QB Play: Moving Up The Down Staircase


BSD: Bumped from the Fanposts. Effort like this will get rewarded every time. I mean, c'mon, man...we're talkin' charts here. The rest of you need to step it up.

It’s one of the newest pastimes of Big Ten fans. We take every journalistic swipe about the weakness of the Big Ten and lash out at the stupidity of mainstream media.  We’ve re-hashed the commentary about the conference being unable to win The Big One: the non-conference losses, the postseason record in BCS games, and last years bowl game record.  The verdict is that sports writers are thinking simplistically, that they don’t understand the caliber of play in the Big Ten, and that the media is present highly generalized impressions of the conference without any supporting facts to back them up.

Still, there may be some merit in thinking simplistically.  What if we were to look at one statistical category, explore its implications on the conference, and then look at Penn State in particular?  Could be make some inferences as to where the media perception is coming from?  Furthermore, can we see if this perception of the Big Ten is warranted in 2009? 


The first thing to do in this simplistic exercise is to make a general hypothesis—one that can sum up the state of NCAA football this decade.  To me, it can be summed up this way: 


This decade is the decade of the quarterback.


More than ever, the position of QB has been elevated to a level unseen in recent history.  The media has led this charge. The Heisman trophy has been won by a quarterback every year this decade except once.  Twenty-one of the twenty-seven players to finish in the top three of each Heisman race this decade have been quarterbacks.

The media and fans have also altered the perception of a quarterback as priceless to their teams success: the expansion of spread offense in the NCAA in recent years means quarterbacks are responsible for more total yardage, QB’s are better protected, several teams have had great difficulty adjusting their defenses against the spread.  As a result, each conference and school is in an annual race to crown their team and competition as the best in the nation for quarterbacks.

Has the Big Ten been able to stand with the rest in this race to crown the best QBs?

Of course, the Big Ten boasts one Heisman trophy QB this decade in Troy Smith, but only three Big Ten QB’s have placed in the top 5 in Heisman voting: Drew Brees, Brad Banks, and Michael Robinson.  We know that voting is arbitrary, but remember this is about perception—like it or not, it is meaningful that the Big Ten hasn’t been able to place someone in the Heisman race in recent years.  This year looks to be no exception.  Still, the Heisman doesn’t tell the whole story.  What if we were to simplistically look at a metric to determine something as broad as, "Does the Big Ten have good quarterbacks?"  It may offer some parallels to media perception of the entire league.

Passing efficiency, an admittedly arbitrary measure to base QB performance in the passing game, is still one of the better ways of measuring if a quarterback is "good" or not.  It is difficult to measure the statistical numbers over time, as there may be years where there are offensive innovations (the spread) or rule changes that cause the average to go up or down.  This is especially true this decade.  Looking at players relative to one another, year-by-year, is a more evenhanded way of measuring QB performance.

What if we were to graph the passing efficiency of QBs in the Big Ten and look at how they rank against all NCAA opposition?  Let’s take a look:




To explain this graph further: in 2000 the three best quarterbacks in the Big Ten in passing efficiency were ranked 16th, 25th, and 29th best overall nationally.  If you take the average of the three, you find that the best three QB’s in the Big Ten were around 25th best in the nation that year.  The next best three Big Ten QB’s were 30th, 50th, and 56th in the nation. (30+50+56)/3 puts them around 45th.  The next three are calculated the same way and every year thereafter.  Averaging these rankings attempts to reduce anomalies and tries to infer some tendencies about the quality of Big Ten QB play.


There are some interesting trends.  There first six years saw very competitive play by the Big Ten, with an exceptional balance of good quarterbacking in 2002 and some obscenely good quarterbacks in 2005. How good? MRob was the 8th most efficient quarterback in the Big Ten in 2005, but still finished in the top five in the Heisman race.  It was also the last time the Big Ten swept their BCS games and it high-water mark for the conference’s perception in the media.

Since then, there has been a drop in the rankings across the board from 2005-2008.  This time period also corresponded with the emergence of the spread.  With so many quarterbacks putting together incredible numbers in other conferences, it likely affected the amount of press given to Big Ten QBs, along with the general trend to provide less ink for other position players nationally.

With so much explosive play in rival conferences, coupled with few big yardage games occurring in the Big Ten, it was an easy leap for the media to label the Big Ten as "slow."  Is it warranted?  Has the league seen offensive production go down? The graph doesn’t tell the whole story.  For example, let’s look at two quarterbacks with similar rankings and their corresponding passing efficiency numbers.




A subtle attempt to proclaim Pryor "Rashard Casey in scarlet and gray?"  Perhaps.  But what I really want to show here is the dramatic increase in passing efficiency numbers in the decade.  Pryor’s numbers would have put him just on the outside of the Top 30 QB’s nationally in 2000.

Back to the graph.  At the top, passing efficiency rankings has remained stagnant in 2009.  The best QB in the Big Ten right now is Kirk Cousins, but you probably knew that from all of the press he’s been getting.  Or not.  Ten points if you even knew he was the starting quarterback for Michigan State.  Cousins didn’t even know it back in the summer.  His current ranking of 25th puts him behind press favorites like Jimmy Clausen, Tebow, Case Keenum, Dan LeFevour, Todd Reesing, Zac Robinson, and Matt Barkley. He is ahead of Colt McCoy and Jevan Snead.  We’ll get to Clark in a bit, but I should note that Iowa’s incomparable Richard Stanzi (lol) is 56th.

Something interesting has occurred this year.  The difference between a top rated QB and a mediocre QB is significantly smaller than at any point this decade.  The overall stable of quarterbacks is far better than it was last year, and even mediocre guys like Ben Chappell are still credible QB’s who can put some offensive drives together.  This may explain to some degree the overall parity in the league

Even though there are no superstars, the best pound-for-pound stable of quarterbacks may be right here in the Big Ten.

So, what of Penn State?  Is Clark horrible?  Have I scared you yet?  Sorry if I did.  Let’s look at the chart with Penn State’s QB passing efficiency rankings added on. 



PSU QB rankings are the blue dots, Big Ten championships highlighted in green.

Hopefully you’ve overpowered your gag reflex after looking at the first two-thirds of the decade.  Yes, Penn State had some of the worst quarterbacks in the league from 2000 to 2007.  Only Zack Mills in 2002 was in the top 6 in the league, and that was only by 0.04 points over 7th place Kyle Orton (told you there were some good ones in ’02).  Robinson’s in 2005 probably does more to counter this exercise than anything—statistics be damned, he was a GREAT quarterback—but at the very least he was in a stable of quarterbacks that the press loved (Troy Smith, Chad Henne, Drew Stanton, etc.)

For the first time this decade, PSU has a top three quarterback in Darryl Clark.  Even though the conference is on a low ebb, he’s still far better than any player PSU has had this decade.  Take pride, we’re just moving up the down staircase.

Let’s look at Ohio State.  Big Ten championships and perceived co-championships highlighted in green.




Note: Neither Pryor or Boeckman didn’t have enough throws to make the list, same with Zwick and Smith in 2004, so I used team passing efficiency.  I know it’s not a stunner that having a high-quality passing attack helps to win championships, but it explains to some degree the perception that Ohio State is a cut above the rest of the league.

So what does this mean?  The media may have some rationale behind the statement, "The Big Ten doesn’t have any great quarterbacks."  There are some highly effective counters to that statement: the defensive secondaries of the Big Ten are better at containing the spread, the linebackers are faster at containing plays at the edges, the conference plays more games in wind and rain, the Big Ten operates places less emphasis on the play of the quarterback in its offensive schemes, etc.  

These are all right to some degree.  Recall though that we’re thinking simplistically. Big Ten quarterbacks are playing better ball than most places as a whole, but no one is putting up the numbers to elevate the status of the conference. Every incomplete pass by Juice and Pryor only adds to the fire. The perception may not be warranted, but we should understand where they are coming from. 

At least we know Penn State ain’t the problem.

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