- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 6, 2001

Kent Graham can't do it. Neither can Sage Rosenfels.

And as for Tony Banks?

To be perfectly honest, the Washington Redskins' signal caller couldn't compute his quarterback rating if you spotted him a pencil, a graphing calculator and a helping hand from bestselling astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.

"Oh, man, I'm not trying to figure that out," Banks said. "That takes a computer whiz. I hope nobody [here] knows how to do it."

What's more, Banks isn't exactly clamoring to understand an equation so Byzantine, so arcane, it's used as the opening problem in a college algebra textbook (really). Particularly when his current ranking among NFL quarterbacks, No.26, belies the Redskins' 5-1 record over their last six games.

"Wins and losses, that's all that matters for [quarterbacks]," said Banks, who has a rating 73.5 after nine games. "I've had some 100-point rated games that I've lost. It can be overrated."

When it comes to overrated numbers in sports, QB ratings have plenty of company. From baseball's exalted pitching victories to basketball's eclectic assist-to-turnover ratio, the sports world teems with overvalued statistics. Misunderstood figures. Patently contrived digits.

Think per 48 minutes. Triple-doubles. Winning percentage on Monday night.

"There's no shortage," said Ethan Cooperson, a senior statistician with STATS, Inc., an Illinois-based sports statistics company. "Part of this is done, as some broadcast crews would say, because we can. We have this stat, who knows what it means, but let's get it on the air."

The overrated

Case in point: After the Philadelphia Flyers dropped the first two games of their NHL playoff series against the Buffalo Sabres last season, much was made of the Flyers' 2-8 record in series in which they started 0-2.

"Honestly, would you expect them to be 8-2?" Cooperson said.

Turnovers win ballgames. It's a mantra repeated ad nauseam in football. And it's not always true.

At 9-2, the St. Louis Rams are tied for the NFL's best record and are an odds-on favorite to reach the Super Bowl. The Rams also lead the league in turnovers (33) and have the seventh-worst turnover ratio (minus-8).

"You can become fixated on one number and forget about everything else," said Steve Hirdt, executive vice president of the Elias Sports Bureau, a New York-based sports statistics company. "But [importance] is very much in the eye of the beholder."

Take sacks. For a defensive lineman, there's no sexier number. Rack up a 16-sack season just one per Sunday and you're virtually assured of a Pro Bowl berth.

Problem is, sacks don't measure your contribution on the other 60-or-so defensive plays in a game. Which also happen to be, well, important.

"Without a detailed breakdown of videotape, it's hard to get a sense of what a lineman is doing on plays where they don't make the tackle," Cooperson said.

Also oversold: Batting average. In baseball, the whole point is to get on base; as such, on-base percentage which accounts for walks and hit batters as well as hits is a far better benchmark.

For example, Oakland finished ninth in the American League last season in batting average. However, the A's ranked third in OBP and fourth in runs scored, posting the second-best record in baseball.

Likewise, basketball's assist-to-turnover ratio purports to measure a ballhandler's decision-making. However, some of the best passers in history Magic Johnson (2.97), Larry Bird (2.03), Isiah Thomas (2.48) rank well behind current NBA leader Avery Johnson (8.11).

Who, it should be noted, is seldom mentioned in the same breath.

"The guys who lead the league in assists never have great assist-to-turnover ratios," Thomas recently told the Sporting News.

The misunderstood

Some numbers are simply misunderstood. Last season the Detroit Tigers posted a 58-5 record when taking a lead into the ninth inning. Sounds good, right?

"That was the worst such record in the American League," Hirdt said. "Without all of the [relevant information], numbers can have the opposite effect of what they should tell you."

Context is everything. The Redskins are 5-1 this season when Stephen Davis rushes at least 20 times. But that's not a winning formula.

"It's preposterous," Hirdt said. "It suggests that the best way for a team to win is to give a runner the ball for the first 20 plays or 18, or whatever Clinton-esque line you want to draw and then take the rest of the afternoon off."

NFL team rankings can be equally misleading. With five wins in their last six games, the Redskins are one of the league's hottest teams. Yet they rank No.29 in total offense and No.18 in total defense far behind Philadelphia, a team they defeated two weeks ago.

Then there's hockey's plus-minus rating. Used to judge non-scoring forwards and defensemen, it measures the difference between goals scored and goals allowed while a player is on the ice.

The catch? Hockey isn't a one-on-one game. And the closer a plus-minus rating is to zero, the less relevant it becomes.

"If you've got someone who's plus-80 like a Bobby Orr, you've got a really valid indicator," said Marc Foster, co-author of a hockey statistics column on CNNSI.com. "But if you have six guys who are plus-two, well, what's their real impact on the team?"

Pitching wins are similarly dependent on team play. New York's Roger Clemens finished with a good but not great 3.51 ERA last season. Nevertheless, he beat out Seattle's Freddy Garcia (3.05) and teammate Mike Mussina (3.15) for a record sixth Cy Young Award, primarily on the basis of his 20-3 record.

"Pitching wins are so dependent on who can stay in a game longer, on who has a better bullpen and run support," Cooperson said.

The contrived

Rushing yards tally how far a player carries the ball. Field goal accuracy compares made kicks to attempts.

And quarterback rating? It measures, um, passing efficiency, as defined by a convoluted formula that includes attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, interceptions and the numbers 30, 20, five, four, three, and 9.5. Multiplied by 66.7.

Got it?

"I don't know the formula," said the Redskins' Graham. "It's bad when we're the quarterbacks, and we can't even figure it out. I guess that's why they make us go to colleges. So we can calculate it."

Contrived calculations aren't unique to the NFL. College football determines its title game with the baffling BCS poll, a statistical smorgasbord that includes coaches' and media poll positions, schedule strength and eight independent computer rankings.

In the NBA, player statistics are tracked "per 48 minutes" even though playing time is based on performance, and not the other way around.

Why such a swarm of silly statistics? The answer is in the mirror.

Take a good look: We're a nation of roto-geeks and fantasy football addicts, hooked on shot charts and drive breakdowns, mainlining box scores and sports tickers. We're way, way inside the numbers. And no one is immune.

"Sometimes, it seems that who gets credit for what is becoming increasingly more important," Hirdt said. "Almost to the point of overshadowing [victory]."

Which brings us back to quarterback ratings. Last season Denver's Brian Griese led the NFL with a 102.9 rating. The Broncos lost in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

By contrast, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer posted a lowly 76.6 mark. The Ravens won the Super Bowl and beat Denver along the way.

"You know who's the leading quarterback in the league right now?" Redskins receiver Michael Westbrook asked with a laugh. "Kevin Lockett."

Westbrook's right: Thanks to Lockett's lone trick-play touchdown pass against the New York Giants, the Washington receiver technically is the top-rated passer in the NFL. In fact, Lockett has the formula's highest possible score: 158.3.

Whatever that means.

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