Commentary

Warner, Fitzgerald in rarefied air

Originally Published: January 19, 2009
By Bill Barnwell | Football Outsiders

The historic win for the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC title game was driven by the performance of superstars Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald. That's not news to anyone who watched Sunday's game, but what is news is exactly how good those performances were.

Can't-Miss Play: Cardinals flying high

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Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald fool Philly for a fancy 62-yard touchdown.

Warner may have taken the third quarter off, but his brilliant work in the first half and the fourth quarter were enough to make his 242 DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) performance the fifth-best playoff game of any quarterback since 1995, the year our advanced stats (and play-by-play database) began.

Which four quarterback games were better? The top two will break the hearts of Broncos fans: Peyton Manning's 329 DYAR against the Broncos in 2004 and 284 DYAR against the Broncos in 2003. Number three is Jeff George for the Vikings against the Rams in 1999, a game Minnesota lost 49-37 despite George throwing for 423 yards and four scores (249 DYAR). Fourth is Tom Brady's near-flawless day against the Jaguars a year ago (244 DYAR).

As for Warner's top target? Fitzgerald's 103 DYAR performance was the third-best among wide receivers since 1995, and nearly double the 59 DYAR he earned as the league's top receiver a week ago. The two players ahead of him are players who still compete with Fitzgerald for the title of the league's best receiver right now: The Colts' Reggie Wayne earned 137 DYAR by catching 10 passes for 221 yards and two scores against the Broncos in the 2004 playoffs, and Carolina's Steve Smith mustered 116 DYAR in his 218-yard day against the Bears a year later.

What's interesting is that not one of those four quarterbacks won the Super Bowl in that season. Neither did Wayne nor Smith. If you're a Cardinals fan, having Warner and Fitzgerald is a huge boost to your hopes and dreams, but not a guaranteed ticket to titletown.

Here are the rest of the best and worst players from Championship Sunday, according to the Football Outsiders DYAR statistics.

Quarterbacks
Rk
Player
Team
CP/AT
Yds
TD
INT
Total
DYAR
Pass
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
EYds
1.
Kurt Warner ARI
21/28
279
4
0
242
242
0
495
Though Warner was 1-of-4 for 5 yards and a sack in the third quarter, his 242 DYAR was the third-best total of the entire season, with only games from Peyton Manning and Drew Brees ahead of him. Question: If the electorate voted now, would Warner be NFL MVP?
2.
Ben Roethlisberger PIT
16/33
255
1
0
86
86
0
289
The lack of a running game meant that Roethlisberger dropped back 17 times on third down. He converted seven of them, threw seven incompletions and ate three sacks. Going 7-of-17 on third down is a good day against the Ravens.
3.
Donovan McNabb PHI
29/47
373
3
1
79
63
15
375
There's the idea in baseball that pitchers need to have both control (the ability to keep the ball in the strike zone) and command (the ability to place a pitch where they want it to be, regardless of whether it's a ball or a strike). McNabb had control Sunday, but he didn't have command -- he threw plenty of passes a step behind or ahead of his receivers, forcing them into difficult catches that they weren't talented enough to make.
4.
Joe Flacco BAL
13/30
141
0
3
-79
-66
-13
45
Flacco needed to beat the Steelers deep if the Ravens were going to be able to score. Instead, he misfired on his first seven attempts of 15 yards or more, only completing a single pass to Todd Heap for 20 yards.
Five most valuable running backs
Rk
Player
Team
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
EYds
1.
Edgerrin James ARI
73
0
16
0
30
19
11
115
We're not so sure James wasn't actually Marion Barber wearing a mask in the first half. Where was the guy who was breaking four tackles at a time and picking up first downs earlier this year? That being said, James had only 17 yards on nine carries in the second half.
2.
Correll Buckhalter PHI
21
0
12
0
20
12
8
57
Four nice runs in the first half, then an important first-down catch on the drive where the Eagles took the 25-24 lead. Given Brian Westbrook's health, Buckhalter really should have played more.
3.
Tim Hightower ARI
33
0
8
1
17
2
15
88
It was really only two big plays, but could they be any bigger? His sweep on fourth-and-1 kept the Cardinals' season alive, and his fall forward on the screen pass put them ahead for good.
4.
Brian Westbrook PHI
45
0
26
0
15
7
9
86
Only four first downs on 17 attempts. The Cardinals did a fantastic job against Westbrook the second time around, helped by a number of injuries that have reduced Westbrook to a shell of his healthy self. We're sure he wouldn't have minded playing one more game this year.
5.
Willis McGahee BAL
60
2
13
0
11
28
-17
96
Of course, we're very thankful to hear McGahee suffered only a concussion on that hit from Ryan Clark late in the game, which resulted in a fumble that explains his poor receiving DYAR. It was strange, though, to see McGahee get 20 carries while Le'Ron McClain got only one.
6.
Willie Parker PIT
47
0
-2
0
-46
-34
-12
7
Welcome to the magical world of opponent adjustments. After looking good against the Chargers and their average run defense in the divisional round, Parker had one first down on 24 carries to go with two catches for minus-2 yards against the Ravens. For those of you who believe in the idea that running the ball early wears down the defense for later in the game, Parker carried the ball seven times on the Steelers' final two drives and gained 11 yards, all on first-and-10 or second-and-8.
Five most valuable wide receivers and tight ends
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
EYds
1.
Larry Fitzgerald ARI
9
10
152
16.9
3
103
229
See above.
2.
Brent Celek PHI
10
11
83
8.3
2
42
157
Celek was an unknown before this year to most fans, but Pro Football Prospectus 2008 pegged him as one of the top 25 prospects in the league. He had the surest hands of any Eagles receiver Sunday, and with L.J. Smith a free agent, it's easy to figure that the Eagles will let their previously franchise-tagged tight end wade into the free-agent pond and apportion the $5 million or so he made elsewhere.
3.
Kevin Curtis PHI
4
7
122
30.5
0
33
90
He could have had a yardage total to match Fitzgerald's had he managed to hang on to one of McNabb's deep passes. Curtis is great after the catch and working to stretch the field horizontally, which would make him a great complement to a No. 1 guy. He's just not that No. 1 guy himself. Remember that $5 million we mentioned a second ago? I can think of a spot the Eagles might choose to upgrade at.
4.
Hines Ward PIT
3
3
55
18.3
0
29
59
He was only around long enough to make three catches, but he picked up two first downs in the process.
5.
Derrick Mason BAL
3
9
41
13.7
0
19
84
Grabbing 3-of-9 targets seems bad, but the catches went for two first downs and a touchdown. He was also the intended target on two of Flacco's three interceptions. The impossibly tough Mason can now go have surgery on his shoulder.
Least valuable wide receiver or tight end
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
EYds
 
Greg Lewis PHI
1
2
-2
-2.0
0
-20
-14
The computers don't know that his incompletion was an egregious drop of a pass (admittedly thrown too late) that should've been a touchdown. They just see a quick hitch gone wrong inside the red zone. It's worth noting that Lewis took the roster spot of former second-round pick Reggie Brown, who was a healthy scratch because he doesn't contribute on special teams.

Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.

Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) is a staff writer for Grantland.

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