QBR ranks: Alex Smith stands tall on road

September, 10, 2012
9/10/12
11:18
AM ET
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith isn't one to seek validation through statistics.

He has openly questioned some of the most basic ones.

"This is the honest truth: I could absolutely care less on yards per game," Smith said during the offseason. "I think that's a totally overblown stat. Because if you're losing games in the second half, guess what? You're like the Carolina Panthers and you're going no-huddle the entire second half and, yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games, that's great. You're not winning, though."

The comments stirred controversy and risked discounting some of the truly positive contributions Newton made to his team last season. But what Smith said about quarterback stats was generally accurate. Cheap yards don't matter so much.

ESPN, seeking a superior metric for quarterbacks, introduced Total QBR last season. On the NFC West blog, we debated its merits, considered potential improvements and sought to learn from results that surprised on the surface. We'll do the same thing each week during the 2012 season, beginning with this entry. The goal will be to more fully understand how quarterbacks affected game outcomes.

Dean Oliver, hired from the Denver Nuggets as ESPN's director of production analytics, helped to develop and refine QBR. Because QBR measures how quarterbacks affect win probability on a per-play basis, teams winning the QBR battle will usually win their games unless something unusual beyond the quarterback's control influences the outcome.

Since 2008, teams with the higher QBR score won 86 percent of their games (the figure was 79 percent for NFL passer rating, 78 percent for turnover margin and 70 percent for total yardage).

Smith's performance during the 49ers' 30-22 victory at Green Bay produced his second-highest QBR total on the road since 2008, which is as far back as the metric goes. His 83.5 score out of 100 far outpaced the 55.1 for Packers counterpart Aaron Rodgers. Fifty is considered an average score and will generally give a quarterback about a 50-50 shot at winning. A quarterback producing a total like Smith's from Sunday can expect to win more than 80 percent of the time.

Quick thoughts on how NFC West passers graded out in Week 1 in relation to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point:
  • Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers (83.5 QBR, 125.6 NFL rating): Smith completed 20 of 26 passes for 211 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He broke Steve Young's team record for most consecutive passes without throwing a pick. There were times last season when Smith finished games with impressive NFL passer ratings, only to score below average in QBR. Sacks usually accounted for much of the differential. Smith took four of them Sunday, a high number. His score did suffer some as a result, but not terribly so. I suspect that is because the sacks were relatively inconsequential. The first one came early in the game, on the 49ers' first drive. Smith overcame the second one by completing a 20-yard pass to Michael Crabtree on a third-and-8 play to sustain a touchdown drive. The 49ers were leading by 16 points when Smith took his third and fourth sacks of the game. QBR takes into account game situations. Taking a sack on a fourth-down play in overtime will knock down the QBR score far more than taking one during a blowout. Smith was outstanding Sunday.
  • Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (46.4 QBR, 105.1 NFL rating): Bradford completed 17 of 25 passes for 198 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions and three sacks. The gap between Bradford's below-average QBR and glittering NFL passer rating should be instructive. No quarterback's QBR from Week 1 suffered harder from sacks than the one for Bradford did. He did hold the ball too long before taking a sack on third-and-5 from the Detroit 6-yard line, forcing the Rams to settle for a field goal. Bradford took another sack on third-and-8, this one for 12 yards. He fumbled while taking another sack (teammate Harvey Dahl recovered). I would have expected a higher score for Bradford based on the fourth-quarter drives he led. However, Bradford scrambled for only 3 yards on second-and-12 before throwing incomplete on third-and-9 as the Rams settled for a 46-yard field goal to take a 23-20 lead with two minutes remaining.
  • John Skelton, Arizona Cardinals (31.4 QBR, 51.0 NFL rating): Skelton completed 14-of-28 passes for 149 yards with no touchdowns, one interception and one sack. The Cardinals scored 10 points on three trips to the Seattle 13-yard line or closer while Skelton was in the game. That included settling for a field goal after getting first-and-goal from the 2. The interception Skelton threw in Cardinals territory put Seattle in position for the tying field goal in the third quarter. The pass was one Skelton never should have thrown. Kevin Kolb took over for an injured Skelton and led the winning drive. However, he wasn't on the field long enough to post a qualifying QBR score for the week. His unqualified score was 94.4.
  • Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (27.6 QBR, 62.5 NFL rating): Wilson completed 18-of-34 passes for 153 yards with one touchdown, one interception and three sacks. He gained 20 yards on eight scrambles. Wilson, like Skelton, made virtually no net impact on the game with his passing. QBR gave him credit for helping to draw penalties against the Cardinals' defenders in coverage. In fact, QBR gave Wilson more credit -- 4.2 expected points -- for those plays than any other quarterback received during Week 1. The interception he threw before halftime on a desperation throw didn't factor much; it wasn't a meaningful play. Highlights included a 15-yard pass to Charly Martin on third-and-14 in the fourth quarter and a 10-yard scoring pass to Sidney Rice on third-and-9 earlier in the game. He took a sack on third down during the Seahawks' final drive, however, and got no points after having first-and-goal from the 6.

The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 1, 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."

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