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Ranking Roethlisberger - Part 3: Air time a key statistic?

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Can we objectively see where Ben Roethlisberger ranks against his peers using a metric that is more effective than the NFL's QB Rating? In part one we learned about the Simple Quarterback Metrics method and applied it to Roethlisberger's career. In part three, we get into the weeds a bit to see if it's Ben, or great receivers who run well after the catch. Or maybe both.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In a recent discussion of Tom Brady and Deflategate, I raised the ire of many a Patriots fan. Not that I particularly mind that.

What irked them so badly? It was when I stated, with a fair amount of statistical evidence, that Brady is a very good quarterback, but he doesn't really do much to make him great.  Specifically, I pointed out that he doesn't play well when pressured, and that most quarterbacks would look pretty good in an offense where the ball generally travels six to eight yards in the air on each throw.

Went over about as well as falling anvils in a china factory.

While this isn't about Tom Brady, it did get me thinking: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger plays in an offense that still carries the stigma of being a dink-and-dunk offense that focuses more on yards-after-catch from the receiver than it does on the quarterback throwing down the field. In 2012 and 2013, the first years under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, that was absolutely the case.

So, is it Ben, or the receivers?

The answer is simple: yes.

First things first: how do you measure something like this? Well, it's actually quite simple. There is plenty of information detailing a receiver's yards-after-catch (YAC) numbers.  Simply add these together across the team, then subtract YAC from the quarterback's total net yards, and finally divide that by the number of completions, and you have the average yards the ball traveled in the air per completion.

This, essentially, eliminates the receiver's after-the-catch contribution from the measurement, giving us the ability to rank quarterbacks almost entirely on their own merit. It helps to balance the impact of one team's receivers being more talented than another's.  It doesn't eliminate it entirely, but it does limit it about as well as possible.

The Data Set

Going back to 2009, I calculated the Yards-in-Air per Completion (YiA/C) results for roughly the top 32 to 35 quarterbacks each year, allowing for the few quarterbacks who missed considerable amounts of time.  Then, in order to have a fair comparison, I weeded out any quarterback who was not present in the top 35 or so for at least three of the six years. This left 23 players.

The Results

There are three different tables here.  The first is a straight view of the results based on the player's average rank among his peers within a given year for YiA/C.

NOTE: A zero (0) denotes that the quarterback did not play or was not in the top 35 for that season.

The first thing that jumps out at you is just how consistent Eli Manning is, having ranked in the top five all but one of the six years. This shows in his other statistics, though, as he takes a lot of sacks and throws a lot of interceptions, as well. These are the biggest negative characteristics of a player who generally makes his throws further downfield.

Roethlisberger falls in the top third, tied with Jay Cutler for 7th. Both Brady and Joe Flacco are in the bottom third of the list -- Brady for reasons I already covered, and Flacco because, while he throws deep a lot, many of them are incomplete (and a lot of them drawn long pass-interference penalties).

The second list is weighted to make more recent seasons more impactful than past seasons.

NOTE: A zero (0) denotes that the quarterback did not play or was not in the top 35 for that season.

The biggest effect here, at least on Roethlisberger, is that the first two seasons under Haley drop him down two spots to 9th. This is understandable, as there were a lot of changes being made to tailor the offense to the strengths of the personnel. In 2014, we saw the fruits of that labor.

An interesting point that this reveals is just how vertical the offense was under former coordinator Bruce Arians -- Roethlisberger ranked fourth and third in 2009 and 2010.

Once again, Flacco and Brady find themselves in the bottom halfof the list, though both move a bit higher in this scenario (14th and 18th, respectively).

Finally, I have whittled the list down to just the quarterbacks who played at least a significant portion of all six seasons for which data was available.  The downside is that it leaves out Peyton Manning, who missed the 2011 season with a neck injury, but it does show how the long-time veteran starters stack up against one another. Note that this uses the unweighted value.

Eli Manning truly is in a class of his own. He parlayed that risky style into Super Bowl wins in 2007 and 2012 so, for all the flaws in his game, it's hard to argue with his success.

Roethlisberger is tied for third among all established veterans, while Tom Brady pulls up the rear.

While the intent of this study was not to deride Tom Brady for the style of offense in which he excels, it does reveal that his is generally a measured, careful system in which risks are not often taken. Meanwhile, the top of this list is made up of the guys who lean heavily toward the "gunslinger" category. But the top three on the list, as well as the bottom three, each account for five Super Bowl wins.  While these numbers raise interesting questions, the only thing they truly indicate is that those who win the most are either big risk takers or careful craftsmen. Fence-sitters might as well get their popcorn ready, because they will probably be watching the Super Bowl from a couch, not the sidelines.