Through 48 starts, Russell Wilson has been pretty darn good. Since Wilson entered the league, he ranks 5th in ANY/A and tied for 2nd in wins. The idea of measuring quarterback by wins is a curious one, especially in the case of Wilson, who has benefited from a historically dominant defense. No, Wilson is not a great quarterback because his team has won 36 games over the last three years.
On the other hand, analysts can go too far in the other direction. For example, among the 31 quarterbacks to play in 24 games and throw 500 passes since 2012, Wilson ranks just 24th in passing yards per game. Some could use that statistic, or another variation, to argue that Wilson hasn’t been responsible for much of his team’s success. But that ignores that Wilson leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards since 2012, and ranks 3rd among those 31 quarterbacks in rushing yards per game. It also ignores the fact that Seattle has run the 5th fewest plays of any team over the last three years.
So how about this stat: over the last three years, Wilson has been responsible for two-thirds of all Seahawks yards. How does that compare to other quarterbacks through 48 starts? And how many wins did those quarterbacks have?
I looked at all quarterbacks who started at least 48 games since 1960. I’ve plotted those quarterbacks in the graph below, with the X-Axis representing percentage of team yards and the Y-Axis displaying wins. As you might suspect, Wilson winds up in the upper right corner:
That graph is a bit too crowded, though, with 159 quarterbacks. So let’s group things by era. First, all quarterbacks since 2000. For all graphs, I used the same X- and Y-Axes. As you’ll see, this also helps us see some ways in which the league has shifted. For example, as passing became more prevalent, that meant quarterbacks have become responsible for a larger percentage of team yards. So this graph looks skewed quite a bit to the right:
From a Pareto Efficiency standpoint, three quarterbacks stand out: Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck, and Tom Brady (Wilson is tied with Brady for 36 wins, but is a bit lower in percentage of team yards). For those — and only those — three players, there is no quarterback with the same or more wins who was responsible for the same or a larger percentage of their team’s yards through 48 starts.
Stafford through 48 games was responsible for a larger percentage of his team’s yards than any other quarterback in history. That’s not too surprising, since we all have watched his career unfold, but it is still notable. Luck is only a hair behind Stafford, but has a whopping 14 more wins. While we often hear the Luck/Wilson debate framed as a stats vs. wins battle, it’s not as though Luck hasn’t been remarkable at winning games, too (and with less help than most young quarterbacks).
Tony Romo is to Luck in this graph as Brady is to Wilson: Romo is tied with Luck with 33 wins, but had a smaller percentage of his team’s yards. And, obviously, from a projections standpoint, that Luck accomplished what he’s done at a younger age than Romo makes it much more impressive. As for Brady, well, no one is surprised to see him at the top of the QB wins portion of this graph. He was Wilson before Wilson, reaching two Super Bowls in his first three years as a starter, and shouldered even a larger load of his team’s offense.
How about the quarterbacks from 1987 to 1999?
- Blake was a very interesting player that I’m sure most fans don’t give much thought to anymore. He threw one of the most gorgeous deep balls you’ll ever see, and was a shining light in a sea of 1990s Bengals passing misery. After spending time on the Jets bench, he moved to Cincinnati in ’94, where he started his first game. He led the NFL in yards per completion that year, and two years later led the NFL in game-winning drives with five. He was responsible for nearly 75% of Cincinnati’s offense during his first 48 starts, and while he had a losing record, he was great by Bengals standards.
- Brunell finished just a bit behind Blake in terms of percentage of team yards, but was much higher in the wins metric. He led some excellent Jaguars offenses, and his first 48 starts include all of his magnificent 1996 season. Brunell was a very good quarterback who snuck into Brad Oremland’s top 52.
- Favre had one more win than Brunell, and was about one percentage point behind him in percentage of team offense. McNabb was three wins ahead of Favre, and about two percentage points behind him. Warner was three wins ahead of McNabb, and about three percentage points behind him. Warner/McNabb/Favre/Brunell basically form a straight line in the graph above, and all were obviously very good quarterbacks who were successful very early in their careers (which, I’ll note, started at a variety of ages for this group).
Let’s move on to the next set of quarterbacks, whose first start came between ’76 and ’86:
Danny White leads the way here with 37 wins. His first notable playoff appearance came in relief duty in ’78, when he helped the Cowboys come back and defeat the Falcons in ’78. Then, in White’s first three seasons as a starter, he took Dallas to the NFC Championship Game each time. He had a lot of success playing on some very good teams.
On the other hand, White fell short of 60% of the Cowboys offense. If we move along the outer edge of the chart, our next Pareto Front point belongs to Dan Marino. Despite what you might have heard, he was quite a winner early in his career, beginning 33-8 and totaling 35 wins through 48 starts. He was also, unsurprisingly, a huge part of the Dolphins offense. But he still trails Randall Cunningham in this department, our third standout quarterback on this era’s outer hull. Given his rushing prowess, it’s probably not too surprising to see, but Cunningham was an enormous part of the Eagles offense (albeit one that lacked talent).
Finally, let’s look at the quarterbacks whose first start came between ’60 and ’75. Again, we have three quarterbacks forming a Pareto Front:
No one should be surprised to see Daryle Lamonica or Joe Namath there — Lamonica’s winning percentage is legendary, while Namath often was the Jets offense to an enormous degree for this era, as these numbers imply — but Jack Kemp standing out is a bit of a surprise, at least for me. When I think of Kemp, I think of the guy won a pair of titles as part of a very good Bills team, but not a star quarterback (particularly in ’64, where the Bills ranked last in pass attempts and first in rush attempts). But Kemp’s first 48 starts cover his 28 starts with the Chargers, where he was in a very different situation. He ranked 2nd in the AFL in passing yards in both ’60 and ’61, and wa very pass-happy in 1963.