QB Defensive Support: Part 1

I’ll start by stating the obvious: QB wins is a terrible metric for evaluating the performance of quarterbacks. But since this criteria remains at the forefront of the public discourse about NFL signal callers, I figured it would be worthwhile to provide some important context.

The game of football is won and lost in three phases, two of which have very little to do with the QB. In this post I’m going to present a cursory analysis of which QB’s benefited the most and least from the play of their teams’ defenses and special teams.

When I reference defensive support, I’m actually referring to the points allowed by a given QB’s team compared to the average team during that season. This is not an exhaustive study; my numbers do not adjust for field position, number of drives, turnovers, weather, or any other hidden variable that affects points allowed. But including all the noise also includes all the signal.

From the QB’s perspective, it doesn’t matter why his team gave up x number of points – his chances of winning the game are the same (or nearly the same) regardless. If his team allows 35 points, it doesn’t matter to the QB whether his own defense was bad or the opposing offense happened to be a juggernaut. If his team allows only 10 points, it doesn’t matter to the QB whether his defense was stout or the opposing kicker missed three field goals. This is why I’m content to use straight points allowed and ask the reader to make common sense adjustments for QB’s in extreme circumstances.


I collected data from the top 100 quarterbacks in career pass attempts (modern era) plus HoF’ers and SB winners outside of the top 100. I only wanted to count games in which the QB played a significant amount, so I set a threshold of 14 pass attempts for a game to count (14 attempts per game is the NFL’s official minimum for rate stat leaderboards). It doesn’t matter whether the QB started the game or not, as such data gets murky the further in time we look back. Playoff games are included in the points allowed totals as well as league baselines; said baselines are calculated by removing the points allowed in qualifying games of the QB is question, then finding the league average points per game in all other games during a given season.

In the two tables below, Win % is from qualifying games only, O/U is the number of games over or under .500 in qualifying games, and Playoffs indicates which round of the postseason was reached the by the QB’s team (even if he didn’t play in the postseason).

Here are the top 100 seasons of defensive support among the QB’s in my study:

QuarterbackYearTeamQGmPAPA/GLgAvgSupportSup/GWin %O/UPlayoffs
Russell Wilson2013SEA1927114.323.81819.50.84213Won SB
Otto Graham1948CLE1519713.124.316811.21.00015Won LC
Jim McMahon1985CHI1516711.121.715910.61.00015Won SB
Jack Kemp1961BUF1522915.325.515310.20.8009Lost LCG
Trent Dilfer2000BAL12998.320.815112.60.91710Won SB
Brad Johnson2002TAM1620712.922.11479.20.81310Won SB
Bart Starr1962GNB1212910.822.914612.20.91710Won LC
Otto Graham1947CLE1518812.522.31469.70.90012Won LC
Joe Montana1984SFO1824413.621.51427.90.94416Won SB
Steve McNair2006BAL1517611.721.01399.30.8009Lost Div
Ben Roethlisberger2008PIT1928414.922.31397.30.78911Won SB
Cam Newton2013CAR1726415.523.71398.20.7067Lost Div
Steve McNair2000TEN1619512.220.81388.60.7508Lost Div
George Blanda1961HOU1319214.825.313810.60.8469Won LC
Joe Flacco2008BAL1928615.122.31377.20.6847Lost CCG
Brett Favre1996GNB1925813.620.81377.20.84213Won SB
Phil Simms1986NYG1925913.620.81367.20.89515Won SB
Terry Bradshaw1975PIT1314311.020.91299.91.00013Won SB
Aaron Rodgers2010GNB1827815.422.41256.90.77810Won SB
Ron Jaworski1980PHI1927214.320.81226.40.7379Lost SB
Donovan McNabb2004PHI1725014.721.81217.10.88213Lost SB
Otto Graham1951CLE1317613.522.71209.20.8469Lost LCG
Kerry Collins2008TEN1521414.322.21208.00.8009Lost Div
Terry Bradshaw1978PIT1821712.118.71196.60.88914Won SB
Donovan McNabb2001PHI1825214.020.51176.50.6676Lost CCG
Fran Tarkenton1975MIN1519713.120.91177.80.8009Lost Div
Johnny Unitas1967BAL1419814.122.31158.20.85710-
Mark Brunell1999JAX1520213.521.11147.60.86711Lost CCG
Otto Graham1949CLE1419914.222.31138.10.85710Won LC
Alex Smith2011SFO1829116.222.51136.30.77810Lost CCG
Len Dawson1969KAN9829.121.711312.60.8897Won SB
Russell Wilson2014SEA1932116.922.81136.00.7379Lost SB
Ron Jaworski1981PHI1724814.621.11116.50.5883Lost WC
Bart Starr1961GNB1522314.922.01077.10.8009Won LC
Otto Graham1946CLE1214011.720.51068.90.8338Won LC
Bart Starr1966GNB1216113.422.21068.80.8338Won SB
Tom Brady2003NWE1929515.521.11065.60.89515Won SB
Donovan McNabb2000PHI1826814.920.81065.90.6676Lost Div
Roger Staubach1971DAL1212910.819.51058.71.00012Won SB
Bob Griese1971MIA1518812.519.51047.00.7678Lost SB
Kerry Collins2000NYG1929015.320.71045.50.7379Lost SB
Russell Wilson2012SEA1728917.023.11036.10.6475Lost Div
Ben Roethlisberger2011PIT1625616.022.41036.40.6886Lost WC
Tom Brady2004NWE1931116.421.81035.40.89515Won SB
Jack Kemp1965BUF1420814.922.21037.30.7507Won LC
Neil O'Donnell1994PIT1520713.820.61026.80.7337Lost CCG
Mark Rypien1991WAS1926513.919.31025.40.89515Won SB
Joe Flacco2011BAL1830216.822.41025.70.7228Lost CCG
Fran Tarkenton1973MIN1621513.419.81016.30.81310Lost SB
Jay Cutler2012CHI1524516.323.11016.70.6675-
Phil Simms1990NYG1214412.020.31008.30.8338Won SB
Roman Gabriel1966LAR1421215.122.2997.10.5712-
Jim Kelly1988BUF1826814.920.4995.50.7228Lost CCG
Otto Graham1954CLE1115113.722.7999.00.8187Won LC
Len Dawson1962DTX1321216.323.9997.60.7697Won LC
Kurt Warner1999STL1930115.821.0995.20.84213Won SB
Alex Smith2015KAN1831417.422.9995.50.6676Lost Div
Troy Aikman1996DAL1725414.920.7985.80.6475Lost Div
John Elway1984DEN1420214.421.4976.90.7868Lost Div
Vinny Testaverde1994CLE1521314.220.6966.40.6675Lost Div
Tom Brady2016NWE1525016.723.0966.40.93313Won SB
Russell Wilson2015SEA1831717.622.9955.30.6114Lost Div
Roman Gabriel1967LAR1421715.522.3956.80.7868Lost Div
Joe Montana1990SFO1725114.820.3945.50.88213Lost CCG
Joe Flacco2010BAL1830817.122.3945.20.7228Lost Div
Tony Romo2009DAL1829816.621.8945.20.6676Lost Div
Joe Theismann1982WAS1317613.520.7937.20.92311Won SB
Tom Brady2007NWE1932317.021.9924.90.94717Lost SB
Roman Gabriel1968LAR1420014.320.8926.50.7507-
Vinny Testaverde1998NYJ1625315.821.5915.70.81310Lost CCG
Troy Aikman1995DAL1728116.521.9915.30.88213Won SB
Otto Graham1950CLE1014414.423.3898.90.8006Won LC
Joe Flacco2009BAL1728116.521.7895.20.5291Lost Div
Terry Bradshaw1972PIT1317613.520.3886.80.7697Lost CCG
Bobby Hebert1992NOR1723814.019.0865.00.7067Lost WC
Phil Simms1993NYG1825914.419.1854.70.6676Lost Div
Tom Brady2006NWE1931216.420.9854.50.7379Lost CCG
Jeff Garcia2007TAM1319915.321.9856.50.5381Lost WC
Johnny Unitas1966BAL1320315.622.2856.50.6925-
Ken Stabler1973OAK1215212.719.7857.10.7927Lost CCG
John Hadl1973LAR1317213.219.7846.50.7697Lost Div
Bart Starr1963GNB1013913.922.3848.40.8507-
Peyton Manning2005IND1522715.120.7845.60.86711Lost Div
Roger Staubach1976DAL1520813.919.4835.60.7337Lost Div
Matthew Stafford2014DET1730618.022.8814.80.6475Lost WC
Peyton Manning2007IND1729017.121.8814.80.7659Lost Div
Alex Smith2012SFO810312.923.08110.20.7504Lost SB
Phil Simms1985NYG1830717.121.6814.50.6114Lost Div
John Hadl19742TM1214011.718.4816.70.5000-
Trent Dilfer1997TAM1829416.320.8814.50.6114Lost Div
Russell Wilson2016SEA1833418.623.0804.50.6395Lost Div
Len Dawson1968KAN1116915.422.7807.30.7275Lost Div
John Hadl1965SDG1525016.722.0805.30.7006Lost LCG
Philip Rivers2017LAC1627217.022.0795.00.5632-
Ben Roethlisberger2010PIT1525617.122.3795.20.7337Lost SB
Andy Dalton2015CIN1219616.322.9796.50.8338Lost WC
Joe Montana1989SFO1523515.720.9795.20.86711Won SB
Dan Fouts1979SDG1624415.320.2784.90.6886Lost Div
Roger Staubach1978DAL1825614.218.6784.40.7228Lost SB
John Elway1991DEN1826914.919.3784.30.7228Lost CCG

This really hammers home the importance of points prevention in QB wins. A full 92 of 100 reached the postseason, and this includes a number of seasons win which the QB himself played rather poorly. Narrow it down to the top 20 seasons of support, and the QB went on to win the league championship or Super Bowl a remarkable 14 times. Once again, I feel compelled to state the obvious: winning a ring is far more likely when the entire team plays great football around the QB.

Now the bottom 100 seasons of defensive support:

QuarterbackYearTeamQGmPAPA/GLgAvgSupportSup/GWin %O/UPlayoffs
Y.A. Tittle1950BAL1040740.721.6-191-19.10.100-8-
Jim Plunkett1972NWE1444631.919.6-171-12.20.214-8-
Peyton Manning2001IND1648630.419.9-167-10.40.375-4-
Dan Pastorini1973HOU1238532.119.1-156-13.00.000-12-
Joe Namath1975NYJ1340230.920.2-139-10.70.231-7-
Jim Zorn1976SEA1338429.518.9-139-10.70.154-9-
Steve Young1986TAM1441929.920.2-136-9.70.143-10-
Archie Manning1980NOR1543729.120.2-134-8.90.067-13-
Jeff Blake1999CIN1339530.420.6-127-9.80.231-7-
Bobby Hebert1996ATL1440929.220.3-125-9.00.214-8-
Roman Gabriel1973PHI1439328.119.2-125-8.90.393-3-
Kurt Warner2000STL1236330.320.3-119-9.90.6674Lost WC
Jeff Blake2003ARI1338729.820.7-118-9.10.231-7-
George Blanda1965HOU1235729.820.3-114-9.50.250-6-
Drew Brees2015NOR1544929.922.5-111-7.40.467-1-
Billy Kilmer1969NOR1337628.920.4-110-8.50.385-3-
Jeff Garcia1999SFO1133730.620.6-110-10.00.182-7-
Bobby Layne1949NYY1236830.721.5-110-9.20.125-9-
Norm Snead1967PHI1440929.221.4-110-7.80.464-1-
Steve DeBerg1985TAM1134231.121.1-109-9.90.091-9-
Kerry Collins2004OAK1440829.121.4-109-7.80.286-6-
Fran Tarkenton1962MIN1441029.321.7-107-7.60.179-9-
Joe Namath1976NYJ825832.319.0-106-13.30.000-8-
Peyton Manning1998IND1644427.821.1-106-6.60.188-10-
Bernie Kosar1990CLE1336428.019.9-105-8.10.231-7-
Fran Tarkenton1963MIN1236030.021.4-104-8.60.333-4-
Jon Kitna2007DET1644427.821.5-100-6.20.438-2-
Steve DeBerg1979SFO1641626.019.8-100-6.20.125-12-
Eli Manning2009NYG1542028.021.4-99-6.60.467-1-
Jay Cutler2008DEN1644828.021.8-99-6.20.5000-
Norm Snead1963WAS1439828.421.4-99-7.00.214-8-
Vinny Testaverde1996BAL1540326.920.3-98-6.60.267-7-
Norm Snead1961WAS1439228.021.0-98-7.00.107-11-
Boomer Esiason1991CIN1436225.918.9-97-7.00.214-8-
Mark Rypien1995STL622637.721.5-97-16.20.167-4-
Jeff Garcia2000SFO1642226.420.4-96-6.00.375-4-
Warren Moon1984HOU1541027.320.9-96-6.40.200-9-
Sonny Jurgensen1968WAS1131628.720.0-96-8.70.273-5-
Daunte Culpepper2002MIN1644227.621.7-96-6.00.375-4-
Jim Everett1990RAM1641225.819.9-93-5.80.313-6-
Jim Zorn1977SEA1026426.417.1-93-9.30.400-2-
Trent Green2004KAN1643527.221.4-93-5.80.438-2-
Lynn Dickey1983GNB1643927.421.7-92-5.80.5000-
Jon Kitna2010DAL1031231.222.0-92-9.20.400-2-
Phil Simms1980NYG1335527.320.3-91-7.00.231-7-
Drew Brees2016NOR1645428.422.7-91-5.70.438-2-
Drew Brees2012NOR1645428.422.7-91-5.70.438-2-
Matthew Stafford2009DET1030430.421.4-90-9.00.200-6-
Norm Snead1969PHI1233628.020.5-90-7.50.375-3-
Jim Hart1973STL1130127.419.3-89-8.10.318-4-
Warren Moon1989HOU1743825.820.5-89-5.20.5291Lost WC
Jim Hart1981STL825331.620.7-87-10.90.375-2-
Aaron Brooks2001NOR1640925.620.1-87-5.50.438-2-
Jim Everett1991RAM1639024.418.9-87-5.40.188-10-
Jeff George1997OAK1539426.320.5-87-5.80.200-9-
Marc Bulger2007STL1132329.421.5-86-7.80.182-7-
Jay Cutler2014CHI1542228.122.5-85-5.70.333-5-
Jim Everett1992RAM1638323.918.7-84-5.30.375-4-
Carson Palmer2012OAK1440228.722.7-84-6.00.286-6-
Jim Everett1994NOR1640725.420.2-83-5.20.438-2-
Jim Zorn1980SEA1640825.520.3-83-5.20.250-8-
Archie Manning1972NOR1436125.819.9-83-5.90.179-9-
Jake Plummer2000ARI1436826.320.4-83-5.90.214-8-
Alex Smith2006SFO1641225.820.6-82-5.10.438-2-
Dan Fouts1981SDG1845525.320.7-82-4.60.6114Lost CCG
Dan Fouts1983SDG1029829.821.7-81-8.10.5000-
Dan Fouts1973SDG721630.919.3-81-11.60.071-6-
Charley Johnson1969STL926629.620.6-81-9.00.167-6-
Billy Kilmer1970NOR1026926.918.8-81-8.10.100-8-
Eli Manning2015NYG1644227.622.6-81-5.00.375-4-
Marc Bulger2004STL1540226.821.4-81-5.40.5331Lost Div
Neil O'Donnell1998CIN1233427.821.2-80-6.60.167-8-
Dan Marino1986MIA1640525.320.3-79-5.00.5000-
Ken Anderson1979CIN1231726.419.8-79-6.60.250-6-
Drew Brees2003SDG1130727.920.7-79-7.20.182-7-
Fran Tarkenton1967NYG1437927.121.5-78-5.60.5000-
Kurt Warner2008ARI2051525.821.9-78-3.90.6004Lost SB
Joe Ferguson1984BUF1130828.021.0-77-7.00.091-9-
Richard Todd1979NYJ1231426.219.8-76-6.30.417-2-
Joe Ferguson1975BUF1334126.220.4-76-5.80.5381-
Marc Bulger2008STL1336027.721.9-76-5.80.154-9-
Dan Fouts1985SDG1130928.121.2-76-6.90.6363-
Cam Newton2011CAR1642926.822.1-75-4.70.375-4-
Dan Fouts1984SDG1334826.821.0-75-5.80.462-1-
Jon Kitna2002CIN1335727.521.7-75-5.80.154-9-
Fran Tarkenton1961MIN1130727.921.1-75-6.80.273-5-
John Hadl1971SDG1434124.419.0-75-5.30.429-2-
Matt Schaub2010HOU1642726.722.0-75-4.70.375-4-
Dan Marino1999MIA1232326.920.7-75-6.20.417-2Lost Div
Jeff George1994ATL1435825.620.2-75-5.30.429-2-
Neil Lomax1985STL1641425.921.2-74-4.70.313-6-
Marc Bulger2005STL721731.020.4-74-10.60.286-3-
Y.A. Tittle1964NYG1233327.821.6-74-6.20.250-6-
Fran Tarkenton1971NYG1332124.719.0-74-5.70.308-5-
Joe Ferguson1977BUF1431322.417.1-73-5.20.214-8-
Steve McNair2001TEN1537525.020.1-73-4.90.467-1-
Matthew Stafford2012DET1643727.322.8-73-4.60.250-8-
Steve DeBerg1980SFO925528.320.3-72-8.00.333-3-
Steve McNair2005TEN1333725.920.4-72-5.50.308-5-
Trent Green2000STL619332.220.4-71-11.80.333-2Lost WC

Here we see a bleak portrait of QB’s who were saddled with bad defenses. Only seven of 100 reached the playoffs (and one of those came as a backup), and only one made it to the Super Bowl (with a 9-7 team). Even the best QB seasons are usually torpedoed when paired with a terrible defense.


To show the stark contrast between strong and weak defensive support, this visualization combines the 200 QB seasons from the two tables above.1 The data points are sorted by defensive support on the x-axis and games over or under .500 on the y-axis. Notice how on the vertical scale, there is little overlap between the clump on the left and the clump on the right. With only a few exceptions, QB’s with great defenses won more games than those with terrible defenses. Shoutout to Kurt Warner for bucking the trend twice!

What stands out to you?

 

  1. Helmet knock to Bryan Frye for helping create the visualization and to @ToddyMalone for compiling the data for league baselines.