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Can a QB Really Carry an Entire Team?

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Dispelling the idea that the best QBs are the ones that "carry" their teams.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

sRecently, ESPN published an Insider article where league "insiders" ranked current NFL QBs to place them into different tiers. Ryan ended up in Tier 2 and was ranked the 11th QB overall. There were some interesting quotes, but a phrase or thought was reiterated that I've seen elsewhere: the idea that the QBs in Tier 1 (guys like Rodgers and Brady) could "carry" a team while guys in the other tiers "need help." It's a phrase that's used often, but is not fully qualified. What does it mean for a QB to "carry" a team? Are there clear examples to prove or disprove this idea?

To be blunt: I don't buy it. I do believe there are some great QBs playing today, but I don't buy that any single player can "carry" a team.

Name that QB

To hammer home the point, I'm going to include the performance of two QBs in an NFC Championship game.


Completions Attempts Completion % Yards TDs INT QB Rating ESPN Total QBR
Quarterback 1 17 30 56.7 244 0 2 55.4 72.4
Quarterback 2 30 42 71.4 396 3 1 114.8 95.6


At first glance, a very reasonable assumption would be that Quarterback 2 had a dominating game and clearly - after a performance like that - is the one who went to the Superbowl. Quarterback 1, on the other hand, had a not so great game, though ESPN Total QBR indicates it was better than raw statistics would suggest. But in comparing these two performances, you'd almost always bet on QB 2 being the one that won the game.

As you can also guess, that's not the case.

Quarterback 2 is Matt Ryan, and that was his performance in the 2012 NFC Championship game. Clearly, 396 yards and 3TD was not enough to "carry" the team.

But who was Quarterback 1 you may be asking?

Aaron Rodgers, in the 2010 NFC Championship game. A game the Packers would end up winning.

Clearly, Rodgers did not "carry" his team in this game. Rather, his team pulled through with a collective effort. Yet, Rodgers is regularly lauded as a QB that can carry his team. Don't get me wrong - I truly believe that Aaron Rodgers is one of the best (if not the best) quarterbacks in the NFL. But the idea that he regularly carries his team - especially in key games - is somewhat overstated.

Brees and the awful D

Let's take a look at another "Tier 1" quarterback who is regularly seen as "carrying" his team. While he may be a division foe, there's little doubt that Drew Brees is a fantastic QB. I would argue he's one of the top 5 playing right now. Here are his stat lines from two recent seasons:

Season 1: 69.2% completion, 4,952 yards, 33TD, 17INT, 73.4 ESPN QBR

Season 2: 63% completion, 5,177 yards, 43TD, 19INT, 65.4 ESPN QBR

Those are gaudy numbers and there isn't a team in the league that wouldn't trip over themselves to get that kind of performance out of their QB year over year.

The problem? The Saints went 7-9 in both seasons and missed the playoffs. The first line is from 2014 while the second stat line is from 2012. What was missing for the Saints in those years? Defense. In 2012, the Saints were 31st in points allowed while in 2014 they were ranked 28th. As good as Drew Brees is, even he isn't capable of carrying a team with a terrible defense.

What about Brady?

One last thought to consider: what would the conversation about Tom Brady sound like if the Seahawks had run the ball in and won the 2014 Superbowl? Brady would have lost three straight Superbowls and though he would still be considered one of the greats, the 3 straight losses would have slightly tarnished the shine. However, he's now being talked about as one of the greatest QBs to have ever played, in large part because he has 4 Superbowl rings. Yet, anyone who watched that game knows that were it not for the worst play call in Superbowl history, he likely doesn't have that 4th ring.

That's not to say that Brady played poorly or that he wasn't a factor in the game, but the reality is more nuanced than "Brady carried them to victory." Brady certainly did his part in securing that fourth ring, but his defense deserves credit for closing out the game at the goal line.

Conclusion

Sadly, the narrative around the "second tier" QBs likely won't change until they do win a championship - Ryan included. The arguments will always steer towards the simplified "QB Wins" or "did he come through when it counted" narratives. These simplifications are a disservice to passionate fans who understand that football victories - unlike almost any other sport - are truly won by the entire team. No player - no matter how great - can carry an entire team.