Minus one leg-twistin' Buffalo and the best defense in the country, the 2018 season for Nebraska's true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez has been a pretty steady climb. He started out strong against Colorado and has gotten better as the season has gone on, including two Big Ten freshman-of-the-week awards and four games with 300-plus yards of total offense after the Huskers' first three games of the season.
So it was a mild surprise that when I looked up Martinez's QBR this week that he "only" ranked 48th with an opponent-adjusted QBR of 65.0. Tanner Lee was 53rd last season at 61.6. Tommy Armstrong Jr. ranked 43rd (67.6, 2016) and 26th (72.8, 2015) in his two seasons under Mike Riley.
Maybe the fault is mine for expecting Martinez to be higher. Probably is, in fact. The Huskers are 2-7, after all, but the praise for Martinez has been so complete to this point that I honestly thought he might be flirting with the top 30.
Why isn't he? I don't know the secret recipe to QBR, ESPN's go-to quarterback metric since debuting in 2013, but the Worldwide Leader has provided a lot of clues as to what goes into the rating. The quick synopsis: QBR is based on a points-added system and looks at every "action play" involving a quarterback. It's a valuable metric for that reason. Throw a 4 yard completion on third-and-3, a QB gets some credit for that. Scramble for 4 yards on third-and-3, a QB gets more credit for that. So on and so on.
Based on that breakdown, here are a few reasons Martinez's QBR may only be in line with past Nebraska quarterbacks at this early stage.
1. The turnovers. Martinez ranks 86th among qualifying quarterbacks with six interceptions this season. Based on number of attempts, Martinez rises a little bit in the rankings to 78th with an interception rate of 2.56 percent, but those are definitely dragging his points-added down in the passing game.
Fumbles, however, might be an even bigger piece of the pie. Martinez has fumbled nine times on the season with five lost. That's about half of the Huskers' total fumbles on the year (20) and more than half of the fumbles lost (8). It's not totally out of the ordinary for a quarterback given that they handle the ball on every play, but if you're looking for areas of improvement going forward, that's one of them.
2. JD Spielman is too good and/or the offense. To be clear, this offense is great for quarterbacks. As it is currently operated with a true freshman quarterback, however, it may not be perfect for boosting QBR. In his explanation of QBR, ESPN's Dean Oliver cited two examples related to Johnny Manziel that are of note here:
• If he threw it the full 5 yards and the receiver was immediately downed, Manziel gets a fair amount of credit for the throw, splitting it with pass blockers and the receiver.
• If he threw it a couple of yards behind the line of scrimmage to a running back, Manziel gets less credit because the receiver and any blockers in front of him did more of the work.
Martinez has made plenty of great throws this season, but he's also made a bunch of quick passes, passes where the receivers may have taken a good share of the points-added. Martinez's longest pass of the season might be a good example. The 75-yard touchdown to JD Spielman against Wisconsin was a magnificent throw. Great route from Spielman and Martinez put it on the money. But Spielman covered the last 50 yards on his own and without knowing exactly how QBR divvies that up, you have to assume Spielman's getting a good share of the credit for two-thirds of that play. (Note: I bet this happens a lot when throwing to Spielman.) The first touchdown against Northwestern is another good example. Great throw by Martinez, a throw that allowed Spielman to coast the last 20 yards into the end zone. But, again, how does that get split up?
That said, an offense like this resulted in great QBRs for Marcus Mariota and McKenzie Milton. Eventually, in the latter case. Milton posted a 34.9 QBR his true freshman season, 84.1 as a sophomore. Maybe that's the biggest takeaway here, it's not that Martinez's QBR is lower than I expected, but that it's potentially high considering he probably hasn't been cleared to use every weapon in this offense's arsenal yet. (And, also, everyone around him is still learning it as well.)
There are only two true freshmen ahead of Martinez in QBR this season: Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and Texas Tech's Alan Bowman.
3. The wins. Or rather the losses in this case. Again from Oliver: "A benefit of the zero-to-100 scale is that it strongly relates to a winning percentage. For example, Manziel's unadjusted QBR of 86.4 implies that Texas A&M should win 86.4 percent of its games given his performance and an average supporting cast (defense, special teams and non-QB rush offense). In fact, the Aggies' defense was pretty close to the FBS average and they won 11 of 13 games, or 85 percent."
None of that changes what Martinez's QBR is right now, but it should change how it's framed. Nebraska has a winning percentage of .222 right now, but it's getting quarterback play that, per ESPN, should equate to about .650.
Now that feels a little more in line with what we're actually seeing each Saturday. Does it ultimately matter what what Martinez's QBR is? Not with where Nebraska is headed. The Huskers will be measure solely on wins and losses soon enough –– that'll feel refreshing –– but they're not quite there yet.
To the degree Martinez's QBR does matter, I guess the bigger question for Nebraska isn't why is it this now, but what can it be later?
The Grab Bag
- It's going to be cold on Saturday, but Scott Frost says the Huskers will be ready.
- Greg Smith takes a look ahead at the visit weekend shaping up for the Michigan State game.
- Mike Babcock looks back at the first game at Memorial Stadium.
- ICYMI: Here's this week's No Huddle.
Today's Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.