Statistically Speaking: Sammy Baugh

This is the first in a series I am calling “Statistically Speaking,” in which I will discuss several legendary quarterbacks and what the numbers say about their careers. The plan is to focus on the Hall of Fame players first, and then move on to other players of note if time permits. In an era when most who write about players and numbers do so to predict the future or help subscribers win fantasy football leagues, a series on long-retired and culturally irrelevant players probably seems like a strange idea. Maybe even a waste of time.

I don’t think it’s a waste of time, and I’ll tell you why.

I fell in love with the game of football when I was a small child. I was drawn to its many juxtapositions: violence and grace, strategy and art, personal glory and camaraderie. Plus, it was just really fun to play. I idolized Jerry Rice, and I became obsessed with his chase to break the records of Art Monk, James Lofton, and Jim Brown. That obsession led me to research all the NFL records and stats I could find, devouring any sports almanac or encyclopedia I could get my hands on. I inevitably became interested in the stories of the men associated with the stats, and I passionately began studying the game’s history when I was about seven years old.

Age and injury have kept me from playing anymore,1 but my fondness for the game never dwindled. This look at legends of a bygone era is my Rosebud, recalling the small bit of joy I remember from a turbulent youth. I don’t want to spend more time getting all Andy Rooney on you, so let’s get on with it. The first quarterback in the series is, fittingly, the first real superstar: Slingin’ Sammy Baugh.

Completions

Accounting for era, Baugh is probably the most accurate passer in NFL history. He led the league in completions five times and completion rate a remarkable eight times. His career 56.53 completion percentage is higher than that of modern star Michael Vick (56.17) and Super Bowl Winners Phil Simms (55.43) and Trent Dilfer (55.45). His most accurate season came in 1945, when, playing with an archaic football, he completed 70.33% of his passes. That record stood for 37 years before Bill Walsh disciple Ken Anderson finally broke it. Even after the passing explosion of the last decade, Baugh’s season still ranks fifth.2

The table below displays Baugh’s completion rate metrics for each year, as well as his career totals. Read it thus: In 1937, he completed 81 of 171 passes at a 47.37% rate. That was actually 5.58% higher than the NFL average. His index score was 109, meaning his completion rate was 0.6 standard deviations better than average.3 He completed 10 more passes than the average passer would be expected to in the same number of attempts, and he completed 27 more passes than a replacement player. When adjusted or schedule length and league passing environment, those numbers jump to 26 and 74, respectively.

YearTmCmpAttCmp%MrgCmp%+ValRepAdjVALAdjREP
1937WAS8117147.37%5.58%10910272674
1938WAS6312849.22%6.09%1118221849
1939WAS539655.21%11.65%12011222345
1940WAS11117762.71%17.77%130315162102
1941WAS10619354.92%9.48%11618403679
1942WAS13222558.67%12.61%121285456106
1943WAS13323955.65%10.22%118245254114
1944WAS8214656.16%10.31%11715322654
1945WAS12818270.33%24.67%141456677113
1946WAS8716154.04%7.76%11313312255
1947WAS21035459.32%12.08%123438566132
1948WAS18531558.73%11.01%121357251107
1949WAS14525556.86%9.32%11924543478
1950WAS9016654.22%7.31%11612321745
1951WAS6715443.51%-3.45%92-513-818
1952WAS203360.61%13.37%13148612
CareerWAS1693299556.53%10.55%1193166605681183

Looking at standard completion rate, Baugh’s numbers (along with everyone else’s) don’t look particularly impressive to the modern eye, aside from 1945. However, it is immediately evident that he was an incredibly accurate passer for his time, as his logo is at or near the top in almost every season he played.

When you look at both marginal completion rate and index scores, you can see just how far ahead of everyone else he is – not just in his era, but among the great passers in history. His 1945 rate was nearly 25 percentage points higher than average, and he had eight other seasons where his was more than ten points higher. Twelve of his seasons were over a full standard deviation better than average. He faltered as an old man in 1951, but his completion rate was at least 5% higher than average every other year of his career. Even then, as you can see in the third chart, he wasn’t even a full standard deviation below average.

The chart below shows the number of extra completions Baugh added each year of his career, as well as cumulatively. The numbers are prorated to the modern schedule and based on the volume inflation the league has seen over the years. Read it thus: In 1937, Baugh added 26 completions (yellow line). He went on to add 18 in 1938, 23 in 1939, and 62 in 1940. Over those four years, he added a total of 129 completions (burgundy line). Overall, he added an otherworldly 568 completions, which is easily the highest figure in NFL history.

 

Yards

Baugh was a high volume passer, for his era, leading the league in yards four times and yards per game six times. However, he wasn’t historically great on a per-attempt basis. He led the league in yards per attempt (Y/A) thrice, As you can tell by the table and the charts, he was usually above average, if not by very much. He passed for 21886 yards in his career, which is 2061 more than a league average passer would have on the same number of attempts. When adjusted for passing environment, Baugh was worth about 3570 extra yards of value.

YearTmYdsAttYPAMrgYPA+ValRepAdjVALAdjREP
1937WAS11271716.590.5010586346233938
1938WAS8531286.660.3510344247101562
1939WAS518965.40-0.8992-8566-175135
1940WAS13671777.721.371132435244821040
1941WAS12361936.400.101011932338637
1942WAS15242256.770.3610381442158865
1943WAS17542397.340.811071935844291294
1944WAS8491465.82-0.9292-134112-229191
1945WAS16691829.172.431244437497581284
1946WAS11631617.220.271034332376573
1947WAS29383548.301.3811548911017601712
1948WAS25993158.251.401154409796511451
1949WAS19032557.460.75108192620278897
1950WAS11301666.810.081011329218417
1951WAS11041547.170.411056332390462
1952WAS152334.61-2.0978-69-14-98-20
CareerWAS2188629957.310.6910720617017357012438

The visuals below are pretty clear: Baugh was a steady yardage producer and managed to play at a solid level over the course of a lengthy career. In the few seasons he was below average, he also had relatively little volume, especially during his final season. Also, keep in mind that in the Y/A+ chart, a score of 100 is average. I decided to make the y-axis at intervals of 15 to neatly represent one standard deviation apiece.

Baugh’s 21886 passing yards don’t impress by modern standards, but it is worth noting that he once held the career passing yards record for 16 years. Among quarterbacks to hold that record, only Fran Tarkenton held it for longer. While he didn’t set the league on fire with his Y/A figures, he was consistently productive, passed often relative to his peers, and played for a very long time. With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as much surprise that Baugh added a significant amount of extra yardage over the course of his career. You can see in the chart below that the 1945-48 period is when he really built up his career value on the way to ranking 13th all time in marginal yards.

 

Touchdowns

Slingin’ Sammy didn’t throw for touchdowns at a high rate, at least relative to his era.4 He led the league in touchdowns and touchdown percentage twice apiece, but much of that can be attributed to volume (and many passers not having the volume to qualify for official TD% leaderboards). However, he was generally better than average at converting passes into scores, and, again, he had a very long career. Much like he held the yardage record, Baugh also held passing touchdowns record (and he held it for nearly 19 years).5 For his career, he added about 22 more touchdowns than the average quarterback would have, but that number jumps to 41 if you prorate the schedule and adjust for inflation.

YearTmTDAttTD%MrgTD%+ValRepAdjVALAdjREP
1937WAS81714.68%-0.34%99-12-24
1938WAS51283.91%-1.06%95-10-31
1939WAS6966.25%1.63%1082336
1940WAS121776.78%2.36%11246812
1941WAS101935.18%0.56%1031327
1942WAS162257.11%1.69%10847713
1943WAS232399.62%3.46%1158121826
1944WAS41462.74%-3.44%84-5-3-9-5
1945WAS111826.04%0.43%1021316
1946WAS81614.97%-0.75%95-11-22
1947WAS253547.06%0.97%10639514
1948WAS223156.98%1.03%10738512
1949WAS182557.06%1.54%11047611
1950WAS101666.02%0.88%1061425
1951WAS71544.55%-0.65%95-11-11
1952WAS2336.06%1.14%1080111
CareerWAS18729956.24%0.73%104226441116

Baugh’s marginal touchdown rate looks impressive in a few seasons, but the index scores show that he was only a full standard deviation above average once in his long career. Keep in mind, however, that variance was far higher than it is now, which will naturally reduce the index scores of top performers.6

Because Baugh didn’t stand out as a touchdown maven when he played, he doesn’t have the same lofty ranking historically in marginal touchdowns as he does in other metrics. His 42 career scores added ranks 22nd among NFL passers, which is still pretty high… it just isn’t as impressive as his other stats. Moreover, over half of his value came from the 1942 and 43 seasons.

 

Interceptions

As you might expect from a quarterback with a great completion rate, Baugh was also excellent at avoiding interceptions. Sure, he ended his career with more picks than scores, but that was a product of his era, and I’ll elaborate on that later.7 He also happened to post the NFL’s best (lowest) INT% five times in his career, which is impressive.

YearTmIntAttINT%MrgINT%+ValRepAdjVALAdjREP
1937WAS141718.19%-2.02%106-3-8-9-21
1938WAS111288.59%-0.56%102-1-4-2-8
1939WAS9969.38%0.05%1000-20-5
1940WAS101775.65%-3.57%112-6-10-13-21
1941WAS191939.84%0.32%991-41-8
1942WAS112254.89%-4.74%115-11-16-21-32
1943WAS192397.95%-1.94%106-5-11-10-23
1944WAS81465.48%-4.07%112-6-9-10-16
1945WAS41822.20%-7.00%124-13-17-22-29
1946WAS1716110.56%1.93%93306-1
1947WAS153544.24%-3.86%118-14-21-21-32
1948WAS233157.30%-0.32%102-1-7-2-10
1949WAS142555.49%-2.07%110-5-10-8-15
1950WAS111666.63%-0.95%105-2-5-2-7
1951WAS1715411.04%3.58%806384
1952WAS1333.03%-4.21%125-1-2-2-3
CareerWAS20329956.78%-1.94%107-58-123-107-227

To a modern fan who has watched football in the post-Bill Walsh era, seeing Baugh’s interception rate at face value probably doesn’t impress very much. The leaguewide interception percentage has been below 3.00% since 2011, with 2016 setting a new record at 2.3%. In Baugh’s best year, his rate was 2.2%, and he never had another season below 3.0%. However, his marginal and index scores tell an impressive tale. Note that, for negative occurrences like interceptions, a higher index score is better. You can see below that he was a full standard deviation above average three times (four if you include his 33 pass attempt final season).

Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers may be the standard bearers of interception avoidance, but after adjusting for era, Baugh surpasses both of them in total interceptions saved. In fact, his figure of -107 is only a hair out of first place in history.8 His figures of -22 and -21 are three of the top six seasons in NFL history.

 

Touchdown – Interception Differential

Touchdown to interception ratio is a popular stat talking heads like to throw around. Over the course of an entire career, it’s a pretty decent metric. However, when looking at individual seasons, using the ratio is misleading and can give a false impression of accomplishment. If Quarterback A throws 20 touchdowns to 3 interceptions in a season, his TD:INT ratio is 6.67:1. If Quarterback B throws 50 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, his TD:INT ratio is 4.17:1. I don’t know anyone who would seriously consider Quarterback A to have had the greater season. More efficient, perhaps, but certainly not greater. Touchdown – interception differential reflects that. Here, Quarterback A gets +17, while Quarterback B gets +38.9

When Baugh played, throwing more touchdowns than interceptions wasn’t common, and the visuals below reflect that. You can see that his touchdown rate was higher than his interception rate just seven times in his 16-year career. He usually threw more picks than scores, and he only once had a differential greater than ten. When he retired, he had thrown 16 more interceptions than touchdowns. Notice that, despite the negative career total, he actually led the league in the metric twice.

As with other metrics, it is important to me to adjust for era. The two charts above are the raw stats, and they don’t look very impressive. However, the chart below contrasts Baugh’s actual TD-INT differential with his era-adjusted TD-INT differential.10 If you recall, he finished with 42 more touchdowns and 107 fewer interceptions than expectation. Combine those numbers, and you have a +149 TD-INT differential for his career. That figure ranks third in NFL history.

 

Passer Rating

Officially, Baugh led the league in passer rating four times (1937, 40, 45, and 47).11 When he retired after the 1952 season, he ranked fourth among qualifying passers in career rating.12 His most notable season by the metric was 1945, when he set the NFL record at 109.9. He held onto the top spot for fifteen years, when Milt Plum posted a 110.4 rating. To this day, Baugh’s single season mark still ranks 17th in NFL history.

YearTmCmpAttYdsTDIntRatMrgRat+
1937WAS81171112781450.505.48104
1938WAS6312885351148.08-0.01100
1939WAS53965186952.344.76104
1940WAS1111771367121085.5836.75125
1941WAS1061931236101952.222.54102
1942WAS1322251524161182.5329.54116
1943WAS1332391754231977.9923.42114
1944WAS821468494859.422.96102
1945WAS1281821669114109.8955.53137
1946WAS87161116381754.19-2.7898
1947WAS2103542938251591.9832.15124
1948WAS1853152599222378.2617.53113
1949WAS1452551903181481.2222.60117
1950WAS901661130101168.1011.63110
1951WAS67154110471743.78-13.0588
1952WAS20331522179.3622.68118
CareerWAS169329952188618720372.2118.05112

Obviously, Baugh’s passer rating in most seasons was pretty bad by today’s standards. In fact, only two of his seasons were higher than the 2016 average of 87.6. However, his passer rating relative to his peers was phenomenal.13  His record-setting season saw him best the league average by 55.5, but he also had five more season at least 22.6 higher and was 18.1 higher for his career. Using the passer rating index score charts, you can see he was more than a standard deviation above average in six separate seasons. Note that, although Baugh’s 1945 passer rating was outrageously higher than anyone else’s, the variance in statistical output that year was also incredibly high. Thus, his Rat+ score of 137 only ranks eighth among qualifying passers.14

 

Adjusted Passing Yards

Passer rating is a popular stat, so it’s helpful to use it when discussing quarterbacks. However, it is also a silly metric because it has arbitrary cutoffs and counts each completion equal to 20 passing yards. In The Hidden Game of Football, Carroll, Palmer, and Thorn introduced Adjusted Yards Per Passing Attempt. Their original formula was (pass yards + 10*pass touchdowns – 45*interceptions)/pass attempts. Subsequent research from Chase Stuart led to 20 being the  accepted coefficient for touchdowns, so the 10 was replaced. Now, instead of spurious cutoffs and numbers based on 1960s averages, we have a passing stat based on expected points (translated into yards).

YearTmAttAYAY/AMrgAY/A+VALREPAdjVALAdjREP
1937WAS1716573.841.35106230337623912
1938WAS1284583.580.301013914488325
1939WAS962332.43-0.6697-6311-12922
1940WAS17711576.543.3811559873811811456
1941WAS1935813.010.071001315526306
1942WAS22513496.002.8311163781512481597
1943WAS23913595.692.3711056776512571696
1944WAS1465693.900.231013316756285
1945WAS18217099.395.671271031120117672057
1946WAS1615583.47-0.7596-12149-21487
1947WAS35427637.813.311201171156918222440
1948WAS31520046.361.751105509148151353
1949WAS25516336.402.001125097907361143
1950WAS1668355.030.68105113293161419
1951WAS1544793.11-1.3390-205-34-293-48
1952WAS331474.450.03100137153
CareerWAS2995164915.511.7010951047950914514103

As you can see, Baugh was generally near the top of the NFL in AY/A, even leading the league four times. His most notable season from an efficiency standpoint is his famous 1945, but his performance in 1947 may have been more impressive. Consider that in 1947 Baugh’s AY/A was 3.31 above average, and his AY/A+ was 120 (compared to 5.67 and 127 in 1945). His rate stats weren’t as high, but he did it on nearly twice the pass attempts (354 to 182).

From a cool efficiency standpoint, Baugh’s 1945 AY/A+ ranks 37th in NFL history, but his 1947 season was the one in which he added the most value (as measured by adjusted passing yards over average). His inflation-adjusted figure of 1822 is the fifth highest total in any season ever. After adjusting for era, he finished his career with 9144 adjusted yards of value, which trails only Peyton ManningTom Brady, and Sid Luckman among all NFL quarterbacks.

 

Total Adjusted Yards

Total Adjusted Yards (and Total Adjusted Yards per Play) is my signature stat and the basis for most of my spinoff metrics. It is, in effect, AY/A with rushing and fumbles included.15 It is the most comprehensive metric available for older players and probably the best non-proprietary metric for modern quarterbacks.16 Therefore, I consider this the most important stat for comparing quarterback production across eras.

Statistically, Baugh’s peak was the ten year stretch from 1940 to 1949. Despite two down years (1941 and 46), the span included his seven most productive seasons and thrice saw him lead the league in TAY/P and VAL. Most notably, his 1945 (7th) and 1947 (17th) seasons both rank in the top 20 in NFL history by inflation-adjusted Total Adjusted Yards above average (AdjVal in the table below).

YearTmPlyTAYTAY/PVal/PTAYP+VALREPAdjVALAdjREP
1937WAS2579173.570.62105160349303661
1938WAS1494933.310.071011013118226
1939WAS1102792.54-0.5396-5826-9543
1940WAS19711735.952.891215687209221167
1941WAS2205952.70-0.1999-42117-69193
1942WAS24514305.842.8511669988211641468
1943WAS25813165.102.1011254173510291397
1944WAS1655313.220.131012214943292
1945WAS20115137.535.191301044116118822093
1946WAS1793271.83-0.9994-177-51-291-84
1947WAS37923226.132.901191097140416342089
1948WAS31917845.591.991126369239401364
1949WAS26816556.182.7611874196910721402
1950WAS1736773.910.5610496241137344
1951WAS1652791.69-1.6388-269-132-385-189
1952WAS341093.21-0.1299-424-635
CareerWAS3319154004.641.5311050667649829712502

In an era when it wasn’t uncommon for quarterbacks to post negative TAY/P in a season, Baugh always stayed in the green and was often well above average. In fact, 1951, when he was 37 years old and very close to the end, was his only really bad season. He was efficient enough that he ranks ninth in history in career TAY/P above average (VAL/P) among quarterbacks with at least 1500 plays. He also ranks 21st among qualifying quarterbacks in career TAY/P+, which is great when you consider the high variance in QB performance when he played.

Because Baugh played in an era with a much shorter schedule and much different expectations from quarterbacks (expectations he helped overwrite, mind you), his total career volume pales in comparison to that of modern passers. He ranks 102nd in total plays, 108th in Total Adjusted Yards, and 20th in career VAL. However, after prorating for schedule length and adjusting for usage inflation, Baugh jumps to tenth in career VAL, with 8297. For the sake of later comparison, I have scaled the chart below to accommodate the inclusion of every quarterback in the series.

 

Career Stats and Inflation-Adjusted Stats

Below, you’ll find Baugh’s total career stats, as well as the inflation-adjusted stats I am using for across-era comparisons. While we’ve gotten used to 16-game schedules, Baugh played an average of an 11.2 game schedule over the course of his career. He also played in an era that saw quarterbacks average 25-30 plays per game, as opposed to the 37-41 we’ve seen over the last decade. After accounting for these factors, Baugh’s stats receive a multiplier of about 1.8. When compared with actual leaderboards, his inflated numbers would rank him 17th in pass attempts, 19th in yards, 7th in touchdowns, and first in interceptions.17

BaughCmpAttYdsTDIntSk*SkY*RshYdsTDFmb*
Actual16932995218861872030421324325947
Inflated303153913903733637206155585371472

Postseason Stats and Championships

Fans tend to put a great deal of weight on championships, and not without cause. Titles are, in theory, the reason the games are played.18 No position is tied more closely to the trophy fetish than quarterback. The field generals often get undue credit for winning and undue blame for losing. It makes sense; it’s the most important single position in the sport and is the most capable of directing the outcome of a game. While ring counting has always existed, it is really a 21st century phenomenon aided greatly by media blowhards, internet message boards, and a prevailing sense that bold proclamations are superior to nuanced discussion.19 If there is an Archimedean point, no one’s looking for it. But it’s worth a try.

Baugh didn’t have the team success of contemporary Sid Luckman, who won four titles (and lost another) with the Bears. However, he was seen by analysts of the day as the superior player. Much of this had to do with the fact that Baugh had greater responsibilities in his offense and also lacked the organizational support afforded to Luckman.

During Baugh’s prime, there was no advanced playoff system in place to determine the NFL champion. One team won the East, another team won the West, and the two played for the title afterwards. This means that players had little opportunity to put up big numbers by playing in a bunch of early round exits. It also means that there was no Eli Manning type stories in which a scrappy underdog overthrew a colossus.20 If you wanted to reach the postseason, you had to win your division.21 In this environment, Baugh managed to lead his team to five title games and win two of them. That includes one of the biggest upsets in professional football history, when 10-1 Washington defeated arguably the most dominant team in history in the undefeated Bears.22 It also includes one of the most embarrassing losses the sport has seen, when Chicago trounced them 73-0 in 1940.

Baugh’s squads also won a title in 1937 and made the championship game in both 1943 and 1945. The three tables below show his career postseason stats. You can see that he played magnificently as a rookie and very well in the 1943 loss. He didn’t play very well in his other playoff games, including the 1942 upset victory. Overall, Baugh added 280 Total Adjusted Yards above average and finished with an outstanding TAY/P+ of 121.

YearCmpattydstdintskskyrshydstdfmb
1937183333531004601
1940101710202000000
19425136512002600
1943243332233000000
194516700000000
Total58102831780061201
Yearattplycmp%y/atd%int%ratay/atay/pval/pval
1937333754.55%10.159.09%3.03%107.5110.618.956.00222
1940171758.82%6.000.00%11.76%36.520.710.71-2.32-39
1942131538.46%5.007.69%15.38%41.03-0.380.07-2.91-44
1943333372.73%9.769.09%9.09%95.777.487.484.48148
19456616.67%1.170.00%0.00%39.581.171.17-1.16-7
Total10210856.86%8.156.86%7.84%73.615.995.542.59280
Yearattplycmp%+y/a+td%+int%+rat+ay/a+tay/p+
19373337121140118120150135152
19401717123977799928983
19421315878811082938683
19433333148127112102124117127
194566524570132908893
Total102108122117105107121112121

Awards

Awards aren’t a perfect way to measure a player’s career, and they aren’t always an accurate representation of on-field play. Voters have little time to give academically honest evaluations of players before submitting their ballots. In the case of offensive linemen and defensive backs, there is much evidence to suggest that voters don’t even fully know how to evaluate the players.23 However, awards for quarterbacks tend to more closely reflect what actually happened, as the position comes with the most media scrutiny, screen time, and widely available statistics. Moreover, postseason awards are a useful tool to help determine how players were viewed during their careers.

Baugh made six Pro Bowl squads during his career, but that number requires an explanation. Pro Bowl selections include the original NFL All Star Game, which ran from 1938 to 1942 and featured a team of all stars against the league champions. Had the game existed in 1937, Baugh would have made it for being on the title-winning team. His 1942 selection was technically for being a member of the league champion, but he likely would have made the squad as an all star otherwise, given that he was named first or second team all NFL by several publications.

From 1943 to 1949, there was no All Star Game or Pro Bowl, so Baugh could not have possibly earned a nod in those years. That includes two of the great QB seasons in history and two other seasons in which he earned all NFL first team honors from major outlets. Add those four, plus the missing All Star Game from 1937, to the Pro Bowls Baugh actually made, and ends with eleven for his career. Of course, this also counts his lifetime achievement selection for his poor 1951 season, but that sort of thing happens all the time.

Over his 16 year career, Baugh earned a first team all pro nod from a major publication seven times and a second team nod twice (in years he didn’t also earn a first team nod).24 That means contemporaries viewed him as the best or second best quarterback in the NFL in nine separate seasons. Interestingly, the Associated Press passed on Baugh’s transcendent 1945 performance in favor of a rookie Bob Waterfield.25

Baugh didn’t win many MVP awards, primarily because most awarding bodies didn’t give those awards during his career.26 He did take home MVP honors from the Washington D.C. Touchdown Club in 1947 and 1948, but there simply weren’t enough publications naming MVPs for him to pad his resume. However, if you want to know how Baugh was viewed as a player, look no further than this fact: he was the only quarterback in the inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame class.27

All Star and Hall of Fame Teammates

Many of the quarterbacks we consider the greatest were luck to take the field with several all stars. Quarterbacks on dynasties generally teamed with several fellow Hall of Famers.28 Great teammates can make good quarterback look great, and bad ones can make a good quarterback look downright pedestrian (ask Rich Gannon and Archie Manning how that goes). Because of this, it may be instructive to get an idea of how many all stars and HOF teammates the legendary quarterbacks had.

For each season in Baugh’s career, I counted the number of his teammates who made an All Pro team from a major publication or made the Pro Bowl.29 I also counted how many teammates were members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As you might expect, Washington featured several star players when the team was strong and consistently contending for championships and fairly talent deprived when they weren’t. Baugh had little support for the back half of his career.30 In 1947, arguably his best season as a passer, he didn’t see a single teammate named to an all pro team.

While Baugh shared the field with four Hall of Fame teammates, he didn’t spend a great deal of his career with them. He spent one year as a teammate of Cliff Battles, who helped a rookie Baugh take the league by storm with a championship. Bill Dudley arrived in 1950, when Baugh was an aging quarterback on his way out of the league. Turk Edwards won two titles with Washington, retiring after the 1940 season. Wayne Millner, who probably shouldn’t even be in the HOF, was present for the first half decade of Baugh’s career, spent three seasons in the Navy, and came back for a final unproductive outing in 1945. Compared with some of the other legendary passers enshrined in Canton, Slingin’ Sammy received relatively little teammate support.31

YearStarHOF
193753
193862
193972
194052
194151
194260
194390
194420
194551
194620
194700
194800
194900
195031
195141
195250

Team Defense

The saying goes that defense wins championships (even though only coaches and QBs get Ws and Ls). If that trite colloquialism is to be believed, then it’s probably pretty important to discuss the defenses that supported the quarterbacks. In the case of older players, we’re looking at defenses that actually featured the passers. Baugh, for his part, was a respected defensive back who retired with 31 interceptions, including an NFL-best 11 in 1943. At the time he stopped playing in the secondary (1946), his 31 interceptions were a career record.

It is probably coincidental, but Washington’s defenses were generally strong when Baugh played defense, and they were typically weak after he began to focus solely on passing.  The table below shows the stats for Baugh’s defenses during his career. Read it thus: In 1937, there were 10 NFL teams. Baugh’s allowed 10.9 points per game, which ranked fourth, and 190.5 yards per game, which ranked first. They allowed 430 Total Adjusted Yards at a rate of 39.1 per game, which was 43.7 TAY/G better than average and ranked second. They allowed 0.82 TAY/P, which was 0.68 better than average and ranked third. Their defensive SRS was -0.6, implying they were about half a point worse than average after accounting for strength of schedule.

YearTmsPA/GRkYA/GRkTAYTAY/Gval/gRkTAY/Pval/pRkDSRS
19371010.94190.5143039.1-43.720.82-0.683-0.6
19381014.05197.631209109.9-6.741.94-0.134-1.1
1939108.52192.3165559.5-89.121.00-1.5923.4
19401012.93259.791917174.344.682.950.728-0.8
19411015.85222.532227202.5-17.353.49-0.3640.2
1942109.32176.521845167.7-65.023.16-0.9022.7
1943813.71235.631963196.3-48.423.28-0.9124.4
19441018.07265.862691269.152.884.510.807-1.9
19451012.11212.422290229.0-31.944.19-0.3653.8
19461017.44222.312430220.9-36.243.90-0.4550.6
19471030.610332.284889407.471.2107.081.5310-10.4
19481023.96325.964435369.619.575.750.276-2.2
19491028.39375.6105661471.8130.196.821.8110-6.1
19501327.210333.784898408.280.2106.001.1210-4.8
19511224.710337.5105055421.372.3106.511.3110-2.7
19521223.99283.173829319.120.895.240.7510-2.0

In Sum

Statistically speaking, Sammy Baugh is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play. His era-adjusted stats are among the best of anyone in history, and his high rankings in such stats as career value reflect the lofty status he often receives from the historically minded. The numbers aren’t the reason for Baugh’s legendary status; they are mere confirmation of it. His career stats  validate Football Perspective readers voting him the 12th greatest quarterback of all time, or NFL researcher Brad Oremland naming him the greatest quarterback of the pre-modern era. The metrics confirm his spot on the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. Hagiography doesn’t always get it right, but it did in Baugh’s case.

But he wasn’t just a great passer. He wasn’t even just a great passer and great defender. He also happened to be the finest punter of his era.32 His 1943 season is among the greatest individual achievements by any NFL player ever. It wasn’t his best season as a passer, but he did lead the league in completion rate and was the runner up in touchdowns; as a defender, he broke the single season record for interceptions; and as a punter, he led the NFL with a 45.9 yard punting average. That incredible season was a microcosm of Baugh’s career. Voters took that versatility into account when NFL Network ran The Top 100 Greatest Players special in 2010: Baugh ranked 14th, flanked by Deacon Jones and Joe Greene. He was the fourth ranked quarterback. You don’t have to put him on your Quarterback Rushmore, but the numbers and accolades make it clear that he belongs in the conversation.

 

  1. Not professionally. A complete lack of talent nipped that dream in the bud pretty early.
  2. Drew Brees broke Anderson‘s record in 2009 and then broke his own record in 2011. Sam Bradford famously broke the record in 2016. When Baugh completed 70 percent of his passes, he did it while gaining 13.0 yards per completion. Anderson picked up just 11.4. Brees gained 12.1 and 11.7. Bradford had a paltry 9.8.
  3. The index score constant is 100. This is added to the player’s z-score and multiplied by 15. Thus, a score of 115 is exactly one standard deviation above average, and a score of 85 is one standard deviation below average.
  4. When Baugh played, the average touchdown rate was much higher than it is now, occasionally even topping 6%. For reference, it has ranged from 3.9 to 4.6% over the last twenty years.
  5. Once again, only Tarkenton held the record for longer.
  6. The standard deviation for TD% when Baugh played ranged between 2.0 and 3.5%. In the past ten years, it hasn’t been above 1.58%. Also, even though touchdown rates are lower now than in years past, the coefficient of variation in Baugh’s era is much, much higher than today. It was often over 60% when he played, compared to the 32% figure we’ve seen recently.
  7. I’ve discussed Baugh holding other career records; he also held the interceptions record. After breaking Arnie Herber‘s record in 1946, he held it until 1960, when he was usurped by Bobby Layne.
  8. The top spot belongs to Roman Gabriel, who saved his teams 107.04 interceptions. Baugh only saved Washington 106.56 picks.
  9. Further, using such a low-frequency, high-variance number in the denominator can create fluky metrics. A 10 to 1 TD:INT ratio looks twice as good as a 10:2 (5:1), but that extra interception doesn’t make the latter half as good as the former.
  10. Essentially, take his marginal touchdowns and subtract his marginal interceptions.
  11. I don’t have quite as high a threshold for attempts, so I tend to recognize Ed Danowski as the leader in 1937.
  12. Otto Graham, Sid Luckman, and Frankie Albert were ahead of him. Ray Mallouf, Norm Van Brocklin, and Cecil Isbell also had higher ratings, but none had nearly enough attempts to qualify. Isbell led with 818 passes in his five year career.
  13. Chase Stuart recently reworked the official passer rating formula by changing the internal workings of the four inputs (CMP%, Y/A, TD%, and INT%). By that method, Baugh ranked third on the career list, behind contemporaries Otto Graham and Sid Luckman.
  14. With the exception of Nick Foles in 2013, the seven seasons ahead of Baugh’s 1945 came from Hall of Famers and will be covered later in the series.
  15. As more stats are available for players the closer you get to the present, the formula changes slightly to accommodate important information. For instance, there is almost no data on sacks prior to 1947 or sack yards prior to 1963. We don’t have fumble data for players before 1945. We don’t have rushing or passing first downs prior to 1991 or air/YAC splits prior to 1992. For AAFC players, we have no fumble data at all. Heck, prior to 1932, touchdowns are the only officially recognized statistic. Thus, I used the most basic Total Adjusted Yards formula I have for Baugh’s career: (Yards + 20*TDs – 45*INTs – 25*FMBs)/(Passes + Rushes + Sacks). Remember that sack and fumble stats only exist for a portion of his tenure in the league.
  16. I believe ESPN’s Total QBR, Football Outsiders’ DVOA and DYAR, and Brian Burke’s EPA/P are all superior. However, TAY/P (and it’s offshoot metrics) is simple and requires inputs that are readily available from sites like Pro Football Reference or the official NFL site.
  17. Keep in mind that this adjustment is based on the quantity, not quality, of play. So even though Baugh was intercepted far less than his peers, his inflated total is still incredibly high.
  18. I say in theory because we don’t live in an idealized fairy tale world, and players, coaches, and owners very likely have motives outside of what we would consider the purist goal of winning it all. Some players play for money or because they love the game, win or lose. Or perhaps they play to be the very best they can be, regardless of the score at the end of the game. Some coaches very clearly don’t try very hard to win football games. They try to prolong their employment, and winning helps. Some owners know they are going to make a lot of money regardless of their record and focus on driving up revenues rather than wins. Many fans don’t even care about titles and would prefer to just watch great players be great players.
  19. This is most readily apparent in the never-ending Brady-Manning argument, or the Jordan-James debate. It is also very popular in politics, but let’s not get in to that.
  20. It also meant, of course, that the great teams had much higher odds of winning a title, because they didn’t have to worry about getting knocked out of the playoffs in a Divisional Round game. Sticking with the Manning example, this means that Brady and the Patriots would get a bye week while waiting to see if they played the Cowboys or Packers. Just as this hypothetical scenario would benefit New England, the real postseason structure benefited real teams in real life.
  21. The NFL playoffs didn’t actually expand until the league moved from two to four divisions in 1967.
  22. Chicago had a +292 point differential and won their games by an average of 26.5 points. Their SRS score was 21.4, meaning that even after adjusting for schedule they were still 21.4 points better than an average team. For reference, the 2007 Patriots had an SRS score of 20.1.
  23. If these voter critiques ring true today, imagine how much more relevant they are to voters of yesteryear. Journalists today at least have the ability to watch several games per week and find tape for any game they may have missed. Online scouting projects, such as Pro Football Focus and Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 condense hours of film study into a few easy to read paragraphs. If you believe those studying the film are qualified to do so, you can save much time by regurgitating their hard work. In Baugh’s era, access to video of game was fairly limited, and many reporters only ever saw games from the team they covered. General information came from newspapers, often with great bias. The Chicago Tribune’s Arch Ward, for example, helped found the AAFC and would have you believe Otto Graham threw touchdown passes while walking on water.
  24. By major publication, I mean the Associated Press, United Press International, New York Daily News, Collyers Eye Magazine, Chicago Herald American, International News Service, Pro Football Illustrated, pro Football Writers, Sporting News, or the official NFL selections.
  25. This is likely because Waterfield had 19 total touchdowns to Baugh’s 11. Back then, turnovers weren’t as big a deal, so Waterfield’s nine fumbles and league-leading 17 interceptions didn’t hurt him.
  26. The first major MVP award, the Joe F. Carr Trophy, began in 1937 (although 1938 is the earliest official NFL recognition of the award). Baugh never won the Carr Trophy, which ran until 1946.
  27. Unless you count Dutch Clark, who dabbled in passing. I don’t consider Clark as a qualifier, as he never threw more than 71 passes in a season and retired with just 250 attempts for 1507 yards and 11 touchdowns.
  28. We can discuss the chicken and egg nature of this later. We’ve no time for it here.
  29. Except in 1940, when everyone on his team made the All Star Game because they won the championship.
  30. In fact, just two years after he retired, Washington fielded one of the worst squads in NFL history.
  31. It is worth mentioning the presence of teammate Frank Filchock, who was arguably as talented a passer as Baugh. The two quarterbacks often shared the passing load, and Filchock occasionally posted much higher efficiency stats than did Baugh. If you’re browsing through sports reference sites and notice that the legendary Sammy Baugh wasn’t even the best passer on his own team in some seasons, it may give you pause and make you reconsider his status among the greats. Don’t fall into that trap. Baugh wasn’t bested by some nobody; Filchock was a gifted quarterback who could have been a star on most teams. However, Baugh was the incumbent in Washington with an established place as the leader of the team. You can think of the scenario as a proto-Joe MontanaSteve Young rivalry, if you want to liken it to a modern story. Filchock’s skills were sought after around the league, and the Giants ultimately traded for him and offered him the team’s only multi-year contract in 1946. While he performed at a high level, he was involved in a game fixing controversy that resulted in his suspension from the league for three years. Those lost seasons, plus the two he lost to service in the Navy (1942-43), likely kept his name out of the ears of modern fans. Filchock was a Hall of Fame type talent who never found himself in the right situation to cement a legendary career.
  32. We should take his gross averages with a grain of salt, given that his punting stats were artificially inflated from punting on third down with no returner. Those rolls make a big difference. I’m sure Johnny Hekker would average 60 yards under such circumstances. Nonetheless, Baugh outshone his peers, and that’s what matters in this conversation.
  • Joseph

    What a fitting tribute to the great Sammy Baugh! If you haven’t seen it, there used to be an interview floating around online that Sonny Jurgensen did with Sammy down on his Texas ranch sometime in 90s. It was both fascinating and hilarious, as Baugh had a great sense of humour and was a bit of story teller. Towards the end of interview Sonny asked him if he thought he could still play in today’s NFL. “Hell yes,” Sammy replied, “I know I could”.