As Robert Griffin III’s 61-yard touchdown pass landed miraculously in the hands of receiver Santana Moss last Sunday, I thought that Griffin’s season must represent some sort of record improvement in year-to-year team performance at quarterback. In other words, if we compared each team’s quarterback performance to its previous year, how would the 2012 Redskins’ improvement at that key position measure up with other notable turnarounds?
For the comparison, I used Expected Points Added (EPA), which is a measure of the change in net scoring potential of every play. A player’s EPA measures total production, accounting for down, distance and field position. Digital records go back through the 2000 season, so the analysis is limited to the eleven year pairs since then.
The Redskins’ quarterback improvement from 2011 to 2012 isn’t the greatest in recent history, but it is among the most significant. The biggest turnaround belongs to Cam Newton and the 2011 Panthers. Not only was Newton’s 2011 season phenomenal, the preceding season was absolutely dreadful with Jimmy Clausen under center.
The biggest year-to-year decline belongs to the Vikings and Brett Favre. Favre’s 2009 season marked an increase in quarterback EPA of 152 points. But as Favre giveth, Favre taketh away. In 2010, the Vikings’ combination of Favre, Joe Webb and Tarvaris Jackson sunk Minnesota with a drop in EPA of 212 points. Favre’s late tears with Green Bay were also a roller coaster. His decline from 2005 and his resurgence in 2007 both rank among the biggest swings of the recent decade.
At a (per-game adjusted) 162 points so far, the Redskins upswing this season ranks as the 9th biggest since 2000-2001. But that’s not even the greatest of the current year. You might think that belongs to the Colts, who went from Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovski to Andrew Luck. But the Colts’ upswing only ranks fourth this year. The biggest improvement belongs to the Broncos, who swapped Tim Tebow for Peyton Manning. That upgrade was worth with a change in quarterback EPA of 181 points, or about 11 points per game.
Griffin’s impact represents about 10 net points per game, not far behind Manning’s impact for Denver. That’s enormous. Every 100 expected points is worth about 2.8 wins in the NFL, meaning Griffin’s current level of play brings a theoretical improvement of more than 4 wins over a 16-game season. If that level of performance continues, the king’s ransom paid for the right to draft Griffin would seem more than reasonable.
To put 10 points per game in another context, just look at the recent Sunday night game between the Ravens and Steelers. After Ben Roethlisberger’s rib injury the previous Monday night, the consensus point spread moved from favoring Pittsburgh by three points to favoring Baltimore by three. So replacing perennial Pro Bowl contender Roethlisberger with expendable second-stringer Byron Leftwich was expected to be worth six points. Griffin has been worth four points more than that.
Griffin has continued to perform at a very high level despite the loss of one of his best playmakers in Fred Davis. In addition, he’s fought through an underperforming offensive line. Rookies often improve throughout the season for understandable reasons, so Griffin’s production still has room to grow.
Football truly is the ultimate team sport, but some players transcend the limitations of the team around them, and Griffin appears to be one of them.
Brian Burke is the creator of Advanced NFL Stats, a Web site about football, statistics and game theory.