It's about that time of year again. The time of year when all of the other sports begin to slowly melt away and make room for football. But with preseason games still over a month away, there's not a lot to talk about. ENTER: Quarterback Rankings!
On Wednesday, ESPN released quarterback rankings based on the opinions of 26 league insiders (strike another victory for anonymous sources!). Matthew Stafford ranked 13th among the second tier of quarterbacks, a seemingly fair judgment. However, like all rankings, this has sparked OUTRAGE among some. Chief among complaints I've seen is ranking Stafford ahead of the likes of young, successful quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick.
Still shocked that anyone would rank Matthew Stafford (2-28 vs. winning teams) ahead of Colin Kaepernick (4-2 in the playoffs).— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) July 3, 2014
First, let's get beyond the tired "winning record" argument. Stafford took over a team coming off a 0-16 season. The San Francisco 49ers were already 6-2-1 when Kaepernick earned his first career start. The teams were on completely different trajectories when each quarterback took over. Comparing overall records is 100% unfair. Also, the notion that Stafford plays significantly worse when facing teams with a winning record is a myth.
But putting records aside, there is an actual argument to be had here. Kaepernick is statistically superior in almost every important category. Kaepernick has a better completion percentage (59.8% to 59.5%), throws touchdowns more often (4.9% to 4.4%) and throws interceptions less often (1.7% to 2.9%).
But, again, I think comparing career numbers is a bit misleading. Kaepernick irrefutably has had a better supporting cast for his entire career than Stafford has. So, instead, I wanted to compare both quarterbacks after their first 13 starts.
I chose 13 starts because that brings Stafford to 2011, a year in which the Detroit Lions and 49ers had as close to equal talent as they have in the past decade (you may remember the thrilling -- but ultimately disappointing -- game between the two teams at Ford Field). 13 games also represents a full year of shaking off the rookie rust.
The biggest issue with this comparison is that it leaves Kaepernick with just 10 games to analyze, a poor sample size by any measurement. However, Kaepernick is a young quarterback, and if we insist on comparing him to others (and we do), we will have to sacrifice some high margins of error and draw big conclusions with small sets of data.
Here's what we're left with:
|Games started||Completions||Attempts||Completion %||TDs||TD %||INTs||INT %|
If we ignore the hilarious inequity in sample sizes (which we shouldn't), you can see that Kaepernick is still the undisputed winner in this comparison. And this doesn't even bring Kaepernick's running ability to the table. To say that Kaepernick is a better quarterback right now is a completely legitimate stance, and it's one I stand behind, as well.
But being a better quarterback right now does not mean he will be a better quarterback in the future. It is important to look at trends and changes in circumstances. Colin Kaepernick lit the NFL on fire when he entered the league, but he has been trending downward in almost every statistical measurement since his rookie year. His passer rating, completion percentage and interception rate are all trending in the wrong direction (hat tip to Justin Simon for hipping me to Sporting Charts' graph game). Kaepernick appears to be facing a sophomore slump that Stafford dealt with later in his career after his impressive 2011 season.
And with Stafford, who knows where his career is headed? He has a new coach and a new offensive coordinator, both of whom have surrounded themselves with some of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. But with five years of NFL experience under his belt, how much can Stafford improve his game? That answer depends fully on the individual.
In the end, comparing the two is an act of futility. Besides the outrageous imbalance of data, the two players play the same position only by name. Both are asked to do very different things and both are fairly successful at what they do. Can't we just say that both quarterbacks are pretty good right now and leave it at that? No? Alright, what do you think?