Winning's a Brees?
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Two Sundays ago, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees set an opening day record with six touchdown passes against the Detroit Lions in a 45-27 win. There haven't been too many single-game performances better than his. Brees followed that up with an outstanding game against the Philadelphia Eagles - unlike Detroit's, a defense you can take seriously - and he looks very much like the quarterback who came 15 yards short of Dan Marino's single-season yardage record (5,084) last year.
But do incendiary single games lead to outstanding seasons at a rate that would lead us to take them seriously as indicators? Yes, according to Football Outsiders' DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) metric, which gives a quarterback's value based on situation and opponent, compared to replacement level, and converted into yardage. Brees' 2009 debut gave him a DYAR of 300, which would put him in the all-time top ten. What this means is that Drew Brees, on that day, would be 300 yards more valuable than a league average quarterback. Since it's still early in the season, and we don't have opponent adjustments built in for 2009 yet, we can guess that Brees' DYAR will drop in proportion to Detroit's general inability to defend the pass. Our data goes back to the 1994 season, and as it stands right now, he'd rank behind five quarterbacks in our timeframe. Who are those players, and did their single games lead to greater things?
(Note: While we keep rushing DYAR totals for quarterbacks, these totals are for passing DYAR only).
1. Randall Cunningham, 1998 Minnesota Vikings
Single-game DYAR: 327
Season DYAR: 1,538 (1)
The best Passing DYAR game in our archives happened in Week 5 against the Green Bay Packers. Cunningham completed 20 passes in 32 attempts for 442 yards and four touchdowns. His Yards per Attempt total of 13.81 was the highest he ever achieved in a single game in his career with over 10 pass attempts. Cunningham started 14 regular-season games for the 1998 Vikings, whose 556 points that year set the pace for a decade. He also finished first in Season DYAR, ahead of Vinny Testaverde, Steve Young, John Elway, and Doug Flutie.
2. Trent Green, 2002 Kansas City Chiefs
Single-game DYAR: 327
Season DYAR: 1,231 (3)
Green is primarily remembered as the guy whose 1999 preseason knee injury led to Kurt Warner's ascent. It's shame, because his 2002 season with the Chiefs was the first of four in which he had season DYAR totals of at least 1,200 - in fact, 2002 was his lowest season total of the four. Green's single-game bonanza came in Week 4 against the Dolphins - he went 24 of 34 for 328 yards and five touchdowns. He also rushed three times for 48 yards, which added 20 DYAR to the game total (too bad we're not counting those yards in this example).
Green ranked third in season DYAR behind Rich Gannon and Chad Pennington in 2002, and in the top five every season through 2005. His is one of the more underrated quarterback careers of the last decade.
3. Tom Brady, 2007 New England Patriots
Single-game DYAR: 306
Season DYAR: 2,788 (1)
Ah, the quarterback season by which all others will be measured. Brady had three games in the all-time DYAR top 15 in 2007 alone, but the best was in week 10 against the Bills. Brady put up ridiculous numbers - 31 of 39 for 373 yards and five touchdowns; a trend that had gone on all season and was about to decline. The Patriots saw a fairly precipitous dip in offensive efficiency from week 12 through the Super Bowl, though that could be credited to nothing more than simple regression. No team, and no quarterback, could be expected to produce at the rate the Pats and Brady had to that point. Still, Brady finished 2007 with the top season DYAR of all time.
4. Marc Bulger, 2002 St. Louis Rams
Single-game DYAR: 306
Season DYAR: 611 (13)
Bulger was the one exception to out "great game/great season" group, but it had more to do with opportunity and than anything else. Bulger was a practice squad player for the Rams before replacing Jamie Martin five games into the 2002 season. The Rams were 0-5 at the time, but they won every game in which Bulger played a major part after he replaced Martin. Bulger's major DYAR moment was his fourth NFL game, when he completed 36 passes in 48 attempts for 453 yards and four touchdowns. He was hurt in week 15 against the Seahawks, and a potentially great season was clamped at both ends. Bulger had two seasons over 1,00 DYAR (2004 and 2006) before things fell apart along St. Louis' offense.
5. Scott Mitchell, 1995 Detroit Lions
Single-game DYAR: 305
Season DYAR: 1,606 (1)
Mitchell gained fame in 1993, when he played behind an injured Dan Marino in Miami and acquitted himself well enough to earn a three-year, $11 million contract with the Detroit Lions. After one year of struggle, Mitchell put it all together in 1995, setting team records for passing yards and touchdown passes, as well as a season DYAR you wouldn't ever expect to see out of Detroit. The single game came in Week 12 against the Vikings, when Mitchell went 30 of 45 for 410 yards and four touchdowns. He never reached those heights again, and he's now remembered (to whatever extend he's remembered) as the cautionary tale for teams looking to overspend on backups who hit it bit big in favorable systems.
Generally speaking, one hot DYAR game in a season does tell us something about the season that quarterback's going to have. Unless the season is truncated for the reasons that befell Marc Bulger, there are enough seasons populated by names like Brady, Manning, Palmer, and Aikman to take It seriously. The Clint Longley phenomenon (one great game, then goodbye) doesn't seem to apply.
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