Is Russell Wilson an Elite Quarterback?


A Seattle Landmark

Most of this blog post was written a day before Seattle’s amazing victory over the Green Bay Packers, featuring a truly schizophrenic performance by Russell Wilson (RW). Except for a few style edits, not a (substantive) word of this essay was changed by that game, though I refer to it in a couple of places.   Both before and after that game, I believe Russell Wilson deserves to be on any reasonable list of Elite Quarterbacks (E-List), even if it contains no more (as it shouldn’t) than three or four names.

Russell Wilson doesn’t make too many of the E-Lists.  On the other hand, except maybe for three quarters of yesterday’s game, he’s never had a Rodney Dangerfield problem either.  He often gets honorable mention on some of the E-Lists. Because Wilson was both awful and brilliant in yesterday’s improbable playoff game, his position in the rankings probably hasn’t changed much in a day.

While Wilson gets considerable respect, he was snubbed for the Pro Bowl roster (which is really a blessing for him and the Hawks).  And, famed election forecaster Nate Silver’s “538” blog, now affiliated with ESPN and doing sports metrics,  rates Wilson in the middle of QBs, in the 4th Tier of a 10 Tier scheme. Wilson is in the same group with QB Nick Foles, and below a tier containing Teddy Bridgewater and Matt Schaub. Do you think Pete Carroll would trade RW for any of those guys?

Except for Brady and Manning, the names on the E-lists change so often, calling them Elite lists seems almost silly. By my count, there are twelve current starting QB’s in the NFL who have been on and off the E-lists over the past few years. That’s more than a third of the starting QB’s in the NFL. You’re Elite one year, and a bum the next.  Check out QB Phillip Rivers in San Diego. The gents who have graced E- Lists, off and on, for the last several years are: Romo, Rogers, Roethlisberger, P. Manning, Brady, Brees, Luck, Palmer, Rivers, E. Manning, Flacco, and Kapernik.  Of course Brady and Manning have been mainstays; and Rogers and Brees close to that.

This list reminds me of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. In the NFL, almost 40% of the QB’s are Elite, at least for awhile.

So, why doesn’t Russell Wilson get on more E-Lists or on the Pro Bowl roster, or reside in a higher tier in the Nate Silver 538 rankings?  A stab at some reasons:

The standard QB stats used by the E-listmakers — passing attempts, completions, yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns and interceptions — are all greatly influenced (tainted?) by the quality of the QB’s offensive line and receiving corp,  and whether the team has a running back that can overcome an ordinary offensive line. All of that is elementary, and often mentioned; but is never translated into a metric that affects the QB rating. At least I haven’t been able to find an E-List that does that.

Team defense is also a major influence on QB performance, again, sometimes mentioned, but not embedded in any QB measure.  If a QB’s team has a great defense, he’s not playing catch up all the time, trying to score as fast as possible. Playing on a team with ordinary or poor defense can make for gaudy and garish QB stats, which the E-listmakers then use for the E-Lists.

There are no accessible metrics in football, comparable to baseball’s Sabermertics, which get to the bottom of things. (See Bill James and Money Ball).  A main purpose of Bill James’ Stats was to create measures that isolate a baseball player’s production, apart from the influence of the teammates surrounding him. Babe Ruth hitting in the middle of the 1962 Mets line-up would not have had a 170 RBIs. The commonly used QB stats don’t even bother to control for a player’s environment.

The Seahawks offensive line has been at best ordinary for RW’s entire three year career. The same goes for the Hawks receiving corp, which was only a notch above ordinary before Golden Tate left and tight end Zach Miller missed the entire 2014 season with a serious ankle injury. Percy Harvin was going to be the new,  big impact, home run ball receiver RW has never had, but that venture crashed and burned after a few games.

Pete Carroll’s Seahawks are obviously built around defense. Even if the Hawks had a consistently great offensive line and an elite set of receivers, Carroll wouldn’t want, and doesn’t need, RW to be throwing the ball 30 or 40+ times a game.  An equally important reason for that is the presence of Marshawn Lynch, one of the two or three top running backs in the game, if not the best. With a lead, or even a one or two possession deficit early in a game, why throw on every down when Lynch might bust one for 40 yards at any time, or regularly carry five defenders down the field for ten yards?

All of this means, RW can’t possibly post the garish yardage and touch down numbers that guys on the current E lists have compiled. Hey, in today’s NFL game, with the rules favoring passers and receivers, even Jake Cutler puts up almost 4,000 yards and 30 TDs.  (Poor Jake probably does have a Rodney Dangerfield problem).

Not even the Total Quarterback Rating (QBR), which is an arbitrary composite of the ordinary passing stats, controls for a QB’s environment.  QBR is a “per passing attempt” stat, which helps RW’s cause, but it curiously ignores a QB’s rushing stats. RW ran for 849 yards this year, amazingly 16th best among ALL runners.  Many of those yards came from intentional runs, option plays, and RW extending a play, then deciding to run rather than throw into coverage.  The 849 yards are not mostly from helter-skelter plays. Many of them resulted in critical first downs.

BTW, all of this might help explain why in the world Tim Tebow could have received two Heisman trophies before anyone figured out he couldn’t throw a football, which may also turn out to be Johnny Manziel’s story. They are part of a long line of Heisman winning quarterbacks who flopped in the NFL. Aren’t the guardians of the Heisman embarrassed about that?  Why has this happened?  Not because, “the college game is different from the pro game” excuse, but because the Heisman intelligentsia have no idea how good a QB really is apart from his team.

If it’s not being done already, stats like hurries, sacks, and hits, which can help measure the quality of a QB’s offensive line; or, for receivers, stats on dropped balls, broken routes, and spacing between them and defenders, would shed much light on the performance of QBs. You can make these into composite measures and adjust QBRs, just like Bill James did for baseball forty years ago.  Or why not  track “quality catches” (or lack thereof), just like the NBA tabulates quality rebounds, and use the information to evaluate a receiving corp, and then adjust the QB rating?

The core data isn’t available to starving bloggers, but I bet “538” and other big players in Sports Analytics can do all of these things. They may have already, but, if so, it’s not in the mainstream.

I am sure RW cares about all this much less than I or his adoring fans do. But over this football weekend and with a third day to remember Martin Luther King, writing about bread and circuses beats watching cable news. Here are some popular, sortable QB passing stats from ESPN to pass the time as the long weekend draws to a close.


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