It's quite important for many fans to insist that our favorite players are "underrated." That's an understandable impulse, but one usually rooted in our insecurities, either about the athletes involved or our football knowledge. Objectively, if a player is an outstanding, reliable, quiet contributor to his team, that doesn't make him underrated, it just makes him outstanding, reliable and quiet, like Marques Colston or Matt Forte. And look, I'll stipulate that you recognized Jordy Nelson before anyone else in the world did if you say the same thing about me and Victor Cruz. Both statements might even be true, but neither player is underrated anymore.
Further, when a stathead comes up with a metric showing an unheralded player leading the league in something important, it doesn't necessarily mean the guy is underrated. Pat Angerer isn't the most underrated player in the NFL, he just makes a lot of tackles because the Colts can't get their opponents off the field.
Having said that, it is very possible for a player to toil in the NFL and not get the recognition he deserves. Even at quarterback, even for championship teams; just ask Bart Starr. So what are the analytical components of actually being underrated?
Underrated players tend to be better than traditional statistics show. It's hard to get credit for building wins when the yardsticks we read about, think about and talk about every day miss your contributions. When it comes to quarterbacks, there's a straightforward way to measure this: the gap between a QB's Total Quarterback Rating and his NFL passer rating. As I've covered ad nauseum in this column all season, passer rating isn't just a traditional and widely used number, it also overweights a couple of highly visible components: passing touchdowns and completion percentage. That means QBs with high passer ratings will do well and look good according to conventional wisdom. Conversely, quarterbacks with high QBR relative to their passer rating will do things that help their teams win but go unnoticed.
Underrated players tend to escape media and social media attention. If you sign a $90 million contract or scream about not getting the ball enough or get busted with drugs in a hot tub, people are going to scrutinize your play. If you don't, you're much more likely to fly under the radar. There's a simple way to measure media hype, too, which I like to call the Google Meter: just type a player's name, his team and "2011" into Google, and see how many hits you get.
We can combine this information to build a formula that reveals the most underrated QBs in the league. Suppose we project every quarterback's QBR using only his passer rating to predict it and take the difference between actual QBR and estimated QBR as our first term. We'll take the number of hits each player has on the Google Meter, in millions, as our second term. And say we combine the factors into a scale that maxes out at 100 and rates half the QBs above zero and half below.