It's been fascinating to watch ESPN roll out its new, proprietary Total Quarterback Rating over the past few days, and not just because we got to see Tirico, Gruden, and Jaws huffing and grunting and puzzling over the thing as if it were the first stone tool. ("This new measure of stats," Tirico called it, while Gruden tried very hard not to look like a man contemplating ritual homicide.) What's amazing is how quickly ESPN took something smart and worthwhile, something that initially leveraged ESPN's vast resources for the good, and turned it into yet another commodity being packaged and sold on TV—The Decision with math.
Total QBR is the brainchild of the ESPN Stats & Information Group, and it builds on the work of Brian Burke and Football Outsiders and Pete Palmer and crew long ago. You can read Dean Oliver's explanation here, but the basic conceit is that there is an expected point value for any given game situation, based on historical norms (first and goal at the 1, for instance, carries an expected point value of six, per Brian Burke). ESPN's innovation is to further refine the context, zeroing in on the portion of any outcome that should be credited to a quarterback. Total QBR accounts for overthrows and underthrows and other things that few outlets outside of ESPN—with its access to years of game tape and lots of eager young workers willing to watch Bills-Panthers with a clipboard in hand—could chart with any degree of comprehensiveness. There is also something called "Clutch Index," which looks like a weirdly applied version of baseball's leverage metric and which, tellingly, is the sort of mindless branding you get when the network of "Who's Now" starts dicking around with numbers. It was when I saw "Clutch Index" that I realized Total QBR had been Bristolized.
I know Dean Oliver pretty well. He's one of the sharpest guys around, and his studiously unwonky Basketball on Paper remains the closest thing the sport has to a Bill James abstract. Watching hoops with him can be a bit like watching hoops with the WOPR machine. (He'll throw out win probabilities during a game—North Carolina is at 78 percent now—the way you or I might idly note that the center just picked up his fourth foul.) Oliver had already made a career of straddling seemingly hostile disciplines—academic and sports guy, quant and coach, statistical analyst and scout—and that made him the perfect guy to bring numbers to the masses. He signed up with ESPN in March as the director of production analytics, hired for much the same reason that Joe Morgan was dropped: The Worldwide Leader is now very serious about this numbers stuff.
But then here's what happens: On Aug. 1, an ESPN.com press release announces that the ratings will be unveiled Aug. 5 in an "ESPN Year of the Quarterback" special on SportsCenter. On Aug. 2, ESPN's NFC West blogger wonders what Total QBR means for Sam Bradford and Alex Smith. He takes care to tease the SportsCenter special. On Aug. 3, ESPN's NFC West blogger wonders what Total QBR means for quarterbacks who throw "perfect" games according to the traditional passer rating. He takes care to tease the SportsCenter special. On Aug. 4, ESPN's NFC West blogger wonders what Total QBR means for NFC West quarterbacks. He takes care to tease the SportsCenter special. Dean Oliver explains the rating on ESPN.com. On Aug. 5, Peter Keating explains the rating on ESPN Insider. A writer for ESPN Chicago wonders what Total QBR means for Jay Cutler. Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, and Ron Jaworski briefly discuss the rating on ESPN.
Gruden: "I'm concerned about it. I'm excited about it. But I'm skeptical."
Jaworski: "I like the word 'Total. ...'"
Tirico: "Can Jaws sell Jon? ... Total Quarterback Rating revealed, which you will see on ESPN. A SportsCenter special."
The SportsCenter special airs. A list of the league's top 10 quarterbacks according to Total QBR is provided. On Aug. 7, a writer for ESPN Dallas wonders what Total QBR means for Tony Romo.
This is the scientific method as brought to you by ESPN. Everything carrying that neato-whizbang air of a toy commercial. Everything masturbating everything else. Everything branded within an inch of its life. (That "Year of the Quarterback" logo shows up wherever Total QBR is mentioned. I still don't understand this. Was there ever a year that wasn't, in some way, a year of the quarterback? Was there a "Year of the Nose Tackle"? Are quarterbacks somehow more central to football now than they were last year? Calling any given year a "Year of the Quarterback" is like calling it a "Year of Playing Football.") The stat was being adduced to barstool-level arguments before any discussion of its blind spots—blind spots that Dean Oliver will readily acknowledge—had developed. The whole rollout was all so very Bristol that I think I saw Gottfried Leibniz on the Budweiser Hot Seat.
You wish someone at ESPN would've pointed out the flaws of the Clutch Index, which rewards quarterbacks for playing on teams with bad defenses (as Schatz points out, having a big game in a close victory will produce a better Total QBR than having the same big game in a blowout). You wish the rating weren't proprietary, which is of course ESPN's right but which also seems more than a little wrongheaded when the stat's component parts—all the charting, for instance—are every bit as interesting as whatever shows up to the right of the equals sign. You wish a lightbulb hadn't gone off in a producer's head the moment Tirico said, "Can Jaws sell Jon?"
You wish ESPN could embrace the smart stuff without also being so brutally dumb about it. (On Sept. 12, ESPN2 will air something called Numbers Never Lie, which "will feature lively roundtable debate pitting the wisdom of former professional athletes against the pragmatism of statisticians.") Total QB has already suffered the fate of everything the network touches: The frantic selling of the thing has obscured its virtues. Just read that entire Football Outsiders comment thread, where opinion runs maybe 90-10 negative. For all its problems, Total QBR is a great tool. It's a huge improvement over the mostly useless passer rating. It tells you what happened both quicker and more cleanly than any other metric, even if it may not tell you what will happen.
And more importantly it suggests that ESPN is willing to throw its considerable resources behind efforts like this. Ex-football players are talking about expected point value on SportsCenter, and ex-baseball players are talking about FIP on Baseball Tonight. These are men whose use of applied mathematics to this point had been restricted to calculating tips in the champagne room. That's a good thing. It's a welcome development when ESPN is insulting our intelligence in fewer ways. Only The Borg could do something like Total QBR, which means we will have to live with how The Borg does it.