Sunday, August 9, 2009

Expectations for the Now Sophomore QBs

Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco bucked a popular media trend of rookie QBs that do not play well. I say “a popular media trend” because while QBs that start as rookies don’t tend to play as well as they do for the rest of their careers, there are certainly examples of those that have played well. I’ve read some call Matt Ryan’s season possibly the best rookie season since the “passing era” began in 1978, which is difficult to argue in the shadow of Dan Marino and Ben Roethlisberger. I’ve also read an even more ludicrous suggestion that Flacco had the better season of the two, simply because his team made it to their Conference Championship Game…apparently some people see only one player on the field at a time, while most others see twenty two.

But besides that point, the reality is that both Flacco and Ryan had good rookie seasons. Because of this, fans of both franchises are breathing a sigh of relief in belief that they’ve finally solved their quarterback position. In Atlanta, erasing the stain that was Michael Vick was a true achievement for Ryan. Flacco’s version was similar, though Kyle Boller left a different kind of taste in fans’ mouths.

The excitement in Atlanta and Baltimore comes not simply from the two quarterbacks having a solid season, but also from the expectation that they will improve from their rookie campaign. The question is, just how much should we expect them to improve? Many seem to believe both will get better this season. A few suggest the possibility of a sophomore slump (particularly in Baltimore, and especially when Derrick Mason was seemingly retired). How likely is all that to happen?

I went to the books to look at historic trends for QBs that had mediocre to exceptional rookie seasons, and their trends in future years. But first I had to define which QBs would fit the criteria.

I decided to stick to the “modern era” of passing. In 1978, the NFL passed the rule that defensive backs could not come in contact with receivers five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. This ushered in a new era of passers, and quarterback (and receiver) play has for the most part never been the same since. I also decided in a somewhat arbitrary cut to say a QB rating of 70 or better their rookie season would be defined as “mediocre or better.” This isn’t a perfect methodology; it for instance includes Tim Couch, but Rick Mirer is left on the outside looking in. But for the most part it serves as a reasonable criterion for a cut. Finally, I didn’t want to include someone who made a nice splash in a few blow-outs or for two weeks in injury duty, so I set another somewhat arbitrary cut that the rookie QB needed at least 200 attempts to qualify.

This gave me a nice list of thirteen quarterbacks in my sample. Chronologically they are Jim McMahon, Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Jim Kelly, Jeff George, Tony Banks, Jake Plummer, Peyton Manning, Charlie Batch, Tim Couch, Jeff Garcia, Byron Leftwich and Ben Roethlisberger. Taking the combination of their per-game stats, extending them over a full 16 game season, and then looking at the median and average performances of the group, we see the median give a QB rating of 80.7, and a 78.5 average rating. Both are fairly close to Flacco’s 80.2 rating on the year, though Matt Ryan had a far more impressive 87.7 rating.

From there I looked at the median, average and range of per game (NOT per start) performance for each QB’s rookie and sophomore seasons. I then calculated the percentage improvement of each group’s rookie to sophomore statistics, and applied those percentages to Ryan’s and Flacco’s 2008 stats.

Matt Ryan
By Median3224950.6538457.81512
By Range
By Average3024730.6438548.11810
Joe Flacco
By Median3124890.6433116.81313
By Range
By Average2934660.6333187.11611

By median – due to small sample size – is likely the better measure here. The ranges are calculated based on the rookie median, not average. Also, removing the high and/or low performers from the sample yields little difference in the results.

Some interesting trends in this data:
Completion Percentage – Nine of the thirteen players on the list saw an increase in completion percentage from Y1 to Y2.
Touchdowns and Interceptions – Only seven QBs had their TDs per game and TD:INT ratio improve their sophomore season. This partially explains the difference between the average and median TD:INT projections. We could call it the “Marino/Manning/Garcia” effect. Marino saw a massive increase in his TD production. Manning and Garcia a massive increase in their TD:INT ratio.
Yardage – Ten of the thirteen saw their per-game yardage totals increase. This could easily be attributed to the fact that nine saw their per game attempts go up.
Overall – One last thing worth noting. Only Warren Moon saw a decline in all three categories (yards per game, completion percentage and TD:INT ratio), and no others saw a decline in both completion percent and TD:INT ratio.

In this analysis, it’s probably less important to look at the actual numbers, and more important to look at the trending of the numbers. Their TD:INT numbers are likely to be similar to where they were before, but their yardage will probably improve as they get more reps. Generally it should be expected that they play better, but not necessarily a dramatic improvement.

My own personal belief is that I don’t think either is more likely than the other to either improve or decline. There are strong arguments for both going either way. Matt Ryan had a better season, so there’s less room to improve than decline. Additionally, Atlanta’s offensive line played significantly better than in ’07, and better than expected at the on-set of the ’08 season. They are young and could continue to improve, or they could regress to the mean and set Ryan back with them. Should Michael Turner suffer the “Curse of 370” it could negatively impact Ryan’s ability to build on his rookie year. And of course, Ryan could simply improve with a year of experience under his belt, and the addition of ageless, perennial Pro Bowler Tony Gonzalez as an additional receiving option.

The arguments for Flacco are similar. His offensive line is [mostly] young, and will have two or possibly three new starters this season. It could improve or decline and neither would be surprising. Cam Cameron will almost certainly open the offensive playbook up. But the Ravens also still lack the basic weapons to truly give Flacco solid support. Derrick Mason is in his mid-thirties and suffered a serious shoulder injury last season. If he goes down to injury, the Ravens receiving options are horrendous (see my statistical break-down of their odds in light of Mason’s retirement here). But Flacco has plenty of room to improve upon last season, and his stats in his first five weeks vs. the last eleven weeks are night and day. With one TD to seven INTs his first five games, through his final eleven he threw thirteen TDs to only five INTs, and he posted a gaudy 90.2 QB rating his final eleven games.

Either way, both are more likely to improve than they are to decline. And to fans of two franchises that have suffered through frustrations at the QB position for years, these two are a breath of fresh air.


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