There are few Stanford players in recent memory who have been the focus of more debate than senior quarterback Kevin Hogan. All one need do is mention Hogan's name at a gathering of Stanford fans and the eye-rolling and hand-wringing will begin.
During last year's Rose Bowl loss against Michigan State, I found myself sitting a row in front of a young fan who was certain that Hogan was a bad quarterback. I listened politely for most of the game, but when he unleashed another diatribe following an inocuous incompletion in the second half, I couldn't help myself. I turned around and said simply, "Hogan's a good quarterback."
The response was immediate and spoken with a degree of certainty that was surprising. "You're wrong about that. He's awful." There was no room for debate in this fan's mind; I'd have had more luck selling garlic to a vampire. Even so, I had to tell him. "Well, you can think that, but the statistics aren't on your side." And that was the end of our conversation.
Hogan's problem is that he doesn't pass the eye test. Andrew Luck lit up the sky like the sun during his three years at the helm; when we close our eyes we still his image burned into our retinas. When we open them we see Kevin Hogan.
Even if we put Luck aside, Hogan has the further misfortune of playing in perhaps the most pass-happy conference in the nation filled with some of the most talented quarterbacks around. With Hogan handing the ball off to Tyler Gaffney thirty times a game and picking his spots to look deep, he'll never look as good as his opponent who might attempt thirty, forty, or even fifty passes.
So let's take a look at the numbers. It shouldn't come as a surprise that as the signal caller for the lone conservative offense in the high-octane Pac-12, Hogan lags behind in virtually every one of the counting stats1. He finished ninth in passing yardage, more than two thousand yards behind Oregon State's Sean Mannion, and seventh in touchdowns, a full 17 scores behind Mannion. But as I said, Hogan's poor performance in those categories is largely because of the nature of his offense. He only attempted 295 passes (and remember, he even had an extra game thanks to the Pac-12 Championship Game), which was dead last, more than 400 passes fewer than Washington State's Connor Halliday2.
But what about the rate stats? With so many fewer attempts, you might expect that Hogan would have a higher completion percentage than his peers, but that isn't the case. Hogan completed 61% of his passes, good for ninth place in the Pac-12, better than only Cal's Jared Goff, a true freshman quarterback on the worst team in the league. (UCLA's Brett Hundley led the conference at 67.2%; Hogan reached that mark in a single game only once, when he completed 72% of his passes in a 24-10 victory over the Bruins. Perhaps he was inspired by Hundley's presence on the opposite sideline.)
So far it might seem like this has been written by the fan behind me at the Rose Bowl, but these statistics aren't always the best numbers to use when evaluating a quarterback, and they're never the best ones to use to measure a Stanford quarterback3. Even completion percentage can be deceptive. When Hogan took over just past the midway point of the 2012 season, he rarely threw down field and posted an impressive 71.7% completion rate, but when he was asked to throw deep more regularly in 2013, that number dipped by more than ten percent. (One need only think back to the Rose Bowl, when the offensive game plan seemed to consist of Gaffney on first down, Gaffney on second down, then Hogan throwing deep on third.)
Let's look at three other quarterback measures, and again we'll compare Hogan to his conference peers4. The chart below is fairly involved, so let me explain it before you look at it. Down the left-hand side you'll see the Pac-12 quarterbacks listed in order of their passer rating in conference play. This is informative, but I found myself wondering how those numbers might have fluctuated depending on which defenses a quarterback opposed, so across the top I've listed all twelve conference teams along with their average defensive passing efficiency numbers. (Passer rating and passing efficiency are interchangeable terms.) Reading the chart from left to right, then, you can see how each quarterback performed against each team.
Then I created a new metric, we'll call this the GMC Power Passer Rating5; you can see that total towards the right. Finally, I added ESPN's Adjusted Quarterback Rating, a number which takes into account both passing and running and quantifies quarterback play on a scale of 1-100. Got it? Now take a look. (You can click on the image to enlarge, if necessary.)
Here are a few interesting points. First, the numbers show one thing that we already know -- by any measure, Marcus Mariota is far and away the best quarterback in the Pac-12. But look who's right behind him in passer rating -- our man Kevin Hogan! He has the second-highest passer rating in the conference (remember, those numbers only include conference games), but when all statistics and all conferences are included, Hogan ranks a more-than-respectable #21 in the nation.
When we get a bit more technical, Hogan's still near the top. ESPN's adjusted QBR ranks him as the third-best quarterback, trailing Mariota and Hundley, and our newest metric, the GMC Power Passer Rating pegs him as fourth-best, behind Mariota, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, and Hundley. (Again, notice how much better Mariota is than everyone else.)
Finally, we can't forget the most important thing -- Kevin Hogan wins ballgames. Since taking over at quarterback midway through the 2012 season, Hogan is 21-3. Sure, two of those three losses are troubling, but against Oregon, UCLA, and Notre Dame, Hogan is a healthy 6-0, and he led the Cardinal to victory in the 2013 Rose Bowl.
He isn't the best quarterback in the Pac-12 and he won't likely receive any Heisman consideration, but there are probably eighty FBS coaches who would love to have him under center in 2014. Stanford fans should be thrilled that he'll be wearing the Cardinal and White for at least another season.
It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff uses Hogan this season. One of Hogan's greatest strengths is his running ability, and he showed definite improvement in the read-option game over the second half of last season, but with the lack of a clear backup quarterback (more on that in a minute), it wouldn't be a surprise if the coaching staff drastically curtailed his designed runs.
The success of the offense, then, will likely be determined by Hogan's effectiveness as a pocket passer. Don't cringe. Hogan will be throwing to the deepest and most talented corps of wide receivers in Stanford history, a group that is certainly amongst the best in the nation. Additionally, much is expected from a young group of skilled tight ends who should emerge this fall. Hogan will not lack for targets. If he can continue the learning curve that began two seasons ago -- and if the coaching staff will take the training wheels off -- Hogan will prove to all that he truly is one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12.
Beyond Hogan, things get a bit murky. Senior Evan Crower is currently the backup, but that doesn't say as much about him as it does the uncertainty surrounding sophomore Ryan Burns. Based on his 6'5" frame, rocket arm, and ability outside the pocket, Burns was immediately annointed as the successor to Hogan, but concerns about the lack of sophistication in his high school program might have been well founded. Burns never took a snap under center during his prep career, and he spent half of spring football fumbling center exchanges. He was suspended for unspecified reasons during the other half.
The object in Burns's mirror isn't just larger than it appears, it's larger than life. Incoming freshman quarterback Keller Chryst is the most heralded Stanford recruit since, well, you know. With the premium that David Shaw places on knowledge of the playbook, I can't imagine that a true freshman would ever push for playing time, but as soon as Hogan leaves, either after this year or next, Chryst will be in the mix. Bet on it.
Stanford is in good hands with Kevin Hogan in 2014, but the future looks even brighter.
1. Colorado and Utah each divided their passes between two quarterbacks, so any rankings I cite here ignore quarterbacks from those two schools.
2. Halliday's numbers are just as skewed by Mike Leach's Air Raid offense as Hogan's are by Shaw's conservative approach. If we remove Halliday and Hogan as the outliers and then average the remaining eight quarterbacks, we get an average of 433 pass attempts per quarterback, still far more than Hogan's 295.
3. Andrew Luck, the best quarterback in Stanford history, never led the conference in touchdowns, and led in yards only once, when he threw for 3,338 yards in 2010, a total that would've placed 6th in 2013. While Luck's completion percentage reached obscene levels (he holds the two highest single-season completion percentages (70.7 in 2010 and 71.29 in '11) as well as the career mark at 67.01), he played in an offense devoid of deep threats, and didn't look deep as often as Hogan did last season. Luck's average completion during his senior season was 12.2 yards, while Hogan averaged 14.6 last year.
4. Except for Washington's Kevin Price. Because he's moved on to the NFL, ESPN.com has purged most of his NCAA statistics, and I chose to stick with one database. His exclusion doesn't affect my argument. I promise.
5. I wanted to know how much better or worse each individual quarterback performed against a defense as compared to how the rest of the quarterbacks did. A passing efficiency of 120 against Oregon, for example, is much more impressive than the same number against Cal. The GMC Power Passer Rating system grades quarterbacks by totalling their nine individual game passing efficiency numbers and then subtracting the total of the average passing efficiency scores of the nine defenses he faced. Oregon's Marcus Mariota, for example, had a passing efficiency of 208.5 against Washington, whose defense allowed an average rating of only 110.9. On this scale, Mariota performed 97.6 points better than expected. That's good.