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Comparing Super Bowl-winning QBs to Andy Dalton

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Here's a look at how Andy Dalton matches up to every Super Bowl-winning QB. As one would expect, the problem isn't so much Dalton's regular-season performance as it is his playoff performance.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

As the Andy Dalton debate carries on among Bengals fans, it's become clear there are two fundamentally different sides:

  1. Those who believe the Bengals can realistically win a Super Bowl with Dalton, and also believe that those chances are greater than the chances of the Bengals drafting a QB better than Dalton.
  2. Those who believe that the chances of the Bengals winning a Super Bowl with Dalton are unrealistic, or at least low enough that the chances of drafting a better QB are greater.
Given these presumptions, the first side thinks that the Bengals should stick with Dalton; and the second side thinks that if Dalton doesn't improve in 2015, the Bengals should let go of him (and his lucrative contract) and draft someone new in the 2016 NFL Draft. Of course anything can be done in theory, and everyone would like to see the team win a Super Bowl, but fans disagree on the chances that it can be done with Dalton.

Let's look at the history of all the Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks and their respective individual calibers in their Super Bowl-winning seasons. One direct way to quantify this is to use adjusted net yards per attempt index (ANY/A+), from Pro Football Reference. According to Sporting Charts, ANY/A is defined as:
An advanced statistic in football that quantifies the contributions of a quarterbacks passing game by including five key passing statistics; passing yards, passing touchdowns, interceptions thrown, times sacked and yards lost to being sacked. This measure rewards passers for scoring with a multiplier on touchdowns and punishes a passer on throwing interceptions. This is all combined into a value on a per pass attempt basis.
No single statistic is perfect, but this particular one takes many different individual measures into account. Furthermore, ANY/A+ uses league averages from each season to put passers from different eras on a level playing field, with 100 being the average. This adjusts for QBs in present times, whose raw numbers are relatively inflated because of the very favorable conditions for passing. Unfortunately, data for ANY/A+ is not available before the 1969 regular season.

Quarterback name Super Bowl-winning team Super Bowl-winning year ANY/A+ value, regular-season only
Bart Starr Green Bay Packers 1966 Clearly the top QB in the league
Bart Starr Green Bay Packers 1967 Clearly a top-5 QB in the league
Joe Namath New York Jets 1968 Clearly a top-5 QB in the league
Len Dawson Kansas City Chiefs 1969 100
Johnny Unitas Baltimore Colts 1970 103
Roger Staubach Dallas Cowboys 1971 139
Bob Griese Miami Dolphins 1972 108
Bob Griese Miami Dolphins 1973 120
Terry Bradshaw Pittsburgh Steelers 1974 89
Terry Bradshaw Pittsburgh Steelers 1975 114
Ken Stabler Oakland Raiders 1976 138
Roger Staubach Dallas Cowboys 1977 124
Terry Bradshaw Pittsburgh Steelers 1978 127
Terry Bradshaw Pittsburgh Steelers 1979 119
Jim Plunkett Oakland Raiders 1980 97
Joe Montana San Francisco 49ers 1981 119
Joe Theismann Washington Redskins 1982 113
Jim Plunkett Oakland Raiders 1983 102
Joe Montana San Francisco 49ers 1984 138
Jim McMahon Chicago Bears 1985 115
Phil Simms New York Giants 1986 100
Doug Williams Washington Redskins 1987 131
Joe Montana San Francisco 49ers 1988 115
Joe Montana San Francisco 49ers 1989 141
Jeff Hostetler New York Giants 1990 112
Mark Rypien Washington Redskins 1991 141
Troy Aikman Dallas Cowboys 1992 117
Troy Aikman Dallas Cowboys 1993 126
Steve Young San Francisco 49ers 1994 141
Troy Aikman Dallas Cowboys 1995 129
Brett Favre Green Bay Packers 1996 121
John Elway Denver Broncos 1997 116
John Elway Denver Broncos 1998 123
Kurt Warner St. Louis Rams 1999 134
Trent Dilfer Baltimore Ravens 2000 90
Tom Brady New England Patriots 2001 102
Brad Johnson Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2002 120
Tom Brady New England Patriots 2003 107
Tom Brady New England Patriots 2004 118
Ben Roethlisberger Pittsburgh Steelers 2005 124
Peyton Manning Indianapolis Colts 2006 131
Eli Manning New York Giants 2007 91
Ben Roethlisberger Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 95
Drew Brees New Orleans Saints 2009 131
Aaron Rodgers Green Bay Packers 2010 119
Eli Manning New York Giants 2011 121
Joe Flacco Baltimore Ravens 2012 105
Russell Wilson Seattle Seahawks 2013 115

Dalton's median ANY/A+ in his first four seasons (excluding the postseason) is 97, which is objectively average to below-average, but still competent. This puts him below most QBs who have started for a Super Bowl-winning team. But based on the regular season, he did finish around the level of a handful of them.

Based on the regular season, ANY/A+ would say that Dalton has a chance of being a Super Bowl-winning QB. His level of regular-season play would still put him more or less equivalent to the regular seasons of some historical SB-winning QBs, about 11 of the 48 seasons. Other starters like Ryan Tannehill and Matthew Stafford essentially fall into this same category, though right now, they are on the upper end of this group.

There have been 11 Super Bowls won with QBs who finished roughly equivalent to Dalton (including a few even worse), purely based on regular season play. They fall into two different categories:

Eight of them (1969 Dawson, 1970 Unitas, 1974 Bradshaw, 1986 Simms, 2001 Brady, 2007 Eli Manning, 2008 Roethlisberger, 2012 Flacco) were won by teams with QBs who were merely competent in the regular season, but then elevated their level of play in the postseason. Only five of these QBs (Dawson, Unitas, Bradshaw, Brady, Roethlisberger) are considered elite and Hall-of-Fame caliber. While the others aren't truly elite, they showed they could sustain a near-elite level throughout the playoffs for a month, before coming back to earth.

Three of them (1980 Plunkett, 1983 Plunkett, 2000 Dilfer) were won by teams with QBs who were merely competent in the regular season, and never really elevated their play in the postseason, but at least maintained it so that their supporting casts could win the Lombardi Trophy for them.

Long-standing historical averages show that a QB's ANY/A+ peak is normally at age 27, and after that, he normally either plateaus or regresses. At this point in his career, going on 28 years old and entering his 5 years as a starter, even most Dalton defenders would agree that it is historically unlikely that he will reach the consistently excellent level that most SB-winning QBs have reached.

Dalton still has a chance to mildly improve, but realistically, he'll never be a truly elite QB. So for the Bengals to have any chance of winning a Super Bowl with Dalton, he will have to fit into one of these two "exception" categories above.

In the comments section of a recent article about Marvin Lewis tying his fate to Dalton, one reader, tylertoo, made this comment:
To go far these days you need a great QB or a completely dominant rest of the team.

You don’t need Rodgers or Brady. That’ll pretty much guarantee you’re competitive if you can get it, but it’s an unrealistic expectation. But someone like Wilson will do.
Tyler is correct. NFL history shows that no Super Bowl has ever been won without either a high-performing playoff QB, or an excellent supporting cast. If a team doesn't have both, then at least one is required. Historically, no Super Bowl has been won with a merely competent QB and supporting cast together. Either the QB needs to play at an elite level (or close to it) in January, or the supporting cast needs to do so.

Dalton's overall regular-season play has been roughly the same (and in a few cases, even a bit better) compared to 11 of 48 SB-winning QB regular seasons. That's competent enough. The main problem for Dalton is that in four postseason games, he hasn't even been Dilfer-level competent.

According to Football Perspective, of the 105 QBs who have started at least three playoff games during the Super Bowl era, Dalton is ranked 102nd out of 105 in ANY/A value. (It excludes this year's playoff game, but including it would not change the ranking of 102.)

According to FiveThirtyEight, of the 180 total "principal" QBs from every NFL playoff game since 1970, Dalton is ranked 179th out of 180 based on his ANY/A+. (This analysis does include all four playoff games.)

Based on the playoffs, ANY/A+ would say that the chances of Dalton being a Super Bowl-winning QB are virtually impossible. Objectively, Dalton is one of the worst QBs in playoff history. His playoff performance is vastly worse than that of any SB-winning quarterbacks, let alone that of most playoff-participating quarterbacks. The worst SB-winning QB of all time, Trent Dilfer, has a career playoff ANY/A nearly twice that of Dalton's. And that includes poor playoff games from Dilfer's time in Tampa Bay, not just his Super Bowl run with the Ravens.

It didn't help that there were coaching and supporting cast blunders, but that doesn't excuse his individual performance, especially for someone who signed a conditional $96 million contract. Dalton can't really blame anyone but himself for being in about the bottom one percentile among playoff-participating QBs.

To win a Super Bowl with Dalton, one of the two following things must happen:

Dalton improves his playoff performance to be about as competent as his regular-season performance, and the front office builds a dominant offensive and defensive supporting cast, which carries the team to the Lombardi Trophy. Dilfer's Baltimore Ravens had the No. 5 rushing offense and No. 1 overall defense in the NFL in 2000, a team that could win a Super Bowl for any half-competent QB. On offense, the Bengals have two top-tier running backs, two top-tier tackles, two good guards, and a top-tier WR to go with several other decent receivers. On defense, the Bengals have one of the best secondaries in the league. But the mediocre front seven and pass-rush need to be improved. If the Bengals create a thoroughly dominant supporting cast to help Dalton, he will still need to show significant improvement in the playoffs, but not necessarily "vast" improvement.

Dalton vastly elevates his playoff performance to be able to carry the team to the Lombardi Trophy. Dalton has had four extended "hot streaks" in his career: September 2012, November 2012, October 2013 (minus Halloween), and September to mid-October 2014. But during them, Dalton has generally been only a distributor and has not carried the team on his back. He has simply taken advantage when everything else around him is working well:

There's nothing wrong about going with the flow when everything else is working well. But his best streaks are simply not on the same level as when Eli and Flacco are hot. Also, none of Dalton's streaks came late in the season or in cold weather, and his level of competition wasn't great. To me, it is unrealistic to count on Dalton to carry and elevate a team like Eli and Flacco. Dalton has elevated the Bengals in a few games in his career, but simply hasn't done so for any stretch of games, let alone throughout the month of January against playoff teams.

So building an elite supporting cast which could contend for a Super Bowl with any half-competent QB, would be the most likely (least unlikely) way for the Bengals to win a Super Bowl with Dalton. He's been competent enough in the regular season. but Dalton needs to significantly improve his postseason performance level just to reach that of Dilfer, the worst SB-winning QB of all time.

Dalton is one of the very worst QBs in postseason history, so aiming to improve to the level of his regular-season play is a more realistic goal for him to reach in the playoffs. That, in addition to building a dominant supporting cast on both sides of the ball, is still a more hopeful solution than dreaming that he can somehow become the next Eli Manning or Joe Flacco. Certainly, Dalton being any better than Dilfer (better than "competent") in the playoffs would be a bonus and gladly welcomed. But it can't be counted on, considering he needs to significantly improve in the playoffs just to reach Dilfer's level, let alone surpass it.

I'm highly skeptical of the Bengals winning a Super Bowl with Dalton, but I certainly hope I am wrong about those odds. That's the way it is for me (and many others) as a Bengals fan: don't set up high expectations that will likely end up in a letdown, but still hope for the best.