East Coast Offense: How Much Do Quarterbacks Matter?

East Coast Offense: How Much Do Quarterbacks Matter?

This article is part of our East Coast Offense series.

How Much Do Quarterbacks Matter?

There's been a fair amount of research done about which positions matter most, typically it goes quarterback, then a big gap, then edge rushers/offensive tackles, receivers/cornerbacks and finally run stoppers and running backs. This research is uncontroversial – we all know quarterbacks, and those most directly impacting their play, are typically the biggest difference makers in NFL football games. 

But as Nassim Taleb (a pre-2020 hero of mine) once wrote: "Never cross a river that is on average four-feet deep." The average depth isn't what's important, obviously, it's the maximum depth, i.e., the depth at one extreme. Put differently, just because something is true on average, does not mean it's true in every instance. It is therefore specious to conclude because quarterbacks are on average the most important players on a team, they are the most important players on every team. 

One recent example is the 2017 Eagles who had then frontrunner for MVP Carson Wentz (seriously, you can Duck Duck Go it) go down late in the year, and most of us wrote them off as serious contenders. But Nick Foles took over and led them to a shoot-out Super Bowl win over Tom Brady's Patriots. Wentz apparently was not the key piece, the removed Jenga block that would bring down the entire tower. 

There was a Steelers defense in the mid-aughts that ranked No. 1 in the league, but got torched when Troy Polamalu (a safety) went out for a few games and played much better when he returned. This year's Cowboys seem to need left tackle Tyron Smith nearly as much as Dak Prescott. I suspect teams often lose players (or combinations thereof), fall apart and we don't ever even learn the actual cause – we just write it off to them being bad suddenly. 

This is characteristic of a complex system, that you cannot know how changing one input will affect the output. It could be like Wentz/Foles – not much change at all, or Aaron Rodgers/Jordan Love – an elite offense that can barely move the ball. We can study these systems and say what happens on average, but in particular cases we are always guessing to an extent. 

Of course, one can argue, quarterback play is still the most important thing on virtually every team, and the reason Wentz's injury didn't hurt the Eagles is because the quarterback play never dropped off much. But that begs the question, doesn't it? If the quarterback play stayed relatively the same irrespective of the quarterback, that could mean either the backup (Foles) was just really good, or it could mean in that system virtually anyone could play quarterback decently behind an excellent offensive line and with a defense that gave him short fields and less pressure to force things. If quarterback play is consistent, irrespective of the snap-taker, that means the quarterback isn't the key driver of it. 

Consequently, when evaluating the importance of various positions, one should be careful not to confuse two distinct concepts: quarterback play generally and the performance of an individual quarterback. The former amounts more or less to two thirds of offensive performance, so of course it has a massive impact on outcomes. But the quarterback himself is only a fraction of quarterback play. In some systems, it's an overwhelming fraction, and in others it's smaller, and it's not always possible to know in advance which is which. 

Another argument that in my opinion leads to overvaluing individual quarterbacks is that when a good QB is out with an injury, the point spread moves massively – sometimes as much as seven or eight points – whereas when a star player at another position goes down, it might only move one point or less. But it's telling that when even an average QB is out, the line can move four or five points when the backup is unproven. That means much of the line movement isn't from the elite player to the average one, but from the average one to the untested one. That tells me the massive line move is more due to the difficulty of a new player being above the minimal threshold and up to speed in the system rather than the quality of the individuals in question. 

If you were to drop from Aaron Rodgers to Baker Mayfield, I'd guess the line would move three points. It's Mayfield to Jordan Love where the bigger movement happens. Once Love – or should he prove sub-standard – QB X, let's call him Taylor Heineke – gets a few games under his belt, he's indistinguishable from Mayfield, and roughly three points below Rodgers. The point spread value of the top QB then isn't mostly that he's a top QB, but the difficulty of replacing any QB midstream who hasn't practiced, seen NFL defenses or developed a rapport with the receivers. 

Still, three points is much more than one point (say if Derrick Henry or Alvin Kamara miss a game), so on average the top QB is still the most valuable player. But it's easier to see how moving from Wentz to an established backup (Foles) might not be the Jenga piece we thought it was, given an unusually supportive system. 

Week 13 Sporcle

Apropos of Joe Mixon's 165-yard outbrust Sunday, can you name every back who eclipsed 125 rushing yards in a game this season?

Guessing The Lines

 My LineGuessed lineReal lineNetMy O/U Real O/U Net
Cowboys at Saints-5.5-6-4.514746.5-0.5
Giants at Dolphins4.54.53-1.54442-2
Colts at Texans-7.5-6.5-9-1.54746.5-0.5
Vikings at Lions-4-6.5-7-34847.5-0.5
Eagles at Jets-7-5.5-6.50.54745.5-1.5
Cardinals at Bears-4.5-6.5-8-3.545461
Chargers at Bengals33304850.52.5
Buccaneers at Falcons-7.5-7.5-11-3.55250.5-1.5
Jaguars at Rams11.513.5131.548480
Team at Raiders3.542.5-14849.51.5
Ravens at Steelers-3-4-3.5-0.54744-3
49ers at Seahawks-2.5-3-3.5-15146.5-4.5
Broncos at Chiefs8.59.5101.54749.52.5
Patriots at Bills033341454

At first glance, my biggest leans are the Lions, Bears, Falcons and Patriots, but of course I reserve the right to change my mind in Beating The Book. (Incidentally, there are eight road favorites this week.)

Week 12 Observations

  • Taylor Heinicke is a player. He dodged a few would-be sacks, kept the mistakes to a minimum and made some strong throws. He's exhibit 20 as to why you don't reach for an early first-round QB you don't love, and why you don't extend the Andy Dalton/Baker Mayfield types for big money. Decent and sometime good QBs are available on the cheap.
  • Antonio Gibson (29-111-0, 7-7-35-0) carried a huge load and looked good. J.D. McKissic (7-30-1, 5-5-26-1) got his share too and vultured both touchdowns, but left late with a neck injury.
  • Terry McLaurin (7-4-51-0) was the only receiver of note, but the Team didn't need to attack downfield much, given gameflow and the ineptitude of the Seahawks' offense.
  • Joey Slye got hurt during the blocked PAT, and as a result, the Team couldn't kick a FG, something that almost cost them, as they could have chip-shotted with two minutes left to go up 10 and seal the game. Instead, the Seahawks stopped them on fourth down, scored a last-minute TD and would have sent it to OT had they made the two-point conversion. (I would have feared those Seattle entries had they won in overtime, but alas there is only one Team Of Destiny.)
  • Russell Wilson made a nice throw in the closing minute to make it 17-15, but he was way off on some throws, and he never got into rhythm.
  • Tyler Lockett (5-3-96-0) made a 55-yard catch, but didn't do much else, while DK Metcalf (4-1-13-0) was barely targeted, and at least one of those was a ball thrown well out of bounds. I thought a healthy Metcalf couldn't fail this year, and I could not have been more wrong.
  • Alex Collins (fumble) and the Seattle running game were non-existent. Chris Carson is out for the year, Rashaad Penny is on IR, Travis Homer (calf) was out, so don't be surprised to see more DeeJay Dallas going forward.
  • It's strange to write off the Seahawks this early during the Russell Wilson era, but there's no coming back from 3-8.
  • Cordarrelle MVPatterson (16-108-2, 3-2-27-0) was a game-time decision, and thankfully he suited up. It boggles the mind he's bounced around so many teams before one figured out how to use him properly.
  • Russell Gage (7-6-62-1) was the only other receiver of note, as Kyle Pitts (6-2-26-0) did little, though he came down with a tough catch on a key drive-moving third down.
  • Trevor Lawrence showed some signs, and looked nimble running the ball. He just doesn't have great targets, and even Dan Arnold got hurt early.
  • Lamar Jackson (four picks, lack of big play runs) has battled an illness on and off all year. It's not clear what it is, but he doesn't look like himself. He's had COVID twice, but this is something different.
  • The Ravens badly miss Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins – the lack of a quality run game has also hurt Jackson.
  • Mark Andrews (10-4-65-1) made some great catches but wasn't especially efficient.
  • Devin Duvernay is a valuable player, both as an elite kick returner and also a quality depth wideout.
  • I'm a broken record on this, but I never ceased to be amazed by how down the middle Justin Tucker's kicks are. If the goal posts were only 10 feet wide, he'd be the GOAT by an even greater margin than he already is.
  • Baker Mayfield was okay, but the Browns cannot attack down the field. Accordingly, all the Ravens had to do was sell out to stop the run and blitz the pass. There is no price to pay for doing so.
  • Jarvis Landry (10-6-111-0) had a nice game, but he's not likely to stretch the field.
  • Elijah Mitchell (27-133-1, 6-5-35-0) was the guy on whom you should have burned all your FAAB. What a massive workload.
  • Deebo Samuel (6-66-2, 4-1-12-0) had his day cut short by a groin injury, but was overtaken as a pass catcher by Brandon Aiyuk (6-3-91-0) for the second straight week. That said, the Niners attempted only 26 passes, nine of which were to running backs. Samuel is a monster runner near the goal line, though, and the Niners seem intent on using him there, whenever he makes it back from the injury.
  • Dalvin Cook (10-39-0, 7-6-64-0) left with a shoulder injury, and is likely to miss two games.
  • Aaron Rodgers (toe) is the league MVP in my opinion, but he'll never win because of immunization-gate. The Packers beat the Cardinals, and one of their three losses was with Jordan Love at QB.
  • Aaron Jones (10-23-0, 1-0-0-0) returned, but AJ Dillon (20-69-0, 5-5-21-1) was the workhorse. I'd expect the timeshare to be close to 50/50 after the bye, to keep both fresh.
  • Matthew Stafford had three TD passes, but his pick six sealed the game.
  • Cooper Kupp (10-7-96-0) had a quiet game until garbage time. Odell Beckham (10-5-81-1) caught a long TD and should be big part of the offense along with Van Jefferson (9-3-93-1.)
  • Sean McVay bizarrely called a run play, down 10, with less than a minute left and no timeouts, burning 30 seconds getting the field goal team set up. Even had the Rams recovered the ensuing onside kick, they would have had time only for a Hail Mary.
  • The Chargers had one of their "Justin Herbert has nowhere to throw" games. Their offense ceases to function roughly half the time.
  • Zach Wilson got a win at least, though he didn't have much to do with it. Elijah Moore (8-4-46-0) needs anyone else to play QB, and it'll be interesting to see what the Jets do once Joe Flacco is available. I'd imagine they have to stick with and develop Wilson now that he's healthy.
  • My Giants knocked six people of out the pool which was nice. Their defense picked off Jalen Hurts three times and held him to 4.2 YPA.
  • Miles Sanders always looks great, but he hurt his ankle again.
  • The Patriots cover the spread every week. The game was close for a while, and Mac Jones threw a would-be pick six that was dropped, but the Pats pulled away late.
  • Kendrick Bourne (6-5-61-2) often made key plays for the 49ers, and he's doing the same in New England.
  • Journeyman kicker Nick Folk is a beast this year.
  • The Dolphins are the poor man's Patriots, getting better as the season goes on and covering every week.
  • Cam Newton did his best Sam Darnold impression.
  • I made the Colts my best bet (third loss in a row after nine straight wins), and it looked okay until Carson Wentz turned it over twice in the third quarter.
  • Jonathan Taylor (16-83-1, 5-4-14-0) kept his TD streak alive, but didn't have a ton of room to run.
  • Leonard Fournette (17-100-3, 8-7-31-1) had a monster game. He and Rob Gronkowski (10-7-123-0) were the entire offense.
  • What a no-show by the Steelers.
  • Diontae Johnson (14-9-95-0) always gets his, though, no matter how badly the Steelers are playing.
  • I faded Joe Mixon (28-165-2, 4-4–2-0) this year, and that was a mistake. He's the clear bell cow in a decent offense.
  • Over his first seven games,  Ja'Marr Chase averaged 21.5 YPC, but only 10.1 YPC over his last four. Tee Higgins (8-6-114-1) picked up the slack, though.
  • Taylor Heinicke is a player. He dodged a few would-be sacks, kept the mistakes to a minimum and made some strong throws. He's exhibit 20 as to why you don't reach for an early first-round QB you don't love, and why you don't extend the Andy Dalton/Baker Mayfield types for big money. Decent and sometime good QBs are available on the cheap.
  • Antonio Gibson (29-111-0, 7-7-35-0) carried a huge load and looked good. J.D. McKissic (7-30-1, 5-5-26-1) got his share too and vultured both touchdowns.
  • Terry McLaurin (7-4-51-0) was the only receiver of note, but the Team didn't need to attack downfield much, given gameflow and the ineptitude of the Seahawks' offense.
  • Joey Slye got hurt during the blocked PAT, and as a result, the Team couldn't kick a FG, something that almost cost them, as they could have chip-shotted with two minutes left to go up 10 and seal the game. Instead, the Seahawks stopped them on fourth down, scored a last-minute TD and would have sent it to OT had they made the two-point conversion. (I would have feared those Seattle entries had they won in overtime, but alas there is only one Team Of Destiny.)
  • Russell Wilson made a nice throw in the closing minute to make it 17-15, but he was way off on some throws, and he never got into rhythm.
  • Tyler Lockett (5-3-96-0) made a 55-yard catch, but didn't do much else, while DK Metcalf (4-1-13-0) was barely targeted, and at least one of those was a ball thrown well out of bounds. I thought a healthy Metcalf couldn't fail this year, and I could not have been more wrong.
  • Alex Collins (fumble) and the Seattle running game were non-existent. Chris Carson is out for the year, Rashaad Penny is on IR, Travis Homer (calf) was out, so don't be surprised to see more DeeJay Dallas going forward.
  • It's strange to write off the Seahawks this early during the Russell Wilson era, but there's no coming back from 3-8.
  • Hate to cut this short, but I have to go consult with Oscar about Week 13 Survivor.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Liss
Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.
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