Drew Brees and Outliers

Posted on November 30, 2008 by


After eleven games, Drew Brees is on pace to throw 5,199 yards this season.  Such a mark would break the record for passing yards established by Dan Marino in 1984.  And this leads one to wonder… how good has Drew Brees been in 2008?

To answer this question, let’s first assume that the stats a quarterback accumulates are all about the quarterback.  Yes, I know, not a good assumption.  Still, let’s go with it for a moment.

Brees and Quarterbacks Since 1994

Clearly Brees has done very good with respect to one statistic.  But what about the other numbers that are tracked for quarterbacks?  Table One reports the quarterback rankings for Week Twelve (and Table Two reports the running back rankings, which I will not talk about this week).

Table One: Quarterback Rankings for Week Twelve

Table Two: Running Back Rankings for Week Twelve

As one can see, after eleven games, Net Points per Play for Drew Brees stands at 0.335.  Net Points considers yards from passing, rushing, and sacks; as well as the number of plays a quarterback participated in and all of his turnovers.  So it looks at more than just passing yards. 

An average mark is 0.160, so when we look at more than passing yards we see that Brees has been pretty good.  To get a sense of where Brees ranks in history, here are the top ten quarterbacks in Net Points per Play since 1994.

  • Peyton Manning (2004): 0.398
  • Randall Cunningham (1998): 0.340
  • Kurt Warner (2000): 0.339
  • Tom Brady (2007): 0.331
  • Peyton Manning (2006): 0.322
  • Steve Young (1994): 0.313
  • Donovan McNabb (2006): 0.312
  • Kurt Warner (1999): 0.308)
  • Peyton Manning (2005): 0.307
  • Daunte Culpepper (2004): 0.295

As one can see, if Brees continues on his current pace he will be posting the fourth best Net Points per Play mark since 1994.  So Brees has been pretty impressive this year.

And if we look at Net Points per Game, we are even more impressed.  This year Brees has produced 13.688 Net Points per Game.  As the following list of top ten quarterbacks in Net Points per Game (since 1994) indicates, this is the best mark since the mid-1990s.

  • Peyton Manning (2004): 13.295
  • Tom Brady (2007): 13.146
  • Daunte Culpepper (2004): 12.558
  • Peyton Manning (2006): 11.946
  • Jeff Garcia (2000): 11.877
  • Kurt Warner (2000): 11.848
  • Donovan McNabb (2006): 11.510
  • Drew Brees (2001): 11.427
  • Rich Gannon (2002): 11.353
  • Drew Brees (2006): 10.963

As one can see, Drew Brees has already posted two of the ten best Net Points per Game marks since 1994.  In other words, he has been good before (although never as good as he has been in 2008).

Going Back a Bit Further

Football did not begin in 1994.  But the data I use from Yahoo.com does not record fumbles lost before that season.  So to go back further we have to re-estimate Net Points per Game without fumbles lost.  Without fumbles, Net Points per Game for Brees in 2008 stands at 13.95.

Here are the top ten marks in Net Points per Game (without fumbles) since 1980:

  • Tom Brady (2007): 13.87
  • Dan Marino (1984): 13.64
  • Peyton Manning (2004): 13.48
  • Daunte Culpepper (2004): 13.28
  • Dan Fouts (1982): 13.03
  • Joe Montana (1989): 12.33
  • Peyton Manning (2006): 12.13
  • Donovan McNabb (2006): 12.09
  • Rich Gannon (2002): 11.90
  • Dan Fouts (1981): 11.88

When we look at this list, we see that what Drew Brees is doing this year ranks among the all-time greats.  So should we conclude that Brees is as good as Marino, Fouts, or Montana?

Outliers and the Quarterback Position

To answer this question I want to mention the latest book by Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell’s latest is called Outliers.  In this book Gladwell examines the source of a person’s success.  We tend to think that an individual’s success is all about the individual.  But Gladwell argues convincingly that success is often about a person’s particular circumstance.

And I think the quarterback position in the NFL illustrates this argument.  If we look over these lists we see that Daunte Culpepper had an amazing year in 2004.  Since then, though, Culpepper has been below average.  And that trend has continued this year with the Lions in 2008. 

What would happen, though, if Culpepper and Brees switched places this year?  Would Culpepper be above average in New Orleans?  Could Brees put up his 2008 numbers in Detroit?

The numbers really don’t answer these questions. But given the inconsistency we see in the numbers posted by quarterbacks (see Consistent Inconsistency in Football for more on this), it doesn’t look like we could expect Brees to post amazing numbers in Detroit in 2008.  In sum, the success of a quarterback is about more than the quarterback.  The supporting cast and coaches matter.

To put it another way, quarterbacks are not basketball players.  Basketball players are very consistent from year to year.  This is why we are not surprised when Allen Iverson is the same player in Detroit as he was in Denver.  Or Chauncey Billups is posting similar numbers in Denver as he did in Detroit. Or Marcus Camby is doing the same thinks in LA as he did in Denver. Or…. okay, you get the idea.  Certainly player performance can change in the NBA. It just doesn’t happen as often as it does in football.  Consequently – following the general argument laid forth by Gladwell – I think we have to conclude that what Drew Brees is doing in 2008 is not just about Drew Brees.  And the same argument could be made about Marino, Montana, etc… . 

By the way, I was hoping to post a complete review of Gladwell’s latest, but I have not had the time.  I did read the book and thought it was his best so far.  For a review that appears to be consistent with my assessment, I recommend what David Leonhardt had to say in the New York Times.

– DJ

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For more on the Wages of Wins football metrics see

The New QB Score

Consistent Inconsistency in Football

Football Outsiders and QB Score

The Value of Player Statistics in the NFL