Sunday, March 09, 2008

In defense of playoff losing quarterbacks: Warren Moon

In a post below, we've been discussing the merits of Warren Moon. As often happens in such discussions, Moon's team's failings in the playoffs came up. Indeed, Moon's record as a playoff starter was 3-7, so you may believe Moon was a poor playoff performer.

But if you look at Warren Moon's playoff stats, you see a very good performer. He completed 64.3% of his passes, had 7.0 yards per attempt, and averaged 283 passing yards and 1.7 touchdown passes per game. He played very well in a lot of close losses: he threw for 315 yards and 2 TDs in a 3 point loss, 325 yards and 3 TDs in a 2 point loss, and 371 yards and 4 TDs in a 3 point loss. He had four consecutive playoff games with completion percentages between 70% and 75%. He had five consecutive playoff games with ratings between 91.8 and 118.4. By the numbers, he was a very good playoff quarterback.

Why, then, did Moon have a 3-7 record in the playoffs? It had less to do with Moon's failings than the failings of his teams' defenses: in Moon's 10 playoff starts, his team gave up an average of 26 points per game.

What does 26 points allowed per game mean?

In 2001, Tom Brady became a clutch playoff quarterback, but the Patriots didn't score 26 points in a single playoff game. If the defense had given up 26 points in any of their playoff games, would they still win the Super Bowl? Would Brady still be "clutch"?

In 2007, Eli Manning became a clutch playoff quarterback, but the Giants didn't score 26 points in a single playoff game. If the defense had given up 26 points in any of their playoff games, would they still win the Super Bowl? Would Manning still be "clutch"?

I'm not saying Brady and Manning should not be praised for their playoff performances. We can rightly appreciate the performances of quarterbacks who come through with big plays late in games. But should we still hold team playoff losses against a quarterback?

A look at individual performances shows that Warren Moon often played excellent football in the playoffs. His teams usually lost because they played badly on defense. Why, precisely, would should we blame Moon for these losses, and consider him a lesser quarterback?


  1. I remember being incredibly sad when Houston scrapped the run-and-shoot and traded Moon in 1994. I agree completely with you - it was often the defense that failed.

    Back then, a lot of people were hypothesizing that there was something about run-and-shoot offenses that prevented playoff success - they couldn't score in the red zone, they couldn't protect leads, or something similar. Now that the Patriots have (essentially) run the run-and-shoot for several years now and had considerable success, maybe that can be put to rest.

  2. PV,

    I have often marveled at the effect playoff losses and wins have on the reputation of a quarterback. I was awed by an announcer's opinion that if Brady won this last Super Bowl he would solidify himself among the best ever, whereas a loss would send him back three spaces on the career game board. Its as though quarterbacks face off without teams at all, more like heavy weight boxers.

    Also, I recently started a Vikings blog of my own, and I would greatly appreciate it if you could put a link to it on yours. I have already done likewise for you, of course.



  3. Anonymous5:12 AM

    I don't think you can judge how those games went without actually watching them. My recollection of some of those games is the Oilers just couldn't get momentum back--that in crunch time Elway and Reich outplayed Moon significantly. Was the defense bad? Or is this a symptom also of how the offense was playing? I know the Oilers had 4, 5 defensive Pro Bowlers for many seasons.


  4. 26 points per game allowed, and I can't judge? 26 points per game! They could have had 11 Pro Bowl defenders, and it doesn't change the fact that in Moon's playoff career, his team's gave up 26 points per game.

    My point is a lot of the quarterbacks we consider playoff heroes wouldn't be considered playoff heroes if they didn't play with good defenses. Moon had very good playoff stats in the early 90s, and the reason guys like "Elway and Reich" outplayed Moon is because the Oiler defense allowed them too. But "significantly"? Look at the stats for Moon--he had great games! If somebody like Frank Reich outplayed a guy that threw for 371 yards and 4 TDs, and you're blaming the guy with 371 yards and 4 TDs instead of the defense that couldn't protect a 30+ point lead, I don't even know what to say. If Moon had played with better defenses, he'd be a playoff hero, too.

    Factors outside the quarterback's control affect whether the team wins or loses playoff games, yet we insist on crediting or blaming the QB's legacy for these games.

    You're going to have to realize that your Auteur Theory doesn't mean anything in a game with 45 men on a game roster, 22 starters, and three separate units that operate relatively independently of each other.

  5. Anonymous4:09 PM


    Is this the same "recollection" that leads you to believe that Chris Miller in his "healthy" years was what Moon should be compared too? Because if it is, you might want to check your "recollector" Dude, look at the numbers for Chris Miller and look at the numbers for Warren Moon they are not similar.

    Why do you have it in for Moon anyway?

  6. Anonymous5:03 PM

    I think my comments are pretty sensible. First off--I said they out played him significantly in crunch time. Crunch time. But you're using statistics again against statistics. They mean nothing, really. Moon's stats were much better than Elway's. Moon lost. Elway made big plays and Moon couldn't.

    Do you know how long ago those games were? And you're going to say based upon some numbers this player or that player had a great game? Based upon some numbers? Context is everything.

    Wins and loses have as much relevance to the legacy of a single player as statistics. If you are going to argue Warren Moon was so great that he could overcome his apparently doomed offensive scheme and his feeble teammates to produce all these marvelous statistics--well then you could ask at least to complete a few passes with a substantial lead to maintain. To maybe manage the clock. It isn't all the defense's fault. In the context of that game those 41 points are partly owed to Moon and his offense. Moon, as a part-creation of his offensive scheme, is in this case a victim to the run n' shoot's supposed inability to run out the clock. In this situation the quarterback is even more important than usual.


  7. But because he played with bad defenses, you're holding Moon to a standard that some other QBs aren't held to. You want him to overcome a team giving up 26 points per game, even though "clutch" QBs like Tom Brady didn't have to do that in 2001, and Eli Manning didn't have to do that in 2007. If Moon had played with better defenses, there wouldn't have been those late game situations in which "Elway made big plays and Moon couldn't." Football is a team game, and I think we apply team wins and losses to one position's legacy far too quickly.

    This is revisionist, I know, but I think it's better than the conventional wisdom that a QB's legacy is determined by his team's playoff success. I think we should be wary of applying "Movie Hero" standards to reality. In a movie, the protagonist QB would overcome all odds to win the game. In real life, 44 other players and defensive and special teams units that the protagonist QB doesn't play on affect outcomes of games.

    If you want to make team playoff success the standard, you're going to have to accept that Bart Starr is a better quarterback than Brett Favre.

    But OK, let's look at Bart Starr. He's often praised for his 9-1 playoff record, and his really sterling stats in the playoffs (I think he threw something like 3 picks in those 10 games). He also made some really big plays late in games to win.

    But in his ten playoff games, here are the Packers points allowed:

    17, 0, 7, 10, 12, 27, 10, 7, 17, 14.

    So Bart Starr, legendary clutch playoff QB, had to outscore an opponent with 26+ points just once. Warren Moon, playoff loser, had to overcome a team that gave up an AVERAGE of 26 points per game.

    Really, is it entirely sensible to say it's all on the quarterback to make plays?

    I'm not even saying a QB's ability to make plays late in a game doesn't matter. I'm just saying that playoff wins and losses shouldn't be the primary factor determining a QB's legacy.

    And RK, if I can use your own words against you, here's a comment you made in an earlier post about QBs with great playoff records:

    "topic should be list of quarterbacks with greatest sustained level of hall of fame talent and coaching. you should also look at the hall of fame defensive players who made it happen."

    Apparently when QBs you don't like win playoff games, it's really the talent around them (including defense) that should get the credit. And when QBs you don't like lose playoff games, it's their fault for not being able to make plays.

    You're selectively using playoff success when it suits your argument.

  8. Here's what you're selectively ignoring: Moon committed more turnovers in the playoffs than he threw touchdown passes. Could that have something do with the points given up by the Oilers? When you have an offense that turns the ball over consistently, relies on big plays and lacks any sort of running game to control the time of possession, it's tough for your defense to susatin success - they can't get off the field. And those Oilers' teams had plenty of defensive talent. They just had a scheme and quarterback that weren't championship worthy.

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