Peyton Manning Had the Best Offensive Teammates Among Top Quarterbacks in 2000's; Donovan McNabb Had the Worst

By Jason Lisk

Last weekend, Adam Harstad had a mini-Twitter rant about Donovan McNabb and how we probably underrate him based on his supporting cast. Here it is in Storify form:

Inspired by Adam’s presentation, I wanted to look into it further with a comparison of other contemporaries. I used a similar method as when I examined Vinny Testaverde’s career seven years ago, to show how much teammates impacted his career numbers.

I used the Weighted Career Approximate Value (AV) numbers listed at Pro Football Reference for each player to assign a teammate score. I used the top RB, two WR, TE, and Flex starter, along with the five listed offensive line starters on each yearly lineup page.

To get as many seasons as possible, I used the period from 1999 to 2013. This gives us 15 seasons. It largely encompasses the era right after John Elway/Steve Young/Troy Aikman and company.

Because many players are still active who played in those years, I used an approximation for the Career AV using similar players at the same age, for still active starters. For example, David Bakhtiari, left tackle with the Green Bay Packers who first started in 2013, has a weighted career AV of 41 at the moment. He is credited with a presumed career AV of 84, as a 25-year-old left tackle who has already made a pro bowl and started four seasons, in my teammate score. I stopped at 2013 to insure there were at least four years to make a career comparison.

Let’s get to the results. I used 20 quarterbacks who were among the best of that period–well, and Joe Flacco so we can test to see if he is elite once we account for teammates.

These results include all seasons between 1999 and 2013 when these quarterbacks threw the minimum qualifying number of passes (224).

The first column is average offensive teammate AV. Higher is better. A player who starts a couple of seasons will generally have an AV of 10-15. A solid player who starts several years and has a decent (but not elite) career will generally post an AV in the 35-55 range. Most Hall of Famers are at least 80 AV, with many well over 100.

As it turns out, McNabb does come in with the lowest average teammate score, just ahead of Carson Palmer. My examination, unlike Adam’s, included the offensive line. McNabb’s skill position teammates were the drag on his score, and his offensive line teammates were more in line with others.

At the other end of the spectrum, Peyton Manning’s offensive teammates lap the field. There can be a circular argument when it comes to Approximate Value. The numbers are calculated by taking the team offensive efficiency (the more efficient, the larger the total team number), and then partitioning it among the players on that side of the ball. If Manning increases efficiency more than another quarterback, his teammates should have higher numbers per year.

That said, he could not affect how long they played, and he got to play with several others who had long and distinguished careers. Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James, Jeff Saturday, and Tarik Glenn all played for a long time at a high level.

For some perspective, Manning had 36 different teammate-seasons with an offensive teammate with a career AV above 100. Here are the totals from some other notables on that list:

Keep in mind these numbers are approximate. Things like injuries can affect a rating, and coaching systems and all sorts of other things. That said, they do a generally good job of answering “how good were his teammates?” If a left guard ended up starting for 10 years for other franchises, he will show up as much better than a player who started that year and then was a career backup.

I’ve got a lot more to say about this list, but this was a time-intensive project, and so I plan on drilling down into the details of it a bit more in future posts. Teammates matter in the NFL. The interactions of teammates is difficult to tease out. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

And yes, Donovan McNabb put up pretty good numbers relative to the teammates he played with, compared to other quarterbacks.