This is the second installment of the Statistically Speaking series, in which we look at the statistical profile of the NFL’s legendary quarterbacks. The first player covered was Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, the game’s first real superstar passer. Today’s player, Bob Waterfield, was much like Baugh in many respects. Like Baugh, Waterfield was a star passer with box office appeal. Also like Baugh, Waterfield was a gifted kicker and punter, and a respected defender. To top it off, Waterfield, like Baugh, joined a team with limited historical success and led them to championship glory as a rookie.
Because a year of service in the United States Army postponed his final season at UCLA, Waterfield entered the league already a man, with the sort of real-world bona fides that would convince NFL veterans to follow a rookie. His play on the field made it that much easier to believe in him. He led the league in total offense, passing touchdowns, and extra point conversions, boomed punts, and tacked on six interceptions as a defender en route to leading the Cleveland Rams to a 9-1 record and a world title. As far as rookie seasons go, it’s pretty hard to top Waterfield’s.
As his career progressed, he remained a feared passer. In the charts and facts and figures below, we will examine how he rated against his peers, from a statistical perspective. By the end of this article, it should be clear that, with only eight seasons as a professional and with uninspiring passing statistics, Waterfield would not have become a legend without his production on defense and special teams. Let’s see what the numbers say.
Waterfield came out of the gate strong and took on a significant workload immediately. He led the NFL in completions in 1946 and finished in the top seven in five other seasons in his eight-year career. Despite having a risible completion rate by today’s standards, Waterfield was actually consistently above average in the statistic during his era. He even led the league in accuracy in 1950. This accomplishment is even more impressive when you consider that he loved throwing deep. In fact, Waterfield led the league in yards per completion thrice, and his 14.6 career mark ranks 15th in history.1
Read this table (and the others in the post) thus: In 1945 Waterfield completed 89 of 171 attempts for a 52.05% CMP%. That was 6.39% better than the league average and resulted in an index score of 111.2 By multiplying his marginal rate by his attempts, we find that he completed 11 more passes than average, or about 30 more than a replacement player. Adjusting for usage inflation, that’s like completing 19 more than average or 52 more than replacement for a modern player.
As the visuals suggest, Waterfield was generally an accurate passer, finishing all but two seasons with an above average completion rate. It isn’t until you account for the depth of his passes, as well as his lack of surrounding talent early in his career, that his accuracy stands out.
Relative to his peers, and upon prorating his career to a 16-game schedule and adjusting his workload for inflation, Waterfield completed 84 passes above expectation. After reading the previous article and looking at Baugh’s career completions over average, it’s easy to be underwhelmed by Waterfield’s numbers. However, completion rate wasn’t his bread and butter. Besides, he still ranks 49th in NFL history.
Waterfield never led the league in passing yards, but he did manage to finish in the top five in five separate seasons. He also led all qualifying passers in yards per attempt twice. He had a down year in 1947 and in his final season, but he was typically adept at moving the ball through the air.
I chose to make the axes of these graphs uniform across all players in the series because I believe it will make it easier to compare them visually later. This can have the effect of making league-leading seasons look less impressive or making low volume seasons stand out acutely. For example, Harry Gilmer‘s 13.8 Y/A performance on five passes dwarfs the league in 1948. Meanwhile, Waterfield narrowly taking the top spot3 in 1951 seems unimpressive. My hope is that you already know how to read a graph without getting fooled by axes (and if not, I hope this explanation is sufficient).
Over a relatively short career, Waterfield was able to accumulate 1318 yards above average. That doesn’t put him on Quarterback Olympus, but he’s in good company nonetheless. His 1318 figure ranks 48th out of the 914 NFL quarterbacks to attempt a pass since 1932.
Of all the aspects of his game, touchdowns were what defined Waterfield’s career. He led the NFL in passing scores his first two seasons and posted three more seasons in the top five (even while splitting passing reps with fellow Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin). He also topped the charts in touchdown rate among qualifying passers as a rookie.4
Waterfield didn’t perform very well in 1947, and, like most players, didn’t do particularly well in his final season. However, most years he was above average at putting the ball in the end zone. He was especially fantastic in his penultimate bout, with a touchdown rate over a full standard deviation better than the mean.
Given that the scale of this graph is set up to make room for guys like Peyton Manning and Dan Marino, Waterfield’s career numbers look relatively minuscule. That is partly because he didn’t actually produce a great deal of touchdowns above average. Despite his volume numbers helping him earn an MVP award and cement his legacy, he finished his career with a touchdown rate only slightly above the margin. When you combine that with a fairly short career, you end up with a quarterback who ranks 68th in NFL history.
Waterfield wasn’t great at avoiding interceptions, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Yes, he managed to lead the NFL in picks twice. Sure, he never had a season without double digit interceptions. This is primarily a factor of the high risk era in which he played. He ended his career with a 7.92% interception rate, but that was during a time when the league averaged between 7.4% and 9.2%. Turnovers were seen as an inevitable part of the game and were not frowned upon like they are today. It’s hard to fault a guy for failing by today’s standards when very few in his era gave much weight to the thing he was worst at.
As the visuals show, everyone turned the ball over at a high rate when Waterfield played. As the two bottom charts show, the legendary Ram spend half of his career above average and half of it below, rarely straying too far from the pack. He never had the best rate in the NFL, but he did have a bottom-five interception rate three times in his career.
Over the course of 1617 pass attempts (and 2486 inflation-adjusted attempts), Waterfield threw two fewer interceptions than expected. That is almost perfectly mediocre, coming in at 198th in NFL history.5
Touchdown – Interception Differential
As I have discussed before, I believe the difference between touchdowns and interceptions is a better indicator of quarterback performance than is the ratio of one to the other. Using ratios with such rare events (TDs and INTs) produces fluky results and can often give far too much or too little credit to passers who didn’t have a high volume of attempts. Differential is the superior metric, and you should adopt it and eschew ratio without delay.
Waterfield comes out right around average when subtracting INT% from TD% and when taking total interceptions from total touchdowns. He never led the league in the metric, but he ranked in the top six four times. His career total would look a bit better had it not been brought down by poor outings in 1947 and 1952.
The chart below shows Waterfield’s actual TD-INT differential, as well as his era-adjusted differential. Using the real-life statistics you would see if you looked him up on Pro Football Reference or NFL.com, he threw 31 more interceptions than touchdowns. However, when you adjust his TD% and INT% for era,6 he comes up in the green with +14 touchdowns. This isn’t a historically great number, but it is enough to rank 86th in NFL history.
As I have long lamented, passer rating is a fairly inane stat. It values every completion the same as 20 yards, and it gives an 80 yard bonus for touchdowns and a 100 yard penalty for interceptions. It both overrates and double counts completion rate and has somewhat arbitrary restrictions on maximum and minimum scores.7 However, it’s the NFL’s official rating for passing efficiency, and it’s well-known by casual fans. For those reasons, and those reasons only, I have included the stat in the series.
Waterfield led the league in passer rating in 1951, and he posted three other seasons in the top five. He also had two horrendous years in which his marginal rating was more than 20 below average (also at least one standard deviation below average). Those two bad seasons brought his career passer rating down to a level just above average.
By passer rating, Waterfield’s best performance came in 1951, a season in which his Los Angeles Rams won the NFL Championship and Waterfield didn’t lead his own team in pass attempts. When it comes to passing efficiency, he was good but not great; he finished his career with a passer rating just 4.46 points better than average (and just 0.25 standard deviations above the mean). Among qualifying passers, he ranks 70th in marginal passer rating and 84th in Rat+ for his career.
Adjusted Passing Yards
Adjusted Yards per pass attempt is basically an improved version of passer rating. It gets rid of the needless completion bonus and gives more appropriate values to touchdowns and interceptions. However, because it uses mostly the same inputs, it usually has pretty similar outputs. Thus, the charts for AY/A aren’t going to look a great deal different from the charts for passer rating. Still, I think it’s important to show the newer metric because of its superiority to the former.
Waterfield led qualifying passers in AY/A in 1951, and he ranked in the top five in five other seasons. His lead in 1951 isn’t as significant with AY/A as it is with passer rating because AY/A isn’t impressed with his high completion rate that year.
Waterfield generally posted solid AY/A numbers, even if his stats were rarely extraordinary. His AY/A+ score of 104 ranks just 82nd among qualifying NFL passers. He took home an MVP trophy in 1945 even though Baugh stands out like a sore thumb as having the best passing season.8 Once Van Brocklin joined the team Waterfield was rarely the best quarterback in his own locker room, and, as you’ll see in a alter post, the Notorious NVB outstrips his predecessor in nearly every category.
Waterfield posted a few strong passing seasons, a few decent ones, and a few bad ones in his short career. Using my inflation adjusted comparison across eras, he ultimately gained 1631 Adjusted Yards of value above the average player. That’s good enough to rank 66th in NFL history.
Total Adjusted Yards
Total Adjusted Yards per Play (TAY/P) is my homegrown metric for measuring quarterback play. The formula isn’t very nuanced during Waterfield’s era, given that he retired in 1952 and official sack totals only date back to 1963 (but, for some reason, the NFL tracks yards lost on sacks back to 1947). He began his career in 1945, which means we actually have full fumble data for him, unlike for legends who predated him, like Baugh or Sid Luckman. Because of the stat tracking omissions, the TAY/P formula is different in Waterfield’s first two seasons than it is in his final six. The formula:
TAY/P = (pass yards + rush yards + 20*pass touchdowns + 20*rush touchdowns – 45*interceptions – 25*fumbles)/(passes + rushes). After 1947, sack yards are incorporated into the numerator.
Waterfield had two outstanding seasons and a bunch of seasons hovering around average. Notice that he distanced himself from Van Brocklin in 1951 more when we account for rushing, sack yards, and fumbles. While their passing numbers were nearly identical, Waterfield had more rushing yards and touchdowns, fewer fumbles, and fewer yards lost to sacks. His performance that season was, statistically, among the best of any NFL quarterback during the time he was active. Among qualifiers, only Baugh’s 1945 and Tommy Thompson‘s 1948 seasons compare favorably.
By Total Adjusted Yards over average (or career value), Waterfield comes out higher than you may expect. After prorating his seasons and adjusting for his usage rate, he ends up with 2849, which ranks 44th in NFL history. That doesn’t sound like much, but it nestles him securely between Carson Palmer and Troy Aikman.
Career Stats and Inflation-Adjusted Stats
The following table shows Waterfield’s actual career numbers and his inflation-adjusted numbers. Because he played so long ago, with a shorter schedule and more run-heavy environment, he gets a massive boost in volume (a multiplier of about 1.54). His adjusted stats still aren’t particularly impressive from a modern standpoint; his career yardage would fall just between Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson, and his career touchdowns would knock Daunte Culpepper and Frank Ryan out of 85th place.9 However, at the time he retired, Waterfield ranked fifth in completions and touchdowns; fourth in attempts, yards, and adjusted yards; and third in interceptions.
Postseason Stats and Championships
Waterfield didn’t lack for postseason success. In just eight years in the league, he played in four title games, winning two. His Rams also tied for the division crown in his last season, but they lost the divisional playoff to Bobby Layne‘s Lion to begin the Detroit dynasty.10
Waterfield was ineffective in the Rams’ championship game loss in 1949, but he put on a passing clinic in the 1950 playoffs. Against the Bears, in the divisional round, he threw three touchdowns and averaged over 13 yards per attempt. In the title game against the mighty Browns defense, he moved the ball well, picking up over 10 yards per pass. However, four interceptions doomed his chances at a second title.
The Rams did capture another championship in 1951, but Waterfield’s passing wasn’t much of a factor. He completed just 9 of 24 passes and threw two interceptions. The only Los Angeles touchdowns came from a Van Brocklin pass to Tom Fears and scoring runs from Dan Towler and Dick Hoerner. To his credit, Waterfield was successful on a short field goal and all of his extra point attempts, which wasn’t a given in that era.
Primarily due to his 1950 passing explosion, Waterfield ended his playoff career with 182 marginal Total Adjusted Yards of value and a TAY/P+ score of 109. He is one of a few Hall of Fame quarterbacks whose postseason averages are superior to his regular season ones.
If you check the record books, you’ll see that Waterfield was selected to two Pro Bowls. This is true, but it’s also misleading. The Pro Bowl didn’t exist from 1943-1949, meaning he couldn’t have possibly gotten a nod in the first five years of his eight year tenure. Using the all pro selections of various publications as a guide, we can award proxy Pro Bowl selections to players during those seasons. Several publications named Waterfield the first or second team quarterback in 1945, 1946, and 1949,11 so we can mentally include those three years and credit him with five Pro Bowls. He also picked up a few second team all pro selections while he split time with Van Brocklin in 1950 and 1951.
For most of modern NFL history, there have been several publications that awarded MVP honors each year. However, in Waterfield’s era, the number was much smaller. Thus, if a player didn’t appeal to an esoteric group, he had no shot at an MVP award.12 While his passing performance against inferior war-time competition in 1945 wasn’t on par with Baugh’s, Waterfield’s contributions as a kicker and defensive back were enough to push him over the top. His leg also helped him win the award at the expense of teammate Van Brocklin in 1950. It is important to remember that quarterbacks were viewed holistically in his era, not just as passers. Thus, while he clearly wasn’t the most accomplished passer in either of his MVP seasons, he was nevertheless worthy of the awards.
All Star and Hall of Fame Teammates
Quarterbacks whom fans consider to be among the greatest of all time tend to have teammates who we also consider great. It can be hard to tell how much of this is based on the actual talent of the individual players themselves; how much is based on the combination of several great players elevating each other; or how much of this is based on the chicken-and-egg nature of elite players winning a lot of games, garnering attention for doing so, and subsequently being considered even greater for having achieved the heights of team success. In football, it is difficult to isolate the performance of an individual from his teammates, coaches, opponents, venue.13 Thus, when looking at the number of all star teammates a quarterback has, one must account for the fact the the quarterback himself is often a large part of why his teammate is an all star to begin with.
For each season Waterfield played, I tallied the number of his teammates who made the Pro Bowl or earned an all pro selection from a major publication. Additionally, I counted how many of his teammates were in the Hall of Fame, regardless of whether the teammate was playing at an elite level when paired with Waterfield. The seasons in which the Rams made the postseason coincided with the most all star selections, which is common, given that good play leads to winning and winning draws attention to that good play. During his first three years with the team, Waterfield was the only Hall of Famer on the roster.14 In 1948, Tom Fears joined the team and immediately led the NFL in receptions. The following year, the Rams gained another weapon in Crazylegs Elroy Hirsch. Van Brocklin also joined, but that didn’t do much to make him a better player, outside of the iron sharpening iron trope. Those four HOFers, in addition to Matheson and talented backs Towler, Hoerner, Vitamin Smith, and Tank Younger, transformed the Los Angeles offense into a force of nature. The next two years, defensive legends Andy Robustelli and Night Train Lane joined the squad and helped the team win consecutive division titles.
Statistically, Waterfield’s defenses weren’t great, especially after he focused primarily on offense. The Rams ranked in the top half of the NFL in points allowed six times and yards allowed four times. His best defense was the one he helped anchor as a rookie. The 1945 squad ranked third in standard measures, but they ranked first in TAY/G and TAY/P, indicating they were good at both limiting big plays and creating turnovers. They also had the league’s best defensive SRS score, by a significant margin. Their 6.1 figure indicates the defense was 6.1 points better than average, after adjusting for opposing offenses faced.
Read the table below thus: In 1945, there were ten teams in the league. The Rams allowed 13.6 points per game, which ranked third, and 248.9 yards per game, which also ranked third. They allowed 1799 Total Adjusted Yards at 179.9 per game, which was 81.0 better than average and ranked first. They also allowed 2.99 TAY/P, which was 1.57 better than average and ranked first. Their SRS score was 6.1.
After a storied collegiate career, Waterfield was already well-known entering the league. Leading a team to a championship as a rookie set him up to be a star. Being the handsome face of a defending champion that just left Cleveland for the bright lights of Los Angeles set him up to be a superstar.15 Juggling a part time acting career and the weight of leading the NFL’s only West Coast team, Waterfield didn’t succumb to the pressure. He was among the league’s premier passers, helping the Rams reach multiple championship games.16 He was a solid defender, notching 20 interceptions in the four seasons he spent playing defense. He was a good punter and a terrific kicker, and he left the game with several kicking records to his name: when he retired he had a record 315 extra points and 60 field goals; he set the single season record with 54 extra points in 1950; and he set single game records for made field goals (5) and extra points (9).
After countless iterations of changes to the rules, passing numbers of today bear almost no resemblance to those of Waterfield’s era. Because of that, it’s easy to look at his stats and scoff at his enshrinement into the Hall of Fame. One could (wrongly) assert that, because his passing numbers don’t match those of even Baugh and Graham from his era, he obviously benefited from the glamour of Hollywood and a reputation that he never actually reached.17 While it’s true that he received an inordinate amount of attention playing in Los Angeles, it’s equally true that Waterfield isn’t in the Hall of Fame as a quarterback – he’s in the Hall of Fame as a football player.
- It is important to note, however, that Waterfield actually had a below average Y/C in 1950, the year he led the league in CMP%. ↩
- That’s roughly 0.73 standard deviations above average, as index scores are calculated by starting with a baseline of 100 and multiplying the player’s z-score by 15. Thus, you can find 0.73 by subtracting 100 and diving by 15: 111 – 100 = 11; 11/15 = 0.73. ↩
- Ahead of teammate Norm Van Brocklin, 8.898 to 8.892. ↩
- The player way above the rest in 1945 is Arnie Herber, who threw 80 passes and failed to meet the threshold to qualify. ↩
- This particular graphic is a little harder to read than I’d like, with the data labels sometimes confusing things. Just remember the top number is always the career number, regardless of which line is on top at a given point. ↩
- And give another adjustment for inflation, which is an attempt to better compare across eras. ↩
- The thresholds are arbitrary in that they don’t have sound research behind them. They are not arbitrary because they operate under a clear rationale: no amount of Y/A, CMP%, or TD% should be worth more than not throwing a single interception. It’s not a good rationale, but it’s a rationale nonetheless. ↩
- This is because Waterfield scored often and was tremendous on defense and special teams. ↩
- Note the asterisks by sacks and sack yards. As you know, official sack data doesn’t exist for Waterfield’s career, and tallies for yards lost on sacks go back only to his third season. I’m leaving the columns in the table for uniformity with future quarterback articles. ↩
- He only threw nine passes for 13 yards and an interception in that game. Had they won, it would have been because of Van Brocklin, who went 15 of 19 for 166 yards and a touchdown. He started strong, leading Cleveland to a championship as a rookie after an MVP regular season. Of course, his performance as a quarterback was only slightly above league level, and his missed extra point could have been the deciding factor in the game had Washington not suffered a safety in the first quarter.[1. In 1945, the goalposts were still in the front of the end zone. When Baugh dropped back to pass, his throw hit the goalposts and fell into the end zone. Under the archaic rules of the day, this resulted in a safety and two points for the Rams. Cleveland won the game 15-14. ↩
- The Associated Press is the most popular selector of NFL all pros, so they are most often cited by pundits. They named him first team all three years. In addition to the AP, UPI, INS, NY Daily News, Pro Football Illustrated, and Chicago Herald American also gave him all pro nods. ↩
- During Waterfield’s career (1945-52), he would have been eligible for the only official MVP award in history, the Joe F Carr Trophy (awarded from 1937-46); the United Press International MVP (awarded in 1948 and 1951, then from 1953-69); and the Washington D.C. Touchdown Club (awarded from 1945-2009). Despite this, our protagonist was able to earn MVP honors in both 1945 and 1950.[1. He is one of just nine players to win the Joe F. Carr Trophy, and one of just eight players to be recognized as the NFL’s official MVP. He also won the Washington D.C. Touchdown Club’s award in 1945 and 1950. ↩
- If a quarterback has a great year, it usually means his receivers also had great years. If a running back succeeds, it usually means his linemen succeed. But who is the cause, and who is the effect, and how big is the feedback loop? ↩
- In my opinion, Riley Matheson, who was a six time first team all pro and a two time second team all pro, at both left and right guard, should have joined him long ago. ↩
- Add to that the fact that his high school sweetheart turned wife, actress and model Jane Russell, was an international sex symbol, and you have the recipe for a man who was all but guaranteed stardom, regardless of actual achievement. ↩
- Note that two NFL historian whose opinions I respect both rate Waterfield highly as a quarterback only. Brad Oremland included him on the list of greatest pre-modern quarterbacks, and anonymous wizard Raider Joe named him his number 22 quarterback of all time. ↩
- It is worth noting, I think, that he retired ranked third in career Adjusted Yards and Total Adjusted Yards, as well as sixth in value (TAY) over average. ↩