|Michael Vick (left), Vince Young and David Garrard are surprises among the NFL's top five passer ratings.|
Have you taken a look at the NFL passing statistics lately? Where are all the "good" guys? The franchise quarterbacks? More importantly, how did all these secondary quarterbacks sneak into the top five?
Michael Vick, Vince Young and David Garrard. Really?
Maybe this is an indictment of the passer rating system, the measure by which quarterbacks are ranked. How else do you explain Young having a 103.1 rating. This is the same guy who people said couldn't throw accurately, and who was benched (again) in the middle of Week 2. Yet there he sits second in the NFL.
Passer rating is often referred to as a "passer efficiency" rating, which was the original purpose of the statistic all along. It's an average of a quarterback's ability to complete passes and throw touchdowns, not interceptions, while getting as much bang for every throw as possible. While it does not reflect wins and losses, to the disappointment of many, and it might not be the most huggable stat in the world, passer rating does usually reflect who the better quarterbacks in the league are.
Only one of last year's top five passers (Philip Rivers) is in the top five right now. While Rivers continues to put up Tecmo Bowl-like numbers, some of the other guys would kill your own team in video games just as soon as they would lead the NFL in passing.
So what gives? How does a guy like Young, who has never been considered the ilk of a Drew Brees, much less Vick, have the second-highest rating in the league? Not to mention, in all fairness, Young was the NFL's leading passer coming into last weekend. But with the Titans on the bye and Vick's strong showing against the Colts, Young got pushed out of the top spot. To get to the bottom of his stellar season -- Exhibit A of the mediocre topping the charts -- we have to go back to the first quarter of the first game of the Titans' season.
Tennessee opened up against an Oakland defense that struggled to stop the run last season and with a 2,000-yard rusher in its arsenal (Chris Johnson). With that in mind, the Raiders would be playing the run a lot. Enter Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. On the team's second possession, Heimerdinger ran Johnson on first-and-10 for no gain. On second-and-10, when so many teams would most assuredly pass, Heimerdinger called a running play to Johnson. The Raiders stuffed it again, but were called for a penalty. With the new set of downs, Heimerdinger would run again, right? Uh, no.
The Titans faked a stretch running play left, with tight end Craig Stevens blocking down so as to sell the fake to Raiders safety Tyvon Branch. When Branch took a few steps forward and to his right to close in on the play, the corner on that side, Stanford Routt, was left all alone on Nate Washington. Like Branch, Routt was also deceived by the running play, thinking it was more of the same from the alleged one-trick pony Titans. He was beaten instantly. Meanwhile, Washington streaked straight down the field and into the open for a touchdown.
It was the perfect call. With the ball near midfield, there was plenty of room to run a 9 route -- the bulk of the field was the Titans' oyster. And, if Young were to get sacked while waiting for Washington to break in the clear, it wouldn't be all that devastating field-position wise.
While it was strategically effective, the play also doesn't happen if Young can't put the ball where it needs to be. That's really the point with Young, Vick and, to a lesser extent, Garrard this season. They're putting the ball where it needs to be, despite the fact they're not asked to do it very often.
All three quarterbacks have limited their mistakes: Vick has no picks, Young has thrown only two and Garrard is the most giving with seven interceptions (with four of those coming in one game to the Chargers). But Garrard more than makes up for that with almost twice as many touchdowns (13). All three quarterbacks also have very good backs behind them. Young has Johnson, Vick has a very productive and explosive LeSean McCoy, and the Jaguars' best player on offense is running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Johnson is fifth in the league in rushing, MJD is 10th, and McCoy is 15th, which means none of these quarterbacks are asked to put it up 40 times a game. Vick might drop back 40 times, but he is such a threat to tuck and run that he doesn't have to throw every down.
Not throwing every down serves two purposes, and might be the greatest explanation why these guys' passer ratings are through the roof. With such a limited number of attempts, one or two really good games in a row can lift their rating a few ticks -- and then some. That was the case with Garrard in Dallas in Week 8, when the veteran quarterback posted a 157.8 rating. That one game catapulted his season rating from 84.7 to 98.8, a huge jump.
The next major factor as to why a quarterback like Young has such a high rating is the quality he's getting on his pass attempts. Maybe he's not a Peyton Manning, who can put a whole game on his right arm. But Young has proven that he can make the defense pay when they put eight in the box to stop Johnson. Young isn't dinking and dunking, but rather he's averaging 13.9 yards per completion, highest in the NFL. Heimerdinger is dialing up "chunk" passing plays at the right time, and his quarterback is knocking them out of the park. The same can be said for Vick, who has completed six passes of over 40 yards, despite only starting four games.
Whether it's completing the deep ball when the defense guesses wrong, or having one or two really big games, the unlikely candidates -- Vick, Young and Garrard -- have earned their spot atop the charts, even if it doesn't look right.
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.