The NFL is Not The NBA

Yesterday, Ross Tucker, ex-player and media member, made a comparison of LeBron James and Peyton Manning.  On his radio show and podcast, he went on to argue that after watching the NBA Finals, he now thinks that ‘clutch play’ in the playoffs should count more heavily in the evaluation of quarterbacks.  He mentioned that Brady and Roethlisberger have been clutch in the playoffs and Peyton Manning has not.

Aside from the fact that there have rarely ever been two more dissimilar athletes than LeBron James and Peyton Manning, there are a number of fallacies and flaws with Tuckers assertions. I wouldn’t bother to address the topic at all, except that I’ve been convinced for years that Michael Jordan and the NBA have polluted the way we think about football.

The simple truth is that the NFL is not the NBA.  Most bad football analysis comes from people who have watched too much basketball (Bill Simmons, cough cough) and tried to draw simple analogies between the two sports. The following list should dissuade anyone from drawing easy, but false comparisons between players in the two sports.

1. In the NFL, players don’t play offense and defense.

Simply put, a quarterback like Peyton Manning isn’t even on the field for half game. Unlike the NBA where a player like Michael Jordan can dominate on both sides of the ball and is on the court for roughly 45 of 48 minutes in a playoff game, an elite quarterback or running back doesn’t even play half the game. Take the Colts loss to the Saints in the Super Bowl. Manning threw a perfect strike to Pierre Garcon in the second quarter on third down.  Garcon dropped the ball, and Manning didn’t get to throw another pass for almost a full quarter of game time. By the time he passed again, the Colts had gone from a 10-3 lead to trailing 13-10.  Any comparison between a great football player and a great basketball player based on ‘winning’ has to allow for the fact that the football player had no control over a huge percentage of the game.

2. In the NFL, the best offensive players rely on teammates much more than in the NBA.

With the possible and dubious exception of Michael Vick, no NFL quarterback can impact a game by himself.  He can throw perfect passes, but if his receivers don’t catch them, there’s nothing he can do. Quarterbacks depend on lineman to block and receivers to catch.  An NBA player can still have a huge offensive night despite sub-par production from his teammates, but an NFL quarterback cannot.  The expectation that a player will ‘take over a game’ in football the way we’ve seen Jordan or Bryant do in basketball is completely insane.

3.  The NFL playoffs are single elimination. The NBA playoffs are a series.

Michael Jordan had plenty of bad playoff games. We don’t remember them because he had six other games per series to assert himself.  The NBA playoffs simply do not allow for upsets.  There have only been 8 franchises win an NBA title since 1984. The best team always wins.  The NFL offers up a single game elimination tournament which provides for all manner of randomness and luck.  LeBron James had six games to assert his will against the Mavericks.  If Tom Brady had had six games to play the 2007 Giants, he would have figured out how to beat them. There’s no possible way to compare the results of a series with the results of a single game. In all, the NBA playoffs constitute almost a whole second season. The NFL playoffs are short and aren’t designed to prove who the unquestionably best team is.  

What this means is that it’s perfectly fair to weigh the playoffs heavily in basketball, but stupidity to do it in football. The more random something is, the less usefull it is for drawing conclusions. We have hundreds of games on which to judge Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Joe Montana.  We also have fewer than 20 postseason games.  When judging Michael Jordan we have 179 playoff games. That’s more than two full NBA seasons worth.  The sample sizes in the NFL are simply too small to use in the same way we use them for basketball.

4. Basketball remembers shots; football remembers drives.

A game winning drive in the NFL is far more difficult than a game winning shot in basketball. With very few exceptions (the Catch, Tyree), we don’t remember individual passes in the NFL. We remember game winning drives.  There tend to be many plays strung together, and they are remember as a unit.  In basketball, we can rattle off any of a number of incredible shots to win games, but rarely does that list include more than one or two plays (like 8 points in 9 seconds).  The truth is that someone like Robert Horry can be a solid but unspectacular player much of his career, but gained immortality for hitting a few shots.  A quarterback who puts together a game winning drive has accomplished something with his teammates more along the lines of closing out a game with a 10-0 run in basketball. There’s really not much comparison.

***

The false narratives we construct when we turn football players into basketball players are damaging to our understanding of sports. Ben Roethlisberger was never considered a clutch player until the playoffs this year. He has two Super Bowl rings, but one came after the worst performance in Super Bowl history.  The narrative that Ben was clutch arose because no one could rationally explain why the Steelers were winning despite mediocre play from him. Because the media believes that quarterbacks should get the credit for wins, they had to forge an explination out of thin air.  So there arose this myth that he was ‘clutch’. It was not a quality he previously possessed. In fact, he’s been pretty average in close games throughout his career.

Peyton Manning has a better career postseason passer rating than Brady or Roethlisberger.  That doesn’t fit Ross Tucker’s narrative, however, so the point gets overlooked. The following chart is of each playoff game’s passer rating for Manning, Brady, and Roethlisberger. AFC Championship games are in bold, and Super Bowls are in yellow. 

Manning Brady Roethlisberger
158.3 141.4 148.7
145.7 130.5 124.9
138.7 116.4 101.8
123.6 110.2 98.4
108.7 101.6 95.3
97.7 100.5 93.2
90.9 92.2 84.8
90.4 89 79.2
88.5 86.2 78.1
87.9 84.3 77.4
82 82.5 57.8
81.8 79.5 35.5
79.1 76.1 22.6
71.9 74
69.3 73.3
62.3 70.4
39.6 66.4
35.5 57.6
31.2 49.1

*The Patriots and Steelers have not lost any playoff game in which Brady or Roethlisberger posted a passer rating over 90 (13-0).  The Colts are 4-4 when Manning has passer rating over 90.

Is there any way to look at that chart and conclude that Manning is a worse playoff quarterback than Brady or Roethlisberger?  The only way to reach that conclusion is to use the NBA as a guideline and count wins and rings, and that’s a dead end street we’ve been down too many times.

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