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Super Bowl 56: Joe Burrow is the better quarterback, but the Los Angeles Rams have the better offense

Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) and quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (3) celebrate after a touchdown during the second half of an NFC Wild Card playoff football game at SoFi Stadium. The Rams defeated the Cardinals 34-11. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We’re just days away from Super Bowl 56, where the Los Angeles Rams will battle the Cincinnati Bengals in SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Cali.

The game will feature a number of potential future Hall of Famers, from Aaron Donald to Jalen Ramsey to Cooper Kupp to Ja’Marr Chase. And while the star power of these players alone offers a good enough reason to tune in, the battle between the two quarterbacks serves as the headliner and promises an intense matchup between two very talented passers.

On the Cincinnati sideline, we have Joe Burrow, the young gun who made it to the big dance much earlier than expected. On the L.A. sideline, we have Matthew Stafford, the crafty veteran whose career has been revived by Sean McVay and the Rams offense.

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Matthew Stafford Produced Better Stats in 2021

Football is an incredibly complex sport, but when we strip away the numerous nuances, winning games comes down to gaining yards, scoring points, moving the sticks and avoiding turnovers.

The stats that measure these simple objectives explain why the Rams are 4.5-point favorites on Sunday.

Joe Burrow Matthew Stafford
Net yards per dropback 6.9 7.2
Expected points added (EPA) per dropback 0.13 0.24
First downs per dropback 36.5% 38.4%
TD% 5.0% 6.0%
INT% 2.5% 2.5%

When it comes to efficiency, the Rams’ passing offense trumps the Bengals’ passing offense by a fairly good margin.

Firstly, the Rams’ pass protection is vastly superior to the Bengals’, as the Rams offensive line leads the league in team pass-blocking grade while the Bengals offensive line ranks 25th. Generally speaking, Burrow is under pressure much faster and much more often — something that is difficult for an offense to overcome continually.

Secondly, the Rams have an advantage in the coaching department, as it is seemingly consensus knowledge that Sean McVay is one of the best playcallers in the league, a master at creating open receivers, coverage busts and opportunities for yards after the catch.

So, all things considered, Stafford’s job is simply easier than Burrow’s right now, explaining the difference between the two in efficiency stats.

However, this doesn’t mean that Joe Burrow is a worse quarterback. In fact, the two signal-callers are pretty close to one another, and I expect Burrow to have a better career overall because his strength (accuracy) is usually stable long-term, while his weakness (taking too many sacks) usually improves with experience.

Despite producing worse efficiency metrics, Burrow out-graded the Rams quarterback in 2021, posting an elite 91.7 PFF grade to Stafford’s respectable 80.7 over the regular season.

Why is this? Well, we can point to a few unlucky plays for Burrow, as he is one of the few quarterbacks who have fewer turnover-worthy passes than interceptions. Turnover-worthy passes are plays with a very high chance of being intercepted and the quarterback is (mainly) at fault. Burrow threw 16 picks and only 14 turnover-worthy passes, while Stafford threw 17 interceptions on 26 turnover-worthy passes, being luckier in that regard.

However, these are only a handful of plays, and I don’t think they do a thorough job of describing what separates Joe Burrow from Matthew Stafford.

The most significant difference between those quarterbacks is accuracy. Over the last few seasons, PFF has charted the accuracy of each throw with the help of experienced experts in quarterback play. An accurate throw can be a perfectly placed ball, a ball thrown to the “frame” of the receiver (i.e., it might not be placed in the ideal location, but there is no excuse for an NFL receiver to drop it) or it could be a ball thrown away from coverage, giving a tightly covered receiver an increased chance to make a play on the ball.

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Burrow is a More Accurate Quarterback

This season, the Bengals quarterback leads the league in accuracy rate at 65.2%, while Matthew Stafford ranks 25th at 56.3%. However, this can’t paint the whole picture, as some throws are easier to throw accurately than others. Here are three obvious confounders:

  1. It’s more difficult to be accurate on deeper throws
  2. It’s more difficult to be accurate when a QB is throwing into a tight window
  3. It’s more difficult to be accurate when a QB is under pressure

Burrow was under pressure more often than Stafford (33.8% against 26.7%), but Stafford threw deeper on average, recording an average depth of target (aDOT) of 9.2 yards to Burrow’s 8.5. So, it’s not clear which quarterback performed the best in the accuracy department.

We can do several things to arrive at a nuanced conclusion here. First of all, let’s account for the depth of passes by looking at accuracy depending on the depth of the pass, as shown by the following curves.

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