Exposing the Most Flawed Statistic in Sports: Total QBR

By Peter Santo


Does anyone believe that Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jay Cutler, and Brian Hoyer have been better QBs than  Cam Newton this season? Well according to ESPN’s total QBR, they have been.

ESPN created the total QBR stat in the hope of creating a statistic that would summarize a Quarterback’s performance in a single number. It ranks QBs on a scale from 0-100, with 100 being perfect and 50 being average.

According to ESPN’s total QBR rankings, Carson Palmer is the league’s best QB. Additionally, most people will not have too much issue with the top 5 being rounded out by Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Andy Dalton and Aaron Rodgers respectively.

However as you move further down the list you discover more and more flaws in the rankings. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer and Jay Cutler are in the top ten. I think it is universally agreed that none of these guys are top ten QBs in the NFL.

Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers are 9-0 due in large part to his stellar play in 2015. Newton is considered a well-deserving MVP candidate this season. However, Newton ranks 21st in total QBR.

ESPN cites Total QBR as “a statistical measure that incorporates the contexts and details of those throws and what they mean for wins. It’s built from the team level down to the quarterback, where we understand first what each play means to the team, then give credit to the quarterback for what happened on that play based on what he contributed.”

They divide this statistic into three categories, division of credit, clutch index, and defensive adjustment.

Division of credit takes into account which players are most responsible for the successful play for the QB. A 3 yard screen pass that a running back turns into an 80 yard touchdown is weighted differently than a perfect strike to a streaking receiver. It also takes into account the quality of the offensive line and receivers.

Clutch index is exactly what it sounds like, a measure of how the quarterback performs in relation to the situation of the game. A QB that throws a game winning TD late in the fourth quarter will receive a bigger QBR boost than one who throws that same touchdown for the first score of the game.

This is where stats like this can hurt QBs like Tom Brady. No one can doubt that Brady has been brilliant all season, however the Patriots have been put in just two “clutch” situations out of nine games this season.

The final category used in calculating total QBR is defensive adjustment. This adjusts the Quarterback’s rating based on the quality of the defense he is playing against.

This is a good idea in theory, but in practice, if a quarterback turns in a dismal performance against a good defense, their flaws might be masked by their QBR rating.

On the contrary, if a quarterback turns in a good game against a weak defense, his success may also be masked. Drew Brees threw for seven touchdowns against a depleted New York Giants secondary in week 8, however he ranked 8th in total QBR.

ESPN certainly lives up to its name as “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” and as long as they continue to lead the sports media charge, total QBR is here to stay.

This simply boils down to the age old debate between analytics and scouting. There needs to be a balance of the two, and QBR is clearly too analytical.

Having a single statistic to analyze a quarterback’s performance is a great idea that adds a sense of simplicity that is often missing from sports analytics. However the eye test, what we see on the field every week, simply does not match the data the computers are giving us.



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