It’s Time To Stop Pretending That The NFL Preseason Isn’t Pointless

The curtain fell on the 2019 NFL preseason Thursday night — and judging by the volleys of rotten produce hurled at it by fans, writers and coaches, the NFL may never want to stage that show the same way again.

For decades, it’s felt like the NFL has had a predictable rhythm to how (and how often) starters play. A little in the first game, then a little more, and then the third preseason game is the “dress rehearsal,” when coaches game-plan, starters start, and the fans who paid full price for tickets get treated to something resembling their team. In the context of meaningless August football, this one game on the preseason schedule was the closest thing fans got to the real thing. The fourth preseason game, in which starters rarely played, has been a forgivable afterthought.

But the ugly, pointless football played Thursday night felt unforgivable — because the players fans pay to see barely played in the first three games, either. Even the last bastion of NFL preseason relevance seems to be vanishing. This year’s “dress rehearsals” hardly lived up to their billing. Carolina Panthers starting quarterback Cam Newton left the game after a minor injury. Almost all of the Green Bay Packers’ starters were held out. Houston starter Deshaun Watson got sacked to start the team’s first possession, the Texans lost starting running back Lamar Miller for the season on the next play, then Watson got sacked again, fumbled the ball and headed for the bench without throwing a pass. Indianapolis Colts starter Andrew Luck retired before taking a single preseason rep.

If teams are comfortable going the entire preseason with their starting quarterbacks barely taking the field, the league’s case for making their fans spend the time and money to watch these games is significantly weakened. Perhaps as no surprise, calls to reduce the number of preseason games are now coming from everywhere, from fans on Twitter to major news outlets. It feels like all of a sudden, the whole NFL-watching world has given up on the preseason.

Of course, calls for a shortened NFL preseason are nothing new. Analyst John Clayton called for it in The Washington Post earlier this month — almost two decades after he wrote for ESPN that players’ union representatives had already been pushing for it “for years.”

The year after Clayton wrote that ESPN article, the NFL expanded to 32 teams. Fourteen of those teams’ eventual Week 1 starters led their squad in preseason pass attempts. Even as their union reps were arguing that a four-game preseason was at least one game more than anybody needed, stars like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Daunte Culpepper, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning were out there taking more reps than anybody on their team.

During that 2002 season, 34.4 percent of preseason passes were thrown by quarterbacks who would go on to start Week 1. A decade later, starters’ share of the workload was about the same. But from 2012 to last season, their leaguewide share of pass attempts dropped by 36.5 percent.

This season, it fell even more steeply. Projected Week 1 starters (via OurLads) accounted for just 11.7 percent of pass attempts.1 That’s a 43 percent drop in one year, after more than a decade of consistently giving fans at least a decent look at the most important player on the team.

The same pattern shows up when we look at how many starters have led their team in preseason attempts — and how many starters have brought up the rear. In 2002, 14 of 32 teams’ starting quarterbacks led their team in preseason pass attempts, and in 2012, 13 starters still led their team in preseason throws. But since 2015, no more than three have.

For most of the 2000s and into the middle of this decade, the number of starters who threw the fewest preseason passes on their teams stayed in the low single digits. Last year, it was a full half of the league’s starting QBs.

This year, no starters have thrown the most passes of anyone else on their team, and 22 threw the fewest. In just seven years, we’ve gone from almost half the league mostly playing their starters to over two-thirds the league barely playing them at all.

There’s also reason to believe that the decline of starting QB reps across the league this preseason is not a coincidence. The NFL and its players’ union have begun negotiations for their next collective bargaining agreement, and truncating the preseason is reportedly a major negotiating topic. In that context, coaches and players are incentivized to force the owners’ hands.

Last week, with Luck likely to sit out the third preseason game, Colts head coach Frank Reich and Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy texted before the game and reached a mutual I-won’t-play-my-guys-if-you-won’t truce. A similar detente was reached between Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and Baltimore Ravens skipper John Harbaugh after their week of joint practices.

In fact, joint practice sessions seem to be where the starters are getting all the reps they’ve been giving up.

“I think [joint practices are] the trend. I think that’s where we’re going. I think that’s the way the league is heading,” Pederson said in a recent press conference. “As coaches, we get to set the situation and control the environment, and sometimes you don’t get those in games. You don’t get that situation in a game, and this way we can control that and work on specific things and get some really good work done with our starters.”

That all makes sense: If a coach really wants to work on the two-minute offense, a preseason game offers no guarantee that a team will even get in a two-minute situation. The same is true for any other situation, matchup or personnel package. What doesn’t make sense, though, is charging fans full price to watch an uncontrolled scrimmage between a bunch of players who likely won’t even make their respective teams.

On Monday, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien suggested that fans could whet their appetite for starter-on-starter action by the league televising joint practices in lieu of two preseason games:

If the coaches, players and fans all feel like the risk of injury has outstripped the value of playing the games, there’s no viable path forward for the four-game preseason. Only one question remains: Whether the coaches, players and fans can persuade the owners to get on a different path.

Kirk Cousins Is Not Better Than Joe Montana. So Let’s Fix Passer Rating.

According to the NFL’s official passer rating system, the most efficient quarterback in NFL history is Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, with a lifetime mark of 103.1.6 That makes sense: Rodgers is generally regarded as one of the greatest QBs to ever play the game. But if you scroll further down the list, the results become much harder to explain. In the world of passer rating, Kirk Cousins is better than Joe Montana; Derek Carr and Matt Schaub top Dan Marino; and, after one season, Broadway Sam Darnold is running circles around Broadway Joe Namath.

Passer rating is often criticized as Byzantine (have you seen that formula?), incomplete (it does not include data on rushing plays or sacks) and arbitrary (again, have you looked at the formula?). Yet its biggest shortcoming might be the way it is unmoored from changes in the game itself. Passing has never been more efficient than it was this season, in which the league’s average QB posted a rating of 92.9. That is remarkably high considering that a quarterback who posted a rating of 92.9 would have led all qualified passers in 15 separate seasons from 1950 through 1986. Clearly, the scale needs recalibrating.

In the original conception of passer rating, an average rating was about 67. In 2018, only one qualified passer (Arizona Cardinals rookie Josh Rosen) fell below that threshold, and even then just barely (his rating was 66.7). But what if the standards for what makes a good or bad performance had evolved as leaguewide numbers changed? Pro-Football-Reference.com does a great job of adjusting for era with its Advanced Passing indices, which are centered on an average of 100 with 15 points representing 1 standard deviation in either direction. But I wanted to rescale the building blocks of passer rating itself to see how today’s passing numbers would translate to a rating if the NFL had simply allowed its rating system to change with the times.

To do that, I looked at the distribution of stats in each category that goes into passer rating — completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage and interception rate — from the sample originally used to craft the formula back in the early 1970s (qualified passers from 1960 to 1970). Specifically, I figured out the spread of values (relative to the league) that, in a given category, led to the minimum number of points (0), the average number of points (1) and the maximum (2.375). Under the hood, passer rating is built around these ranges; it hands out points on that 0-to-2.375 scale in each category, then sums up the four values, divides by 6 and multiplies by 100. (Hence, 67 is supposed to be average — a 1.0 in four categories, divided by 6, times 100.)

For any era, we can rescale what performance “should” lead to a given value in each category to keep the relative leaguewide distribution the same as it was when passer rating was first conceived.7 So while, say, Alex Smith’s 62.5 percent completion rate in 2018 was worth 1.0 point, so was Don Meredith’s 49.5 percent mark from 1962. Do this for every category in every season, and you have a stabilized version of passer rating that no longer spirals uncontrollably upward with each innovation in the passing game.

Some ultra-high ratings change less than you might expect under this new method. Rodgers’s single-season record of 122.5 from 2011 tumbles all the way down to … 121.1. (He was very good that year.) But other seemingly immortal ratings, such as Kirk Cousins’s 99.7 mark this season, get knocked down quite a bit — in Cousins’s case, he falls to a much more reasonable 81.5 rating. (Anyone who watched a Vikings game this year would surely argue that this is more appropriate.) Similarly, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 100.4 mark this season — yes, that is real, look it up — gets heavily penalized in the interception category (his 4.9 percent INT rate was more than double the league average), taking him down to an adjusted rating of 77.4.

Moving further down the list, Joe Flacco’s decent-sounding 84.2 classic rating properly falls to a mediocre 62.8 after our adjustment, while the 30.7 rating of WOAT candidate Nathan Peterman becomes an 11.6 — perilously close to the minimum possible rating of 0.0. (If Peterman had thrown enough passes to qualify, that 11.6 rating would have “surpassed” Ryan Leaf’s 19.1 from 1998 as the lowest-rated season since 1950.)

All told, the new ratings are once again grounded in a world where an average quarterback scores about 70 — not exactly 67 because the rolling distribution includes multiple seasons for comparison8 — and as a result, the numbers make far more intuitive sense at a glance than the ludicrously inflated official ratings of 2018:

Deflating the rating

Classic and adjusted passer ratings for qualified* 2018 NFL quarterbacks

Ratings
Player Team Old New
1 D. Brees NO 115.7 103.3
2 P. Mahomes KC 113.8 98.5
3 R. Wilson SEA 110.9 96.5
4 M. Ryan ATL 108.1 93.4
5 P. Rivers LAC 105.5 87.3
6 D. Watson HOU 103.1 85.3
7 C. Wentz PHI 102.2 85.1
8 J. Goff LAR 101.1 83.3
9 A. Rodgers GB 97.6 83.0
10 K. Cousins MIN 99.7 81.5
11 A. Luck IND 98.7 79.1
12 D. Prescott DAL 96.9 79.0
13 T. Brady NE 97.7 78.8
14 R. Fitzpatrick TB 100.4 77.4
15 B. R’lisberger PIT 96.5 75.7
16 D. Carr OAK 93.9 74.0
17 M. Trubisky CHI 95.4 73.2
18 E. Manning NYG 92.4 72.3
19 C. Newton CAR 94.2 71.7
20 B. Mayfield CLE 93.7 71.7
21 M. Mariota TEN 92.3 70.6
22 R. Tannehill MIA 92.7 68.8
23 M. Stafford DET 89.9 68.6
24 N. Mullens SF 90.8 66.3
25 A. Dalton CIN 89.6 66.1
26 J. Winston TB 90.2 64.9
27 A. Smith WSH 85.7 64.5
28 J. Flacco BAL 84.2 62.8
29 C. Keenum DEN 81.2 56.2
30 B. Bortles JAX 79.8 54.5
31 S. Darnold NYJ 77.6 49.7
32 J. Allen BUF 67.9 37.1
33 J. Rosen ARI 66.7 35.9

* Minimum 14 pass attempts per team game

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

According to the NFL’s official system, there have been 93 qualified quarterback seasons since 1950 with a passer rating of at least 100.0, and nine of those happened in 2018 alone. After our adjustment, though, there have been only 46 such seasons since 1950,9 and only one of those happened this year — the 103.3 mark Drew Brees put up with the Saints. It’s still a golden age for passing, as nearly half of those 46 seasons have happened since 2000, but we’ve also filtered out 51 “false 100s” — seasons that cracked 100.0 on the old scale but not the new one — of which 47 have happened since 2000.

The result of our passer rating adjustment is a much more reasonable career leaderboard that features qualified quarterbacks from a variety of different eras:

A new all-time passer rating hierarchy

Career classic and adjusted passer ratings for qualified* NFL and AFL quarterbacks, 1950-2018

Ratings Ratings
Player Last Year Old New Player Last Year Old New
1 S. Young 1999 96.7 94.2 16 F. Tarkenton 1978 80.4 80.7
2 A. Rodgers 2018 103.1 92.5 17 B. Starr 1971 80.5 80.7
3 J. Montana 1994 92.3 90.0 18 P. Rivers 2018 95.6 80.5
4 T. Brady 2018 97.6 87.2 19 C. Pennington 2010 90.1 79.9
5 P. Manning 2015 96.5 87.1 20 M. Ryan 2018 94.9 79.8
6 R. Staubach 1979 83.4 86.7 21 J. Garcia 2008 87.5 79.6
7 R. Wilson 2018 100.4 85.4 22 B. R’lisberger 2018 94.3 79.0
8 D. Brees 2018 97.7 85.4 23 J. Unitas 1973 78.3 78.9
9 T. Romo 2016 97.1 85.0 24 D. Fouts 1987 80.2 78.4
10 O. Graham 1955 78.2 84.7 25 R. Gannon 2004 84.7 78.4
11 K. Warner 2009 93.7 83.7 26 B. Griese 1980 77.1 78.3
12 S. Jurgensen 1974 82.7 82.9 27 N. Lomax 1988 82.7 78.1
13 L. Dawson 1975 82.9 82.7 28 F. Ryan 1970 78.0 78.0
14 D. Marino 1999 86.4 81.4 29 B. Jones 1982 78.5 78.0
15 K. Anderson 1986 81.9 81.2 30 J. Kelly 1996 84.4 78.0

* Minimum 1,500 career pass attempts

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The biggest beneficiaries of our changes are 1950s-era passers like Otto Graham, who originally rated in the 70s (discarding his eye-popping pre-1950 numbers, which were compiled in the upstart All-America Football Conference) but leaps up into the mid-80s after judging him in comparison with his peers. San Francisco 49ers legend Steve Young also gets a boost relative to other great QBs from history, reclaiming the No. 1 slot that he’d held in real life before Rodgers and friends came along.

At the other end of the spectrum, nobody loses more points of career rating than Blake Bortles, who somehow has an 80.6 mark under the classic system but falls to 55.2 with our adjustments. Here are the biggest losers between the old and new QB ratings:

Who’s been overrated in traditional passer ratings?

For qualified* NFL and AFL passers since 1950, the biggest shortfalls between adjusted and classic passer rating

Ratings
Player Years Played Attempts Old New Diff.
Blake Bortles 2014-18 2,632 80.6 55.2 -25.4
Jameis Winston 2015-18 1,922 87.8 64.0 -23.8
Case Keenum 2013-18 1,844 84.5 61.8 -22.6
Marcus Mariota 2015-18 1,605 89.4 67.5 -21.9
Ryan Fitzpatrick 2005-18 4,285 81.1 60.2 -20.9
Mark Sanchez 2009-18 2,320 73.3 52.5 -20.8
Derek Carr 2014-18 2,800 88.8 68.4 -20.4
Cam Newton 2011-18 3,891 86.4 66.1 -20.3
Chad Henne 2008-18 1,959 75.5 55.3 -20.3
Ryan Tannehill 2012-18 2,911 87.0 67.2 -19.8

* Minimum 1,500 career pass attempts

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

A change like this wouldn’t fix the rest of passer rating’s deficiencies, and it wouldn’t include all the fancy bells and whistles you’ll find in a metric like ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating. But passer rating itself has always been a surprisingly decent metric within any self-contained era; the team with the higher passer rating (by any margin) in a game wins about 80 percent of the time. It’s the comparisons across eras that have become distorted as the game has changed over time. But a simple fix tethering modern stats to the standards contained in passer rating’s formula would go a long way toward restoring sanity to the metric you still see in every NFL box score and broadcast. The Blake Bortleses of the world might not like seeing their shiny 80-something ratings get dumped into the 50s, but it’s a change whose time has come.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.