Debunking the "Perfect" Passer Rating

Kurt Warner (Christian Petersen/Getty)

Kurt Warner, arguably a future member of the Hall of Fame, is among the elite quarterbacks who have registered a "perfect passer rating." But consider this label a fervent plea to the NFL: It's time to take the lead and debunk the myth of the "perfect" passer rating. It's something that simply doesn't exist.

The 158.3 rating referred to as perfect is simply the highest possible within the constraints of the formula set up when the system was implemented 36 years ago. The reality is the system was designed to rate passers mainly on their seasons and not for individual games. No quarterback would ever have a rating higher than 158.3 for a season, so the system stopped there. In reality, it could have been set lower, which means 140.0 or even something lower than that could have been referred to as a "perfect" rating.

Within the system, there were statistical levels in the different categories set up where rating points stopped and were not increased. For example, as it relates to completion percentage, rating points for that category are not awarded for anything higher than 77.5. There was actually a passer rating system booklet put out in 1973, which has individual ratings for every conceivable percentage. For completion percentage, a rating of 2.375 is awarded for that 77.5 percentage. If a player completes 80 percent of his passes in a game, it is still 2.375. Obviously, a "perfect" completion percentage would be 100.0. Each category has a top rating value of 2.375.


Drew Brees

With QB Kurt Warner relegated to the sidelines, backup Matt Leinart thought he picked up right where the potential Hall of Famer left off. The Arizona Cardinals had prevailed in four straight away games and were seconds from improving to a perfect 5-0 on the road this season. Despite not having Warner under center, Arizona was positioned to distance itself even further from the NFC West competition but it was not meant to be, thanks in large part to Tennessee Titans QB Vince Young.

Young and the Titans' improbable run continued on Sunday as Tennessee won its fifth consecutive game after a dismal 0-6 start. Young has been at the helm during all five of those outings and has now led to Titans to victory in nine straight games in which he's been the starter. After being completely written off prior to the midway point of the season, Tennessee could push for a playoff berth. The Titans have an extremely manageable remaining schedule which includes three games at home.

So, how can anything with an artificial ceiling be considered perfect? Somehow, it was referred to as perfect by somebody when this started happening, and it caught on, even though it makes no sense. The highest possible touchdown percentage in the system is 11.9 and the highest average per attempt is 12.5.

Frankly, it makes me want to scream when I hear anyone refer to the "perfect" passer rating. It happened Monday night with Drew Brees' performance in New Orleans' victory over New England. Brees was asked in a postgame interview about achieving the "perfect" rating. On the ESPN postgame show, the question was actually asked of commentator Matt Millen if he considered Brees' effort "perfect." Thankfully, Millen said it's probably impossible to be perfect.

For the record, Brees was 18-for-23 for 371 yards, with five touchdowns and no interceptions against the Patriots. His completion percentage for the game was 78.3, his average per attempt 16.13 and his touchdown percentage 21.7. Interception percentage isn't affected in this case for the purposes of the ratings system because zero interceptions will always have a value of 2.375.

Interestingly, because the booklet is in my possession (I do wonder how many other people actually have one!), what the rating would be if it were to be taken higher can be figured out. It's pretty simple, so it would be easy for the NFL to do the same and set the record straight, especially when there haven't been that many "perfect" ratings recorded.

In completion percentage, for example, a percentage of 77.3 is awarded 2.365 rating points; 77.4 is 2.370 and 77.5 is 2.375. It's easy to see that every 0.1 of completion percentage is worth .005 rating points. This can be figured for every category, simply seeing what the rating point increase is for every percentage point. In touchdown percentage it is .02. For average yards per attempt, it's a little funky, since that statistical percentage goes out two numbers from the decimal point. Thus, there is an increase of .003, then .002, then .003 and .002 again, but always .005 for every .02 percentage increase.

Call me crazy, but it took all of about 10 minutes to figure out what Brees' passer rating really was Monday night. Congratulations, Drew, your passer rating was really 206.8. That's damn good. But, no, it isn't perfect.

Howard Balzer is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange.

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