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QB Stat Trends

Welcome back to the world of football statistics.

A lot of people out there don’t like to look too closely at the stats when preparing for the upcoming fantasy season. Many suggest that there is too much guesswork involved with statistics work, but the irony is that careful work here is the best combatant against guesswork. Some may prefer to just go with the good ole gut feeling on draft day. For me, I spend far too much time and effort on this hobby to just pick a flashy guy I like with a lot of upside and hope my instincts are right. I want to know if the stats line up.

You see, stats are everything in fantasy football. Literally everything. You only get points if your guys get stats. A player’s intangibles mean nothing. Your quarterback’s savvy poise and your running back’s ability to leave a guy standing there with his jock strap on the ground is worth exactly 0 in this game. All that matters in the end are stats.

And so I set out on a journey to see where this game of fantasy football has been headed over the last 3-5 years from a statistics perspective. Follow along closely. You may not like all the numbers, but you’ll surely like the extra trophies you’ve got over your mantle at season’s end.


First things first. Have you had a chance to look at the RB Stat Trends yet? If you haven’t yet, be sure to give it a good look. And thanks to everyone for your feedback – keep it coming on this and future articles.

Today we continue by looking at the quarterback, something of an enigma in fantasy football these days. Every year there are all sorts of debates about quarterbacks. Is Peyton Manning worthy of an early pick, even a 1st rounder? Should you be sure to grab a star QB early on, or should you be one of the growing many who wait until the 6th, 7th, even the 8th to grab your starter? And what about those scrambling QBs who pile up the rushing yards but end up with lackluster passing stats?

A couple important things must be noted here before we start. First, all of the numbers used here are counting points in a standard scoring system:

  • 4 points for a passing TD
  • 6 for other TDs
  • 1 point per 25 yards passing
  • 1 point per 10 yards running or receiving
There are no other fringes considered – no negatives for turnovers, no points for completions.

Secondly, it must be noted that 2004 was a totally anomalous statistical year for passing statistics in the NFL. There were an amazing eight quarterbacks who passed for 3800 or more yards that year, compared to nine combined the last two years. An awesome nine quarterbacks threw for 27 or more TDs compared to just four combined the last two years. The reason for this statistical outlier is obvious, for 2004 was the year of the rule change that made receivers hands off the guys covering them. Receivers, tight ends, and running backs had more room than ever to roam free, and passing numbers ballooned like never before. Each year since, the numbers have regressed back toward the mean again. So if you are basing much off of reaching those 2004 plateaus, like expecting Peyton Manning to approach 50 TDs again, you are statistically in trouble.

With all of that background information in tow, let’s get to the stats. We’ll look at four statistical facts and how they affect your QB strategy for this upcoming season. Let’s get started!

Fact #1 – Peyton Manning Is Not The #1 QB Every Year

Here’s a good stumper you can surely take to your bar buddies and make a few bucks – Last year was the first time Peyton Manning finished as the #1 fantasy QB under standard scoring rules since what year?

Give up? It’s a trick question. The answer is never. Yes, you read that right. Last year was the first year ever that Peyton Manning finished as the #1 fantasy QB. Oh sure, he finishes quite high – 4th or higher every year since 1999 – but he’s never actually stood alone at the top until last year. And yes, that includes that miracle 2004 season where his 49 passing TDs were outscored by Daunte Culpepper by just a bit.

Yet every year, 95% of the fantasy pundits out there automatically pencil Manning in at #1 and then try to fill in the rest of the QBs after him. It doesn’t make any sense, but folks continue to ignore the numbers year after year. Take a look at Manning’s finish over the last handful of years:

Manning's Fantasy Rank This Decade
Year Rank Finished Behind
2006 1 -
2005 3 Carson Palmer, Tom Brady
2004 2 Daunte Culpepper
2003 2 Daunte Culpepper
2002 3 Daunte Culpepper, Rich Gannon
2001 3 Kurt Warner, Jeff Garcia
2000 3 Daunte Culpepper, Jeff Garcia

Manning is certainly a safe bet to finish very high in your fantasy QB rankings, and you would be foolish to keep him out of your top five. But he shouldn’t be an automatic #1 when you come up with your final rankings, and he might not be equal to guys like Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, and Drew Brees – he may in fact be worse than a couple of them! Look at Manning’s fantasy PPG over the last two seasons combined compared to a few of these other QBs:

FPts/G 2005-2006
Peyton Manning 21.1
Carson Palmer 20.2
Drew Brees 20.5
Tom Brady 19.0
Donovan McNabb 23.4
Michael Vick 19.3
A few things jump out in that list. First, Manning isn’t even the #1 QB in PPG, not even that close actually. Donovan McNabb is that player by more than two full points per game. Also, notice that some of these other quarterbacks are simply not that far behind Manning. Palmer and Brees are within one PPG, and Brady and Vick are within two.

The good statistician will also note an anomaly in Peyton Manning’s statistics last year – four rushing touchdowns. He had not had a single rushing touchdown the previous three seasons combined. To be fair, he would have been #1 last year even without those 24 points, but the PPG in the chart above would have left him basically equal to Palmer and Brees.

Fantasy Implications: There are certainly reasons to like Peyton Manning. He has two of the best receivers in the game in Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. He has added a first round receiver Anthony Gonzalez, and he has a first round RB Joseph Addai and a first round TE Dallas Clark. And he’s as safe a pick as they come. But is he really a high second round pick or even a first rounder?

If you wait until the end of the third round or beginning of the fourth, chances are very good that you can still get your hands on Tom Brady or Drew Brees. If you wait until the fifth, you may still have a chance at Donovan McNabb. All of these QBs may end up very comparable to Manning, and historically we could reasonably expect one or two of them to finish ahead of Manning as well.

So all of this means that Manning grades out as a poor pick in the top 10, 15, or even 20. He reeks of a pick for someone who is looking to build a safe boring team that should contend for the playoffs but not necessarily much more once you get there. Manning just isn’t that much better than everyone else. Don’t blow that early pick on him this year.

Fact #2 – You Don’t Need Stellar Passing Numbers To Be A Star Fantasy QB

Last year gave us a scrambling QB to end all scramblers in Michael Vick. Despite passing for a measly 2574 yards and 20 TDs in the air, Vick ended up as the #4 fantasy QB thanks to the help of an NFL record 1039 rushing yards. In fact, had Vick matched his usual high rushing TD numbers instead of having just two last season, it seems likely that he could have been the #1 fantasy QB.

Those running stats pile up in a hurry. Take a look at two hypothetical quarterback statistical lines for a day:

Quarterback #1 – 250 passing yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT, 0 rushing yards, 0 rushing TDs
Quarterback #2 – 175 passing yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 50 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD

Which of those QBs was better for your fantasy football squad? Has to be #1, right? Well actually they come out exactly equal. Each of them scores 22 fantasy points, a very good game for a fantasy QB (higher than Peyton Manning’s average PPG over the last two seasons). But take a look at those stat lines. The first player was a pocket passer, maybe someone like Marc Bulger, and he had a Pro Bowl caliber game with a bunch of yards and an awesome three TDs. The second player looks like someone who maybe ought to be benched. It could have been a line from a David Carr start last year maybe. But both QBs come out equal in the fantasy world.

Fantasy Implications: The implication is that quarterback #2 above has a much bigger ceiling. While the first quarterback has very little room to improve – maybe a few more yards – the second QB has a ton of room to move up. A good running QB can easily get more than 50 rushing yards, and there’s also a good chance of beating those passing yard numbers or adding a passing TD from time to time.

Unfortunately for us fantasy footballers, there aren’t a lot of scrambling QBs left in the league. With Vick gone, maybe forever, and McNabb having evolved into more of a pocket passer, that doesn’t leave many options left. Vince Young is an obvious candidate. His 553 rushing yards with 7 TDs were good enough to turn a 2200 yard passer with 12 passing TDs in 13 starts into a top 12 fantasy QB – a starter in your 12 man league. In fact, Young was the #1 QB in all the fantasy world over the last 6 weeks last season. Sure there are reasons to be concerned about Young. He lost his top RB and his top three WRs from last season along with his top defender and kick returner. And there’s that whole Madden curse thing. But if Young stays healthy, he is an absolute steal where you can find him in the 8th round.

Who else is applicable here? If you think a little deeper, Tarvaris Jackson and Daunte Culpepper are good potential backups to keep in mind. Jackson is a bit of a long shot since his passing stats could likely be so abysmal, but remember that Brad Childress is the coach who helped to form Donovan McNabb as a player, so he would make a usable last round backup if you’ve got a star like Manning, Brady, or Palmer as your starter. Culpepper is a bit more intriguing. With JaMarcus Russell still holding out and Culpepper looking good for the Raiders, he could be their starter for much or most of this season. Yeah, Culpepper has been awful the last two years, but this guy was the #1 fantasy QB each of the three years before that. A happy medium might be better, but you seemingly can’t go wrong with the upside and a late round shot of Daunte Culpepper.

One last thing – keep an eye on those quarterbacks who usually get about 200 rushing yards and 2 TDs. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s still 32 points over a season, about 2 PPG better than someone like Carson Palmer or Drew Brees who gets basically nothing on the ground. Two PPG might not seem like much, but it was the difference between Tom Brady and Rex Grossman last year, or the difference between Philip Rivers and Charlie Frye. Still don’t think it matters? I do.

Fact #3 – Quarterback Scoring As A Whole Is Down

Ever since 2004 when passing stats spiked, the numbers have continued to slide back toward the average. Quarterbacks are scoring less and less, and that means that there is less and less separation from the boring average QBs to the top stars. Look at the drop in passing statistics over the last three years:

QB Statistical Drops from 2004 through 2006
Year Pts For
#10 QB
# of QBs
With 3500 + Yds
# of QBs
With 20+ TDs
2004 299.3 12 15
2005 277.6 9 11
2006 262.7 8 10

It’s easy to see that the numbers are dropping after a huge 2004 passing season. So what does it mean?

Fantasy Implications: There’s not a lot to say here other than noting two obvious trends. First, there are a quickly diminishing group of top QBs. If the scoring for the #10 QB is dropping but some others like Manning, Brady, Brees, McNabb, and Palmer are still consistently scoring good points, then that makes them continually more valuable. If they can keep up their high levels of production, then maybe we are slowly moving toward a fantasy world where getting one of those very good QBs is a better idea then waiting for one of the solid average types available many rounds later. It is similar to the TE situation right now. You may not need to grab one super early, but you’ll want to make sure you at least get someone like Chris Cooley or Alge Crumpler or Jason Witten in the 8th round because you will lose out on a lot of points if you wait past that level.

On the other hand, if you do decide to wait past that top tier of QBs, there are an increasing number of these mediocre ones out there. So once you know you’ve missed that top bunch, don’t rush into grabbing one just to do so. It probably won’t kill you to wait another 2 or 3 rounds and then just grab two instead for some variety and depth.

Fact #4 – QBs Have The Best Return Rate From One Season To The Next

An average of 6 QBs repeat from one year’s Top 10 to the next. If you remember in the RB Trends piece, only 4 RBs repeat from one year to the next on average. WRs are even a little worse, usually 4 or even 3 of them repeating in the top ten in subsequent years. So 6 QBs repeating is actually a very good thing, a sign that this position more than any other may actually be quite predictable. Other than the year coming off of 2004, six QBs have repeated every other year:

Repeat Top 10 QBs This Decade
Year Repeat Top 10 QBs
2001 - 2002 Manning, Favre, Gannon, Brooks, McNair, Garcia
2002 - 2003 Manning, Favre, Culpepper, Green, Brooks, McNair
2003 - 2004 Manning, Favre, Culpepper, Brees, Brooks, Bulger
2004 - 2005 Manning, Favre, Brady
2004 - 2006 Manning, Favre, Brees, Vick, Palmer, Brady
2006 - 2007 ???

Two QBs have repeated in the top 10 every year for a decade straight. One of them is of course Peyton Manning, who as mentioned earlier is actually a top 4 QB for the last nine years running. The other one is probably a surprise to you. It’s Brett Favre, a top 10 QB in every single one of his 15 seasons as a starter in the NFL. That includes each of the past two years when he averaged about 3900 yards passing but just 19 passing TDs. So statistically, as long as Manning and Favre continue as starters in this league, you are crazy to bet on either of them falling out of the top 10 fantasy QBs.

That means that two of the six repeaters are named Peyton and Brett each year. It also means that four of the remaining eight QBs will repeat, while four of them will not – a 50% turnover rate.

Fantasy Implications: Here is the list of last year’s top 10 QBs, in order, under standard scoring:

2006 Top 10 Fantasy QBs
Rank QB
1 Peyton Manning
2 Drew Brees
3 Jon Kitna
4 Michael Vick
5 Carson Palmer
6 Marc Bulger
7 Tom Brady
8 Brett Favre
9 Ben Roethlisberger
10 Philip Rivers

We’ve already decided that Manning and Favre are repeat offenders in the top 10. And I think we can safely say at this point that Michael Vick won’t be there. That means that four of Brees, Kitna, Palmer, Bulger, Brady, Roethlisbeger, and Rivers will repeat in the top 10 – and three of them won’t.

Tom Brady has been a top 10 fantasy QB every year except 2003 when he was the #11 QB. This year he has better receivers than ever before and there’s no reason to expect a drop out of the top 10. He stays.

Carson Palmer has been a top 10 fantasy QB since the second half of 2004 when he got into a groove as a starter, a top 5 QB really, even dealing with the ACL recovery last year. Drew Brees has made a similar climb to the top 10 over the last two and a half years, also a top 5 QB last year while dealing with a major shoulder injury recovery.

Philip Rivers is a good bet to drop out of the top ten. His point total last year was just 263 points, the lowest points of any “top 10 QB” in the entire decade. A single incompletion could have dropped him out of the top 10, and now this year he returns to a team with a lot of weapons but a completely revamped coaching staff. The schedule is more difficult, and Tomlinson can’t possibly be as good – Rivers is out.

What about Jon Kitna? Kitna reminds me a lot of a 2007 version of Kerry Collins, the Oakland version. There are a ton of weapons at receiver, and there’s good reason to expect a ton of yardage. After all, he plays for a bad team that should be playing from behind a lot. And with all those weapons, surely the TDs will come in time right? So what is the flaw here? Kitna had 600 yards and 7 TDs in the last two games of 2006 against a pair of backup defenses. Take those two games away and – great weapons, Mike Martz, and all – Kitna had a pedestrian 3600 yards and 14 passing TDs. Unfortunately for us fantasy footballers, Kitna will be playing first string defenses again this season. That means a lack of TDs again, and on a poor team that has to look toward the future, it could well mean Kitna getting pulled at some point as well. He is out.

Marc Bulger and Ben Roethlisberger are interesting cases. Each of them consistently produces top 10 fantasy PPG, but each of them has missed the top 10 despite this because of injuries that caused them to miss games. They are good fantasy QBs when they play, but will either of them play enough games this season to make the top 10? Our math shows that one of these guys should repeat in the top 10 while the other drops out. On instinct, let the injuries balance themselves out. Last year was Bulger’s first ever complete season. On the other hand, Roethlisberger had everything and the kitchen sink go wrong with his body last year. Logic says that things ought to normalize this year. Big Ben should be healthier, and Bulger should miss a game or two again. Roethlisberger stays, Bulger goes.

That leaves us with Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Carson Palmer, and Ben Roethlisberger as repeat top 10 QBs this season.

And don’t forget – that means that there will be four new QBs to the top 10 list this year. Donovan McNabb is a good bet. He looks healthy and back to top form in preseason, and he should be in the top 10 – as long as he can stay healthy. You’re on your own to find the final three members of this year’s top 10. I’m going with Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler, and – you ready for this? – Daunte Culpepper. Who are your picks?