Careful QBs = winning QBs in the playoffs
We started pondering the Lord of Postseason Stats, the one figure to which all other playoff football statistics must bow and worship and beg mercy, during a Fox NFL pregame show last year.
Co-host Terry Bradshaw, the former Pittsburgh quarterback and four-time Super Bowl champion, was interviewing New England quarterback Tom Brady, a three-time Super Bowl champion.
The Disco Era king of NFL quarterbacks launched a rather interesting question at the current king of NFL quarterbacks. Bradshaw asked Brady if he’d rather throw multiple touchdowns in a game or no interceptions.
Well, you know what most fans and many quarterbacks would say. They’d want to light up the scoreboard with a high-powered aerial assault. The QB would get their face on the highlight reels that night and the fans would get a big woody because it pads their fantasy stats.
But Brady gave the correct, but less obvious, answer.
Brady said he’d be happier with a no-INT performance. In fact, he was rather adamant about it. Bradshaw, a fair big-game QB in his day, nodded his head in knowing agreement.
It turns out that Brady and Bradshaw know something that routinely gets overlooked in a pigskin culture that covets the stat-padding TD pass. While it’s obviously important to score points, it’s far more important to hold onto the ball, especially in the pressure-packed playoffs.
In fact, the Crowned Prince of NFL Analysis, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, shows us that QBs who avoid throwing INTs are more successful in the postseason than QBs who toss touchdown passes.
And, it turns out, the QBs who are the very best at holding onto the ball are also the very best postseason QBs in NFL history.
The Building Block of Dynasties
The TD vs. INT question comes into focus this week as New England steps on the field with an opportunity to set an NFL record with its 10th consecutive postseason victory.
The Patriots currently share the record of nine straight playoff victories with Vince Lombardi’s Packers, who won all nine postseason games they played from 1961 to 1967.
Why, in the entire history of the NFL, were these two teams the only ones able to reel off nine straight wins against tough postseason competition?
Great coaching? Of course
Tough defenses? Certainly.
Distinct home-field advantage? No doubt.
But the secret – the Stat that Lords Over All Others – is that the quarterbacks of these two teams simply did not throw interceptions in the playoffs.
Brady and Green Bay's Bart Starr (pictured here) are the two most successful quarterbacks in postseason history. Brady, entering this weekend, has gone 9-0 in his postseason career. Starr went 9-1.
What do Brady and Starr have in common? Sure, they were each the 199th pick in the draft. But more importantly for our purposes, they rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in lowest postseason interception rate in NFL history.
Brady, Starr and Simms might not have the gaudiest quarterbacking stats in NFL history. But they played in six Super Bowls among the three of them and won all six. In five of those Super Bowls, they were the game’s Most Valuable Player. The three quarterbacks combined to throw just two INTs in their six Super Bowl appearances.
(Starr, by the way, appeared in just four Pro Bowls during his 16-year Hall of Fame career, but in the postseason there was no one better. He remains the highest-rated playoff passer in NFL history, with a rating of 104.8.)
We Want Zeroes, Not Heroes
That number 3 sure looks nifty in the TD column the day after the game. But the number you really want to see in the quarterback’s box score – at least if you value winning – is a big fat "0" next to the letters "INT."
We looked at every single playoff game – all 356 – in the Super Bowl Era. Now, every football fan knows that there is a direct correlation between turnovers and losses. The more you turn the ball over, the more likely you are to lose. But they may not know that it’s actually more important not to throw INTs than it is to throw TDs.
The breaking point seems to be two INTs. If you throw fewer than two INTs, your odds of winning are fairly strong. But once a quarterback throws that second interception, his odds of winning drop dramatically.
Here’s a breakdown of how teams have fared in the postseason based on the number of INTs they’ve thrown:
Only one team in the Super Bowl Era has managed to win after tossing more than three INTs in a playoff game. That team was the 1981 Bills, who earned a 31-27 wildcard victory over the N.Y. Jets. But there’s a very good reason why the Bills were able to overcome this dreadful four-INT performance by Joe Ferguson: Jets quarterback Richard Todd also tossed four INTs that day.
Legends Skewered on and Saved by the Sword of INTs
Fans routinely come up with reasons why some great quarterbacks were not able to win in the postseason.
Take, for example, the case of former Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, who still stands as one of the most productive players in history and continues to hold numerous passing records. Marino's supporters say he did not win a Super Bowl because he had no defense and no running game and had to carry the team himself. But that wasn’t the reason why Marino never won a Super Bowl.
Marino never won a Super Bowl because he habitually threw interceptions in the playoffs. Marino played in 18 postseason games in his career. He posted an 8-10 mark in those 18 games.
Now consider the case of Joe Namath, who is best remembered for guaranteeing a victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III and going on to win the game’s Most Valuable Player award. Namath won the award not for what he did on the field that day, but for what he did not do: He did not throw a single touchdown. But nor did he throw a single interception.
Nobody remembers that Namath failed to find the end zone with his golden arm that day. All they remember is that he lifted his team to the biggest upset in NFL history. He lifted his team because, if for no other reason, he kept the ball out of the hands of the Baltimore defense.
His Colts counterparts, Earl Morrall and Johnny Unitas, were picked off four times that day. The 1968 Colts entered that game as the most dominant team of the Super Bowl Era. But even their historic dominance was not enough to overcome those four interceptions on a day when the opposing quarterback failed to throw even one.
If Namath throws four INTs that day, the Jets lose, the Colts go down as one of the great teams in NFL history and Namath today is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
All people would have remembered is that he couldn't win the big game.