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Rethinking how to evaluate quarterbacks

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Posted Oct. 27, 2011 @ 12:33 p.m. ET
By Christian West

The hype behind Tim Tebow's performance in the Broncos' comeback win over the Dolphins in Week Seven has illustrated a problem and it has nothing to do with Tebow or his ability to play quarterback. It has to do with the position of quarterback itself.

The narrative around QBs is too simple and too easy. In our desire to deliver snap judgments, we ignore so much.

Football is the ultimate team sport, except when you start to talk about quarterbacks.

Tebow's performance in Week Seven is the perfect example. According to a majority of analysts and pundits, for 55 minutes, he was the reason the Broncos were losing — not the two missed field goals or the conservative, predictable play-calling. Now, he certainly has responsibility for the offensive struggles: he wasn't making quality throws by any means. But, contrary to popular belief, it wasn't all him.

Conversely, when the offense got going and moved the ball, all of the credit shouldn't go to Tebow either. The offense needed a pair of excellent catches, an onside kick, a brilliant play-call on the throwback screen and a corner who took a horrible angle to the ball on the two-point conversion for all of that to happen. Not to mention that he wasn't even on the field during the two most critical plays in overtime — D.J. Williams' strip-sack and Matt Prater's game-winning field goal. Tebow had a huge hand in it, but only Tebow gets the win.

This is nothing against Tebow. He played well when it mattered, but so did a lot of other people. I'm only using him to illustrate my point.

Quarterbacks are judged on their win-loss record or their ability to be "clutch" in the waning moments of the game too often. While bad quarterbacks generally have bad records and good quarterbacks have good records, how we separate within those two groups is generally muddled and incomplete.

An accurate QB evaluation needs to account for the circumstances surrounding whether or not the QB came through in the clutch, whether he won solely because of a herculean effort or, the more reasonable answer, he's a good player who is part of a good team.

For example, Peyton Manning has been a great player throughout his career. He has thrown for thousands of yards, made a bunch of receivers Pro Bowlers and made the Colts a perennial playoff contender. The Colts are dreadful this season without him. The one thing that always hindered him was that he didn't "win" in the playoffs. Until, of course, he had a mediocre postseason (by his standards) in 2006 and his defense carried the load and the Colts won the Super Bowl. All of a sudden, he was a "winner" and cemented his place among the all-time greats, a level above the Marinos and Tarkentons and Kellys of the world.

Looking at it from another way: Tom Brady always put up good but not great numbers, played with some excellent defenses and under the greatest coach of his generation. He won three Super Bowls. Now, throwing for a bunch of yards in prolific offenses with shaky defenses, Brady has loss two home playoff games in a row and dropped a Super Bowl as a huge favorite.

The point is that quarterbacks need a lot around them to be successful. A guy like Jay Cutler might be much better with different circumstances. A guy like Donovan McNabb might have had a worse career if he was drafted by the Browns instead of the Eagles in 1999. The Eagles' organization knew what it was doing: the Browns, not so much.

While quarterbacks make a difference, they don't make the whole difference and they certainly don't win games by themselves. The best ones can overcome deficiencies but they also need help. A win-loss record with no context is worthless. Clutch performances are hard to understand without the circumstances that surround them.

It simply isn't fair to the quarterback to give him all of the blame nor is it right to give him all of the credit. We should start to take a more complete look at quarterback performances. The evaluation process needs to include more than simply wins and losses.

 

Follow Christian West on Twitter.

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