Stop Fawning Over Tom Brady, It's Defense That Wins Championships: Deflating the Myth of the "Winning Quarterback"

Joel Anderson |

tom brady, super bowl, best quarterback ever, tom brady best ever, russell wilson, football

If you’re anything like me, you’re getting a little tired of hearing about “deflategate.” It’s not that it’s uninteresting; it’s just that this is another example of how sports media needs to fill the two weeks prior to the Super Bowl with something and they tend to fixate on whatever story presents itself with a fervor that’s frequently out of proportion with its actual importance.

The shame is that it’s taking attention away from the sort of pointless drivel that sports writers normally fall back on at this time of year – the stuff that sports nuts like me can’t get enough of. This is the time when we should be focusing on questions of Tom Brady’s legacy. Will his fourth ring cement his status as the greatest of all time? After all, the man’s careful stewardship of the New England Patriots throughout the last decade and a half is the primary reason the team has been so good.

Not to mention the budding Russell Wilson, whose postseason success so early in his career has to make one wonder if he’s this generation’s answer to Brady. Returning to the Super Bowl with a chance to repeat as champion in just his third season? Why, he appears to have the same winning moxie that allowed Brady to carry the Patriots to three titles in his first four years as a starter!

I guess it might be worth mentioning that about 100 or so other football players will also be taking the field this Sunday. Apparently, they’ve been loosely organized into units known as “teams” and will take turns standing near Brady or Wilson in some sort of competitive athletics capacity. But any REAL football fan knows it’s all about the quarterback. Those other players are just extras, background actors there to help Tom and his feathery hair sell more Ugg Boots.

I jest, of course.

In reality, I’d argue that no sport de-emphasizes the individual player more than football. Teams win championships, not players, and the frequent insistence of many sports writers on framing the legacy of those teams solely through the prism of their quarterbacks does a huge disservice to the sport.

That’s why I’m here to let some air out of the pervasive but misguided myth of the quarterback as a “winner” who can carry a team to victory. I compiled data on the league’s all-time great quarterbacks and handed it over to equities.com’s quantitative research analyst Nicholas Bhandari, who helped us identify which factors appear to be the most important to winning.

The Myth of the “Winning Quarterback?”

So what really leads to winning Super Bowls? It’s a question that we find especially interesting because it’s really just about understanding value, which is something we’re big on.

A stock picker might find it easy to fixate on a company’s CEO as he/she’s the most visible person at the company. No question, the CEO is always very important, but if your focus on one company’s CEO is at the expense of recognizing the importance of market leadership or operational efficiency in another company, you could wind up costing yourself a great deal of money. That’s why systems like equities.com’s Small-Cap Stars, which really delves into what factors really are the most predictive of a company’s success, can offer real advantages over just eye-balling stocks and picking the ones that seem strongest.

But can we do something similar with football teams and quarterbacks?

There is a pretty transparent confirmation bias at play when you talk about “winning quarterbacks.” If a team is winning, it must be because the quarterback is so good. But how do you prove that a quarterback is good? Why, if their team is winning, of course. The circular logic is pretty clear.

Don’t try to use passing statistics to try and break it down further, either. Pointing out that, say, Peyton Manning’s career passing statistics would seem to point to him being much better passer than Joe Montana over the course of their respective careers will get a derisive scoff.

“Those stat-heads don’t get it,” the pundits exclaim. “This guy’s putting up stats in the only category that matters: the win column.”

How Does One Measure Being a “Winner?”

So there seems to be this idea that certain quarterbacks possess an otherness, one that allows them to carry their teams to victory but won’t necessarily be reflected in the box scores.

Here’s the thing, while we’re generally dubious when it comes to attributing success to something unquantifiable, the nature of football prevents really separating individual performance from the context of the team. For every yard gained or point scored by a quarterback, you have to consider the ten other players on the field, what play is being run, how the defense was aligned, the team’s offensive system, and the game situation in which it occurred.

So yes, just because a quarterback isn’t producing prodigious passing numbers doesn’t mean that they aren’t contributing to the quality of the offense in other, largely immeasurable ways. How do you quantify a quarterback reading a defense and changing the play at the line of scrimmage? Is a team’s strong running game a result of defenses being forced to scheme to stop the passing game? And what about leadership?

So, I think it might be interesting to go the complete opposite direction. For the sake of argument, let’s take the pundits’ claims at face value and assume that “winning” quarterbacks really do have some sort of intangible quality that won’t show up in the numbers. So, instead of getting more precise, we’ll get less. Assuming that it’s the quarterback’s “otherness” that’s responsible for team success, that should mean that teams with real “winners” at quarterback would show a correlation between team success and team offense, where the quarterback’s influence would be directly felt.

Likewise, the overall quality of the defensive units on those same teams should show less correlation as, presumably, a quarterback can’t directly affect the play of the defense all that much because, you know, he’s not on the field.1

What Makes for Winning Ways?

There are exactly 30 quarterbacks in NFL history with at least 10 postseason starts. We’ll use them for our sampling of “great” quarterbacks as having more postseason starts requires a combination of success in both the regular and postseason.

We recorded where the team’s offense and defense ranked during the regular season for each season where that quarterback started at least half of the team’s games. Then, we took a look at the regular season winning percentage and playoff winning percentage in games started by that quarterback, team ranks just for years where they made the playoffs, and how much better the rankings were for the average playoff team (what we’re terming “playoff improvement”).

Here’s our table:

Nick took this and ran a statistical regression similar (but a lot less complex) than the one we use to identify what metrics are most predictive for the success of small-cap stocks in our Small-Cap Stars. This should help us determine what metrics are most predictive for the winning percentage in the playoffs.

Here’s what Nick had to say:

  Coefficient Std. error t-ratio p-value  

Constant

0.347633

0.191677

1.8136

0.08176

*

Avgerage defensive rank – playoff teams

-0.0124542

0.00573283

-2.1724

0.03951

**

Average playoff improvement - defense

0.112275

0.0169331

6.6305

<0.00001

***

Regular season win percentage

0.536434

0.257967

2.0795

0.04798

**

 

 

“The improvement in scoring defense for playoff teams was one of our stronger variables, a one rank increase here increases the playoff win percentage by 11.23%. The positive effect here makes sense because the variable is referring specifically to how many spots better the team’s defense was than the average – a very strong and very significant effect.”

“Offensive rankings are conspicuously absent from the data listed above, and the reason is actually quite telling: offensive categories did not have enough statistical significance for this particular regression to be included. Since this regression is linear in nature, the takeaway we have is that there wasn't a direct correlation between offensive ranks and playoff win percentage, at least not for the quarterbacks we tested. This is especially puzzling when you consider the traditional narrative that the QB is the most important factor in a team’s ability to win.”

That result should carry even more weight when you consider that our sampling preselected “elite” quarterbacks. If these quarterbacks are “proven winners,” there should not only be a stronger correlation to offensive production, it should be by a relatively wide margin. Even with our clear sampling bias, defense was the more important factor.

Win Score

We then decided to go one step further and create what we’re calling the “win score.”

This is a metric that weights playoff wins with more value than regular season wins. We started by multiplying wins in the first round of the playoffs by four. The thinking would be this: if you’re an 8-8 team that squeaks into the playoffs and you win your match-up in the wild card round, as often as not, you’ll be playing a 12-4 division winner in the second round.

Next, we looked at the NFL’s bonus structure for the playoffs. That shows that the league appears to value wins in the first two rounds equally, views wins in the conference championship as being worth about twice those, and wins in the Super Bowl as being worth a little more than twice a win in the conference championship.

So, wins in the wild card and divisional round are worth four regular season wins, wins in the conference championships are worth eight, and wins in the Super Bowl are worth 16. Combining all of these, we were able to come up with a “win score” for each season as well as a win score per start for each quarterback.2

Here’s a look at our 30 quarterbacks ranked by win score per start:

Quarterback

Total win score

Win score per start

Bart Starr

210.86

1.378

Roger Staubach

174.57

1.375

Joe Montana

243

1.358

Terry Bradshaw

234.14

1.33

Tom Brady

295

1.261

Kurt Warner

125

1.078

Ben Roethlisberger

182

1.052

Troy Aikman

184

1.022

Bob Griese

158.14

1.014

Joe Flacco

128

1.008

Jim Plunkett

130.57

0.989

John Elway

248

0.988

Aaron Rodgers

110

0.965

Steve Young

132

0.95

Ken Stabler

142.14

0.917

Eli Manning

154

0.901

Peyton Manning

247

0.882

Jim Kelly

153

0.864

Danny White

74

0.831

Phil Simms

133

0.826

Donovan McNabb

135

0.823

Brett Favre

262

0.814

Craig Morton

105.71

0.789

Drew Brees

157

0.741

Fran Tarkenton

176.57

0.724

Dan Marino

183

0.723

Matt Hasselback

101

0.669

Steve McNair

103

0.624

Mark Brunell

97

0.581

Warren Moon

110

0.539

 

This time, we also separated out each and every individual season. So, looking at 349 seasons by “winning” quarterbacks and 14 categories per season for a grand total of 4,886 data points, which factors had the highest correlation to a quarterback’s win score per start?3

The Impact of Defense

Once again, defense wins championships, people.

Here’s Nick again:

 

Coefficient

Std. Error

t-ratio

p-value

 

Constant

0.741139

0.0761216

9.7363

<0.00001

***

Offensive Rank

-0.231352

0.027996

-8.2638

<0.00001

***

Defensive Rank

-0.263397

0.0276538

-9.5248

<0.00001

***

 

“Instead of looking at raw effects, I used natural logarithms to turn it into percentage/percentage changes. So what the model effectively says now is that a 10% change in offensive rank correlates to a roughly 2.1809% change in our total win score, the defensive rank score is slightly more potent, with a 10% change in defensive rank correlating to a roughly 2.479% change in total win score.

“The calculation of this number is complicated, but suffice it to say that when the change in ranks increases, the change in total win score begins to increase as well. For example, the 10% in offensive rank moved towards a 50% change would imply simply that we multiply 2.1809% by 5. Wrong. In fact we need to recalculate the number, which comes out to a change of 8.954%. The difference between the two coefficients then begins to widen. The 2.479% change we saw for Defensive Rank now moves to a 10.129% change when a 50% move is considered.”

What does that all mean? It means that it’s still close, but defense was clearly the more important of the two factors. Again, this is with a sampling of quarterback seasons that only includes QBs with a lot of career success.

It also indicates that success tends to increase exponentially as rankings improve, so better defense is good, but elite defense is great. The difference between a fifteenth ranked defense and a tenth ranked defense is less significant than the difference between the sixth ranked defense and the best defense in the league despite both being separated by five spots in the rankings.

Time for a Cliche Switch?

Look, quarterbacks are obviously important. A strong offense, on the whole, is obviously important. However, offense is at least a little bit less important than defense. That won’t always be true for each individual team, but, over the course of NFL history, even teams with some of the most-successful quarterbacks in league history still demonstrate a stronger correlation between winning and effective defense than winning and effective offense.

Even if you’re ready to buy into the idea that the quarterback is some sort of mythic figure whose mere presence can create results on offense regardless of what his stats might show, the simple fact of the matter is that the defense appears to play a slightly bigger role in game outcomes over time, meaning the quarterback isn’t even on the field during his team’s more-crucial periods of play.

And if you start looking at some of the names that stand out in NFL history as true “winners,” there appears to be some confirmation of this. In the three years Brady won Super Bowls, what were the ranks of the Patriot’s scoring defense? That would be 1, 2, and 6. What about Joe Montana’s four rings with the San Francisco 49ers? The rankings in those years were 2, 1, 8, and 3. The rankings for the “Steel Curtain” on Terry Bradshaw’s Pittsburgh Steelers? That’s 2, 2, 1, and 5.

So, if Seattle repeats this year, maybe we should avoid the urge to immediately fixate on Russell Wilson as the heir apparent to the title of “born winner.” Seattle’s elite defense, as a whole, probably has a lot more to do with their impressive run than Wilson, just like the elite defenses fielded by the Patriots from 2001-2005 probably had more to do with those three Super Bowl championships than Tom Brady.

 

 

All of our data was drawn from Pro-football-reference.com, a member of the Sports Reference family of sites. These are some great sites, without which this sort of article would have been nye impossible.

 

 

1 It should be noted that offensive play can definitely affect the success of a defense. Turning the ball over deep in your own side of the field makes it much harder for a defense to prevent the other team from scoring, and stringing together sustained drives gives the defense time to rest and prepare for their next series. So a quarterback can clearly show an indirect benefit to his team’s defense.

That said, the opposite is also true. An outstanding defense will set their offense up with better field position and create turnovers that provide an offense with more scoring opportunities. So, we’re just going to go ahead and call it a wash for the purposes of this exercise.

2 Given that some of these quarterbacks played prior to the move from the 14-game season to the 16-game season, I also multiplied the regular season win totals by about 1.14 (16/14) in order to weigh the value of regular season wins proportionally.

There’s also the fact that any quarterback playing in the postseason prior to the Super Bowl only had one or two postseason games a season. This arguably robbed those quarterbacks of a chance to win valuable post-season games with dominant teams. However, given that Bart Starr is the only person on this list for whom it’s an issue, I decided, rather than try and come up with a complicated weighting system to account for this difference, we would just screw Bart Starr and count NFL championships just like a Super Bowl.

Sorry Bart Starr.

Except that, in our results, Bart Starr actually had the highest career win score per start of all 30 quarterbacks we looked at. So this would at least appear to be a ringing endorsement for Bart Starr if you still back the “quarterback as a winner” philosophy. Even when he’s arguably getting screwed by a lack of postseason games early in his career, he boasts far and away the highest per-start win score over his career.

However, if you’re coming around to our logic on this, it actually speaks to the level of dominance those Vince Lombardi Packers teams exhibited. Something that would tend to be carried out by looking at Starr’s average ranking for scoring offense (7.46) and scoring defense (4.92) over the course of his career.

3 So we didn’t include this table as it’s pretty massive. Sorry, but you can certainly go ahead and compile it all yourself if you’re that interested.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of equities.com. Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to: http://www.equities.com/disclaimer

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