Monday, November 30, 2009

What Quarterbacks Learn From The Bench

About once a week I see someone making the argument that quarterbacks can't learn from the bench. This is an unfortunate consequence of spending too much time reading Detroit Lion discussion boards and seeing all of the excuses posters make justifying ... well, virtually everything that Matthew Stafford does. Apparently some time last summer Peyton Manning told some sportswriter that quarterbacks can't learn from the bench and the quote was siezed by a vocal group of fans wanting so see Stafford play.

Never mind that if there is one thing that Manning doesn't know about quarterbacking it is how much can be learned from the bench.

This post isn't about Stafford. At this point there is no particular reason not to play him, assuming he is reasonably healthy. It is more about the question of how much can be learned by watching the game, particularly by rookie quarterbacks.

For one thing this should be a reasonably simple exercise in counting, and I will do that. For another it is simply a matter of generating a composite season of those quarterbacks who got a lot of playing time as rookies versus those who did not. To avoid survivor bias I will try to focus on quarterbacks who are current starters, although to be fair quarterbacks who played extensively as rookies and ultimately failed should at least be considered.

For the first part, we will simply count current starting quarterbacks to see how many played as rookies. My minimum is five starts, which may seem a bit arbitrary, but it is to avoid those frequent situations where rookies gathered a couple of starts at the end of a lost season. This is the eyeball test with the Alex Smith Exception which will be explained later (the is also known as the Vince Young Exception. You can see where it's going).

Team Quarterback Rookie Starts
NFC East
New York Giants Eli Manning 7
Philadelphia Eagles Donovan McNabb 6
Washington Redskins Jason Campbell 0
Dallas Cowboys Tony Romo 0

NFC North
Chicago Bears Jay Cutler 5
Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers 0
Minnesota Vikings Brett Favre 0

NFC South
Atlanta Falcons Matt Ryan 16
Carolina Panthers Jake Delhomme 0
New Orleans Saints Drew Brees 0

NFC West
Arizona Cardinals Kurt Warner 0
Seattle Seahawks Matt Hasselbeck 0
St. Louis Rams Marc Bulger 0

AFC East
Buffalo Bills Trent Edwards 9
Miami Dolphins Chad Henne 0
New England Patriots Tom Brady 0

AFC North
Baltimore Ravens Joe Flacco 16
Cincinnati Bengals Carson Palmer 0
Cleveland Browns Brady Quinn 0
Pittsburgh Steelers Ben Roethlisberger 13

AFC South
Houston Texans Matt Schaub 1
Indianapolis Colts Peyton Manning 16
Jacksonville Jaguars David Garrard 1

AFC West
Kansas City Chiefs Matt Cassel 0
Oakland Raiders Jamarcus Russell 1
San Diego Chargers Philip Rivers 0

From this you can see a few omissions. Three of them are teams currently starting rookie quarterbacks and for whom we have no real baseline. The other three are San Francisco, Tennessee, and Denver. In each of those case their current quarterback played extensively as a rookie and then ultimately was benched. Evidenced by the more recent play of Orton, Smith and Young it is safe to hypothesize that each benefited from watching the game from the sideline. It is possible that Russell or Kyle Boller may also join this class of quarterbacks.

Now if you were to say 'that's a nice list but it really doesn't tell us anything', I would probably agree. The one thing that I would argue is that it demonstrates that there is no inherent advantage to playing as a rookie.

The second peek may be a little more interesting. As I see it, if there is no benefit to sitting and watching then quarterbacks who play right away as rookies should accrue very similar statistics to those who wait and watch. My gut says that this simply cannot be so, but it is simple enough to test. If we build composite seasons of the two groups we can make a head-to-head comparison. What I've done is to take the first 16 starts of every quarterback and then combined them into average seasons, one for each group.

So here are the first sixteen starts for every current starting quarterback in the NFL (omissions are for QBs who do not have 16 starts yet):

Att Comp Pct Yards TD INT
Tony Romo 323 510 63.3% 4348 31 19
Eli Manning 248 494 50.2% 3079 21 18
Donovan McNabb 280 508 55.1% 2753 20 16
Jason Campbell 266 468 56.8% 3032 19 13

Kurt Warner 325 499 65.1% 4353 41 13
Alex Smith 228 403 56.6% 2502 10 18
Matt Hasselbeck 262 447 58.6% 2833 10 9
Marc Bulger 347 545 63.7% 4262 28 19

Jay Cutler 275 437 62.9% 3385 22 15
Aaron Rodgers 341 536 63.6% 4038 28 13
Brett Favre 323 502 64.3% 3390 20 17

Matt Ryan 265 434 61.1% 3440 16 11
Jake Delhomme 312 530 58.9% 3688 19 22
Drew Brees 320 526 60.8% 3284 17 16

Trent Edwards 289 468 61.8% 3240 13 12
Tom Brady 313 481 65.1% 3360 23 13

Kyle Orton 212 406 52.2% 2053 9 14
Matt Cassel 338 537 62.9% 3782 21 13
Jamarcus Russell 210 398 52.8% 2631 14 10
Philip Rivers 284 460 61.7% 3388 22 9

Joe Flacco 257 428 60.0% 2971 14 12
Carson Palmer 332 529 62.8% 3683 26 20
Ben Roethilsberger 219 335 65.4% 3133 21 9

Matt Schaub 298 474 62.9% 3424 16 16
Peyton Manning 326 575 56.7% 3739 26 28
David Garrard 284 483 58.8% 3258 17 12
Vince Young 216 400 54.0% 2492 14 14

And finally, here are the two composite seasons:

Average NFL Starter With Limited Experience As A Rookie, First 16 Starts:

305 495 61.6% 3547 22 15 85.5
And here is the composite first 16 starts of all current starting quarterbacks who accrued at least five starts their rookie season:

256 444 57.6% 2981 17 15 76.8

So while it clearly isn't a disaster to start a player as a rookie, there is significant evidence that quarterbacks in fact do grow quite a bit from observing the game, participating in practices, film sessions and off-season activities, to the extent that with this additional experience their first "full" season is significantly better than that of the player who is simply thrown into the fire.


  1. Interesting data and good post, but wouldn't it be more appropriate to compare the QB's that sat in their first 16 composite to those that played extensively as rookies to their first 16 games AFTER their rookie season was over?

  2. I would say that it depends what question you are trying to answer. In this case, no. This exercise has other possibilities but in this case was specific to the question of whether quarterbacks can learn from the bench. If they cannot then we would expect their performance in their first 16 starts to be ~ identical to those who started right away. Since the performance is significantly better it is clear that there is a great deal of learning that can occur from the sideline.

    If I didn't say it before, I will say it now. To me the answer was obvious, but I wanted to get some ink behind it.

  3. Very nice.

    It's astonishing how much the prevailing wisdom has changed. 25+ years ago, the common sense position was that it takes 3 or 4 years to develop a QB. The guy should carry a clipboard most of his rookie season, maybe get into a couple of games in controlled situations or ones that wouldn't hurt the team. He should compete in season 2 and be part of the rotation. By the end of season 2 you should have a good idea what you have.

    Then came Dan Marino, I guess.

    I still believe that old school wisdom, myself. The notion that quarterbacks can't learn from the bench is just so obviously nonsense. The people who spout it the loudest are, duh, the young QBs who want to play. Their bias is very clear. For everyone else, I have one simple question: if you can't learn anything from practice, and film study, and meetings with your position coach: then why do players bother doing those things?

    What is true of course is that you can't learn *everything* from the bench. At some point you need to get out there and compete. But there's nothing wrong with laying the professional groundwork in practice and film study, rather than in front of the Steelers pass rush.

    A couple guys who seemed to learn a little something on the bench: Aaron Rodgers and Carson Palmer. Hell, Matt Cassel: he learned EVERYTHING on the bench, in the pros and college!

    My intuition is that there is a fairly small subset of guys who can function and grow when throw into the fire as rookies. Marino and Peyton Manning and Roethlisberger, obviously. I'm hoping Joe Flacco will prove to be in that set too. But *most* QBs need to be sheltered a bit, as rookies.

    Patch, thanks for finding a way to put numbers against this. I find the argument annoying enough that I just get impatient with it and start throwing invective.

  4. Yeah, it obviously breaks down to - if you're Marino or Manning you can step right in and play. Most QBs are not marked for HoF greatness after 2-3 seasons.

    Favre sat the bench. Rodgers. Palmer. Bradshaw got benched several times. The list goes on and on.

    I think unless you are HoF caliber, you need to sit on the bench, watch, learn how to read defenses, practice at an NFL level, etc.


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