The National Football League Combine is now behind us and Free Agency won't start until March 10. What is left to talk about then? Oh, the draft of course. But if you're like me, as much as I love to know what college studs the team I root for might select in the April-May NFL Draft fest, after having read about 20 mock drafts these past few days, I'm about done with them, well for a day at least.
In this mock draft little hiatus, I invite you to use that break to do what we do best, as red-blooded American men and women: compare things and argue endlessly about them. Boxers or briefs? Brady or Manning? Mayweather or Pacquiao? Blonde or Brunette? Red dress or black dress? Brad Pitt or George Clooney? Saints or Falcons? Brees or Ryan?
Wait...what? Drew Brees or Matt Ryan? Are you crazy?
That "Are you crazy?" question was posed to me in a lot of different ways on Twitter a few days ago, from both Saints and Falcons fans. It went something like this:
Saints fans: Just stop it! Never! Ryan sucks, he's never won anything!
Falcons fans: Just stop it! Never! Brees sucks, he's old and done.
If you're wondering how this all started, well our own Chief Editor Dave Cariello decided to stir the pot when he said on CSC's Podcast that he'd trade Drew Brees for Matt Ryan straight up, without any hesitation.
After being momentarily taken aback by the mere idea of having Matt Ryan in Black and Gold replacing a Super Bowl champion in Drew Brees, I thought: Hmmm...how crazy is Dave's suggestion? Is it that far-fetched?
Well if you've read my work before, you know my answer to every complicated question: Science!!! I decided to simply look at several factors that we, as a football-loving society, have determined to be crucial for a quarterback to be considered a "great quarterback." Among those are things like accuracy (completion percentage), quarterback ratings, interception ratio, wins and losses, etc...
On top of that however, I also elected to add in factors that we too often ignore or neglect, like offensive coordinator/head coach, offensive system, supporting cast, home stadium etc...
But before I tackle the cold hard numbers, I think it's important to ask ourselves a few questions: why would anyone rooting for the Saints want to trade Brees and acquire Matt Ryan? Is it because they think that Matt Ryan is better than Brees right now? Is it because they think that Ryan may not be better than Brees at the moment, but will be moving forward?
How about on the other side? Would Falcons fans want Brees instead of Ryan? Do they think so strongly that Ryan is better than Brees that they'd not want one of the most accurate quarterbacks in NFL history on their team even in the twilight of his career?
Those are all valid questions, especially if as fans we can remove our Black and Gold or Red and Black-colored glasses and try to take an objective look at both Brees' and Ryan's career arcs.
So here I am, taking off my Mardi Gras goggles and...here we go!
Note: Since Matt Ryan's first year in the NFL was 2008, we will look at each of the factors I selected for this study from 2008 to 2014.
Offensive Coordinator / Head Coach
- 2008: Doug Marrone/Sean Payton
- 2009-2014: Pete Carmichael Jr./Sean Payton
- 2008-2011: Mike Mularkey/Mike Smith
- 2012-2014: Dirk Koetter/Mike Smith
Both Ryan and Brees have had two offensive coordinators since 2008. However, there has been a bit more stability in New Orleans, since Pete Carmichael Jr. has been at the position for the last five years, compared to only three years for Koetter before he was let go this offseason. Additionally, as offensive playcallers neither Mularkey nor Koetter really compare to Payton, whose Saints offenses have perennially ranked at or near the very top of the NFL since his arrival in New Orleans in 2006.
On the head coach front, there is truly no real debate as to who has been the better coach between the recently fired Mike Smith and Sean Payton who is now entering his ninth year in New Orleans. Smith finally swept the Saints for the first time in seven years, to take his head-to-head record vs. Payton to 4-8 (not counting the split in 2012 when Payton was suspended for the year).
In order to simplify this section, I chose to look solely at the pass/run ratio for the Saints and the Falcons since 2008. That is important at several levels: Firstly, a team that passes a lot puts its quarterback at risk of throwing more interceptions and having a lower completion percentage, thus a lower quarterback rating. On the other hand, conventional wisdom dictates that a team that runs the ball a lot is reasonably successful at it; therefore it takes the pressure off its quarterback and increases his success in sequences such as the play-action fake pass.
There's another side to this coin however. Teams that pass less (like the Seattle Seahawks) also limit their quarterback's opportunities to put up big flashy numbers in terms of yards and touchdowns, numbers that influence casual viewers' perception far more than intricate metrics telling you that 15 for 20 passes for 154 yards and one touchdown is a very good stat line when the team ran effectively and won the game.
Saints Regular Season Passing and Rushing Attempts 2008-2014.
Falcons Regular Season Passing and Rushing Attempts 2008-2014.
Passing: What we see is that the Saints have thrown the ball an average of 640.6 times the past seven regular seasons, which corresponds to an average of 40 passes per game. In the same time span, Atlanta has averaged 583 passes in average, 36 passes per game. The difference of four passing attempts per game isn't significant, which helps our comparison when it comes to the passing game, as both New Orleans and Atlanta basically throw the ball at a strikingly similar rate. In other words, both Brees and Ryan have been asked to carry the passing load at pretty much the same clip.
Rushing: The Saints have averaged 406.3 rushing attempts every regular season since 2008 (25.4 rushes per game) while the Falcons have handed the ball to their running backs 404.6 times (25.3 rushes per game). Once again, there is practically no difference in the rate at which both the Falcons and Saints run the ball, thus no significant advantage for either Brees or Ryan as far as their pure offensive systems.
Now that we have set the table and established that Brees has had the advantage when it comes to offensive coordinator/head coach while both Ryan and Brees have been required to carry the offensive load of their respective team in a very similar fashion, let's look at the actual numbers and ratings the two quarterbacks have posted the past seven years.
In order to try and increase the accuracy of this study, I decided to consider quarterback-rating metrics from different sources, using different formulas:
1) The traditional QB Rating.
2) The QBR metric introduced a few years ago by ESPN.
3) DVOA ratings used by Football Outsiders
4) DYAR ratings used by Football Outsiders.
5) The Pro Football Focus Quarterback Rating.
As you can see, I did not include total yards, or number of touchdowns and interceptions. All of the metrics above take those in account, correlating them to game situations and opponents to get a more accurate rating rather than isolating absolute numbers.
Brees/Ryan Traditional QB Rating and NFL Rank (2008-2014)
(The NFL Quarterback Rating is measured on a scale from 0 to 158.3)
Six of the past seven years, Brees has been in the top 10 in the NFL in terms of quarterback rating. This includes the past two seasons. During this six years span, Brees has also been first (2009) and second (2011).
In the same period, Ryan has recorded two top 10 in quarterback rating and has rated higher than Brees in only two of the seven seasons (2010, 2012). In the past two seasons, Ryan has ranked just outside the top 10.
Brees/Ryan Total QBR and NFL Rank (2008-2014)
(The Total QBR is measured on a scale from 0 to 100)
With the Total QBR metric, we are somewhat splitting hairs between Brees and Ryan. The Saints quarterback has averaged a 71.7 rating over the last seven seasons, while Ryan has a 67.9 average. Brees' lowest ranking is ninth in 2008 and he was third and sixth in his two most recent seasons. Ryan on the other hand has had a bit of a performance dip the last two years, after a stellar 2012 season in which he was third in the NFL.
Brees/Ryan DVOA and NFL Rank (2008-2014)
(DVOA = Defense-adjusted Value Over Average)
DVOA is a very interesting metric because it represents the value of the quarterback in question, per play, over a calculated average quarterback in the same exact game situations. The more positive the DVOA, the better the quarterback compared to the average (0.0%). In this measurement, Brees again holds the edge, with five appearances in the "top five" in the NFL vs. only one for Matt Ryan. Since 2008, Brees was also runner-up twice (2009 and 2011), while Ryan's highest ranking is fourth. Finally, Brees has ranked higher than Ryan in this category for the last three seasons.
Brees/Ryan DYAR and NFL Rank (2008-2014)
(DYAR = Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement)
DYAR gives the value of a quarterback compared to a replacement level QB, adjusted for game situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. Despite throwing the ball at a very similar rate as Matt Ryan, Drew Brees holds a definite edge in this department, ranking at the top of the NFL three times since 2008 with his lowest ranking being sixth in 2010. Ryan on the other hand has cracked the "top five" three times in seven years, his highest rankings being fourth in 2013 and fifth in 2010 and 2012.
Brees/Ryan PFF Rating and NFL Rank (2008-2014)
(Pro Football Focus QB Rating)
The Pro Football Focus quarterback ratings take in account a number of factors such as the number of snaps taken, number of drop backs, passes thrown, completion percentage, touchdown to interception ratio, yards per attempts, etc...
Although Ryan ranks highly in this category, Brees once again edges him overall. More importantly in the context of this article, Brees tops Ryan in each of the last three years, showing no true signs of slowing down.
Defensive Supporting Cast
In this section, rather than look at the players around the quarterback on offense (offensive line, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends) I decided to take a look at the defenses instead. In all the numbers we've examined so far, the contribution of the offensive supporting cast is taken into account.
However, we often forget the all obvious fact that football games are won or lost on both sides of the ball. This is a discussion I am intimately familiar with because I live in Seattle and Seahawks fans get their panties in a bunch anytime someone mentions the fact that Russell Wilson can afford for go three-and-out 10 times a game because while he's "warming up," his amazing defense will keep the other team in check. Although it is undeniable that Wilson has been "clutch," the Seahawks defense has often given him the opportunity to be so.
How have Drew Brees' and Matt Ryan's defensive supporting cast helped them (or not) over the last seven years? Has one of these two quarterbacks benefited from having a better defense than the other, thus played with less pressure? I chose to take the Football Outsiders numbers for this section, as I find their method for rating team units to be the most thorough out there.
Saints/Falcons Defensive Ratings and NFL Rank (2008-2014)
(Defensive DVOA Rankings From Football Outsiders)
Because positive numbers represent more scoring, lower (more negative) defensive DVOA values represent a better defense. What we can see from this chart is that in the past seven years, the Saints have had three decent defenses (2009, 2010 and 2013), with the highest ranking being 10th in both 2010 and 2013. The Saints 2009 defense was ranked 17th only because it created an abnormally high amount of turnovers that year, otherwise it was fairly porous.
For the Falcons, from 2010 until 2012, the defense was decent as well, with a highest ranking of eighth in 2011. Overall however, in both Atlanta and New Orleans, the defense hasn't exactly been something either Ryan or Brees could rely on consistently to win games.
The Undefeated Father Time
To complete this study, I decided to look at something that matters a lot for all of us, but at an even higher level for professional athletes: age. Drew Brees is 36 years old, and will be starting his 15th season in the NFL next September. Matt Ryan on the other hand is seven years younger at 29 and will be starting only his eighth season in the league. Brees won a Super Bowl at age 31 in 2009-10, when he entered the prime of his career. One could argue that Ryan, at 29, with the right coaching, could also ascend to that level with many more years than Brees to get better. Could Ryan take his already great play to an even higher level and become what Brees has been for the past seven years? It remains to be seen, but when it comes to having more time in the NFL, Ryan has a definite edge over Brees.
After looking at all these factors one by one, let's summarize them in one table. If skimmed is your milk of choice, then all you need to read is the following chart:
In conclusion, Drew Brees has had an overwhelming edge over Matt Ryan throughout Ryan's seven-year career in the NFL. What is even more interesting is that despite the age difference and the criticism Brees has received about his play in 2014, the Saints quarterback still outplayed his Falcons counterpart in the most recent years, including 2014.
This brings me to the conclusion that there is absolutely nothing indicating that Matt Ryan would be a better choice than Drew Brees for the Saints, apart from the conjecture that working with Sean Payton might take Ryan to an "elite of elite" level of play that we simply haven't seen from him yet.
The other assumption that I can make here is that either Dave decided he'd expertly troll both the Who Dat Nation and the Dirty Bird faithful by stating that he'd trade Brees to get Ryan, or our fearless leader truly needs a vacation because as we all know, he recently had a daughter and probably isn't getting enough sleep. Congratulations again by the way, Dave!