Ready for Quar? CFL numbers game about to change

There was a point prior to the birth of potentially one of the more innovative statistics in football when its author had to appear convincing to a member of three-down establishment, whose own career passing numbers only happens to put him among the best quarterbacks in the game.

For Steve Daniel, the CFL’s director of game information and statistics, among the moments he knew his new Quarterback Rating index was gaining traction was when he sold Hamilton Tiger-Cats coach Kent Austin.

Mild-mannered stats guy, meet quarterbacking legend and intense leader. No reason to feel intimidated whatsoever.

The onset of a new CFL season has brought about a handful of statistical upgrades from the desk of Daniel, the league’s Vancouver-based numbers whiz and arguably one of the league’s undervalued assets. Tops among them include the Quarterback Rating, or Quar, which minimizes the confusing Passer Efficiency Rating which has been in use since 1996, and blends eight other aspects of play.

Passer Rating, which basically assesses throwing and yardage, is comprised from a convoluted formula in which a score of 158.3 constitutes a perfect game. By blending stats like points, wins, first downs, second-down conversions, rushing, sacks taken and fumbles, Daniel hopes a more complete portrait of a successful pivot can be constructed. A perfect game would derive a 100 score.

Daniel looked at every CFL play since taking over his job in 2009, a mere 93,561 by his count, and concluded the highest average Passer Rating in league history last year (98.0) over- emphasized higher percentages resulting from shorter completions.

Something new was needed, and figuring that if baseball purists could adopt Wins Over Replacement as a byproduct of new-age analysis, Daniel could invent a new standard as well.

All he had to do, under orders from head office, was to run it by at least one front-office type from each CFL team. Daniel had worked with a handful of NBA clubs before joining the B.C. Lions and eventually the league on analytic advancements, but Austin was a special challenge.

“I’m sitting here on the phone explaining this to him, and he knows a hell of a lot more about football than I do, and yet I have to come across sounding like a football guy,”recalled Daniel. “Austin said, ‘Steve, we trust you’. I felt good about that. (Winnipeg coach) Mike O’Shea contacted me the first night they saw the prototype. (Montreal defensive coordinator) Noel Thorpe is a big supporter, too.

“There’ll be lots of disagreements. I expect and actually want people to disagree. But the only way to be successful is to stick your neck out.”

The march towards increased analytics by the CFL will also include a few other wrinkles in the nightly and weekly stats reports this season. Reports now include a much-needed calculation of defensive pressures, second-down defensive plays which become drive-stoppers and dropped passes by receivers, which the league will distribute to teams only.

Quar Rating also does not yet have a published formula, and is subject to review by the stats man. Daniel got the idea approved from his superiors at the league, which invariably had to wonder if a stat that could be used against them by agents had just been approved. Getting public acceptance might also take some time.

For starters, quarterbacks on the Lions aren’t sure what to think.

“The completion percentage weighs too highly into the efficiency rating. But it’s never going to be perfect,” backup Travis Lulay said.

“That’s my thing with stats. People say ‘men lie, women lie, but numbers don’t lie.’ Numbers can lie. Not always, but they can.”

“You could go 0-15 and throw a game-winning touchdown pass and seem like the best quarterback ever,” said Lions starter Jon Jennings. “It’s a team game. There’s more to the game than that.”

A ranking of the game’s best quarterbacks doesn’t change much with the shift in formulas. Using 2016 numbers, Jennings had the fourth-best Quar Rating in a year in which he finished with the fifth-best Passer Efficiency, for example, reinforcing a belief for those who think there’s too many stats in football already.

Bring on the debate, the CFL’s stats man said.

“You’re defining excellence, and anytime you define excellence it’s going to have a subjectivity to it,” Daniel said. “You have to take a position to say what’s important if you’re going to create an intellectual property like this.”

He has one of the game’s great passers calling the shots in Hamilton buying in nicely. Everyone else, Daniel contends, will eventually follow suit.

Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.