As much as we all try to separate the performances of different positions from their teammates in order to isolate production, players with stronger surroundings will always fare better than those without.
We’ve spent the past month praising Aaron Rodgers for his MVP 2020 season and bowing down to Tom Brady for his playoff run to a seventh Lombardi Trophy. And why shouldn’t we? Those two were the highest-graded quarterbacks of the entire 2020 season. They deserve praise. One could even argue that Rodgers’ season was one of the great quarterback campaigns of the PFF era (since 2006).
Of course, both signal-callers played on teams that allowed them to showcase their talents. Brady’s Buccaneers happened to boast a top-five defense to continually keep him ahead of the game in terms of field position and game state. Plus, he had the best receiving corps in the league.
Rodgers was given opportunities to find open receivers via Matt LaFleur’s wide-zone and play-action scheme, and he had arguably the best receiver in the league in Davante Adams. It’s hard to go back and look through the list of the great quarterback seasons of the past 15 years and find examples where quarterbacks did not have other elite factors going in their favor.
That’s why I’m ready to make the argument that Deshaun Watson was not only the best quarterback of 2020, but also that he had the best season of the past 15 years — and maybe ever.
Absolutely nothing went the Texans' way last year, and Watson still routinely played at an elite level. Former Houston head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien traded his team's best receiver, yet Watson played better than ever before. O’Brien was fired midseason, but it didn’t phase the quarterback. He played with a terrible defense, a terrible running game and no star receivers and put up the 19th-best regular-season passing grade of the PFF era (91.2). He’s one of 29 quarterbacks to finish a regular season with a 90.0-plus passing grade.
Those 29 quarterback seasons are generally regarded as the greatest individual campaigns of the past 15 years. Tom Brady’s 2007, Peyton Manning’s 2013 and Patrick Mahomes’ 2018 are all included in this group alongside Watson’s 2020.
Better surrounding factors allow a quarterback to stay away from negative plays. Being down in games forces the quarterback to attempt more difficult passes. Not having a running game puts the quarterback in more ominous down and distances. Not having receivers who can separate forces the quarterback to hold on to the ball.
And yet, Watson torched the league despite having nothing going in his favor.
We can start with the overall records for each of those 29 quarterbacks. If a signal-caller is having an elite year, chances are his team is doing well. Twenty-six of the 29 quarterbacks’ teams won at least 10 games that season. The quarterback is the most important factor, but you can assume that other factors were involved to get to that plateau of wins.
Twenty-eight of the 29 quarterbacks’ teams finished the season at .500 or above. The only team to finish below that threshold is the 2020 Houston Texans and their four wins. Better quarterback play has resulted in wins more often than not. Watson, even while being a part of this elite club, did not have any team support.