As the Vikings and 49ers meet today, if you believe passer rating numbers, two of the best quarterbacks are meeting when Christian Ponder squares off with Alex Smith.
Whether it has been because of the infiltration of college spread offenses into NFL playbooks or offensive coordinators being willing to dink and dunk their way down the field before taking deep shots when defenses cheat up to stop the short pass, ratings are looking good on some younger quarterbacks.
As dramatically as passer ratings have climbed in recent years, thanks in large part to completing short, timing passes, the stud running back has been reduced to near-extinction.
The proliferation of completions has gone a long way to eliminating the need for a power running game. Instead of handing the ball off, teams routinely throw quick bubble screens to get a receiver out in space away from the defensive line. The result has been unprecedented completion numbers.
There was a time not too long ago that to be viewed as a solid quarterback a player had to complete 60 percent of his passes. Now, 60 percent is the low end of the benchmark. Through two weeks of the season, 20 quarterbacks have completed 60 percent of their passes or more and eight have completed 70 percent of their passes or better (rounding up in a couple of instances to eliminate decimal points – Christian Ponder (75.8), Phillip Rivers (73.8), Sam Bradford (71.7), Robert Griffin (70.9), Alex Smith (70.2), Matt Ryan (70.1), Cam Newton (69.8) and Matt Schaub (69.7). Keeping in mind that this list doesn’t include players like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees – three of the league’s most accurate passers – the use of short and intermediate passes has become the centerpiece of most offenses.
The NFL’s passer rating is the convoluted, but accepted, way of rating quarterbacks. Few understand how a system can have a base number of 158.3 to determine perfection, but it is the accepted format. The traditional QB rating scale is set so that a quarterback with a rating of 90.0 or higher is viewed as elite and 100.0 or above is difficult to achieve. Consider how the numbers have risen over the last few years:
2011 – Ten quarterbacks had a ranking of 90.0 or higher and four (Rodgers, Brees, Brady and Tony Romo) had a rating of 100 or higher.
2010 – Thirteen quarterbacks had a rating of 90.0 or higher and four had a rating of 100.0 or above (Brady, Philip Rivers, Rodgers and Michael Vick).
2009 – Twelve QBs had a rating of 90.0 or above and five were at 100.0 or higher (Brees, Brett Favre, Rivers, Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger).
2008 – Nine QBs had a passer rating of 90.0 or above and just one (Rivers) was above 100.0.
2007 – Eight QBs were at 90.0 and above and three (Brady, Roethlisberger and David Garrard) were at 100 or above.
2006 – Eight quarterbacks were at 90.0 or higher and just Manning was above 100.0.
2005 – Eight QBs were rated at 90.0 or better and two (Manning and Carson Palmer) were over 100.0.
2004 – Eleven quarterbacks were at 90.0 or higher and four (Manning, Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb and Brees) were at 100.0 or higher.
2003 – Six quarterbacks were at 90.0 or above and one (Steve McNair) was rated over 100.0.
2002 – Four quarterbacks were at 90.0 or higher and just one rated at higher than 100.0 (Chad Pennington).
2001 – Five quarterbacks were above 90.0 and one (Kurt Warner) was over 100.0.
2000 – Seven quarterbacks were rated 90.0 or higher and two (Brian Griese and Trent Green – really?) were ranked at 100.0 or above.< br>
Why are these numbers significant? More than half of the league’s quarterbacks (16 in all) have a passer rating of 90.0 or higher – not including Rodgers, Brees, Peyton Manning or Matthew Stafford – and seven have a passer rating of 100.0 or above (Ryan, Smith, Bradford, Griffin, Rivers, Ponder and Newton). Granted, it’s only two weeks into the season, but it is continuing a trend that has become one of the more startling increases in NFL history.
Here is a look at 10 players viewed as the greatest quarterbacks of all time and how their career numbers ranked up against the passer rating system.
Johnny Unitas – The first great QB in league history had a career passer rating of just 78.2 and was at 90.0 or above just four times in 18 seasons with a career best of 97.4 in 1965.
Frank Tarkenton – The longtime NFL leader in passing yards and touchdowns, he had a career passer rating of 80.4 with a high-water mark of 93.2 in 1973.
Dan Fouts – In 15 seasons, the Hall of Fame gunslinger had a passer rating of 80.2, topped 90.0 just three times and topped out at 93.3 in 1982.
Terry Bradshaw – Proof that he was lucky to be surrounded by so many Hall of Famers in his 14 seasons with the Steelers, his career passer rating was 70.9 and his career best was 88.0 in 1975.
Joe Montana – The first QB to start to switch the trend as the West Coast offense came into vogue, in 16 seasons, Montana had a career passer rating of 92.3, with five seasons higher than 90.0 and three with a rating of 100 or above – with a career best of 112.4 in 1989.
Dan Marino – In 17 seasons, he had a career passer rating of 86.4, including four seasons with a rating of 90.0 or higher and one of 100.0 or more – a 108.9 in his record-setting 1984 season.
John Elway – Viewed by many as the greatest QB ever, he had a career passer rating of just 79.9 with just two seasons of over 90.0. His career best was a 93.0 in 1998, the last of his 16 seasons.
Warren Moon – In 17 seasons, he had a career passer rating of 80.9 with just two seasons with a rating of 90.0 or above, with a career best of 96.8 in 1990.
Steve Young – In 15 seasons, he was on the cusp of the turnaround in passer numbers. His career passer rating was 96.8, which included eight seasons of 90.0 or higher and six with 100.0 or more – figures made more important by virtue of his qualifying for league passer rankings in just nine seasons.
Brett Favre – In 20 seasons, he had a career passer rating of 86.0 with his high-water mark of 107.2 in 2009 with the Vikings. He had eight seasons with a passer rating of 90.0 or above, but 2009 was the only time he topped 100.0.
Using 2011 season-ending passer ratings for the qualifiers vs. the career passer ratings of these greats, the results are nothing short of stunning. Unitas’ career passer rating was lower than Tarvaris Jackson of the Seahawks. Tarkenton’s career rating was identical to Cincinnati rookie Andy Dalton. Fouts’ career total would put him almost a full rating point behind Kevin Kolb. Bradshaw would have finished in between Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford. Montana would have narrowly beaten out Matt Ryan. Marino would have finished behind 2011 Miami starter Matt Moore. Elway, who played college ball for the Harvard of the West, would have finished less than one rating point better the Ryan Fitzpatrick, who played college ball for the Harvard of the East. Moon would have finished in a flat-footed tie with Joe Flacco. Young would have finished tied with Matt Schaub and Favre would have narrowly edged out Jay Cutler.
The common rationale given for the reduction in the power running game is that more teams are specializing with more than one back in their backfield. It would appear that the reality is that the death of the stud running back isn’t because there is less talent or fewer teams using one back. The answer, quite simply, is that the short passing game is what has killed the stud running back and shifted the balance of power to quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends.
Like it or not, thanks to rules changes in the NFL and the way that fantasy leagues are currently run, it may be time to officially bury the running back as the focal point of NFL offenses. They will still be around, but their numbers have thinned to the point that guys like Ponder and Alex Smith have become the most effective players on the field, despite not getting the recognition as such.
VIKINGS-49ERS BY THE NUMBERS
The 49ers have the 13th-ranked offense in the league, averaging 363 yards (196 passing, 167 rushing). The Vikings are 16th, averaging 358 yards a game (249 passing, 109 rushing).
The 49ers have the 11th-ranked defense, allowing 310 yards a game (247 passing, 63 rushing). The Vikings are 12th at 317 yards (218 passing, 99 rushing).
San Francisco ranked third in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on five of seven red zone opportunities. The Vikings are tied for 15th at 57.1 percent, scoring TDs on four of seven possessions.
The Vikings are fifth in the league in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on just two of six red zone possessions (33.3 percent). The 49ers are tied for last, allowing three TDs in three red zone opportunities.
Both teams are below the league average in third down conversions (38.8 percent). The Vikings have converted 36 percent of their third downs (nine of 25), while the 49ers have made good on just six of 20 chances (30 percent).
Both defenses have allowed more third down conversions than the league average. The Vikings have allowed 47.1 percent of third downs to become first down (16 of 34), while the Niners have allowed 42.9 percent of third downs to be converted (12 of 28).
Both quarterbacks are near the top of the league in passer rating. Despite being 25th in attempts, 20th in completions and 24th in yards, Alex Smith is second in passer rating at 115.9. Christian Ponder is tied for 20th in attempts, tied for ninth in completions and tied for 17th in yards, but is sixth in passer rating a 110.6.
Frank Gore is fourth in the league in rushing with 201 yards. Adrian Peterson is 15th with 144 yards.
Percy Harvin is tied for second in the league in receptions with 18. Michael Crabtree is tied for 10th with 13 catches.
Harvin is tied for 10th in the league in receiving yards (188). Crabtree is tied for 24th with 143 yards.
Vernon Davis is tied for the league lead in scoring for non-kickers with 18 points. Peterson is tied for sixth with 12 points.
Blair Walsh is tied for fourth in scoring among kickers with 22 points. David Akers is tied for eighth place with 21 points.
Akers and Walsh are both tied for fourth in the league for touchbacks with seven each.
Harvin is 11th in the league in yards from scrimmage with 221 – 188 receiving, 33 rushing. Gore leads the 49ers with 218 yards – 201 rushing, 17 receiving.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.