Ponder: An Elite Quarterback?

Recent debate has taken place on this web site about the caliber of Christian Ponder as a quarterback.  Some argue that he already possesses the talent to be an elite level player, similar to a Colt McCoy or a Sam Bradford.  Others argue that he is developing this talent and just needs more experience to hone his skills.  Still others decide not to drink this delicous Kool-Aid and argue that he will never rise to the elite level.

A guy I work with has a little saying.  He says, "Without data you are just another person with an opinion."  I know everyone has their own opinion about CP7.  Despite a somewhat rocky start to our season, I think most would agree that our man under center is a bad @$$.  As my friend at work would remind me, without data to prove this claim, I'd be just another guy with an opinion.  In this post, I will make a data driven decision regarding the legitimacy of Ponder stepping up to the elite ranks and becoming a Heisman contender.

Ponder has thrown for career high yardage in back-to-back weeks.  This certainly indicates that his passing game is improving, but I think that a sample set of two games is too small to draw any meaningful conclusions from. We have a whole season of data from 2008, Ponder's first year as FSU's starting QB.  As a basis of comparison, I will compare Ponder's first year performance in 2008 to the first year performances of two proven elite level QBs: Oklahoma's Sam Bradford (2007) and Texas's Colt McCoy (2006).

First, let's take a look at the passing efficiencies of McCoy in 2006, Bradford in 2007, and Ponder in 2008.  The following plot is a box plot (aka box &whiskers plot) of passing efficiencies of these 3 QB's first year performances:



Here's a little stats 101 review of what this box plot is showing:  This box plot is a visual representation of the passer efficiencies these QBs posted during their first seasons as starting QBs.  The top of the box is the third quartile (Q3, meaning 75% of the observations are less than or equal to this value).  The middle line is the median (meaning that 50% of the observations are less than or equal to this value.)  The bottom of the box is the first quartile (Q1, meaning that 25% of the observations are less than or equal to this value).  The whiskers extend to the upper and lower limits.

Upper limit = Q3 + 1.5(Q3-Q1)

Lower limit = Q1 -1.5(Q3-Q1)

 The asterisks represent outliers, or unusual observations.  For example, the * for McCoy was the Texas A&M game in 2006 where McCoy posted a passer efficiency of 36.9.

Now then, on the surface, it is evident that Ponder generally posted a lower passer efficiency in his first year than Bradford or McCoy.  Ponder's median passer efficiency is 72.  McCoy's is 118.8.  Bradford's is 119.35.  That's not to say Ponder didn't have his moments.  His upper limit of passer efficiency is 143.6 (when he torched Western Carolina for 196 yards and 3 TDs).  His general lower passer efficiencies could be attributable to the fact that he was playing behind the youngest offensive line in the country.  It could be attributable to the fact that he was somewhat uneasy about taking the leadership position from former QB Drew Weatherfood.  However, I will argue that there are other factors at work here.

Adjusted efficiencies are discussed in depth on this website.  Please see for information.

Ponder faced much more efficient defenses than either Bradford or McCoy.  Let's look at another box plot.  This time, it is a box plot of the adjusted defensive efficiency (ADE) rankings of these QBs' opponents.



Roughly speaking, the median ADE rank that Ponder faced is roughly equal to the first quartile ADE rank that both McCoy and Bradford faced!  Ponder faced opponents with a median ADE rank of 44.  Comparatively, McCoy faced opponents with a median ADE rank of 70, and Bradford faced opponents with a median ADE rank of 56.  Ponder's opponents'  first quartile ADE rank was 14.  This means that 25% of his opponents had ADE rankings less than or equal to 14!  Comparatively, McCoy's opponents' first quartile ADE rank was 40.5, and Bradford's opponents' first quartile ADE rank was 35.  Needless to say, Ponder consistently faced much more talented defenses week in and week out than either McCoy or Bradford.

What type of impact did this have on these QBs' passer efficiecies?  It turns out that there is a very distinct trend here.  All 3 QBs posted higher passer efficiencies against teams with lower ADE rankings.  Below is a scatter plot with trend lines (ordinary least squares regression models).  The x-axis is ADE rank, and the y-axis is the passer efficiency.  Each point represents a game.  The green points and green line represents Ponder's results.  The black points and black line represent Bradford's results.  The red points and red line represent McCoy's results.



Here are some key take-aways from this analysis.

  • None of these QBs were immune to efficient defenses in their first season (hence the pronounced slopes in each of the trend lines).  Ponder faced a lot more challenging defenses week in and week out.  Because of this, he had a lot more opportunities to prove himself (and possibly mess up) against very efficient defenses than McCoy or Bradford did.  In some cases, Ponder didn't do much worse than McCoy or Bradford.  For example, his performances against Clemson (ADE rank = 12, Passer Efficiency = 72) and Virginia Tech (ADE rank = 16, Passer Efficiency = 102.7) were not all that different than McCoy's performance against Ohio State (ADE rank = 7, Passer Efficiency = 69) or Bradford's performance against West Virginia (ADE rank = 14, Passer Efficiency = 93.2).  Ponder faced 5 teams with an ADE rank less than or equal to 20.  Compare that to McCoy's 2 or Bradford's 1.  Had Bradford or McCoy consistently faced teams with an ADE rank below 20 like Ponder did, would they have been able to perform exceptionally and consistently?  Probably not.
  • To my point above, let's quantify this uncertainty.  What if McCoy and Bradford faced more efficient defenses like Ponder did?  Let's compare a 95% confidence interval for these three regression models.  A confidence interval is an interval estimate of a parameter that quantifies uncertainty in a measurement.  Against a team with an ADE rank of 20, Ponder's 95% confidence interval on passer efficiency is (29.5, 83.11).  The width of this interval is 53.61.  This means we are 95% confident that Ponder would have posted a passer efficiency between 29.5 and 83.11 against a team with an ADE rank of 20.  Bradford's 95% CI on passer efficiency is (62.7, 127.0).  The width of this interval is 64.3.  McCoy's 95% CI on passer efficiency is (49.8, 118.1).  The width of this interval is 68.3.  A good chunk of Ponder's more narow confidence interval overlaps McCoy's and Bradford's wider intervals (these intervals are wider because there aren't as many observations around 20 ADE ranked teams as for Ponder's data set).  It is statistically likely and fair to say that Ponder would perform nearly as well as McCoy or Bradford against a top 20 ADE ranked team.  In all fairness, he probably wouldn't have performed quite as well in terms of passer efficiency.  However, it is also fair to say he wouldn't have performed significantly differently either (because of the overlap in confidence intervals).
  • On the other end of the spectrum, Ponder starts to close the gap with McCoy and Bradford, posting gaudy passer efficiencies against non-ranked Western Carolina and Chattanooga (the right-most green dots).
  • I don't think that passer efficiency takes into account running the ball.  As we all know, one of Ponder's major strengths is that he is a mobile QB.  Last year he rushed for 423 yards and 4 TDs.  Compare that to Bradford's 7 yards and 0 TDs in 2007 and McCoy's 170 yards and 2 TDs in 2006.


Ponder has all the tools, intelligence, and natural ability of an elite level quarterback.  In his first two games this year, he posted passer ratings of 129.99 and 140.62, respectively.  ESPN is projecting him to throw for a dazzling 3,708 yards this year.  Check out this link:

In his debut season, he didn't perform quite as well in terms of passer efficiency as two proven QBs did in their debut seasons (McCoy 06 and Bradford 07).  However, he did face a lot more talented defenses.  When you take this into account, it is statistically likely that he would have performed nearly as well as these two QBs in terms of passer efficiency.  In terms of rushing yardage, Ponder was much more of a threat than either McCoy or Bradford were in their debut seasons.  Ponder has proven that he has elite potential.  Now is the time for him to demostrate elite skill consistently week-to-week.

Our offense is only going to continue to improve this year and next year.  This offensive progression will only make it easier and easier for Ponder to shine.  I am confident that Ponder will get the national recognition he deserves very soon.  PONDER FOR HEISMAN IN 2010!!!

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