≡ Menu

If you’re short on time, let me save you a read: no.

And now for the long answer.

The graph below shows where each Super Bowl champion since the AFL/NFL merger ranked in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt:

Of the last 10 Super Bowl champions, four of them ranked 14th or lower in ANY/A. That matches the number of champions in the previous 41 Super Bowls combined. The only teams to win a Super Bowl prior to 2007 with a passing attack that ranked 14th or lower in ANY/A were the ’74 Steelers (during the early days of the Terry Bradshaw era), the 1980 Raiders (Jim Plunkett was not good until the playoffs), and two teams that like the 2015 Broncos had dominant postseason runs on defense, the 2000 Ravens (also sporting a historically great defense during the regular season) and 2002 Bucs (with perhaps the best pass defense ever). The fact that it’s happened four times since then is evidence that having a great quarterback (or passing game) is less important than ever, even if last year pitted the top two quarterbacks in the Super Bowl.1

Yes, “Peyton Manning” was the quarterback of the 2015 Broncos, but he was no more Peyton Manning than Terry Bradshaw was Terry Bradshaw during the ’74 Steelers run. That same Peyton Manning struggled mightily in the playoffs the year before and in that regular season, and wasn’t even particularly good in the postseason: Denver rode a great defense to the championship.

The same generally goes for 2008 Ben Roethlisberger, who had the second-worst season of his career that year. He played well (but not notably well, and still below average for a Super Bowl winning passer) in the playoffs, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was not good during the regular season.

And while yes, Eli Manning and the Giants have won two Super Bowls, that also doesn’t change the fact that he led the NFL in interceptions in 2007 and played poorly for large stretches during the season. And we all recall what happened with Joe Flacco, and how his scorched earth performance in the 2012 playoffs stands as a severe outlier compared to the rest of his career.

When analysts say that you need a great quarterback (or a great passing game) to win it all, that’s simply not true unless they are using the phrase in a big tent sort of way: if a mediocre quarterback who plays well for four games qualifies as a great quarterback, then yes, you probably do need a great quarterback to win (except for, you know, the 2015 Broncos). But in general, far too much deference is given to the phrase “you need a great quarterback to win.”

Two years ago, a survey of ESPN insiders ranked Matt Ryan as the 11th best QB in the NFL; last year, he ranked 13th in the same study. Would anyone have labeled Ryan as a QB on the verge of producing one of the best seasons in NFL history this time a year ago?

Passing has always been important. Otto Graham reached the title game in 10 straight seasons in large part because he was one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Bart Starr, Joe Namath, and Len Dawson won the first four Super Bowls. Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach each made four Super Bowls in the ’70s. Joe Montana did that in the ’80s. Hall of Fame passers won eight straight Super Bowls in the ’90s, starting in ’92: Troy Aikman, Aikman, Steve Young, Aikman, Brett Favre, John Elway, Elway, and Kurt Warner. Having a great passing game has always been important, but it’s not more important now than ever.

Want more proof that passing isn’t more important now than ever? The graph below shows the average winning percentage of the bottom 5 teams in ANY/A for each year since the merger. As you can see, there isn’t a sharp decline — which would indicate that passing efficiency is more important than ever — but rather a chart with a bunch of year-to-year variance with a average of about 0.310.

Next time you here the claim that passing is more important than ever, you should probably ignore their comment. Or, if you like being confrontational, ask them what makes passing more important in 2017 than in 1977 (when Roger Staubach and the Cowboys had the number one passing offense in the NFL and won the Super Bowl) or 1987 ((when Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders, and Art Monk helped the Redskins finish with the third-most efficient passing offense) or 1997 (when Elway’s Broncos ranked 3rd in ANY/A and won the Super Bowl). Although maybe don’t ask them about 2007.

And if you have other thoughts on how to measure whether passing is more important now than ever before, leave them in the comments.

  1. Of course, the fact that is also happened in 1966, 1971, and 1984 cuts against the idea that the passing game is more important now than ever, too. []
  • Josh Sanford

    This is very interesting and it’s not something that I have thought about before. I immediately wondered how (slightly) differently the chart looks if the pre-2002 bars are ‘adjusted’ to a 32-team league. It wouldn’t seem to change the highly rated passing games, but it might make the 74 Steelers look even worse than they do.

    • sacramento gold miners

      I think we have to keep in mind an elite QB doesn’t have to have a great season in order for his team to win it all, as Chase has detailed. Whether it was Bradshaw beginning to emerge in 1974, Big Ben playing hurt, but still leading comebacks in 2008, or Peyton Manning just making enough plays in a declining season, most of your SB champs have a future HOF QB. I don’t think we can underrate how difficult it is to win three road playoff games like Eli Manning did in the 2007 season, that’s not going to be something Andy Dalton will accomplish.

      A great player may not have a standout season, due to youth, injury, or age, but they are capable of bringing home the Lombardi Trophy.

      • Four Touchdowns

        The only problem with that is that there is an element of luck to winning close football games. If Tyree doesn’t make that difficult catch in traffic against his helmet, people might be talking about how the better QB out-dueled the lesser Manning brother today.

        You say that Andy Dalton isn’t going to accomplish that but you really don’t know — he could “get hot” while being backed by a good overall team like the mediocre Joe Flacco did in 2013 (whose overall career metrics are similar). What allows a Trent Dilfer or Jeff Hostetler the ability to win it all and not someone like Andy Dalton?

        • sacramento gold miners

          Trent Dllfer was an outlier, and I wouldn’t put him at the same level of the good QBs to win a SB, like a Hostetler or Simms, etc. Maybe Dalton will improve this season, so maybe I shouldn’t write him off yet.

          Luck will always be a factor in winning tight football games, but the great QBs just seem to do it more often, so I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Tom Brady has had some luck as well, but keeps producing the wins. In the Tyree play, it was Manning somehow avoiding the sack, so he deserves some credit, too.

          • The great QBs do win more often. That’s not a coincidence. It’s because QBs are important, and being great is really important, and so a great QB will win more often.

            But there are many ways to skin a cat.

          • Four Touchdowns

            The problem isn’t that the winners weren’t “good enough to win” or didn’t make plays, the issue is that *better* quarterbacks don’t have any rings at all.

            Is Hostetler better than Marino, Tarkenton, Rivers, etc.? Is Terry Bradshaw four times better than Steve Young, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees?

            • sacramento gold miners

              Of course, the SB winning QB exceptions like Hostetler aren’t better than elite HOF QBs, all sports have anomalies, and this is one of them. I think it’s safe to say, based on history, you are better off with an elite QB if your team wants to win a SB. I don’t think Bradshaw is quite on the same level as a top ten QB, but there’s no doubt his career value is enhanced with the postseason success.

        • I actually think a decent argument could be made that Andy Dalton is a significantly better quarterback than Joe Flacco. There’s a 1/2 yard difference in Dalton’s favor in career ANY/A (6.27 to 5.75) and his raw totals have consistently been higher. In fact for a player that has a reputation as a liability Andy Dalton has only thrown 15 interceptions in the last 2 years while increasing his peripherals (and getting clobbered behind a Bengals line that can’t pass block anymore.) Andy Dalton doesn’t need to blossom, he just needs a few breaks

          • Tom

            I can’t speak specifically to how good Dalton is compared to Flacco (they appear to be pretty close talent wise, and I’m not a scout anyway, etc.), but that’s an interesting way to put things…Dalton “doesn’t need to blossom, he just needs a few breaks”. I think I agree with you, and we can say that about a lot of good QB’s.

      • But the point is that Bradshaw wasn’t elite in 1974. And Manning wasn’t elite in 2015. And Ben wasn’t good in 2008 — he a rich man’s Mark Sanchez-esque, and guess what, Sanchez made plays in the postseason, too.

        Had the Jets defense shut down Manning in the AFCCG, and the Jets beaten the Saints, would that have changed our view of Sanchez? Most certainly…. but I don’t think it would have meant he was a better QB. More importantly, you can only tell these things in retrospect.

        You knock Dalton, but if he wins a Super Bowl, you will say he was a good QB who finally blossomed. And maybe that’s exactly true: but my point is you don’t know who will blossom. So yeah, you need a good QB to win, but if a “good QB” includes all bad QBs who blossom unexpectedly, well, that changes the dynamic considerably.

        Is Alex Smith good enough to win a Super Bowl? Kirk Cousins? Colin Kaepernick? Was Kurt Warner capable of winning a Super Bowl in March 1999? How about Eli Manning in November 2007? Or Peyton Manning of winning another Super Bowl in February of 2015?

        • sacramento gold miners

          I think QB play will always be an inexact science, partly based on which team is involved, and other factors. We didn’t know Tom Brady would be on the short list of all time QB greats after the Patriots upset the Rams, but in retrospect, we saw the greatness in that game. I don’t think a mediocre QB like Tony Eason gets it done for New England that night.

          Elements of by elite QBs either young or old are where I’m going. We didn’t know Bradshaw would be a HOF QB in 1974, but the seeds were there in his play over the second half of the season. We didn’t know Ben would be a future HOF QB before 2008, but I was someone who thought he had that potential from what we saw from 2004-2007. I don’t think Mark Sanchez would have been up to the task in a Super Bowl, the skillset required to lead a comeback in that situation is off the charts.

          As a general rule, if it doesn’t happen for a QB by age 30, it’s a long shot. A good QB like Phil Simms was roughly 30 when he delivered that great game in the SB versus Denver.

          • Tom

            I see your point in this, but man, that’s a tough idea to untangle…there’s a lot of hindsight there.

            One of the greatest SB performances of all time, in my opinion of course, but others have mentioned it, is Jake Delhomme in 2003. Three opportunities to get his team back in the game in the 4th quarter and he comes through with TD drives on ALL of them (yes, the Panthers missed two 2-pt conversions, so we can ding him for that). Want to call the Muhammad bomb a fluke, like Tyree’s helmet catch? Fine. There’s still two other TD drives to account for.

            That dude made timely plays – repeatedly – and if there was ever a game where we could point to the “seeds of greatness” that was it. If he wins a SB after that we’d ALL be pointing to that Pats game as evidence of his greatness, right? “He never gave up, he showed POISE in the biggest game of his life!”, Etc.

            But he flamed out after that, and so, he’s not great. And I generally agree.

            My point is that I’m not so sure we can look at a single, early SB game by a QB and make the connection that they played well in that game because later on, we found out that they are, indeed, great.

            Brady, Bradshaw, Montana, are great because they proved it on more than one or two occasions…I’m certainly not looking at each of their first SB wins and saying “that guy’s got the touch!”

            • sacramento gold miners

              I think we agree there’s no bulletproof way or formula to know who will be a HOF QB or not. I don’t know what Delhomme did in college, but he was a World League guy like Kurt Warner. In terms of upside, I don’t remember what the consensus was on Delhomme, but he just wasn’t able to build on his early success. I agree, the great ones just keep doing it, and at some point, it’s not just luck.

              But I don’t think we’ll ever look back at SB winners and not see a large percentage of HOF QBs.

              • Richie

                “But I don’t think we’ll ever look back at SB winners and not see a large percentage of HOF QBs.”

                I think there are 2 reasons for that.

                1) Yes, great QB’s are going to have a better probability of winning a Super Bowl each year.
                2) This is a bit circular, because winning Super Bowls is a significant criteria in making the HOF.

      • Tom

        I see what you’re saying, but I certainly wouldn’t use Peyton Manning in 2015 as an example of how a “Great QB” is needed to win the Super Bowl. He did not play well in that game, he did not demonstrate his awesomeness as a HOF QB in that game. Another QB, in my opinion, could have also made those “just enough” plays that you mention.

        • sacramento gold miners

          Agree, Peyton definitely showed his age in that one, but was composed(unlike the Seattle Super Bowl), and made those timely plays I like to talk about for teams which usually win postseason games. While Manning was calm, Newton seemed overwhelmed, and I’ve never seen a QB afraid to jump on a nearby fumble he made in a big game.

          And yes, Dan Marino and Fran Tarkenton never won a SB, but it’s revealing neither the Dolphins or Vikings have reached a SB since those greats retired.

          • Tom

            We’ve (you and I) have discussed this before, and I agree that Manning was more composed in that game than he was in the Seattle game, and was more composed than Cam. But I’m not convinced that Andy Dalton or Alex Smith – guys that right now are not considered “great” – would not have played just as well in that game, maybe better, all else being equal (same Bronco D performance, etc.) While Peyton made some timely plays – and incidentally, I agree with you on the general concept of “timely plays” as I’m a fan of Win Probability and attempts to measure “clutch”, etc. – I believe he also made some possibly disastrous plays as well.

            There’s no way we can prove this of course, and as I said, I agree with your general idea, but I just don’t think it applies to Peyton and this game. We can agree to disagree on that.

            Not sure it means anything, from an anlytical point of view (I guess), but I agree that it’s interesting that the Vikes and Fins have not made it back since the days of Fran and Dan (that could be a song title or lyric I think)

            • Four Touchdowns

              If Ted Ginn makes a catch that hit his hands instead of letting the ball pass through them into the arms of TJ Ward, the Panthers would have been in the red zone and the outcome of the game could have been very different. They were already in field goal range at that point and one of those makes it a six point game.

              Manning was also fortunate that his first half interception led to a three-and-out instead of points for the Panthers.

              I love Peyton and feel he deserved another ring, but he was basically carried to this one. Like his previous SB win, his only really good game was against the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.

              • Tom

                It kind of bums me out, because I love the way that dude played…but yeah, he didn’t play well in ’15 and only had a somewhat above average game in ’06.

                I’m about to say something ridiculous, but I think his best game was in ’09…yeah, the game where he threw the pick-six instead of a game-tying touchdown. I’m not trying to be contrarian…watch the game, he’s playing great before that awful play. He had 8 drives: two punts, two TD’s, a field goal, a missed field goal, the pick and the last, basically meaningless, drive. Average starting field position? His own 16-yard line. Not saying this is a *great* game, but I’m saying it might be *his best* SB game.

                • Four Touchdowns

                  It’s a total bummer… but it could be worse. Ask Danny Marino.

          • Richie

            “And yes, Dan Marino and Fran Tarkenton never won a SB, but it’s
            revealing neither the Dolphins or Vikings have reached a SB since those
            greats retired.”

            That logic doesn’t hold up. You are suggesting that Marino and Tarkenton must be good, because neither franchise has made a Super Bowl since they retired. For that to be logical, the opposite would be true:

            “Joe Montana must not be that good, because his franchise has made the Super Bowl twice since he left.”

            • sacramento gold miners

              We should remember how many Super Bowls and NFL title games San Francisco reached before Montana arrived, that’s a measure of the great player. It took the Steelers roughly two decades to reach a SB after falling to the Cowboys, another measure of the value of Big Ben.

              • Richie

                I don’t think what a team did (over the long run) before or after a player was on that team, tells us much, if anything, about that player.

                • sacramento gold miners

                  It goes back to the value of that player, and generally speaking, the elite QBs win more than others. It’s more than coincidence, when the most important position on the is elite, your postseason chances also increase. Tony Romo is one of the rare exceptions, usually that type of QB at least reaches a conference title game.

                  I don’t know if it’s more important than ever to have a great QB to win it all, but it should continue to remain high for the foreseeable future.

      • Four Touchdowns

        Yeah, but “just enough plays” isn’t what people mean when they call a QB “great”. By that measure, every SB winning QB made just enough plays, no? But some were better than others…

        I mean, Mark Sanchez once made “just enough plays” to beat Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the same post-season but I wouldn’t rate him as a good quarterback, much less a great one.

    • Thanks, Josh. Glad you enjoyed!

  • Four Touchdowns

    Chase, you’re making it seem as if having a good overall team is more important than having one great individual player.

    There is one problem with your methodology — it doesn’t factor in CLUTCHNESS.

    (That’s a joke.)

    • Tom

      Yep, you can’t just arbitrarily leave out the CLUTCHNESS!

  • Richie

    “If you’re short on time, let me save you a read: no. ”

    I enjoy the new TL;DR feature!

  • Tom

    Yeah, I agree that the statement “you need a great quarterback to win” – taken by itself and in regards to a single Super Bowl game – is most likely not true. You need all kinds of stuff to win that game…luck, great coaching, defense, etc. Having a great QB is certainly a help, heck, you don’t want a *bad* QB, but it’s probably overrated.

    • Pretty much. And I think if you take the word need at face value, it’s demonstrably not true. Too many teams have won with a not great QB.

      To the bigger point: yes, I agree that in general, QBs are overrated by most people.

  • Ken Berman

    “14th or under” is very arbitrary. Why not just give the average ranking or something similar? Also, it would be interesting to see the correlation between ANY/A and Regular Season wins. We all know that by just looking at the SB Champion you are introducing variance.

    • It’s not arbitrary — it’s where the 2012 Ravens ranked. I sorted the Super Bowl champions by ANY/A rank, and noticed that half of the bottom 8 champions were all in the last 10 years. Using 14th in ANY/A was shorthand for that.

      We could use average ranking, but the point of the post is to look at the trend. What would you suggest? It’s not that QBs aren’t important, but my point is that QBs aren’t more important than ever before. To that, we need to show some sort of trend (or lack of a trend).

      I’ve looked at the correlation between ANY/A and regular season wins a few times. I can do that, but there would be some who would say “sure you can get a good record and go 10-6, but you can’t win it all without a great QB.” That’s what I was looking to debunk.

  • Pingback: Weekly Sports Analytics News Roundup - May 9th, 2017 - StatSheetStuffer()

  • Doug Ahlgren

    If you have a dominant offensive line and solid productive weapons at running back and wide reciever, then you can win a super bowl with qb Mark Rypien. He had lots of time to throw the ball which is key to qb success. Redskins left tackle Jim Lachey during late 80s early 90s was close to being traded straight up for John Elway. It was Lachey who was deemed to valuable by the skins to trade for Elway.