Unexpected Faces Outperform Their 2014 QBR

As we head into Week 6 of the 2015 NFL season, we’ve seen several surprises in the quarterback position. Veterans are starting to burn out (i.e., Peyton Manning), while others are having seasons for the ages (i.e., Andy Dalton). 

How drastic are some of these QB changes? Total quarterback rating (QBR) may have the answer.

For those who don’t know, QBR is an ESPN metric that measures the degree to which a quarterback contributes to scoring points and wins for the team. It examines each play in which the quarterback is involved because every drive is different, and some drives are more important than others.

This statistic centers around expected points, of which the main factors are win probability, the credit the QB receives for each pass and clutch index.

As a reference point, the top values in a season tend to be about 75 and above, and the top values in a game are in the upper 90s. A Pro Bowl-level performance usually means a season QBR of at least 65-70, and the average value is 50.

Though the statistic is controversial, it’s helpful when comparing a passer’s performance season to season.

Let’s look at the quarterbacks who are currently outperforming their 2014 QBRs.

Here’s a list of season leaders from last season:

1Tony Romo, Dallas83.62
2Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay77.43
3Peyton Manning, Denver75.14
4Tom Brady, New England74.65
5Drew Brees, New Orleans73.46
6Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh72.17
7Matt Ryan, Atlanta71.08
8Russell Wilson, Seattle70.79
9Philip Rivers, San Diego70.51
10Joe Flacco, Baltimore67.0

Not too surprising.

Now, take a look at 2015’s list of season leaders through Week 5:

1Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh91.32
2Andy Dalton, Cincinnati83.73
3Carson Palmer, Arizona82.74
4Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay81.65
5Josh McCown, Cleveland73.96
6Tom Brady, New England71.87
7Matt Ryan, Atlanta70.18
8Eli Manning, New York Giants68.79
9Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota65.11
10Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets64.50

First of all, the reason Roethlisberger’s QBR is so high is because he played only three games before sitting out with an injury. Because his 48-18 win against San Francisco in Week 2 gave him a 99.4 single game QBR, his average is high. You can’t expect to see a season with a QBR in the 90s for any player.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at the quarterbacks who have improved since 2014 – specifically, the unexpected ones.

1) Andy Dalton

2014 QBR: 53.9 (ranked 21st)

Dalton is playing out of his mind this year. His yards per attempt (9.49), passer rating (115.6) and completion percentage (67.5) are his best career start to a season. He’s made major improvements under pressure and is accurate on throws outside the pocket. The QBR formula gives passers credit for keeping the play alive and throwing on target – hence, his high rating.

In the Bengals’ 28-24 victory against Baltimore in Week 3, Dalton led the game-winning drive with less than five minutes left. In Week 5, he led Cincinnati from a 17-point deficit to a 27-24 overtime victory against defending Super Bowl champion Seattle. Cinci now sits atop the AFC North at 5-0. Both scenarios increase the win probability portion of his QBR.

2) Carson Palmer

2014 QBR: n/a

Palmer didn’t make the QBR rankings last year, but that’s because he played six games before tearing his ACL. Now Palmer is healthy, and he’s tied with Aaron Rodgers for most passing touchdowns (13). Arizona leads the league with 38 points per game.

According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Palmer attempts deep passes more often than any other team in the NFL. Because of this, he’ll never have the highest completion percentage. However, his 64.9 completion rate is impressive for the type of offense the Cardinals run and ranks 13th among QBs who have at least 100 attempts.

Arizona leads the NFC West with a 4-1 record. In their only loss, the Cards had a third-and-2 at the Rams 43 in the final minutes, but Palmer overthrew receivers on consecutive plays to turn the ball over on downs. The Cardinals’ only touchdown of that game was a 19-yard Palmer TD pass that made the score 24-22 with 4:38 left. That play combined with his four blowout victories keeps his QBR high.

3) Josh McCown

2014 QBR: 32.7 (29th)

McCown had a 56.3 completion percentage and threw for more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (11) during his one-year stint with a miserable 2-14 Tampa Bay team. This year, it’s a different story with Cleveland.

Though the Browns are third in the AFC North at 2-3, the record doesn’t reflect McCown’s work. His first two starts were lost by a combined 10 points. In last week’s 33-30 overtime win against the Ravens, McCown used more than seven minutes to move the Browns 51 yards, setting up the game-winning field goal. McCown completed 36 of 51 passes with two touchdowns and threw for a team-record 457 yards.

4) Teddy Bridgewater

2014 QBR: 56.9 (17th)

Bridgewater is a second-year pro trying to grow in a league that can be merciless on young signal callers. He’s more comfortable with his reads, which helps with the accuracy part of the QBR formula. According to PFF, Bridgewater has the fifth-best accuracy percentage (78.8), but that drops to 11th in accuracy (70 percent) when pressured.

His most promising outing was the Vikings’ 23-20 loss to Denver. The Broncos' pass rush swarmed him, but Bridgewater remained steady through the game. He ended up throwing a season-high 41 passes (completing 27 for 269 yards and a touchdown), helping the team rally from a 20-10 deficit to tie the game at 20 late in regulation.

The goal behind any player rating should be determining how much a player contributes to a win. Of the 10 quarterbacks with the top QBRs in 2014, eight had winning records, and seven made it to the playoffs. If the pattern continues, we may see Dalton, Palmer, McCown and Bridgewater in the postseason.

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