Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matt Ryan are one of the best collections of quarterbacks to ever play in the Conference Championship round of the NFL playoffs. There is no doubt. You have arguably the best signal-caller of all-time at the helm of the most successful franchise of the last 15 years, one of the hottest football players on the planet making throws others can only dream of making, one of the toughest competitors at the position whose postseason success and on-field demeanor exemplify the franchise he represents, and the most unappreciated and undecorated of the group having the best season of his career and awaiting his own MVP trophy for that performance. Each player has been the quarterback for his respective franchise for at least nine seasons making their longevity with one team just as impressive.
But what I want to know about these quarterbacks is, where do the teams they currently direct stack up against previous iterations?
To do this, I’ll take a look at each year during each quarterback’s tenure with their team in the context of three statistics. While there is no silver bullet metric to measure football performance, looking at both player and team performance through a number of different lenses allows more context and perspective for discussion. In this evaluation, I leaned on the following numbers.
SRS: A statistic devised by Pro-Football Reference based on points scored and points allowed to adjust margin of victory for strength of schedule. OSRS is a measure for offensive performance and DSRS is for defensive performance.
Weighted DVOA: A statistic created by Football Outsiders that takes each play for a team during a given season and measures it against league average depending on the situation. DVOA is presented as a percentage above or below league average which is 0. Weighted DVOA adjusts for how a team is performing late in the season.
% to League Average: Football is an ever-evolving game so presenting simply yards gained per game or yards allowed per game across years is not an accurate way to assess team performance. A more accurate measure, especially as passing games have evolved, is to take these numbers and measure them against league average. In the following assessments, you will see each team’s’ passing yards per game, rushing yards per game, passing yards allowed per game, and rushing yards allowed per game expressed as a percentage above or below league average.
Each team has its own Tableau chart with interactive charts to view the four different measures I put together along with the result of each season:
SRS vs DVOA – two different assessments of team performance
OSRS vs DSRS – one measure of a team’s offensive performance vs defensive performance
%RushYdsO vs %PassYdsO – the team’s offensive rushing and passing yards per game versus league average – a higher number is better
%RushYdsD vs %PassYdsD – the team’s defensive rushing and passing yards per game versus league average – a higher number is better
The Tom Brady Era New England Patriots (2001-present)
2016 Patriots (out of 16)
SRS: 9.3 (T-8th)
Weighted DVOA: 34.0% (4th)
OSRS: 4.3 (11th)
DSRS: 5.0 (3rd)
%RushO: 7.44% (6th)
%PassO: 11.49% (7th)
%RushD: 18.68% (3rd)
%PassD: 1.50% (5th)
It’s hard to separate each Patriots’ team from the next because there have been so many great ones. But even with the bar set so high, when looking at both SRS vs DVOA, this Patriots’ team is above average, relative to past teams. They are tied for 8th in overall SRS with the 2011 team that lost the Super Bowl, but are fourth in DVOA. An interesting note is that none of the three in front of them for DVOA won the Super Bowl and only one made it there (2007), but this team’s overall SRS/DVOA numbers aren’t far off from the 2014 squad that won the title. Based on DSRS, this is the third best defensive team of the Brady era behind only 2004 and 2006, while they are below average offensively. Again this measure is only based on points scored and two of the three teams that measured worst in OSRS won the Super Bowl.
Compared to other Brady-era teams, this year’s Patriots’ offensive yardage is above average in running the ball and below average in passing, although much of that can be attributed to the poor yardage output by New England in the four games at the beginning of the season without their quarterback at the helm. The closest comparable here is the 2010 team that lost to the New York Jets in the divisional round. But if you factor in Brady’s missed time, you’re talking about a team that’s probably above average in both measures. Three of the four Patriots’ Super Bowl teams were actually below average in both passing and rushing relative to the Brady-era sample. On the defensive side of the ball when looking at yardage allowed above or below league average, this team rates closest to 2006 and is in the top 3-4 overall over the 16-year period.
It would be really difficult to find a Patriots’ team over the course of Brady’s tenure that doesn’t belong in the Super Bowl discussion and the numbers bear that out. The only team that rated poorly in all four measures was the 2002 squad when the team was just learning to deal with success. Safe to say, they have dealt with it well and continue to do so largely due to their quarterback Tom Brady.
The Ben Roethlisberger Era Pittsburgh Steelers (2004-present)
2016 Steelers (out of 13)
SRS: 4.8 (8th)
Weighted DVOA: 20.0% (7th)
OSRS: 2.8 (6th)
DSRS: 2.0 (9th)
%RushO: 1.01% (7th)
%PassO: 8.75% (6th)
%RushD: 8.71% (12th)
%PassD: -0.47% (10th)
Although he wasn’t pegged as the starter out of the gates in Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger soon took the reins and led his team to a 15-1 season and AFC Championship appearance as a rookie. Despite injuries that have taken him out of the lineup on occasion, Roethlisberger has had an extremely successful tenure in Pittsburgh with nine playoff and three Super Bowl appearances in 13 years. Based on almost every measure, this year’s team appears to be in the middle of the pack. When looking at SRS/DVOA, this year’s Steelers are essentially the most average team of the Roethlisberger era. They are well behind all three teams that made the Super Bowl, but well in front of all four teams that didn’t make the playoffs. As one could guess just by watching them, their performance is skewed toward the offensive side of the ball, but that doesn’t take into account a young team on that side that has continually improved throughout this season. The team with the most similar points allowed/points scored profile didn’t make the postseason (2006).
There is a huge divide when we look at rushing/passing offense breakdown. The early years of the Roethlisberger tenure were dominated by Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, and Duce Staley running the ball and taking pressure off the young quarterback. But as time has worn on, Roethlisberger has developed into more of a passer as the Steelers’ have had passing yardage above their average in five of the last six seasons. Defensively, the 2016 Steelers are not up to par with previous teams and are actually grouped with the last three Steelers teams as having below average defenses for the Roethlisberger era. They remain a decent run stopping team but are right about league average when it comes to passing defense. It’s crazy to think that the 12th best run stopping team of this 13-year period is still 8.71% better than the average team. The one thing that stood out to be on the yardage gained and yardage allowed charts as a whole: When the Steelers make the Super Bowl, it’s usually because they are equally adept at running the ball and stopping the run.
Much like Brady, the bar has been set high. And it could be argued, the bar is set even higher in Pittsburgh, a team with a longer, more successful track record than New England. But it will be interesting to see the results this Sunday when Roethlisberger leads what appears to be the most average team of his tenure into Foxboro to face a tough New England opponent.
The Aaron Rodgers Era Green Bay Packers (2008-present)
2016 Packers (out of 9)
SRS: 2.9 (T-7th)
Weighted DVOA: 12.9% (6th)
OSRS: 4.9 (T-4th)
DSRS: -2.0 (8th)
%RushO: -2.38% (5th)
%PassO: 8.67% (8th)
%RushD: 13.05% (2nd)
%PassD: -11.49% (8th)
Although he was drafted in 2005, we start the clock on the Rodgers era in 2008 when he was given the reins to the Packers’ offense following the departure of Brett Favre. Taking over for a legend isn’t easy. But taking over for a legend and becoming more legendary? That’s near impossible. If Rodgers continues at this current pace and the Packers continue their success with #12 at the helm, that appears to be a definite possibility. This Packers team sat at 4-6 and was left for dead in Week 11, but have reeled off eight-consecutive wins and look like they can score on anyone right now. The problem? It’s one that hasn’t been a problem for much of Rodgers’ tenure. The defense.
Based on SRS/DVOA, the Packers are below their average in both measures for the Rodgers era. In fact, there is a distinct separation. The five Packers squads in the top right, including their 2010 Super Bowl winning team, all were easily among the best teams in that given year. The four teams in the lower left, representing a below average SRS and DVOA relative to team average, include this year’s team (although they appear to be the best of the bunch), 2008 (Rodgers’ 1st year), 2015 (his most inexperienced team), and 2013, when Rodgers missed seven games. Offensively, this year’s team is about average for a Rodgers-led squad, but the only team with a worse defense with regards to points allowed was 2013. This year’s team is much better offensively than the 2010 team, but that iteration was the best defensive team of the era.
The 2016 Packers are about average of Rodgers’ teams with regards to run/pass yardage distribution. The only teams that have been above league average running the ball were when the Packers had a dedicated running back (2009 w/Ryan Grant, 2013-2015 w/Eddie Lacy), but the two Packers teams that were the worst running the ball were the 2010 Super Bowl Champions and the 2011 team that went 15-1. Defensively, you could have guessed the 2016 Packers would be among the worst in defending the pass, which they are, with only the 2011 team when teams were trying to keep pace with them being worse. But you may not have guessed this Packers team is the 2nd best with respect to league average in rushing yardage allowed. It’s safe to say that although this Packers’ team isn’t among the best of the Rodgers’ era, they are not the worst and they may be the most unique.
The Matt Ryan Era Atlanta Falcons (2008-present)
2016 Falcons (out of 9)
SRS: 8.5 (1st)
Weighted DVOA: 19.8% (1st)
OSRS: 10.5 (1st)
DSRS: -2.0 (7th)
%RushO: 10.65% (2nd)
%PassO: 22.28% (1st)
%RushD: 4.04% (4th)
%PassD: -10.43% (7th)
Matt Ryan can probably be labeled the best NFL quarterback yet to appear in a Super Bowl. Having without a doubt his best season, Ryan has propelled his team within one game of an appearance in the big game and based on the numbers above, has commanded the best Falcons team during his tenure. And it’s not particularly close. When you glance at SRS/DVOA, the 2016 Falcons significantly outpace both the 2010 and 2012 teams that were each #1 seeds in the NFC. Neither of those teams were particularly strong #1 seeds within those given years, but they were still two of the better squads under Matt Ryan. The three teams in the bottom left quadrant of the SRS/DVOA represent something unique to Ryan.
From 2013-2015, the Falcons missed the postseason as the team struggled in head coach Mike Smith’s final years leading to a transition to Dan Quinn in 2015. One thing Ryan has dealt with that the other four quarterbacks in this article haven’t is coaching change due to underperformance. Sure Mike Tomlin replaced Bill Cowher three years into Roethlisberger’s career, but it was due to Cowher’s retirement as the Steelers’ organization isn’t exactly known for rocking the boat with regard to coaches and are viewed as one of the most stable organizations in the league. In Quinn’s second year, his program is in place and the team is taking off.
The team’s offense still drastically outpaces its defense based on both OSRS/DSRS and the percentage of yards/yards allowed versus league average, but like the Steelers, they are young on that side of the ball and have shown progress throughout the year. The only team better at running the ball with Matt Ryan was in 2008 during his rookie year as the young signal-caller was able to turn around and hand off to Michael Turner who helped get the Falcons to a surprise playoff appearance. Like Roethlisberger, as Ryan has become more experienced, the Falcons have trended more toward the pass. But this team excels both running and passing. That balance could be the difference in whether or not this Falcons team goes where no other Ryan-led teams have gone. Or it could be the defense that is their ultimate downfall. Like their Sunday opponent, the Falcons struggle defending the pass, especially without their #1 CB Desmond Trufant. We may not know what Sunday’s result will be, but there are certain to be plenty of passing attempts to go around and the Super Bowl participant may be the one that has the ball last.