The Missing Piece of the Curtis Painter Debate: Context

The last few weeks were rough on Colts backup quarterback Curtis Painter. While fans entered the preseason with hopes that Painter would show signs of development and progress, which was promised by coaches and writers who follow the team, his performance against the San Francisco 49ers left many with a bad taste in their mouths. Many fans started to call for Painter’s head, wanted him to get cut, and insisted that one of the Colts other quarterbacks would be more qualified to fill the backup role.

The only way these fans could be swayed to change their opinions would be for Painter to close out the preseason as one of the brightest contributors to the team.  He would have to throw for multiple touchdowns in each contest, not make further errors, and be something that no backup quarterback has been since Peyton Manning arrived in Indianapolis.  He would have to prove that he could be a veteran quarterback that could beat up on second and third string opponents, showing promise for the Colts season even if Manning had to miss time.

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Painter failed to generate this eye-popping turn-around on the field.  He did improve, drastically, after the 49ers contest but it still was not enough for fans to call off the hounds.  Everything he did was closely scrutinized and compared to Tim Hiller and Tom Brandstater, the other hopefuls for the backup job.

Fans immediately set out to compare Painter’s statistical production against Brandstater’s.  Theories formed that Brandstater was clearly the better quarterback and it was claimed that one need look no farther than the statistics to see it.

The problem with such theories is they are devoid of context.  Every situation, outcome, judgment, decision, and evaluation is not made in a vacuum.  Looking at numbers on paper removes a host of factors that helped lead to a decision that would make some fans unhappy.

The first factor that worked against Painter and in favor of Brandstater was level of competition.  There is no arguing that Painter faced first and second string defenders primarily, and that most of the players he faced are still on NFL rosters after final cuts over the weekend.  It should go without saying that Brandstater, then, competed primarily against young players who are no longer in the NFL.

The second factor that worked against Painter and in favor of Brandstater was the impact that level of competition had on the players that surrounded each quarterback.  Individual performances of the receivers and tight ends who took the field with each player will factor into the statistical production one can find on paper.  Generally, the higher level of competition made it more difficult for receivers (all of which are no longer on the team roster) to haul in passes.  For that matter, some of the players who played with Painter failed to perform admirably, even when they beat the coverage.

The third factor that played into the decision to retain Painter over Brandstater is extremely important and has no bearing on the statistics at all.  Curtis Painter has been in the Colts system, learned from Peyton Manning, Quarterbacks Coach Frank Reich, and worked with his teammates for an entire year.  Tom Brandstater has been with the team for just over a month.  More importantly, even since Brandstater arrived, he received very little work during training camp.

One of the most important roles of a backup quarterback in the NFL is to know the offense, understand how the offense is designed to exploit a defense, and act as another set of eyes and another brain to compute all of the happenings on the field to best aid the starting quarterback.  There is little arguing or doubting that Painter will be far superior in that capacity in the short- to mid-term.  Brandstater still has a great deal of learning to do before he can functionally fill that role.

While Painter’s statistical production looks horrible, 29-of-56 passing (51.8%), 372 yards, 1 touchdown, 4 interceptions, and 3 fumbles, there are a few factors should not be looked over.  At least two of the interceptions are not squarely on Painter’s shoulders, but resulted from tipped passes that should have been caught.  At minimum, five of the incompletions not resulting in interceptions should have been caught (from memory alone).  One of the incompletions that did not result in an interception was a sure-fire touchdown if wide receiver Taj Smith would have reeled it in, against the 49ers no less.  At least two of the fumbles were due to bad snaps by backup centers.

Just altering the numbers to take into consideration these contextual things, which anyone watching the games could see, portrays a pretty different picture: 34-of-56 passing (60.7%), 437 yards (going on his average per completion), 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and 1 fumble.  This result would make him statistically superior to Brandstater, against better competition.  While this is not how things turned out, context is important.  Brandstater’s numbers also take a nosedive if he does not throw three touchdown passes against a field of players the Bengals cut over the weekend.

The point is this: making bold assertions about the value of Curtis Painter, judging the decision of the Colts management, and crowning Tom Brandstater the “real” backup quarterback is all ridiculous without some context.  In context, Brandstater may have raw quarterbacking skills and abilities that are superior to Painter and could pass him up in the future.  Right now, the backup quarterback the Colts should have retained on the roster is on the roster for good reason.

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