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The Truth About Big Armed Quarterbacks

A QB must have more than a big arm it seems.


Recently, I was asked for my opinion regarding what it takes to be a successful QB in the NFL. As I began making my case, my friend cut me off to ask me about arm strength. His thought was you needed your Quarterback to have a strong arm to be successful. Having never been one to subscribe to that theory, I did argue that your QB needs to be able to make "all the throws", but a "big" arm wasn't a requirement. As we argued, I realized I had never really dived into the stats. What do the stats say about these big armed QBs versus those with average, or slightly above average strength?

So, I've decided to take a look at the 6 QBs I consider to have the biggest arms and compare their 2012 season with some of the top QBs with average arm strength. For this comparison, I have intentionally left off Aaron Rodgers - who I consider to be the top QB in the league right now - because his statistics deviate so far from the norm that he has a largely detrimental impact on the study.

Here's a quick look at the 2012 season for our "Big Arm QBs":

QB Comp % TDs INTs Comeback Wins
Jay Cutler 58.8 19 14 1
Matthew Stafford 59.8 20 17 3
Mike Vick 58.1 12 10 3
Cam Newton 57.7 22 10 1
Joe Flacco 59.7 22 10 4
Josh Freeman 54.8 27 17 1

If we take those numbers and average them out, we get the following statistics:

58.15% Completion, 19.83 TDs, 13.33 INTs, 2.17 Comeback wins

Now let's take a look at our 6 "Average Arm" QBs:

QB Comp % TDs INTs Comeback Wins
Tom Brady 63.0 34 8 2
Matt Ryan 68.6 32 14 7
Drew Brees 63.0 43 19 2
Peyton Manning 68.6 37 11 3
Tony Romo 65.6 28 19 5
Eli Manning 59.9 26 15 3

If we take those numbers and average them out, we get the following stats:

64.78% Completion, 33.33 TDs, 14.33 INTs, 3.67 Comeback wins

So, what can we surmise from this comparison?

1. Strong-armed QBs tend to be less accurate

This statistic initially surprised me. Most football fans tend to believe that strong-armed QBs would make more completions due to being able to "rocket" a ball into tight spots, but the numbers simply don't support that. A 58% completion percentage against nearly 65% is a large difference, even if it doesn't look like it. Think of it this way - for every 100 attempts, that is 7 more completions. Those seven completions - at an average of 7 yards per attempt - is an additional 50 yards. Over the course of a season, that adds up quickly.

So, the question is why would they tend to be less accurate. My theory is simple: throughout high school and college, many of these guys were able to rely on their big arms and athleticism to put the ball where it needed to be, whereas guys with average arm strength were forced to learn timing and anticipation much earlier in their careers. By the time some of these guys get to the NFL, they've been relying on their arm strength for so long, they don't know how NOT to, and modern NFL defenses are more capable of making them pay for poor choices they didn't pay for in high school and college.

By the way, lest you think the 2012 season has skewed the numbers of these QBs, I've also looked at their career completion percentages. Our strong armed QBs clock in at 59.18% while the average arm guys register at 63.42%. So, the 2012 numbers were very close to the career trends of these quarterbacks.

2. Strong-armed QBs tend to have worse TD to INT ratios

Again, this one caught me off-guard, as I also thought that strong-armed QBs would be able to snag more TDs due to high velocity throws that defenders can't get to. But the numbers don't lie. Strong-armed QBs registered a 1.49 TD-INT ratio for 2012 (1.44 over their careers) while our average armed QBs registered a 2.33 TD-INT ratio for 2012 (2.05 over their careers).

Again, I believe this can be attributed to what the big armed guys have been able to do before the NFL. Touchdowns are about much more than velocity. Ball placement, timing and hitting guys in stride have a big impact on whether a pass goes for short yards, or sets a receiver up for big YAC.

3. Strong-armed QBs tend to be less efficient in comeback wins

Initially, I wasn't even going to look at this statistic, but the more I thought about it, the more it weighed on me. One of the things people judge QBs for the most is their performance in pressure situations. A QB often earns his paycheck on third down conversions and especially in the fourth quarter. A quick review of each list will quickly show you that the average arm QBs are some of the best in the league when the game is on the line - while our strong armed guys aren't generally kept in that same list. Again, the numbers tell quite a story. In 2012 alone, our big-armed QBs had 13 comeback wins while our average arm guys had 22. The numbers aren't that different going back to 2011, with the big-armed QBs pulling in 11 comeback wins while the average arm guys pulled in 22 - and that was with Peyton having not played the entire season as well.

Why would this statistic shake out this way? My theory is that comeback wins are about the poise, timing and accuracy of the QB. In these situations, a strong-arm doesn't really get you much - unless you're counting on all of your hail-mary passes working out for you. For example, if you look back to the final drive the Falcons had in the playoffs against Seattle, you'll notice on the two throws that Ryan makes that he got the ball out of his hands before his receivers had even made their cuts. By the time Harry Douglas is breaking towards the sideline, or Tony Gonzalez is coming out of his hitch, the ball is already half way to the destination. Those kinds of throws are nearly impossible to defend, but they also take incredible placement and timing - something strong-armed QBs haven't had to practice for much of their careers prior to the NFL.


My initial goal in researching these stats was not to make a case against strong-armed QBs - I do believe a strong arm can be a valuable trait. I was simply trying to make the case that a strong-arm is not a necessity to be successful. What the numbers showed me surprised me and told me something even I wasn't expecting to see. In many cases, strong-armed QBs may be hurt in some important areas by the fact that they've relied on their strong arms for so long. So not only have I concluded that a strong arm isn't a key contributor to success, I now believe it can serve as a detriment to the development of QBs coming into the NFL.

So, the next time someone argues about the arm-strength of a particular quarterback, you can point them to these eye-opening statistics as a reason to look beyond that simple measurement.