NFL Nation: QBR ranks

QBR ranks: Young QBs set high standard

January, 16, 2013

Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers were the NFL headliners at quarterback entering the divisional playoffs.

Two young NFC West quarterbacks played as well or better than all of them. They did it in different ways.

San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards, an NFL record for a quarterback. He was most effective as a passer on third down, completing 5 of 7 attempts for 90 yards, one touchdown, a 153.3 NFL passer rating and 100.0 Total QBR score. His third-down rating and QBR score led quarterbacks in the divisional round.

The 49ers beat the Packers, 45-31.

Seattle's Russell Wilson passed for 385 yards, a rookie record in the playoffs. He was most effective passing on first down, completing 14 of 18 passes for 231 yards, two touchdowns, a 155.8 passer rating and 97.1 QBR score.

The Seahawks overcame 20-0 and 27-7 deficits to take a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds remaining before losing, 30-28.

A few more notes on Kaepernick and Wilson from the divisional round:
  • Kaepernick: The 49ers' second-year quarterback, though terrific on third down, struggled on first down, completing half his 12 attempts for 68 yards. His first-down passer rating (67.4) was the lowest among divisional-round quarterbacks. The same was true for his 40.8 QBR score on first down. Kaepernick's QBR score on passing plays only was 33.7, by far the lowest for a quarterback in the divisional round (Manning was next at 60.7 and Wilson was fourth at 71.9). The rushing game was where Kaepernick made history. He added 17.2 expected points through his 16 rushes and 181 rushing yards. He gained 99 of his rushing yards on option plays. The 49ers had 16 option rushes for 176 yards and seven first downs with six carries of at least 10 yards against the Packers. That was up from 26 option rushes for 140 yards with six first downs and three 10-plus rushes from Week 11 through Week 17, the games Kaepernick started. The sudden shift to a more option-heavy offense paid off against the Packers, who did not seem to adjust and paid dearly.
  • Wilson: The Seahawks' rookie, though outstanding on first down, wasn't as good on third down, completing 2 of 5 attempts for 28 yards with a 58.8 passer rating and divisional-round low 3.5 QBR score. The Seahawks' success on early downs left them with fewer third-down chances and fewer opportunities for Wilson to affect the game on third down. Wilson had seven third-down action plays, fewest among quarterbacks in the divisional round. Wilson, who rushed for 60 yards and a touchdown, had 24 first downs passing and rushing, five more than any other quarterback in the divisional round and double Rodgers' total. Wilson gained 21 of the 24 on first or second down, at least 10 more than Kaepernick (11), Manning (11), Ryan (11), Brady (10), Flacco (nine) and Rodgers (seven). Wilson finished the regular season with more passes from outside the pocket than any quarterback in the NFL (105). He ranked fourth in QBR (73.4) on these plays. But his QBR score from inside the pocket was even better (73.5). He threw 21 of his regular-season touchdown passes from inside the pocket. Against the Falcons, Wilson completed 23 of 32 passes for 361 yards with two touchdowns, a 116.8 passer rating and 81.7 QBR score from inside the pocket.

The chart below shows QBR scores for divisional-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.

QBR ranks: Acknowledging Sam Bradford

January, 5, 2013
The St. Louis Rams, though home for the NFC playoffs, finished the 2012 season with a positive combined net points differential against second-seeded San Francisco and fifth-seeded Seattle.

Their defense and special teams deserve some of the credit, for sure.

So does quarterback Sam Bradford.

As concerning as it might be for Rams fans to see young quarterbacks emerging elsewhere in the NFC West, they should know Bradford generally did his part in hard-fought games against the more talented 49ers and Seahawks.

The Rams' third-year quarterback finished the 2012 season with a 67.1 Total QBR score in four games against San Francisco and Seattle. Fifty is average. Players with a 65-plus score or higher over a full season would generally command Pro Bowl consideration.

Bradford posted a 2-1-1 starting record against Seattle and San Francisco. He completed 62 percent of his passes with three touchdowns, two picks and only six sacks on 156 dropbacks. He added three first downs on seven rushes.

Bradford posted a season-high 82.0 QBR score during the Rams' 24-24 tie at San Francisco in Week 10. He completed 26 of 39 passes for 259 yards with two touchdowns and no picks. That included seven third-down pass completions resulting in first downs. That game demonstrated the Rams at their best on offense, with the potential for more (top deep threat Chris Givens missed that game).

A penalty for illegal formation against receiver Brandon Gibson wiped out an 80-yard strike to Danny Amendola in overtime, a play that likely would have delivered the Rams to victory while affecting the NFC playoff race and possibly getting St. Louis to .500 for the season.

Now, for the not-so-good news: Bradford's QBR score was a below-average 43.2 against all other opponents. His starting record in those games was 5-7, with four of the victories against Arizona (twice), Buffalo and a tanking Tampa Bay team.

I've felt as though a player drafted as early as Bradford was drafted -- first overall in 2010 -- should occasionally dominate a game. There should be times when the opponent leaves the stadium thinking something along the lines of, "Hey, when Sam Bradford gets hot like that, there's not much anyone can do about it."

We haven't seen those types of games from Bradford. We still might if the Rams continue to upgrade the players around him. For this season, he was good enough to help the Rams compete on pretty even terms with the two best teams in the NFC West. That's a start.

With that, let's take a player-by-player look at NFC West quarterbacks in relation to Total QBR for Week 17:
  • Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers (81.4 QBR, 114.6 NFL rating). Kaepernick completed 16 of 28 passes for 276 yards with two touchdowns, zero interceptions and one sack. Kaepernick carried three times for 5 yards and zero first downs. There are times when players with high NFL passer ratings don't fare so well in terms of QBR. That was the case for the 49ers' Alex Smith last season. QBR was telling us what the 49ers told us when they decided to replace Smith with Kaepernick this season (although Smith's QBR score was much higher in 2012). Kaepernick, like Smith, has posted high passer ratings pretty consistently. QBR also likes the way he's playing. I think that's a very good sign for the 49ers in the long term, and perhaps in the short term as well. Kaepernick finished the regular season with a 76.8 QBR score. That ranked third in the NFL behind Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Smith ranks seventh with a 70.1 QBR score this season.
  • Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (69.0 QBR, 74.7 NFL rating). Bradford completed 25 of 42 passes for 252 yards with one touchdown, one interception and zero sacks. Bradford carried one time for 6 yards and a first down. Bradford's QBR score was 73.2 in the first half and 65.2 in the second half. Bradford has generally been better in second halves this season. He was pretty consistent against Seattle.
  • Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (65.7 QBR, 136.3 NFL rating). Wilson completed 15 of 19 passes for 250 yards with one touchdown, zero interceptions and six sacks. Wilson carried 10 times for 58 yards and the game-winning touchdown. He had three first downs rushing and 32 of his 58 yards after contact, with a long rush of 15 yards. Wilson struggled against the Rams' pressure in the first half, taking five sacks. He outplayed Bradford in the second half, but Bradford still finished with a slightly higher QBR score, largely because he took no sacks.
  • Brian Hoyer, Arizona Cardinals (43.4 QBR, 73.8 NFL rating). Hoyer completed 19 of 34 passes for 225 yards with one touchdown, one interception and two sacks. Hoyer had one carry for 6 yards and a first down. Hoyer threw a touchdown pass, a significant achievement for the Cardinals recently. They had tossed only two scoring passes with 15 interceptions from Week 7 until this game.

The chart below shows QBR scores for quarterbacks relevant to NFC West games in Week 17. Rankings in the first column reflect all NFL games for the week.

QBR ranks: Serious halftime adjustments

December, 11, 2012
The outlook for NFC West quarterbacks was dim at halftime of their games in Week 14.

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.

QBR ranks: Wilson! Kaepernick? Oh, my

December, 3, 2012
Seattle Seahawks rookie Russell Wilson leads the NFL in Total QBR after Week 5.

That is a stunning achievement given that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Robert Griffin III rank second through fifth, respectively.

Wilson ranked only 29th through Week 5. He had five touchdowns, six interceptions and a 33.9 QBR score to that point in the season.

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.

QBR ranks: Revisiting Kaepernick's night

November, 21, 2012
Colin KaepernickJeff Chiu/AP PhotoIn his first regular-season start, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had the highest QBR score in Week 11.

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."

QBR ranks: Sam Bradford answers call

November, 12, 2012
SAN FRANCISCO -- Sam Bradford showed Sunday what he can do when armed with a talented receiver he trusts implicitly.

The St. Louis Rams' third-year quarterback completed 11 of 12 passes when targeting Danny Amendola during a 24-24 tie against the San Francisco 49ers. He completed passes to Amendola even when the 49ers had tighter-than-tight coverage.

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."

QBR ranks: Russell Wilson stands tallest

October, 15, 2012
At least one NFC West game from Week 6 followed its expected course.

The Seattle Seahawks indeed had problems against New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker. And the Patriots were indeed vulnerable on deep passes.

The Seahawks prevailed, 24-23, largely because quarterback Russell Wilson and his receivers exploited those vulnerabilities down the field.

Wilson completed 5 of 9 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns on passes traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Patriots had given up 11 such completions for 340 yards and three TDs through Week 5. Only Buffalo (11) had allowed as many heading into Week 6. The other 30 NFL teams had allowed 5.8 on average.

Wilson's deep strikes stood out for a few reasons:
  • Accuracy: Wilson never seemed to be taking chances with his deep throws. The Patriots' coverage problems contributed, but still, Wilson hit receivers in stride. That was impressive.
  • Ease of delivery: The winning 46-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice traveled farther than that in the air, obviously. Wilson delivered the ball with ease. He wasn't stepping into it the way a quarterback would deliver a desperation heave. Wilson played minor league baseball. He has ample arm strength. The Seahawks gave him very good protection on this play, too.
  • Coordination: Wilson and his receivers showed improved rapport, especially after Wilson left the pocket. Even the 10-yard scoring pass to Braylon Edwards looked like something resulting from red zone work in practice. The two had failed to connect in the clutch at Arizona in Week 1 even though Edwards was open.
  • Timing: Wilson continues to perform well in the clutch. The 46-yarder to Rice came with 1:18 remaining. Wilson has led the Seahawks into scoring range during the final two minutes of games against Arizona, Green Bay, St. Louis and New England.

Those are a few observations. This performance from Wilson keeps him on track to remain the starter without grumbling from those thinking the team would have been better off with Matt Flynn. He'll face a tougher test at San Francisco on Thursday night.

With that, let's take a look at how NFC West passers graded out for Week 6 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 (133.7 NFL rating, 91.4 QBR): Wilson completed 16 of 27 passes (59.3 percent) for 293 yards with three TDs, no INTs and one fumble, which New England recovered. He took two sacks and rushed five times for 17 yards, gaining one first down. Wilson completed 12 of 20 passes for 206 yards with two TDs from inside the pocket, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He hurt the Patriots outside the pocket as well, completing four of those seven attempts for 87 yards and a score. Last week, Wilson improved on third down. This week, he improved in his ability to strike downfield after escaping the pocket. What's next for Wilson? He could stand to step up in the pocket more regularly, it seems. Wilson put right tackle Breno Giacomini in a tough spot on one play Sunday, a big reason behind the holding penalty Giacomini incurred. Wilson might have been better off stepping forward on such a play. Wilson would have run into a sack, most likely, had Giacomini not held his man while Wilson ran toward the pressure. Giacomini was better off holding than allowing the sack. He prevented a loss of down.
  • Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (91.3 NFL rating, 77.3 QBR): Bradford completed 26 of 39 passes (66.7 percent) for 315 yards with no touchdowns, no interceptions and no fumbles. He took three sacks. Bradford rushed four times for 34 yards and a TD. He also completed a pass for a two-point conversion to pull the Rams within a three-point deficit late in the game. Bradford is playing with great energy. So are the Rams. They know they're competitive each week and it's making a difference in how they carry themselves. The way Bradford scrambled and threw for a critical two-point conversion was impressive. It was even more impressive given the torque applied to Bradford's body in multiple places when he scored on a 1-yard keeper for the Rams' final TD. Bradford continues to connect on deep passes with rookie fourth-round choice Chris Givens. Their 65-yard connection was the third in three games longer than 50 yards.
  • Kevin Kolb, Arizona Cardinals (64.3 NFL rating, 26.1 QBR): Kolb completed 14 of 26 passes (53.8 percent) for 128 yards with one TD, one INT and no fumbles. He took five sacks, one of them for a safety, before leaving the game with injured ribs. Backup John Skelton completed 2 of 10 passes for 45 yards with no TDs and one INT. His QBR score was 2.4. QBR is a rate stat. Suffering a critical turnover as part of an abbreviated performance contributed to the low score. Injury issues are dramatically affecting the Cardinals' offense. Kolb isn't transcending those. He completed only 10 of 19 passes for 57 yards with one TD and one pick on short passes (those traveling no more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage). Andre Roberts dropped one of those on third-and-5.
  • Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers (43.1 NFL passer rating, 24.8 QBR): Smith completed 19 of 30 passes (63.3 percent) for 200 yards with no TDs, three INTs and one fumble, which the 49ers recovered. He took four sacks. Backup Colin Kaepernick completed 4 of 7 passes for 82 yards with no TDs, no INTs and two sacks. His QBR score was 70.8. Smith had gone 26 consecutive starts without throwing more than one INT in a game. His two third-quarter picks gave the Giants possession deep in 49ers territory. Smith had ample time to throw early in the game, but he appeared tentative and late with throws. The Giants presumably had something to do with that. They took away Vernon Davis and seemed to play more man coverage. Smith has played well enough to earn a pass for the occasional bad game. Will the coaching staff become more conservative, turning Smith back into game-manager mode?

The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 6, 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."

QBR ranks: 49ers' Alex Smith leads NFL

October, 8, 2012
Alex Smith AP Photo/Tony AvelarAlex Smith is making a compelling case this season for being considered as an elite NFL QB.
Alex Smith has generally done what the San Francisco 49ers have asked him to do since last season.

Some of the quarterback's most valuable contributions -- changing plays at the line of scrimmage, for instance -- have been tough to quantify.

Coach Jim Harbaugh called Smith "elite" and promoted him for the Pro Bowl last season. Supporters could always point to Smith's No. 9 ranking in NFL passer rating for 2011 (90.7 set a career high for him) even while Smith and Harbaugh discounted raw stats as a meaningful way to measure quarterback performance.

That was all fine, but money trumps talk and stats. And when Smith became a free agent last offseason, the 49ers let him test the market, something teams almost never allow franchise quarterbacks to do. Smith ultimately commanded a game manager's contract from the 49ers, a three-year deal giving the team an out after only one season.

Despite that No. 9 ranking in passer rating, Smith ranks 20th among NFL quarterbacks in compensation for this season. That salary ranking lines up closely with Smith's No. 22 ranking last season in Total QBR, the metric ESPN developed to take into account a fuller measure of a quarterback's contributions.

Players with high NFL passer ratings and relatively low QBR scores generally aren't asked to carry their offenses. They're efficient passers, but not the most valuable quarterbacks. They're more apt to sign modest contracts.

That was the case for Smith last season.

Times could be changing.

Smith leads the NFL in passer rating and Total QBR through five weeks this season. That suggests he's carrying more of the offensive load for the 49ers, something we saw most demonstrably during a 45-3 victory over Buffalo on Sunday. Smith completed 18 of 24 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns, including two on throws well down the field.

Football is, of course, a team game. A quarterback surrounded by superior talent enjoys significant advantages.

Smith increasingly appears to be one of those quarterbacks. He has outplayed big-money quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Ryan Fitzpatrick so far this season.

Eli Manning, another quarterback outranking Smith on the NFL pay scale, will be on the other sideline when the New York Giants visit Candlestick Park in Week 6. We'll have much more to discuss after that one.

With that, let's take a look at how NFC West passers graded out for Week 5 in relation to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point (thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for the charting info):

  • Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers (99.2 QBR, 156.2 NFL rating): Smith completed 18 of 24 passes (75 percent) for 303 yards with three TDs, zero INTs, zero sacks and zero fumbles. He rushed three times for 49 yards. Smith was much better at home than on the road last season. He has shown improvement on the road this season and was nearly perfect against Buffalo in only his second home game of the season. The 49ers have their next two games at home. A potentially sprained finger on Smith's throwing hand was the only negative for him Sunday.
  • Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (51.7 QBR, 82.3 NFL rating): Wilson completed 19 of 25 passes (76 percent) for 221 yards with one TD, two INTs, two sacks and zero fumbles. He rushed five times for 12 yards. Wilson needed strong backing from his defense to win this game after Carolina returned one of his two interceptions for a go-ahead TD in the second half. Overall, though, Wilson made clear progress. Seattle appeared to have actual weapons on offense for stretches of this game, a departure from recent form. Sidney Rice played with flair. Golden Tate's big-play ability showed up on a 13-yard catch-and-run for a TD, and on a 56-yard reception wiped out by penalty. The Panthers sent five or more pass-rushers on only six plays, the fewest Wilson has faced this season (St. Louis 8, Dallas 7). Wilson completed 3 of 4 passes for 36 yards with one INT and one sack against this added pressure.
  • Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (38.6 QBR, 69.7 NFL rating): Bradford completed 7 of 21 passes (33 percent) for 141 yards with two TDs, one INT, one sack and no fumbles. He netted zero yards on five rushes. Bradford started quickly, making aggressive throws on deep passes as St. Louis took an early lead. A miscommunication with Danny Amendola killed one drive, however, and Bradford struggled once an injury removed Amendola from the game. Bradford completed 3 of 9 passes for 66 yards with two TDs, one INT and a sack on third down. He had a 15-yard scramble on a third-and-15 play wiped out by penalty. This was an ugly game, but one the Rams generally controlled.
  • Kevin Kolb, Arizona Cardinals (24.3 QBR, 72.8 NFL rating): Kolb completed 28 of 50 passes (56 percent) for 289 yards with zero TDs, zero INTs, nine sacks and one lost fumble. He rushed once for two yards. Kolb somehow held up physically despite taking a beating that left him with a bloody mouth. When Kolb did have time, he missed at least two open receivers for what could have been big plays. His receivers too frequently failed to hold up their end when Kolb did deliver the ball accurately. Even Larry Fitzgerald dropped a pass.

The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 5, 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."

QBR ranks: Alex Smith stands tall on road

September, 10, 2012
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."

QBR ranks: Smith, Skelton step up

January, 2, 2012
NFC West quarterbacks took a beating in 2011 -- not just with the 203 sacks they absorbed, either.

We've heard the criticisms and levied them from time to time. Alex Smith is a merely game manager, John Skelton lacks accuracy, Kevin Kolb lacks pocket awareness, Tarvaris Jackson doesn't produce well enough in the clutch, etc.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireAlex Smith had the highest QBR in the division for the 2011 regular season.
The position was more asset than liability within the division Sunday. Smith, Skelton and the St. Louis Rams' Kellen Clemens made key plays and generally avoided critical errors. Smith and Clemens even scrambled for touchdowns. They stood high above the Seattle Seahawks' Tarvaris Jackson in Total QBR for Week 17.

Skelton's performance in victory over Seattle gave him the highest single-game QBR for a Cardinals quarterback (69.7) since Kurt Warner scored a 75.1 against the Rams in Week 16 of the 2009 season. That was enough to move Skelton past Jackson for second behind Smith in QBR for the 2011 season.

What does it all mean?

QBR measures how quarterbacks affect their teams' win probability on a play-by-play basis, taking into account contributions related to passing, rushing, sacks, penalties and fumbles. It would have us believe that NFC West quarterbacks played well occasionally, but their contributions over the full season fell short of the 50-point score representing average. I would generally agree.

The first chart below suggests Smith has picked up his play recently, posting scores in the 70s for three weeks running, and 67.7 or higher six times in the last eight games. Smith's NFL passer rating (90.7) ranked ninth in the NFL. His QBR ranked 22nd largely because the 49ers added relatively few expected points through passing, and because Smith ranked last in expected point lost to sacks.

Smith has taken five sacks over his last three games after taking 18 over the previous three. The 49ers have not committed a turnover in their last five games.

The key for Smith, in my view, will be transitioning away from turnover avoidance through sacks (avoiding interceptions at all costs) and moving toward completing passes against pressure. We have seen that on occasion recently.

I've shaded the chart to show single-game scores in the 60s or higher. For reference, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees scored in the 80s over the full 2011 season. Any full-season score in the mid-60s represents Pro Bowl-caliber production.

Quick thoughts on how NFC West passers graded out in Week 17 according to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point:

  • Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers (73.3 QBR, 98.7 NFL rating): Smith completed 21 of 31 passes for 219 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions, three sacks no fumbles. He gained five yards on four carries and had a rushing touchdown. The 49ers had only three wide receivers active, putting pressure on Smith to better utilize tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Michael Crabtree. Smith succeeded. He found Davis on deep passes gaining 44 and 34 yards. Crabtree did much of the work on a 28-yard scoring pass, but Smith's rushing score on third-and-goal from the 8 helped.
  • John Skelton, Arizona Cardinals (69.7 QBR, 74.1 NFL rating): Skelton completed 22 of 40 passes for 271 yards with one touchdown, one interception, two sacks and no fumbles. He ran five times for 19 yards. Skelton completed third-down passes covering 26, 26, 22 and 18 yards. He also picked up a critical first down on a fourth-and-2 play in overtime. The touchdown drive Skelton led in the first quarter featured a 22-yard completion to Todd Heap on third-and-5.
  • Kellen Clemens, St. Louis Rams (64.9 QBR, 67.4 NFL rating): Clemens completed 14 of 31 passes for 226 yards with one touchdown, one interception, three sacks and no fumbles. He ran twice for 18 yards and a touchdown. The 49ers had allowed only one rushing touchdown all season when Clemens sprinted into the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Clemens' 36-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Lloyd on third-and-11 gave the Rams a chance late in the game. He also completed a 21-yard pass on third-and-10 a bit later.
  • Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle Seahawks (26.7 QBR, 76.1 NFL rating): Jackson completed 21 of 35 passes for 222 yards with one touchdown, one interception, four sacks and one fumble, which the Seahawks recovered. He gained three yards on his only rush. Jackson twice missed an open Ben Obomanu for deep passes that likely would have produced touchdowns. He did connect with Ricardo Lockette for a 61-yard score, but the Seahawks converted just three times on 19 third-down chances. Jackson could not claim his first fourth-quarter comeback victory of the season despite rallying into a tie.

The clutch-weight average column reflects game situations, not how well players performed during those situations. Any clutch average above 1.0 reflects a quarterback performing in higher-pressure situations.

QBR: When average QB play is enough

December, 5, 2011
Kevin Kolb needed merely to be average for the Arizona Cardinals to realize a significant gain in the standings.

That was my theory heading into the 2011 NFL season.

The team was so bad at quarterback in finishing 5-11 last season, my thinking went, that even mediocre play might get them into the .500 range. Kolb has too frequently been less than mediocre this season, but that changed during the second half and overtime of the Cardinals' 19-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13.

Total QBR, which pegs average quarterback play at 50 on a 100-point scale, says Kolb has played near an average level four times this season, including when he posted a season-high 54.0 score Sunday. The Cardinals are 2-2 in those four games. They are 0-4 when Kolb has posted a QBR score significantly worse than average.

So, while an improved defense largely accounted for the Cardinals' victory Sunday, slightly better than average quarterback play was critical, too.

Kolb remains the only projected NFC West starter without a single-game QBR score of 55 or higher. He faces a tough test when San Francisco visits University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 14. Average might not be good enough then, but with three of their final four games at home, the Cardinals still have a chance to approach that .500 range -- right where we thought they might land, albeit by less conventional means.

Quick thoughts on how NFC West passers graded out in Week 13 according to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point:
  • Tarvaris Jackson, Seahawks (76.9 QBR, 142.3 NFL rating): See full breakdown from Friday.
  • Alex Smith, 49ers (68.7 QBR, 142.3 NFL rating): Smith completed 17 of 23 passes for 274 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions, four sacks, no fumbles and no rushing attempts. He finished with the highest single-game NFL passer rating of his career. Smith also posted a high QBR score, but the blowout affected how much credit he got for plays deemed less important to winning. QBR does not necessarily tell us how well a quarterback executed his team's game plan. It does not necessarily tell us whether he threw pretty passes. It tells us how his passes, runs, penalties and sacks affected win probability on a per-play basis, weighted for game situations. Smith has largely done what the team has asked him to do. The team has not always asked him to be the difference in winning. For that reason, his QBR scores have sometimes lagged despite seemingly efficient play. The downfield throws Smith made Sunday helped him finish with his sixth QBR score of 65 or higher. That level, if sustained over the course of a season, would reflect Pro Bowl-caliber play. QBR says Smith has achieved that level more often than not recently.
  • Kevin Kolb, Cardinals (54.0 QBR, 109.9 NFL rating): Kolb completed 16 of 25 passes for 247 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions, five sacks and no fumbles. He ran three times for 20 yards, including once for a 17-yard gain to the Dallas 5-yard line on the Cardinals' first possession of the second half. Kolb passed for only 44 yards in the first half and took four of his sacks then. He played much better from that point forward. The QBR score was only slightly above average because Kolb took so many sacks. And because LaRod Stephens-Howling did most of the work on the winning 52-yard touchdown reception in overtime, Kolb did not get as much credit for that throw as NFL passer rating gave him.
  • A.J. Feeley, Rams (11.4 QBR, 58.1 NFL rating): Feeley completed 12 of 22 passes for 156 yards with no touchdowns, one interception, four sacks, one fumble (lost) and no rushing attempts. Austin Pettis dropped an early third-down pass when a conversion was within reach. Danario Alexander failed to hold onto a deep pass at the goal line. The game wasn't very competitive, however, and that meant even strong plays from Feeley would not have registered as much with QBR once the score was lopsided.

The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 13.

The clutch-weight average column reflects game situations, not how well players performed during those situations. Any clutch average above 1.0 reflects a quarterback performing in higher-pressure situations.

Note in the chart below that Dallas' Tony Romo added far more expected points through his passing than any quarterback listed. The negative totals he posted for rushing, sacks and penalties left his QBR score in the mid-50s, however.

QBR ranks: Alex Smith and Ginn's drop

November, 14, 2011
TBDCary Edmondson/US PresswireAlex Smith carried more of the offense than usual in the win against the Giants.
Alex Smith's lone interception Sunday dropped his NFL passer rating for the game from 103.5 to 85.7.

This was unfortunate for the San Francisco 49ers' quarterback because there was nothing wrong with the pass he threw. Receiver Ted Ginn Jr. was open by seven yards on the play, but the pass bounced off his hands. Corey Webster, the New York Giants cornerback in coverage, turned what should have been an 8-yard reception into a pick.

With a reception instead of an interception, and with all else being equal, Smith would have completed 20 of 30 passes for about 250 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Instead, he was 19 of 30 for 242 yards with one touchdown and one pick.

None of this affected the game's outcome. The 49ers won, 27-20, and improved their record to 8-1. But statistics do matter. They shape perceptions, frame debates, affect contract negotiations and help determine which players command respect across the league.

This one play in particular also provided a good test case for Total QBR, as several suggested to me Sunday night.

"Do they take into account that the INT was not his fault when calculating QBR?" Justin asked via Facebook.

Over a season, yes. On one play, not as much.

Smith finished the game with a 67.7 QBR. The figure could have been 72.0 without Ginn's drop and the subsequent interception. But that's a simplified answer to a complex question.

ESPN game charters do not determine, on a play-by-play basis, that blame for a certain error fell 100 percent on one player. The QBR formula assigns blame to the degree statistical analysis has determined appropriate over time, not on a specific play. Even on some obvious dropped passes, it's possible the receiver wasn't fully to blame.

I posted Justin's question to Alok Pattani of ESPN's analytics team. How, in the end, did that Ginn drop and ensuing interception affect the QBR score for Smith? His reply:
"The Smith question is difficult and inexact. If Ginn catches the pass, then they are still driving, so there are more plays there for Smith, etc. Then the clutch weight could change for later plays based on the score being different, etc.

"For a simple scenario, let’s suppose Ginn caught it at the 20 and got no YAC (setting up 3rd-and-6 from the 20), then someone else fumbled on the next rushing play and the rest of the game went exactly as it did. Smith would get about 50 percent credit for this play, which would still be negative, but less so. His QBR for the game would end up at 72.0."

Our basic answer, then, was that Smith lost about six percent of his QBR total from this play, assuming Ginn was, indeed, fully at fault for the error. Smith's NFL passer rating fell by about 17 percentage points. Neither measure told us exactly what happened, but QBR came a lot closer. Those interested in a more detailed explanation for dropped passes can check out what Dean Oliver wrote in August:
"Statistical analysis showed that what we call a dropped pass was not all a receiver's fault, either. A receiver might drop a ball because he wanted to run before catching it, because the defense distracted him, because it was a little bit behind him or because he was about to get hit by a defender.

"If the defender was there a half second before, the defender would have knocked the ball free and it would have been called a 'defended pass,' not a 'dropped pass.' There are shades of gray even on a dropped pass, and analysis showed that. Drops are less a QB's fault than defended passes or underthrows, but the QB does share some blame."

Back to Week 10. Smith's showing ranked ninth-best in the league, according to QBR, and Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson was close behind.

Total QBR has heaped praise upon Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Tony Romo, Matt Hasselbeck, Ben Roethlisberger, Manning and Matt Schaub this season.

Those eight emerged from Week 10 with season-long scores higher than 65, which generally reflects Pro Bowl-caliber play. The first four listed have achieved scores near or above 75, reflecting MVP-caliber play.

The chart shows QBR scores for NFC West quarterbacks by week and for the season.

Quick thoughts on how NFC West passers graded out in Week 10 according to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point:

  • Alex Smith, 49ers (67.7 QBR, 85.7 NFL rating): Smith completed 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards with one touchdown, one interception, two sacks, no fumbles and six rushes covering 27 yards. Smith's lone interception was not his fault. He scrambled repeatedly, including once on a third-down play to set up a 39-yard field goal. The 49ers passed on 11 of their first 13 plays. Smith carried more of the offense than usual and fared well.
  • Tarvaris Jackson, Seahawks (64.8 QBR, 88.0 NFL rating): Jackson completed 17 of 27 passes for 217 yards with no touchdowns, no interceptions, one sack, no fumbles and five rushes covering three yards. I'll address Jackson's performance in greater detail during the "five observations" post scheduled for later Monday. He outplayed Baltimore's Joe Flacco and showed surprising arm strength given the injury affecting his right pectoral.
  • John Skelton, Cardinals (48.9 QBR, 82.8 NFL rating): Skelton completed 21 of 40 passes for 315 yards with three touchdowns, two interceptions, four sacks, no fumbles and four rushes covering 15 yards. Skelton threw the winning touchdown pass with the game on the line. He played poorly enough for the Cardinals to lose and well enough for them to win. That explains why he emerged from this game with a middling QBR score. Fifty is average. Skelton was right around there. He has played the way a young backup should play -- well some of the time, poor other times. Could the Cardinals have beaten St. Louis and Philadelphia with Kevin Kolb behind center? Yes, but they could have lost those games with him as well -- same as the case was with Skelton.
  • Sam Bradford, Rams (42.6 QBR, 74.6 NFL rating): Bradford completed 15 of 25 passes for 155 yards with one touchdown, one interception, one sack, no fumbles and four rushes covering three yards. The Rams scored only one touchdown and needed a botched field-goal attempt from the Browns to escape with the victory. Bradford emerged from Week 10 with the lowest QBR score for NFC West quarterbacks. His team's victory and Bradford's ankle injury dulled criticism of the quarterback for now. The Rams still need to see more from Bradford and their passing game.

The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 10.


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