford did not fumble. He has lost only one fumble all season after losing seven in 2011.

    After this game, Bradford said the Vikings surprised the Rams by unleashing frequent blitzes, counter to their tendencies. Minnesota had sent five or more pass-rushers only 19.2 percent of the time through Week 14, the fourth-lowest percentage in the NFL. The percentage was only 22.4 for this game, but the pressure Minnesota brought worked to great effect.

    As the chart from ESPN Stats & Information shows, Bradford completed only 4 of 12 passes for 58 yards with one interception when Minnesota brought more than the standard four pass-rushers. He completed 72.1 percent of his passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns the rest of the time.
  • Ryan Lindley, Arizona Cardinals (21.5 QBR, 45.0 NFL rating). Lindley completed 14 of 21 passes (66.7 percent) for 104 yards with zero touchdowns, one interception, one sack and four first downs passing. He carried twice for 8 yards and no first downs. Lindley has three games this season with a QBR score of 10 or lower. That is tied with Philip Rivers for second-most in the NFL behind Mark Sanchez, who has five. The Cardinals did not need much from Lindley in this game because their defense and special teams were dominating. They stuck with shorter passes and it paid off. Lindley did not win the game, but more importantly, he did not lose it, either.

The chart below shows QBR scores for quarterbacks relevant to NFC West games in Week 15. Rankings in the first column reflect all NFL games for the week.

Early signs point to Alex Smith starting

November, 14, 2012
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Starting 16 consecutive games in one season can be tough enough for NFL quarterbacks.

Stacking multiple 16-start seasons atop one another requires durability and, of course, the ability to hold the job on merit.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has encountered hurdles on both fronts over the years. The latest news suggests he'll remain on course, at least for now, to push toward a second consecutive 16-start regular season.

Smith, who suffered a concussion against St. Louis on Sunday, has been cleared to participate in non-contact drills. That suggests Smith will likely start against the Chicago Bears on "Monday Night Football" in Week 11.

Smith started all 16 games for the 49ers last season, his first 16-start season since 2006 and the second of his career. He started the first nine games this season.

Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco were the only NFL quarterbacks to enter the 2012 season coming off successive seasons with 16 regular-season starts. Smith, Cam Newton, Matt Hasselbeck, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo and Andy Dalton started 16 games last season.
Seth from Pennsylvania asked during the most recent chat whether the San Francisco 49ers were committing an inordinate number of penalties for delay.


"Why does it seem like Alex Smith has such a hard time with the play clock?" he asked. "This is a trend that I've noticed ever since he's been a starter through three different head coaches, so I don't think it's coaches getting him the play too late. I'd be interested to see stats on how many delay of game penalties he gets, and how many timeouts are wasted on play clock issues."

What I said during the chat: The Jimmy Raye system was a digit system featuring more terminology for each play. That system required more time for relaying the call and more time for making it in the huddle. You will typically see digit-based offenses suffering from delay penalties more frequently. That is why Philip Rivers and the Chargers have had so many of them. The 49ers do lead the NFL in delay penalties since the 2009 season.

Following up: Raye was the 49ers' coordinator under former coach Mike Singletary. The 49ers are tied with Seattle for most delay penalties this season. The Seahawks have cut down on those penalties recently. The 49ers have suffered a recent spike.

Smith entered the NFL in 2005. His 28 career penalties for delay are the third-highest total since 2005. He ranks second only to Carson Palmer if we eliminate from consideration the 2008 season, which Smith missed entirely (Palmer missed all but four games that year).

Those cumulative stats "favor" quarterbacks with staying power. All the players listed have been starters regularly since 2005. Others might have committed more penalties per game. Also, quarterbacks aren't solely to blame for all delay penalties.

The fact that Smith ranks so high on the list does make this a legitimate subject to pursue, however.

Russell Wilson has cleared initial hurdles during his rookie season as the Seattle Seahawks' starting quarterback.

Many more hurdles await. Some of the same ones will appear again.

Third-quarter production is one to consider while people who study games for a living suggest Wilson already might be the best quarterback in the NFC West at midseason.

Wilson thrives on preparation. That could be one reason he has generally played well in first quarters, before game situations steer teams away from their offensive scripts.

Brock Huard, who played quarterback for the Seahawks before backing up Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, ran across Wilson at Seahawks headquarters on Tuesday of this week. Players are off on Tuesdays. It's their one day to get away. Not for Wilson.

"It's a striking reminder of this kid’s commitment," Huard said during his show on 710ESPN Seattle. "I never showed up on a Tuesday, not until Peyton Manning demanded we get there on Tuesday night, get the game plan early and sit there for two hours and do all that. Tuesdays around the league, by and large, Ben Roethlisberger is not in on Tuesday. These guys are off. And this kid is absolutely relentless."

Huard made those comments at the 14-minute mark of this audio clip for those interested in listening to the full context.

Wilson ranks behind only Tom Brady, Andrew Luck and Roethlisberger in first-quarter Total QBR this season (50 is average, 100 is maximum), as the first chart shows. For some reason, however, Wilson has consistently struggled in third quarters, even while his overall play has improved dramatically over the past four games (see final chart).

The second chart shows QBR by quarters for the first four weeks of the season. Wilson wasn't making much of a positive impact. Conservative game plans could explain some of the lag. But those third-quarter numbers stand out even more now that Wilson is succeeding in carrying more of the offense.

Are teams adjusting to Wilson and the Seattle offense? Are the Seahawks failing to make the right adjustments? Are the numbers random?

Those questions are tough to answer.

The results clear, however. Only Sam Bradford (9.5), Philip Rivers (8.1) and John Skelton (2.8) have lower third-quarter QBR scores than Wilson for the season.
NFL quarterbacks play in different systems with different coaches under different circumstances.

Some are going to suffer additional turnovers for reasons beyond their control.

Alex Smith would know this better than most quarterbacks after changing head coaches and offensive coordinators frequently during his first six NFL seasons.

Smith seems to be the right player in the right place at the right time lately.

The San Francisco 49ers' quarterback, credited by coaches for managing risks expertly, has not thrown an interception since a Week 12 game at Baltimore last season. He heads into the 49ers' game Sunday night against Detroit as the only player with no interceptions since that time through Week 1 (min. 100 dropbacks).

The chart, from ESPN Stats & Information, ranks these qualifying quarterbacks by lowest percentage of interceptions and would-be interceptions (passes dropped by defenders).

Smith is riding a franchise-record streak of passes without an interception. The 49ers have gone six consecutive games without a turnover. One more game and they would tie the 2010 New England Patriots for the longest streak in NFL history.

Gunther Cunningham, the Lions' defensive coordinator, says it's only a matter of time before the turnover odds even out. Smith suffered two turnovers, a lost fumble and an interception, during a 25-19 victory at Detroit last season.

The dropped interception stat is one we don't see too frequently. The Lions' Matthew Stafford has more of them since the 2011 opener (six) than any quarterback, including one against San Francisco. Matt Hasselbeck is second with four. Smith had two last season, both during a 48-3 victory against Tampa Bay.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

September, 5, 2012
9/05/12
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ManningRon Chenoy/US PresswireThe Denver Broncos are expecting big things from quarterback Peyton Manning.
Peyton Manning stands right where he did one year ago: a cautious 10th on our MVP Watch list to open the regular season.

This time, we know he's going to play. We just aren't sure how well.

The four-time MVP is back. But is he really back?

"Mentally? Yes, and better than ever," ESPN.com's Matt Williamson said. "Physically? No. The timing and accuracy is there, but not the ability to drive the ball."

Another Williamson, Bill of the AFC West blog, expects to see a very good Manning in Denver, but not necessarily a vintage one.

"The reality is he had multiple neck surgeries, he missed a year and he is 36," Bill Williamson said. "A decline has to be expected. But he is an all-time great and I expect him to be [among the] top 5-8 quarterbacks for the next three years. He will make a big impact in Denver."

Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers opened last season second to Tom Brady on this list. He's the favorite now. But a strong season from Manning, whose 227-game starting streak ended when he sat out last season, could qualify him for an unprecedented double.

"If Peyton Manning returns to form and leads the Broncos to a division title, I'd expect he'd be the unanimous comeback player of the year," AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky said. "How many times has the comeback player of the year been MVP?"

Never. The comeback award dates only to 1998. Its three most recent winners -- Brady (2009), Michael Vick (2010) and Matthew Stafford (2011) -- came a lot closer to having MVP-type seasons than previous comeback players. Chad Pennington (twice), Greg Ellis, Tedy Bruschi and Steve Smith were the previous five winners. Manning fits the Brady-Vick-Stafford profile.

"For him to make it back from the serious injury and take his act on the road to Denver, making it go with a new team, would qualify as remarkable and garner a slew of votes for an unprecedented fifth MVP," Kuharsky said. "I rank Aaron Rodgers as a clear favorite to repeat. But a storybook year for Manning could change all that no matter what unfolds in Green Bay. I think we'd have a double-dip situation."

Quarterbacks have won the past five MVP awards. Running backs Shaun Alexander (2005) and LaDainian Tomlinson (2006) are the only non-QBs to win since Marshall Faulk following the 2000 season. No defensive player has won since Lawrence Taylor in 1986.

Editor's note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this post.

710ESPN audio: One way to measure QBs

August, 3, 2012
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The Mosaic Modern Fusion Restaurant in St. Louis' Labert International Airport served as a radio studio Thursday.

The guys at 710ESPN Seattle found me there for our latest NFC West discussion.

They've posted the audio and I'm happy to say we covered all four teams in the division on this one.

Co-host Bob Stelton asked whether we should expect more from the San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith this season, or if the team would play a similar style (you know, the kind that critics say demands less from the quarterback). I pointed to stats in the red zone and on third down as potential indicators for 2012. The 49ers expect improvement in those areas. That could mean playing more aggressively and asking more from Smith in those situations.

We should also point out that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has said Smith deserves credit for many things fans and stats typically do not account for, including presnap adjustments. It does seem, however, that those adjustments would produce better results on third down and across all situations.

The chart ranks 2011 NFC West quarterbacks by third-down conversion rate on passing plays. Drew Brees (57.6), Ben Roethlisberger (52.1), Aaron Rodgers (51.6), Philip Rivers (49.0), Matt Schaub (46.7) and Tom Brady (46.0) comprised the top six in the league. Tim Tebow (21.6) was 35th and last among qualifying passers, one spot below Sam Bradford.

The figures reflect more than quarterback play. Receivers have to get open, make catches and get past the first-down marker. Note also that quarterback rushes aren't part of the percentages here.

Four quick notes, one per NFC West team, from KC Joyner's newly published 2012 fantasy guide:
  • St. Louis Rams: Steven Jackson can still make the most of good blocking. Jackson averaged 8.7 yards per carry, second only to Reggie Bush, when the Rams provided what Joyner considered to be good blocking. Joyner: "The long form definition of good blocking is very detailed and outside the purview of this guide, but it can be loosely defined as when a team's blockers do not allow the defense to do anything to disrupt a rush attempt."
  • Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald has stepped up his game. Hard to believe that was possible, right? As Joyner notes, Fitzgerald was much more effective last season than over the previous two seasons when matched against higher-level cornerbacks. Specifically, Fitzgerald averaged 8.7 yards per target when matched against top corners (those allowing less than than 7.0 yards per attempt for the season when matched in coverage). The average was 9.3 yards per target against mid-level corners and 13.0 against poorer ones.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch put up good numbers overall, especially late in the season, but Joyner sees significant room for improvement along the offensive line. Joyner: "The Seahawks posted terrible numbers in the good blocking rate (38.9 percent, tied for 30th) and offensive good blocking production metrics."
  • San Francisco 49ers: Joyner thinks the team's moves at wide receiver will "make this offense a lot more explosive and lead to more scoring chances" for Frank Gore and the running backs. But adding Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James could signal a transition in rushing approach from "bellcow" (Gore getting 300-plus rushes and targets) to "lead/alternate" (shared duties) rushing approach.

Joyner's guide, which is not free, runs 444 pages and includes charts and multiple text categories for potential fantasy contributors for each team.

I've provided most of the information from the chart for Alex Smith as an example. It shows Smith averaged 13.3 yards per stretch-vertical attempt (those traveling at least 20 yards) while making only five bad decisions, defined as mistakes with the football that lead to a turnover or near-turnover. Joyner considered those totals to be very good. He thought they made Smith better qualified than Cam Newton to represent the NFC in the Pro Bowl.

"It is by definition a subjective metric," Joyner writes. "But this subjectivity is held in place by a set of objective rules that limit the amount of sway the subjective side has in ruling a play as a bad decision."

Quarterbacks operating in conservative offenses should strive for bad decision rates (BDRs) of 1.5 percent or less. Those operating in more aggressive passing games would have higher rates. For Smith, we see that 26 percent of attempts qualified as vertical in nature. The percentage was 39.1 for Ben Roethlisberger, 38.5 for Eli Manning, 36.3 for Aaron Rodgers, 35.9 for Philip Rivers, 31.1 for Tom Brady and 30.2 for Matthew Stafford, to cite a few examples for high-profile passers.

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