QBR: When average QB play is enough

Kevin Kolb needed merely to be average for the Arizona Cardinals to realize a significant gain in the standings.

That was my theory heading into the 2011 NFL season.

The team was so bad at quarterback in finishing 5-11 last season, my thinking went, that even mediocre play might get them into the .500 range. Kolb has too frequently been less than mediocre this season, but that changed during the second half and overtime of the Cardinals' 19-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13.

Total QBR, which pegs average quarterback play at 50 on a 100-point scale, says Kolb has played near an average level four times this season, including when he posted a season-high 54.0 score Sunday. The Cardinals are 2-2 in those four games. They are 0-4 when Kolb has posted a QBR score significantly worse than average.

So, while an improved defense largely accounted for the Cardinals' victory Sunday, slightly better than average quarterback play was critical, too.

Kolb remains the only projected NFC West starter without a single-game QBR score of 55 or higher. He faces a tough test when San Francisco visits University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 14. Average might not be good enough then, but with three of their final four games at home, the Cardinals still have a chance to approach that .500 range -- right where we thought they might land, albeit by less conventional means.

2011 NFC West Total QBR by Week (50 is average, 100-point max)

Quick thoughts on how NFC West passers graded out in Week 13 according to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point:

  • Tarvaris Jackson, Seahawks (76.9 QBR, 142.3 NFL rating): See full breakdown from Friday.

  • Alex Smith, 49ers (68.7 QBR, 142.3 NFL rating): Smith completed 17 of 23 passes for 274 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions, four sacks, no fumbles and two rushing attempts covering 10 yards (rush stats updated). He finished with the highest single-game NFL passer rating of his career. Smith also posted a high QBR score, but the blowout affected how much credit he got for plays deemed less important to winning. QBR does not necessarily tell us how well a quarterback executed his team's game plan. It does not necessarily tell us whether he threw pretty passes. It tells us how his passes, runs, penalties and sacks affected win probability on a per-play basis, weighted for game situations. Smith has largely done what the team has asked him to do. The team has not always asked him to be the difference in winning. For that reason, his QBR scores have sometimes lagged despite seemingly efficient play. The downfield throws Smith made Sunday helped him finish with his sixth QBR score of 65 or higher. That level, if sustained over the course of a season, would reflect Pro Bowl-caliber play. QBR says Smith has achieved that level more often than not recently.

  • Kevin Kolb, Cardinals (54.0 QBR, 109.9 NFL rating): Kolb completed 16 of 25 passes for 247 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions, five sacks and no fumbles. He ran three times for 20 yards, including once for a 17-yard gain to the Dallas 5-yard line on the Cardinals' first possession of the second half. Kolb passed for only 44 yards in the first half and took four of his sacks then. He played much better from that point forward. The QBR score was only slightly above average because Kolb took so many sacks. And because LaRod Stephens-Howling did most of the work on the winning 52-yard touchdown reception in overtime, Kolb did not get as much credit for that throw as NFL passer rating gave him.

  • A.J. Feeley, Rams (11.4 QBR, 58.1 NFL rating): Feeley completed 12 of 22 passes for 156 yards with no touchdowns, one interception, four sacks, one fumble (lost) and no rushing attempts. Austin Pettis dropped an early third-down pass when a conversion was within reach. Danario Alexander failed to hold onto a deep pass at the goal line. The game wasn't very competitive, however, and that meant even strong plays from Feeley would not have registered as much with QBR once the score was lopsided.

The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 13.

The clutch-weight average column reflects game situations, not how well players performed during those situations. Any clutch average above 1.0 reflects a quarterback performing in higher-pressure situations.

Note in the chart below that Dallas' Tony Romo added far more expected points through his passing than any quarterback listed. The negative totals he posted for rushing, sacks and penalties left his QBR score in the mid-50s, however.

2011 Relevant NFC West QBR Ranks: Week 13