NFC West: QBR
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
None of those moves is likely to affect the won-lost column as much as a trade costing a conditional 2014 seventh-round pick and a swap of 2013 late-round choices.
The Arizona Cardinals' deal for Carson Palmer should equate to nearly four additional victories in 2013 if Palmer plays near the same level he played with the Oakland Raiders last season. And if Palmer enjoys a career revival playing with Larry Fitzgerald, the expected total would increase.
There is no way to know for certain how many games a team will win, of course. But the brains behind ESPN's Total QBR metric do know that a quarterback with, say, a 65.0 QBR score in a single game will have close to a 65 percent chance of winning. That has been established over the past five seasons.
To calculate the difference in expected victories for Arizona with and without Palmer, we first must know the average single-game 2012 QBR scores for Palmer and for the Cardinals' quarterbacks. The average was 44.2 for Palmer and 20.5 for the Cardinals.
The difference in expected winning percentage is 23.7 points (44.2 minus 20.5). That works out to 3.8 victories over a 16-game schedule.
Arizona has made many changes this offseason, so it's not like we can simply add 3.8 victories to their total from last season. The team will play a different schedule. The team will have new schemes with new personnel.
In the end, though, we might expect the Cardinals to win about four more games with Palmer than they would have won with a repeat of the 2012 season at quarterback -- whatever their final victory total might be.
It's tough to envision any other NFC West newcomer having a similar impact. Such is the nature of the quarterback position, and such is the gap between what the Cardinals got from their quarterbacks last season and what they're likely to get from Palmer.
Note: The chart shows cumulative season QBR scores. Those are usually the most useful ones, but we needed per-game averages to calculate a victory differential. Thanks to Jason Vida and Alok Pattani of ESPN Stats & Information for their help with this item.
Update: Upon further review, Palmer's addition should represent a gain of about 2.7 victories, not 3.8, if he plays the way he did in 2012. The revised figure reflects a higher than previously thought average Total QBR score for the Cardinals' quarterbacks last season. It does not reflect any new information regarding Palmer. I'll revisit in an upcoming item.
Not bad for two players drafted outside the first round and projected to serve as backups when training camps opened.
Two first-half throws from Kaepernick stood out to me during the 49ers' 28-24 victory over Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game. Both were notable because they continued Kaepernick's tendency to play well following a setback.
The first throw found tight end Vernon Davis for a 27-yard gain on third-and-7.
Kaepernick had taken a delay penalty on third-and-2 amid intense crowd noise in the Georgia Dome. The 49ers trailed, 17-0, and every possession was precious. That delay penalty easily could have derailed the drive. Instead, Kaepernick stood strong in the pocket while Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon barreled toward him on a delayed blitz. The quarterback waited for Davis to come open across the middle and led him with an accurate throw. The play gained 27 yards and set up the 49ers' first touchdown.
The second pass in question found Davis for 19 yards on second-and-16 from the San Francisco 12-yard line with 5:12 left in the second quarter.
Officials had flagged 49ers guard Mike Iupati for holding a couple plays earlier. The Falcons led, 17-7, and field position was threatening to give Atlanta more points before the half. The 49ers picked up the Falcons' five-man pressure, giving Kaepernick time to rifle the pass through coverage. Safety Thomas DeCoud broke on the ball and tried to intercept it, but the pass had too much velocity.
Kaepernick added a 23-yard scramble later in the drive, followed by a 25-yard strike to Davis. Those plays set up another 49ers touchdown. The 17-0 deficit was down to 17-14 and the 49ers were back in the game.
Those types of plays help explain why Kaepernick has the NFL's highest Total QBR score (94.1) and second-highest passer rating (105.9) in the playoffs this season.
Kaepernick has a 7-2 record in nine regular-season and postseason starts. No player since at least 2001 has a higher winning percentage or average gain per pass attempt (8.6 yards) than Kaepernick through his first nine starts. No player has a higher QBR score through nine starts (84.0) since 2008, the earliest year for which charting data is available.
Kaepernick posted a 92.6 out of 100 QBR score in the victory over Atlanta. He was at 94.7 against Green Bay a week earlier. No other quarterback in the playoffs this season -- Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Wilson, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Matt Schaub among them -- has posted even one score in the 90s this postseason. Kaepernick has done it in each of his two career playoff games. He owns two of the 11 postseason scores in the 90s since 2008. Kurt Warner is the only other player with two 90-plus playoff games over that five-year span.
The chart below shows QBR scores for championship-round quarterbacks. Thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for the charting info.
Russell Wilson has won over Mike & Mike , inspired a look into his baseball past and convinced some that being the last rookie standing in the playoffs makes him the best one.
Not bad for a guy coming off arguably his worst game since Week 7.
Wait, didn't the Seattle Seahawks' rookie quarterback lead his team to a 24-14 playoff victory over the Washington Redskins in the wild-card round?
Well, sort of. Wilson made positive contributions, impressing those who have watched mostly from afar to this point. The visuals were all there: Wilson flipping a touchdown pass to fullback Michael Robinson, Wilson running interference downfield so his running back could gain additional yardage, Wilson firing downfield strikes to Doug Baldwin and Sidney Rice.
If tight end Anthony McCoy hadn't dropped a pass deep in Redskins territory, Seattle might have fared better than its 1-of-6 showing in the red zone.
On the whole, however, this performance from Wilson was hardly consistent with the ones that separated him from Robert Griffin III and made him second to Peyton Manning in Total QBR from Week 8 through regular season's end.
Wilson completed 2 of 7 passes in the red zone. He fumbled in Seattle territory while trailing 14-3 and was fortunate teammate Marshawn Lynch made a one-handed recovery. Wilson also took five sacks, including three on third down, when his QBR score was 2.1, down from a league-leading 89.5 from Week 8 through Week 17.
In the video above, I put the performance into recent historical perspective (since 2008) while suggesting what it could mean for Seattle against Atlanta in the divisional round Sunday.
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.
Kolb finishes his second season in Arizona with the following stats: 183-of-218 passing (59.6 percent) for 1,169 yards (6.4 per attempt) with eight touchdowns, three interceptions and 27 sacks. His NFL passer rating was 86.1. His Total QBR score was 38.0 (100 maximum, 50 average).
At the very least, Kolb proved to be the Cardinals' best option at quarterback by a wide margin this season. John Skelton (55.4 rating, 13.9 QBR) and Ryan Lindley (42.6 rating, 6.8 QBR) have struggled. The question now becomes whether Kolb returns to Arizona, and at what price. Much will hinge on any changes the Cardinals make to their coaching staff and/or front office.
The chart shows the Cardinals' quarterback stats over the past five seasons. Kolb has taken 57 sacks on 507 dropbacks (11.2 percent). Former starter Kurt Warner took 50 sacks on 1,157 dropbacks (4.3 percent). The different reflects more than a drop in offensive line performance. Warner was much better at anticipating throws and getting rid of the ball quickly.
Arizona needs to upgrade the position whether or not Kolb comes back.
San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick had completed 12 of 15 passes without making a dent in the Miami Dolphins' defense. The 49ers led 6-3 at home. Kaepernick had taken three sacks. His Total QBR score was 49.8, just below average on a 100-point scale.
In Buffalo, the St. Louis Rams' Sam Bradford had 37 yards and an interception to show for 15 first-half drop backs. His team trailed the Bills, 6-0. Bradford's QBR score at that point required a magnifying glass to see. It was 0.1, dead last among 32 starters through the first halves of games in Week 14.
In Seattle, Arizona's John Skelton was faring worse, but because the score was out of hand so quickly, his negative contributions stopped affecting in meaningful ways the Cardinals' chances for winning. His first-half QBR score was 0.5 and could have been worse if teammates' miscues hadn't widened the gap on the scoreboard.
Seattle led 17-0 and had a nearly 95 percent win probability one play into the second quarter. The Seahawks had three points off Skelton turnovers to that point. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman made it 24-0 with a pick-six off Skelton. By then, the damage was done.
The 24 first-half points Arizona's offense and special teams all but gifted to Seattle rendered quarterback play largely irrelevant for the Seahawks. Russell Wilson attempted only 13 passes before handing off to Matt Flynn. The score was already 31-0 when he found Zach Miller for a 24-yard touchdown. It was 31-0 when he threw an interception at home for the first time all season. Those plays didn't matter much.
Wilson finished the game with a 42.8 QBR score. The third-down sack he took in the red zone forced Seattle to settle for a field goal and a 3-0 lead. Wilson never saw the Cardinals' Quentin Groves coming his way. Quarterbacks are generally responsible for free rushers on their front sides. It looked like Wilson might have expected right tackle Breno Giacomini to make the block. The play could have been costly in a closer game or if Wilson had suffered an injury.
While Wilson wasn't needed and Skelton played his way onto the bench, Kaepernick and Bradford finished strong, leading their teams to victory. Both ranked among the NFL's top seven in second-half QBR scores for Week 14, Bradford at 89.1 and Kaepernick at 86.9. Bradford led the winning 84-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes. Kaepernick's 50-yard touchdown run put away the Dolphins.
What was the difference late in games? Sometimes I think circumstances compel teams to play more aggressively. Bradford made aggressive throws late in the game against Buffalo. His receivers made tough catches. His line held up in protection as the Bills generally refrained from rushing more than four defenders. Kaepernick, meanwhile, did what very few quarterbacks can do: outrun a defense.
With that, let's take a closer look at NFC West quarterbacks in relation to Total QBR for Week 14:
- Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers (64.1 QBR, 100.2 NFL rating). Kaepernick completed 18 of 23 passes (78.3 percent) for 185 yards with zero touchdowns, zero interceptions, four sacks and one fumble. Kaepernick rushed six times for 53 yards and the clinching touchdown. Kaepernick came close to connecting on two deeper throws. The Dolphins got away with interference on Randy Moss to break up one. Kaepernick missed Michael Crabtree on another. Teams seem to be forcing Kaepernick to beat them with shorter throws. The quarterback's passes have traveled 6.7 yards past the line of scrimmage on average over the past three games. That is down from 10.2 yards against Chicago. It's also less than the 7.5-yard average for Alex Smith this season.
- Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (42.8 QBR, 88.0 NFL rating). Wilson completed 7 of 13 passes (53.8 percent) for 148 yards with one touchdown, one interception, one sack and no fumbles. He carried three times for 12 yards. Wilson's passes traveled 14.2 yards past the line of scrimmage on average, most in the NFL for Week 14 by 1.5 yards. His numbers in two games against Arizona aren't very good. Wilson completed 53.2 percent of his passes with two touchdowns, two picks, four sacks and a 29.5 QBR score. Then again, Tom Brady was at 30.6 against Arizona. Matt Ryan was at 31.2. Wilson ranks second to Peyton Manning in QBR from Week 6 to present. He ranks 11th for the season among qualified quarterbacks at 64.8.
- Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (25.9 QBR, 62.9 NFL rating). Bradford completed 19 of 39 passes (48.7 percent) for 209 yards with one touchdown, one interception, one pass for a two-point conversion, one sack and one fumble. He rushed four times for 13 yards. We took an in-depth look at Bradford and the Rams during their 84-yard winning drive. More here.
- Ryan Lindley, Arizona Cardinals (7.7 QBR, 55.8 NFL rating). Lindley completed 8 of 17 passes (47.1 percent) for 59 yards with zero touchdowns, zero interceptions, two sacks and one lost fumble. He lost 2 yards on his lone rushing attempt. Lindley's average pass length was down to a more manageable 7.1 from 9.7 previously this season. He still struggled, but the Cardinals haven't helped him out much. Their offensive line is weakened by injuries. Arizona has sent Lindley onto the field mid-game at Atlanta. The Cardinals have asked him to start against a New York Jets defense that can confuse younger quarterbacks. They had him throw 24 times in the first half against St. Louis. And then they threw him into a blowout against Seattle in one of the more hostile playing environments anywhere. Great way to nurture a rookie sixth-round draft choice, eh?
- John Skelton, Arizona Cardinals (0.4 QBR, 18.2 NFL rating). Skelton completed 11 of 22 passes (50 percent) for 74 yards with zero touchdowns, four interceptions, one sack and two fumbles, one of them lost. He gained 2 yards on two rushing attempts. The more the Cardinals have asked from Skelton, the more obvious it's become that he cannot deliver. Skelton now has two touchdowns with nine interceptions for the season. His days as a regular starting quarterback appear nearing an end.
Seahawks backup Matt Flynn completed 5 of 9 attempts for 68 yards. The game was a blowout, however. Measuring his contributions through QBR under those circumstances wouldn't tell us much. QBR, after all, aims to measure how much a quarterback contributes to winning. Wilson barely affected the game's outcome. Flynn had no bearing on it.
That is a stunning achievement given that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Robert Griffin III rank second through fifth, respectively.
Since then, Wilson has completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,529 yards with 14 touchdowns, two interceptions, 13 sacks and 13 first downs rushing. Those and other factors leave Wilson with an 83.0 QBR score over that span. Wilson is now at 65.3 for the season, right near the cutoff for Pro Bowl-caliber play over a full season.
Manning leads the NFL this season at 81.1 out of 100, with 50 right around average.
Anyone watching Wilson lead 97- and 80-yard touchdown drives to beat the Chicago Bears on Sunday knows Wilson played spectacularly. The Bears led the postgame applause. There was no surprise in seeing Wilson emerge from that game with an 85.4 QBR score for the game. He was that good.
San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick wasn't nearly as good during the 49ers' 16-13 defeat at St. Louis. A case could be made that he cost his team the game with a poor decision leading to a safety and a botched pitch. That is why I was quite surprised to see QBR reward Kaepernick with an 82.4 score Sunday.
Dean Oliver, Albert Larcada and Michelle Sastri of ESPN's analytics team pointed to positive plays Kaepernick made and limitations in the NFL's official game charting system in explaining the surprising figure. Those limitations affect very few plays to this degree, but they significantly limited how much blame Kaepernick received for his role in a costly errant pitch to Ted Ginn Jr.
Among the highlights from their responses:
- Scramble huge: Kaepernick's 50-yard scramble to the St. Louis 14-yard line increased the 49ers' win probability from 57.1 percent to 80.9 percent. His in-game QBR score spiked from 67.0 to 89.3 because the situation was so important and because Kaepernick, not a receiver, accounted for the gain. This was the fourth-longest scramble by a quarterback since 2008.
- Still expected to win: The fumble and ensuing touchdown return by the Rams' Janoris Jenkins dropped the 49ers' win probability from 90.3 percent to 61.7 percent. The 49ers were still favored to win because the Rams needed a two-point try to tie.
- Shared blame: Kaepernick didn't make critical mistakes after the 50-yard scramble. The holding penalty against tight end Delanie Walker was a killer play. That penalty helped the Rams get the ball back with 1:34 remaining. A penalty against the 49ers' Dashon Goldson for unnecessary roughness with 1:07 remaining was also critical because the Rams' kicker, Greg Zuerlein, is such a threat from long range.
- Strange situation: QBR relies, in part, on official play-by-play data from the NFL. The league scored Kaepernick's fumble as an aborted play, disregarding the role Kaepernick's errant pitch played in the turnover. As a result, QBR did not "blame" Kaepernick as much as it would have blamed him ideally. This will happen in rare cases, skewing the QBR score for a single game.
- Similar situations: The NFL play-by-play accounted for Kaepernick's fumble the same way it accounted for a Week 3 fumble on a pitch from Washington's Robert Griffin III to Brandon Banks. Kaepernick's pitch was off-target. The one Griffin delivered appeared perfect. Kaepernick was mostly to blame for the 49ers' fumble. Banks was mostly to blame for the Redskins' fumble. Yet, the official play-by-play accounted for those plays in the same manner, as aborted plays.
I would expect ESPN's analytics department to seek ways around these sorts of abnormalities.
"We are looking into additional tracking going backward and forward to correct this illogicality, but don’t have it in place yet," Larcada said.
With that, let's take a closer look at NFC West quarterbacks in relation to Total QBR for Week 13:
- Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (85.4 QBR, 104.9 NFL rating). Wilson completed 23 of 37 passes (62.2 percent) for 293 yards with two touchdowns, zero interceptions, two sacks, 13 passing first downs and a 10.6-yard average pass length (8.8 was average for Week 13). He had nine rushes for 71 yards and five rushing first downs. He had no turnovers and even recovered a teammate's fumble about 10 yards downfield. Seattle used the read-option play during the fourth quarter and overtime to a degree they had not done previously. I'll take a closer look at that as time permits.
- Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers (82.4 QBR, 83.9 NFL rating). Kaepernick completed 21 of 32 passes (66.7 percent) for 221 yards with zero touchdowns, zero interceptions, three sacks, 11 passing first downs and a 5.8-yard average pass length. Kaepernick ran nine times for 84 yards and two rushing first downs.
- Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (59.8 QBR, 81.3 NFL rating). Bradford completed 26 of 39 passes (66.7 percent) for 221 yards with zero touchdowns, zero interceptions, two sacks and 10 passing first downs. He had three rushes for 31 yards and two first downs. Bradford's scrambles were timely. His QBR score was respectable, particularly given that Bradford was playing without top receiver Danny Amendola, who had burned the 49ers repeatedly when the teams faced each other previously.
- Ryan Lindley, Arizona Cardinals (3.0 QBR, 28.0 NFL rating). Lindley completed 10 of 31 passes (32.3 percent) for 72 yards with zero touchdowns, one interception, two sacks and a 10.1-yard average pass length. He had zero rushes. The average pass length stands out as quite long for a player with minimal experience. I haven't watched this game closely yet, but it seems as though the Cardinals could help out Lindley by having him throw shorter passes.
Seattle’s Russell Wilson (league-high 90.7 Total QBR) and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick (72.3) repeatedly made "wow" plays, both with their arms and their feet.
Wilson showcased instincts, elusiveness, arm strength and accuracy on a third-and-12 play at Miami.
The Dolphins attacked with five pass-rushers. One of them rushed up the middle unblocked. Wilson spun away, scrambled to his left and threw a pass across his body 26 yards past the line of scrimmage. Sidney Rice caught the perfectly placed ball along the sideline for an improbable first down.
Few NFL quarterbacks can make that play. Kaepernick probably could. His feel for the pocket might not be as fine-tuned just yet, but Kaepernick showed against New Orleans he can escape trouble. The Saints pressured him, but they could not sack him even once. When Kaepernick did escape the pocket, he completed 5 of 7 passes for 54 yards with one touchdown and four first downs.
Wilson was similarly effective outside the pocket. He completed 8 of 9 passes for 68 yards with one touchdown and six first downs on these throws.
Pro quarterbacks still must operate inside the pocket to succeed. Wilson and Kaepernick were just as good or better inside than outside the pocket Sunday. Both can move, but that doesn't make them running quarterbacks or even wholly unconventional ones.
Wilson completed 13 of 18 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown from inside the pocket. He also scrambled twice for 28 yards. Kaepernick completed 11 of 18 passes for 177 yards and his lone interception on these throws. His QBR score was higher inside the pocket (85.0) than outside it (69.2).
Anyone watching Wilson or Kaepernick could tell they were playing at a high level. Anyone watching Arizona’s Ryan Lindley toss four interceptions, two returned for touchdowns, knew he struggled.
Sam Bradford’s day for the St. Louis Rams defied easy categorization.
Bradford completed only 8 of 17 passes. He took two sacks and threw an interception in the end zone. But when Bradford did connect, he connected for huge gains. Bradford averaged 12 yards per attempt. His passes traveled 14.3 yards past the line of scrimmage on average, a high number. His completed passes gained 25.6 yards on average. His NFL passer rating was 106.3.
Bradford and the Rams won, 31-17. That’s all that matters, right? Not necessarily. If winning were all that mattered, Tim Tebow would be starting for the Denver Broncos. Alex Smith would be starting for the 49ers. Baltimore would have held onto Trent Dilfer following its 2000 championship season.
A 34.1 QBR score for Bradford runs counter to his triple-digit passer rating. It tells us the contributions attributed to Bradford weren’t critical to the game’s outcome, based on how Bradford’s actions affected the Rams’ probability for winning. It suggests the Rams won mostly because Janoris Jenkins returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
Three of the interceptions Lindley threw against the Rams cost Arizona a total of 9.2 expected points, measured by how similar plays affected games over a 10-year period. Bradford’s expected-points contributions for rushing, passing, yards his receivers gained after the catch, interceptions, sacks, fumbles, scrambles and penalties were nearly a wash, working out to minus four-tenths of a point.
By my reading, that explains why QBR didn't smile upon Bradford the way NFL passer rating did.
With that, let's take a closer look at NFC West quarterbacks in relation to Total QBR for Week 12:
- Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (90.7 QBR, 125.9 NFL rating). Wilson completed 21 of 27 passes (77.8 percent) or 224 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions, two sacks and five rushes for 38 yards, including one rushing first down. Wilson set an NFL rookie record with 16 completed passes in a row. He completed 5 of 8 for 70 yards and a touchdown with four first downs and a 92.8 QBR score when the Dolphins sent five or more pass-rushers.
- Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers (72.3 QBR, 90.6 NFL rating). Kaepernick completed 16 of 25 passes (64 percent) for 231 yards with one touchdown, one interception, no sacks, no fumbles and six rushes for 27 yards, including one rushing touchdown and two rushing first downs. The Saints had deployed five-plus pass-rushers 65.1 percent of the time when facing the 49ers in the playoffs last season. They did so only 32.1 percent of the time Sunday. Kaepernick completed 3 of 7 passes for 91 yards on these plays. He also rushed twice for 18 yards. His QBR score was 93.7 on these plays. It was even higher (97.8) on third down, when Kaepernick completed 6 of 8 passes for 99 yards. He also had a 15-yard scramble on third down.
- Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (34.1 QBR, 106.3 NFL rating). Bradford completed 8 of 17 passes (47.1 percent) for 205 yards with two touchdowns, one interception, two sacks and two rushes for one yard. He also fumbled. Bradford cost the Rams expected points when he threw an interception in the end zone on first-and-goal from the 7 with his team trailing by a touchdown. Bradford did strike for big plays, but the offense produced only 17 points. The two interceptions St. Louis returned for touchdowns played a huge role in the outcome. Bradford completed 2 of 5 passes for 40 yards with one sack and a 1.9 QBR score on third down. Bradford was playing against an Arizona defense that has given some top quarterbacks trouble. His opponent-adjusted QBR would likely reflect that ( I have not yet seen it). Also, Bradford overcame a hard hit that knocked him from the game for a play. That was impressive.
- Ryan Lindley, Arizona Cardinals (17.6 QBR, 44.7 NFL rating). Lindley completed 31 of 52 passes (59.6 percent) for 312 yards with zero touchdowns, four interceptions, two sacks, no fumbles and one rush for one yard, with one rushing first down. Lindley threw all four picks in the absence of pressure. He threw two of them while the Cardinals trailed by four points.
Just about everything Colin Kaepernick tried Monday night worked for the San Francisco 49ers' second-year quarterback.
Kaepernick completed 10 of 14 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown when the Chicago Bears rushed him with four or fewer defenders. He completed 6 of 9 for 100 yards and a touchdown when the Bears sent five or more.
Kaepernick stressed the Bears' defense inside and out during the 49ers' 32-7 victory at Candlestick Park.
That included completing 7 of 8 passes for 124 yards on passes delivered inside the yard-line numbers. Only Aaron Rodgers has had a higher passer rating (136.2 to Kaepernick's 118.0) against the Bears on these interior throws.
Kaepernick did even more damage when striking outside the numbers. This was particularly impressive, in my view, because the Bears had picked off 11 passes and allowed only three touchdowns on these perimeter throws before Monday night.
Quarterbacks generally must anticipate well and/or throw with velocity to complete these throws consistently. Kaepernick completed 9 of 15 attempts for 119 yards and two scores when targeting receivers outside the numbers. His 124.7 passer rating on these throws was easily the best for a quarterback facing the Bears this season. Andrew Luck (28.9), Rodgers (16.7), Sam Bradford (0.0), Tony Romo (48.2), Cam Newton (39.7) and Matt Schaub (37.3) couldn't make a dent against the Bears on these throws.
Kaepernick relied heavily on longer passes. His 23 attempts traveled 10.2 yards past the line of scrimmage on average. Regular starter Alex Smith has a 7.5-yard average this season. Smith exceeded Kaepernick's 10.2-yard average in a game one time this season (10.8 against the New York Jets) and two other times since 2008, the earliest year for which charting data was available through ESPN Stats & Information.
The average distance is 8.2 yards for all NFL passes this season.
One game isn't much to go on, of course, but there was much to like about how Kaepernick played in his first regular-season start. He seemed to handle presnap responsibilities without incident. The 49ers vary their personnel groupings to an unusual degree even by NFL standards, putting pressure on the quarterback to handle all the variations. Kaepernick appeared in control all the way.
Total QBR will sometimes call into question a high NFL passer rating. Quarterbacks taking sacks, throwing only shorter passes or racking up stats in garbage time will not fare as well as their raw passing stats might indicate.
In this case, QBR validated the way Kaepernick led his team to victory. Kaepernick's QBR score was 97.5 out of 100, the fourth-highest for a 49ers starter over the past five seasons. The Bears are allowing a 24.2 QBR score this season, second-best in the NFL (Houston, 24.1). A newly developed version of the QBR metric adjusts for opponent strength. That version pumped up the 97.5 score to 99.5, the third-highest opponent-adjusted score in a game over the past five seasons (minimum 20 action plays). Michael Vick's memorable 2010 game against Washington -- the one in which he topped 300 yards passing and 50 yards rushing with six total touchdowns -- heads the list. Fifty is average.
With that, let's check out how NFC West quarterbacks fared for Week 11 in relation to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point (thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for the charting info):
- Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers (97.5 QBR, 133.1 NFL rating): Kaepernick completed 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards with two touchdowns, zero interceptions, one sack totaling seven yards and no turnovers. He rushed three times for 11 yards and zero rushing first downs. He had nine first downs passing. Kaepernick had hurt St. Louis with his scrambling when the Rams sent four or fewer pass-rushers. His running wasn't a factor against the Bears even when Chicago sat back in coverage. Nearly flawless pass protection helped Kaepernick shred Chicago regardless of how hard the Bears tried to pressure him.
- Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (24.0 QBR, 67.4 NFL rating): Bradford completed 23 of 44 passes for 170 yards with two touchdowns, one interception, one sack and one lost fumble during the Rams' 27-13 home defeat to the New York Jets. The Jets returned Bradford's fumble 38 yards to set up the go-ahead touchdown. Bradford finished this game with his second-lowest QBR score of the season. He scored a 3.9 against the Bears when he completed 18 of 35 passes for 152 yards with no touchdowns and two picks. Bradford did not appear to have open receivers. Bradford completed 9 of 14 passes for 93 yards and both touchdowns with a 65.8 QBR when the Jets sent five or more pass-rushers. He completed 14 of 29 passes for 77 yards and a pick when the Jets applied standard pressure. This suggests Bradford had open receivers when the Jets sacrificed coverage, but not so much when they dropped eight.
- Ryan Lindley, Arizona Cardinals (4.7 QBR, 52.9 NFL rating): Lindley completed 9 of 20 passes (45.0 percent) for 64 yards with no TDs, no INTs and three sacks during a 23-19 defeat to the Atlanta Falcons. Lindley had one fumble, which the Falcons returned for a touchdown. The Cardinals have not announced whether Lindley will remain in the lineup against St. Louis in Week 12. He made very little positive impact against the Falcons. Lindley did throw accurately to Larry Fitzgerald on a fourth-and-2 play when Arizona was driving in Falcons territory late in the game. Fitzgerald caught the ball initially, but he did not maintain control of it through contact with the ground. A reception there would have put Lindley in position to make a difference.
- John Skelton, Arizona Cardinals (0.8 QBR, 39.6 NFL rating): Skelton completed 2 of 7 passes for six yards with zero touchdowns, zero interceptions and zero sacks. He had no rushing attempts. He had zero passing first downs. Skelton missed Fitzgerald in the end zone for a touchdown. The Cardinals benched him after that miscue.
The QBR metric was designed to measure quarterback play as it relates to winning under the thinking that QB play is increasingly important. Teams with the higher QBR scores went 14-0 in Week 11.
The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 11, provided they played enough to qualify for inclusion.
The column showing point above average reveals the "number of points contributed by a quarterback over the season, accounting for QBR and how much he plays, above the level of an average quarterback."
The San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith completed 18 of 19 passes with three touchdowns in Week 8.
Seattle Seahawks rookie Russell Wilson has seven TD passes with one interception over his past three games.
The St. Louis Rams' Sam Bradford just completed 26 of 39 passes for 275 yards and two scores against the 49ers, including the go-ahead touchdown pass late in regulation.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback John Skelton played arguably his best game of the season against Green Bay in Week 9, posting season highs in Total QBR (41.1) and yards (306) while taking only two sacks, down from 11 over his previous two games.
The chart ranks NFL divisions by Total QBR over the past three weeks. The NFC West ranked last at 46.6 through Week 7. It has ranked first over the subsequent three weeks. The NFC East, which ranked first at 65.2 through Week 7, ranks last at 42.0 over the past three weeks, in part because Eli Manning has struggled.
The column labeled "action plays" shows how many plays quarterbacks did something other than hand off or spike the ball. "FD" refers to first downs. Sack rate is calculated as sacks divided by the total of sacks and pass attempts.
Amendola, who had been sidelined since Oct. 4, nearly added to that total with an 80-yard reception on the first play of overtime. Officials wiped out the play after determining Rams receiver Brandon Gibson was too far off the line of scrimmage at the snap. The Rams still outgained the 49ers (458-341) while building a six-minute advantage in time of possession.
Bradford finished the game with an 82.0 out of 100 Total QBR score. That ranked second in his career to the 94.7 he posted against Denver in 2010. His previous high this season was a 77.3 against Miami.
This was the type of performance Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. was seeking when he noted last week that Bradford hadn't been productive enough to this point in his career. Bradford completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 275 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers. He continued a season-long trend with strong play in fourth quarters (and overtime, in this case). Bradford completed 14 of 19 passes (73.7 percent) for 126 yards and a touchdown after the third quarter Sunday.
Players posting full-season QBR scores in the mid-60s and higher are generally playing at a Pro Bowl level. Bradford has reached or exceeded that level in four games this season. He has been at 47.2 or lower in the Rams' other five games. The figure is 53.1 for the season to date (50 is average).
"I can envision Bradford throwing to Amendola as a slot/move-the-chains guy, Chris Givens as the perimeter home run hitter and Brian Quick as a hopeful do-it-all No. 1 receiver type behind an improved offensive line," Williamson said Monday. "They have to be aggressive in improving the line, but Scott Wells and Harvey Dahl should make a strong center-guard combo, and Rodger Saffold looks like another qualified starter, so that rebuild might not be as extreme as some think.
"And with time, we know Bradford can make great throws, which appeared to be the case Sunday against an excellent San Francisco defense."
With that, let's check out how NFC West quarterbacks fared for Week 10 in relation to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point (thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for the charting info):
- Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (82.0 QBR, 104.1 NFL rating): Bradford completed 26 of 39 passes (66.7 percent) for 275 yards with two touchdowns, zero interceptions and two sacks. He carried once, for no gain. He fumbled once. The Rams recovered. Bradford completed 8 of 12 passes for 102 yards on third down against the 49ers. Seven of those eight completed passes produced first downs. His third-down Total QBR was 75.9, his third-highest figure of the season (97.8 against Washington, 89.8 against Seattle). Bradford ranks third behind Peyton Manning and Matthew Stafford in QBR for fourth quarters and overtime this season (min. 100 action plays).
- Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers (51.4 QBR, 143.8 NFL rating): Smith did not participate in enough plays to qualify for inclusion in the weekly rankings. He completed 7 of 8 passes (87.5 percent) for 72 yards with one touchdown, zero interceptions and two sacks. He gained five yards on two carries, including one yard on a fourth-and-1 sneak. The 49ers think Smith suffered a concussion following that quarterback sneak. He took two other hard hits during the same drive. The team tested him for a concussion following a hit from Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Smith passed that test. A high completion percentage and a touchdown pass pumped up Smith's NFL passer rating. Sacks worked against his QBR score. Also, Smith's passes traveled only 3.9 yards past the line of scrimmage on average. That was the second-lowest figure for a starting quarterback in Week 10 (Michael Vick, 2.2). The average was 10.3 yards for Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman, who had a 94.4 QBR score on 14-of-20 passing with two touchdowns.
- Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (45.8 QBR, 131.0 NFL rating): Wilson completed 12 of 19 passes (63.2 percent) for 188 yards with two touchdowns, zero interceptions and four sacks during a 28-7 victory over the New York Jets. He ran seven times for 34 yards and two first downs. He fumbled twice. The Jets returned one of the fumbles for their only touchdown, tying the game 7-7. Wilson did not appear comfortable early in the game despite throwing a 38-yard scoring pass. He emerged from the first quarter with a 158.3 NFL passer rating, the highest figure possible. But he appeared "rattled" to some, and Wilson's Total QBR concurred with those assessments. His score was 57.2 through one quarter, 27.8 through the first half and 45.8 for the game. Wilson completed all three attempts, one for a touchdown, without taking a sack during the fourth quarter. His QBR for that quarter was 99.0, but with only six action plays in the final quarter -- three pass attempts, three short rushes -- his full-game score lagged.
- Colin Kaepernick (40.7 QBR, 84.7 NFL rating): Kaepernick completed 11 of 17 passes (64.7 percent) for 117 yards with zero touchdowns, zero interceptions and three sacks. He carried eight times for 66 yards and five first downs, including once rushing attempt for a touchdown. Kaepernick fumbled twice. The 49ers recovered both fumbles. Kaepernick missed Vernon Davis and Kyle Williams when both were open for potential big gains. His share of the blame for sacks taken more than offset the expected points QBR determined he added through passing. That is why his score was below average.
The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 10, provided they played enough to qualify for inclusion.
The column showing point above average reveals the "number of points contributed by a quarterback over the season, accounting for QBR and how much he plays, above the level of an average quarterback."
No one could have seen that coming in 2010, when the St. Louis Rams used the first overall draft choice for quarterback Sam Bradford.
"It's funny," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said, "we're talking about the best quarterback in the division and nobody even thinks about him."
A few weeks back, when Bradford tossed three touchdown passes to help the Rams outscore Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins, we took note of the performance here. And when Bradford played well enough to win against Miami, albeit in defeat, we took notice again. But in both cases, other quarterbacks from the NFC West played as well or better that week.
"The Rams got Jeff Fisher, they got these other pieces, all those draft choices, but if Bradford is not a star, none of that matters," Williamson said. "He needs to be the best quarterback in this division and that is not saying much. Tom Brady is not in the NFC West."
Bradford gets a pass, at times, for persevering through miserable circumstances. It's tough to evaluate how a driver performs behind the wheel of a car missing its transmission and radiator. The Rams haven't had the offensive line, receivers or overall health to give any quarterback his best shot.
"There is always an excuse," Williamson said. "He has been in the league long enough now where we're tired of hearing that. You're not a prospect any more. This is when you've got to be good."
Smith (four), Wilson (three) and Kevin Kolb (one) account for the eight top performances from NFC West quarterbacks this season, measured by Total QBR. Bradford owns the ninth, 11th and 12th-best games.
"Just statistically speaking, he has had like two or three really good games his whole career," Williamson said. "It's never like, 'Wow, Bradford had a great game today.' "
We covered this subject heading into the Rams' Week 2 game against Washington. At the time, there were 29 quarterbacks since 2008 with at least 25 games featuring 25-plus action plays. Of those, Bradford had the fewest games with a QBR score of 70 or higher (50 is average and 100 is maximum). He had two. Chad Henne was next with four.
Bradford made it three with his 77.3 QBR score against the Dolphins. That stands as his highest score of the season. Meanwhile, Wilson has four 70-plus games in nine career starts. Smith has four in eight starts this season.
Other quarterbacks in the division appear to be outperforming Bradford regularly.
"I just don't think it's a slam dunk that Bradford is clearly the answer," Williamson said. "After watching him his rookie year, you said, 'OK, he's the guy.' I feel that way about Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson. I felt that way that way about Bradford.
"This season, for the first time, I'm thinking maybe he is always going to be the 18th-best quarterback in the league."
We'll revisit these thoughts as the season progresses.
Bradford should benefit from receiver Danny Amendola's anticipated return from a rib injury. As the second chart shows, Bradford's third-down production has suffered in recent weeks. The decline matches up with Amendola's exit from the lineup during a Week 5 game against Arizona. Bradford's production on early downs has actually improved since then.
With a trip to San Francisco awaiting in Week 10, Bradford faces a tough test coming out of the Rams' bye week.
This game marks Bradford's first against the 49ers since the 2010 season, when he completed 75.7 percent of his passes for 292 yards during a memorable Week 16 victory in the Edward Jones Dome.
Bradford posted a 72.5 QBR score that day. He has bettered that one time in the interim, against the Dolphins.
Eli Manning (96.0), Christian Ponder (89.9) and Aaron Rodgers (55.1) are the only quarterbacks to post scores higher than average (50) against the 49ers this season. San Francisco's opponents have posted a cumulative 48.3 score, just above Bradford's 46.1 for the season.
Related: Bernie Miklasz on Bradford.
We're about to discuss how well NFC West quarterbacks Russell Wilson and John Skelton stared down the blitz with courage and acted decisively to great effect.
The combined numbers: 12 of 17 passing for 172 yards with three scores and a 92.5 Total QBR score.
Those were positives.
Wilson played very well overall during the Seahawks' 30-20 victory. The context for that game -- strong rushing attack, playing at home -- put Wilson in favorable positions. He capitalized and finished with the seventh-highest Total QBR score in the NFL for Week 9 (82.8 out of 100, with 50 as average).
Skelton had a tougher time overall. Dropped passes played a role. He completed only 16 of 36 passes with an interception when the Packers sent four or fewer pass-rushers. For the season, Skelton has one touchdown, five picks and a 17.1 QBR score against standard pressure. Wilson has been much more effective in these situations, passing for 11 touchdowns with five picks and a 77.4 QBR score.
With that, let's check out how NFC West quarterbacks fared for Week 9 in relation to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point (thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for the charting info):
- Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (82.8 QBR, 127.3 NFL rating): Wilson completed 16 of 24 passes for 173 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and one sack. He rushed nine times for 27 yards and three first downs. He was cited for a fumble on a backward pass that went out of bounds. Seattle suffered from three dropped passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Wilson, with an 83.1 QBR score over the past three weeks, trails only Peyton Manning (91.6) and Aaron Rodgers (89.0) over that span. Tom Brady (81.8), Matt Ryan (77.9), Drew Brees (75.1) and Andrew Luck (74.5) are next.
- John Skelton, Arizona Cardinals (41.1 QBR, 69.7 NFL rating): Skelton completed 23 of 46 passes for 306 yards with one touchdown, one interception and two sacks. He had no rushes and no fumbles. Arizona suffered from four dropped passes. Coach Ken Whisenhunt said Skelton improved markedly from the previous week. We wouldn't know it from Skelton's NFL passer ratings, which were 68.6 against San Francisco last week and 69.7 against Green Bay. QBR figures agree with Whisenhunt. Skelton was at 25.9 against the 49ers. He was at 41.1 for this game, a season high and his best score since a 31.4 in Week 1.
The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 9, provided they played enough to qualify for inclusion (Sidney Rice scored a 100.0 for his single pass, a 25-yarder to Zach Miller).
The column showing point above average reveals the "number of points contributed by a quarterback over the season, accounting for QBR and how much he plays, above the level of an average quarterback."
Seattle dropped back to pass 35 times and handed off to running backs 17 times. The Seahawks took this approach by design. After all, they were leading or tied for more than 53 minutes. It wasn't like they were forced into catch-up mode for long stretches.
The Seahawks dropped back to pass seven times on their first nine plays. Then came three runs in four plays, with the final rush springing Marshawn Lynch for a 77-yard touchdown run. By all appearances, the Seahawks used the pass to set up the run, and they did it on the road with a rookie quarterback.
This was a new test for Russell Wilson. He proved ready for the challenge on this day.
Wilson completed 71.4 percent of his passes, staked his team to an early lead and led his offense 87 yards to the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Wilson took zero sacks. He made no errors in setting protections or changing plays at the line of scrimmage, according to coach Pete Carroll.
Detroit scored the winning touchdown in the final minute to prevent Seattle from fully enjoying Wilson's performance. This was clearly a step forward for Wilson, however. He finished the game with a career-best 93.7 out of 100 in Total QBR, the metric ESPN developed to measure quarterback play beyond traditional passing stats. Only Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan scored higher among NFL quarterbacks in Week 8. The San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith was right behind.
With that, let's take a look at how NFC West passers graded out for Week 8 in relation to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point (thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for the charting info):
- Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (93.7 QBR, 96.8 NFL rating): Wilson completed 25 of 35 passes (71.4 percent) for 236 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and zero sacks. He gained nine yards and a first down on his lone rushing attempt. Wilson has shown improvement against the blitz. The Lions appeared reluctant to come after him. Detroit sent five or more pass-rushers against Wilson four times. Wilson completed three passes on those plays, all from within the pocket. That included a 16-yarder on third-and-5 and a 10-yarder on second-and-4.
- Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers (92.0 QBR, 157.1 NFL rating): Smith completed 18 of 19 passes (94.7 percent) for 232 yards with three TDs, zero INTs and four sacks. He gained six yards on his lone rush, but did not convert a first down. The 92.0 QBR is an outstanding score. Anything around 65 or higher for a full season would generally equate to Pro Bowl-caliber play (single-game scores can be more volatile because QBR is a rate stat, not a cumulative one). Smith's score would have been even higher had he not taken four sacks. Also, the 49ers' receivers gained 107 yards after the catch, their second-highest total in the last five seasons. QBR gives receivers considerable credit for yards gained after the catch. Quarterbacks get less credit for shorter passes than for longer ones, all else being equal.
- Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (65.7 QBR, 88.9 NFL rating): Bradford completed 22 of 30 passes (73.3 percent) for 205 yards with one TD, one INT and two sacks. He gained three yards on three carries, with no first downs rushing. Bradford played well early in the game, when the score was close. His 50-yard scoring pass to Chris Givens gave the Rams a 7-0 lead. The Patriots scored touchdowns on their first five possessions, however. The plays a quarterback makes while the score is lopsided have less effect on QBR. That partly explains why Bradford has a relative high score even though his team lost the game, 45-7. He was good early in the game, and the rest was largely irrelevant.
- John Skelton, Arizona Cardinals (25.9 QBR, 68.6 NFL rating): Skelton completed 32 of 52 passes (61.5 percent) for 290 yards with zero TDs, one INT and four sacks. He gained one yard on his lone rushing attempt. Skelton had no help from his ground game, which managed only seven yards. He frequently had 49ers defenders bearing down on him. Skelton also threw without accuracy, even on some plays when pressure wasn't as bad. The interception he threw right before halftime extended to 11 Skelton's league-long streak of games with at least one pick. The turnover did not factor significantly into his QBR score, however, because it came on a Hail Mary pass as the first half ended. There's little expectation for a successful play when quarterbacks make such throws. QBR was designed to recognize this, diminishing the negative impact for Hail Mary picks.
The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 8, provided they played enough to qualify for inclusion.
The column showing point above average reveals the "number of points contributed by a quarterback over the season, accounting for QBR and how much he plays, above the level of an average quarterback."