ESPN Unveils its New Total Quarterback Rating (QBR)


When you are a large corporation, like ESPN, you have the power and influence to change public perception. That doesn’t mean it will always work. Starting tonight, though, the network will try, when it unveils a new rating system, called Total Quarterback Rating, which it has dubbed QBR (TQR apparently made too much sense as the actual initials).

Innovation is often driven by smaller companies, and larger companies then pick up on it or by out the successful smaller innovators. As I read through the information being released about tonight, I can’t help but think of Football Outsiders’ DVOA rating for Quarterbacks, or Advanced NFL Stats use of Expected Points Added, and Win Probability Added, as many of the concepts described have already been employed by those with a voice not as large or broad as the television production side of ESPN.

In fact, Dean Oliver mentions both of these in his explanation. The idea behind this QBR involves many of the same concepts–not every situation is identical, a 6 yard completion on 3rd and 5 is more valuable than on 3rd and 15, etc., and every situation has an expected point improvement and improvement in win probability added. For example, a 50 yard touchdown on third down in the fourth quarter will result in a large swing in the probability that the team wins, if it was a tie game, but have little impact on win probability if it was a 25 point game at the time.

None of these concepts are new. ESPN may use slightly different weights, but the ideas have been around. By using the play by play information, everything a QB does–runs on 3rd down, sacks taken, throwing a pass away rather than take a sack–can be incorporated.

I have a few concerns about it, but I’m also not going to demonize it. Is ESPN going to promote it, and potentially make you sick? Probably. Might it have value? Yes. Will it be perfect? No, nothing is.

My first concern is this clutchness factor. If you use a win probability model, some plays will already have higher leverage. Also, as a predictive measure, I’m not sure making a big play in the first is any less notable than reversing the order in the fourth quarter, but it sounds like it will increase one quarterback’s rating more. I’m not sure how much this weighting affects it.

Second, the attempt to separate out teammate contribution. It’s a laudable goal. We know that sack cost the team and forced them to punt, or that touchdown pass had a big impact. We may also know that a longer pass is generally more the responsibility of the quarterback, while a shorter pass is more about the receiver (and blockers) turning a play into something. That’s not always true though. It sounds like ESPN will use video spotters to be making determinations on things like contested passes, passes thrown under pressure, drops, etc. These are still subjective determinations. This new stat will purport to rate quarterbacks by assigning a percentage responsibility for the point improvement or win probability improvement on various types of plays.

Finally, transparency and ability to reproduce the numbers. I understand the general concepts as explained in the various articles, but we don’t really get to see how the sausage is made? How can we check to know if it is accurate or doing the best job possible?

Ultimately, QBR will kick out a number on the scale of 0-100, with 50 being an average performance. It will be a number that the public can latch onto, just like Passer Rating, for its flaws, now kicks out a number and people generally know what constitutes a good game or bad game by being told a passer rating. Unlike passer rating (which I can reproduce if I have the underlying results) I can’t reproduce this QBR without being told what it is.

I welcome all new research. Ultimately, it’s success or failure will depend on how well it fits winning and scoring points, the things for which a quarterback should be judged. And it will be judged on its results over the next few years. It won’t automatically ascend to displacing other measures.

[photo via Getty]