"Football Freakonomics": Is the N.F.L. a Quarterback-Driven League?

We launched the Football Freakonomics series in the spring with an episode called “The Quarterback Quandary.” It examined the difficulty of drafting QB’s since they tend to be a) vital to a team’s success; and b) relatively expensive; but c) hard to assess coming out of college even if they have a substantial track record.

One thing we can all agree on, however: the NFL today is a quarterback’s league -- isn’t it?

That’s the question we ask in our latest Football Freakonomics segment.

The numbers certainly line up in support of the quarterback’s dominance. As you can see in the accompanying graphic, there has been a sea change in the pass/run ratio over the past few decades. In the 1970’s, NFL offenses averaged roughly 26 passes and 35 runs per game. By the 2000’s, those numbers had essentially flip-flopped, with about 32 passes and 28 runs per game.

ESPN's New QB Rating System: Who Benefits?

This season, ESPN has decided to challenge the NFL and roll out its own system for rating the play of quarterbacks. Its Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) is meant to be an improvement on the NFL's official quarterback passer rating system, which was designed in the early 1970s and grades QB's on four basic metrics: completion percentage, passing yards, touchdowns and interceptions.

The idea behind the QBR is to offer a more nuanced approach that teases out how a quarterback contributes to the success (or failure) of a particular play, and ultimately how he impacts the outcome of a game. For example, under the passer rating system, a ten-yard throw that a receiver turns into a 50-yard touchdown, rewards the quarterback exactly the same had he thrown the ball 50 yards into the endzone for a touchdown. The new system differentiates the two by taking into account the run after the catch, a familiar stat known as RAC to fantasy football players. The QBR also accounts for dropped passes, QB rushing yards, avoiding sacks, giving up fumbles, and something called a Clutch Index -- which gives extra weight to plays when the game is on the line.

"The Quarterback Quandary"

Selecting a player in the NFL draft is essentially trying to predict the future, and human beings are simply not very good at it. Things get even harder when trying to pick the most important position in all of sports: the quarterback.