There’s a risk of beating a dead horse when you talk about QBR, ESPN’s proprietary statistic that was rolled out with great fanfare four years ago as the “one stat that measures the totality of a quarterback’s performance.” I said plenty about QBR last week, and perhaps no more needs to be said.
But today I decided to dig a little deeper into what is, according to QBR, the greatest game any quarterback has ever played: Charlie Batch’s 186-yard, two-interception performance against the Buccaneers in 2010.
Really. Under “All-Time Best Games” on ESPN.com’s QBR page, the top game on the list is an utterly forgettable game that Batch played in place of the suspended Ben Roethlisberger in 2010. I couldn’t comprehend how 186 yards and two interceptions could add up to the greatest game ever played, with a 99.9 QBR on a scale of 0-100, but then again I didn’t remember exactly what Batch did in that game, and I know ESPN claims that QBR benefits from tape analysis that includes dropped passes and performance under pressure and other things that the traditional stats overlook. So I decided to re-watch Batch’s game and see how it looked.
Thanks to NFL.com’s Game Pass, it’s easy to go back and watch old games. So I did. And what I saw was not the greatest game any quarterback had in NFL history. Not even close. I’m sure Charlie Batch doesn’t think it was the greatest game in NFL history. I’m sure Charlie Batch’s mom doesn’t think it was the greatest game in NFL history. No sane person could possibly think it was the greatest game in NFL history. Only ESPN’s super-secret QBR formula could possibly arrive at the conclusion that it was the greatest game in NFL history.
Batch’s first pass of the game was absolutely terrible. He hit Aqib Talib in stride, right between the numbers — which is not a good thing because Talib played for the Buccaneers. The Buccaneers’ offense couldn’t do anything with the great field position Batch gave up with his interception, but the Bucs did kick a field goal to take a 3-0 lead. Shortly after that, CBS showed a split screen of Talib and Batch and called them “the hero and the goat.”
So how did Batch go from goat to G.O.A.T., at least according to QBR? I have no earthly idea, because ESPN doesn’t make its QBR formula public. But there was certainly nothing in the rest of Batch’s play that day that suggested a “Greatest Of All Time” performance.
The Steelers’ second possession ended in a three-and-out when Batch dumped off a pass to running back Mewelde Moore, and Moore dropped it. QBR apparently doesn’t penalize Batch for the drop, but even if Moore had caught the ball, he was very unlikely to pick up the first down. Why doesn’t QBR penalize Batch for throwing a third-down pass well short of the line to gain? I don’t know, you don’t know, no one knows except the people who calculate QBR, and they’re not saying.
Batch finally had a big play on the Steelers’ third possession, a 45-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace. That pass undoubtedly did a lot to bolster Batch’s QBR, but it really shouldn’t have: Wallace was well covered, Batch probably shouldn’t have thrown to him, and it only turned into a touchdown because Wallace made a great play on the ball while Buccaneers rookie safety Cody Grimm (a backup who was only playing because starting safety Tanard Jackson was suspended) lost sight of the ball and didn’t know where it was until Wallace caught it in the end zone.
As Steve Tasker, who was serving as the color commentator on the game for CBS, put it: “That ball’s up for grabs, and Grimm can’t make a play on it because he didn’t turn around and look for it. They had it covered, they just couldn’t make the play.”
That was the first “big play” Batch made in the game: A ball he threw into coverage that only turned into a touchdown because the defensive back lost sight of it.
Soon after that, Batch threw his second touchdown pass, another deep ball to Wallace in the end zone. That pass was even worse: Batch underthrew it, Talib reached up and grabbed it, and then somehow the ball bounced off Talib’s hands and into Wallace’s hands for another touchdown.
“The Bucs had it covered,” Tasker said on the broadcast. “Talib has his hands on it and tips it right to Wallace. That goes from being a pick-off in the end zone to a touchdown, just like that. . . . Talib’s got to be looking at himself going, ‘You got to be kidding me.’ He was right on that play and all of a sudden it’s a touchdown.”
When ESPN rolled out QBR, it boasted that the use of film study improved QBR because it could weed out things like dropped passes, which count against a quarterback’s stats but aren’t the quarterback’s fault. But what good is film study if it gives credit to Batch for two long touchdown passes, without noticing that both passes were thrown into coverage and could just as easily have been intercepted?
It’s not that Batch was terrible in his “all-time greatest” QBR game: On Batch’s third and final touchdown pass of the day, he did a nice job of buying himself some time and then finding an open Hines Ward in the end zone for a touchdown. It was a good play by Batch, but no better a play than we see quarterbacks make every Sunday — certainly not a play that screams “Greatest game in NFL history!”
That was Batch’s final touchdown pass of the game. He did throw another interception, again right into the hands of a defender: Buccaneers linebacker Quincy Black intercepted it with ease.
“He just throws it right to him. Quincy Black wasn’t moving anywhere,” Tasker said on the broadcast.
Why didn’t that interception count against Batch’s QBR? Maybe because QBR is “clutch-weighted,” which means it places greater importance on plays that come late in close games, and Batch’s second interception came after the Steelers had already taken a big enough lead that the game was in hand. But the Steelers’ big lead in that game was mostly attributable to their defense, which totally shut down Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman, who was benched after throwing a pick-six. Does Batch really deserve more credit on his QBR just because his defense shut down the other team’s quarterback?
To review, in that Steelers-Buccaneers game, Batch threw 17 passes. Two of them were interceptions thrown directly into the hands of the opposing defense. Two of them were long touchdown passes that easily could have been intercepted if the defensive backs had done their jobs. One was a legitimately good touchdown pass. On the other passes, Batch went 9-for-12 for 90 yards.
Does that sound to you like the greatest game any quarterback has ever played in NFL history? If it does, there might be a place for you in ESPN’s analytics department.