Not too long ago, I noted some eerie parallels between Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Brees in terms of their first years as starters—in particular how Drew Brees was perceived, what his weaknesses and strengths were. The idea of that piece was to do an extended case study, but how it turned out was pretty interesting. The whole piece is pretty long, but the part that stuck out to me was the set of scouting reports that Jim Trotter produced for the Sporting News, including these gems:
Brees has been asked to manage games rather than win them. Injuries along the offensive line and at wide receiver have limited his effectiveness, but Brees has had problems with his accuracy, regularly failing to hit receivers in stride. He has been at his best throwing between the numbers and sidelines, but he still must show he can work the middle of the field, particularly on the deep post. Coach Marty Schottenheimer believes Flutie’s scrambling ability makes him a greater threat coming off the bench. No. 3 quarterback Seth Burford has a strong arm but heavy feet. He played on a lower level in college and still must show he can perform in the NFL.
One of QB Drew Brees’ best qualities is that he has a short memory. He can throw an interception on one series and not let it affect him on the next. He threw two interceptions in the first three quarters against the Chiefs but responded by throwing two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 35-34 win. Privately, Brees has been longing for more responsibility. The Chargers wanted to bring him along slowly, but they need to balance the run and the pass to consistently beat elite teams. Brees is showing he can handle the load and has a feel for making plays in the fourth quarter.
The Chargers were doing almost nothing on offense, a nasty trend in recent weeks as they have tumbled back to the pack after a 6-1 start. Brees has thrown only three touchdown passes in the last seven games, and had problems today dealing with the wind and a Buffalo defense that sacked him three times and whacked him often. His receivers didn’t help, with at least six drops.
Regardless, that sparked an interesting idea in one of my Twitter followers, @semacks—who took a look at the raw statistics from Brees’ first year to do a side-by-side comparison:
— Steven Macks (@semacks) December 3, 2014
After a discussion about era adjustments, I did a quick-and-dirty look at the two quarterbacks profiled most readily in the piece—Peyton Manning and Drew Brees—and moved on from there. The natural extension of that was to look at all the Hall of Fame quarterbacks in their first year to take a look at where they were at.
But that alone isn’t interesting. We know what Fran Tarkenton’s rookie year was like: it was phenomenal. Until Dan Marino, it was one of the best rookie years of all time.
And his passer rating was 74.7, with an adjusted yards per attempt of 5.2. Teddy Bridgewater has a passer rating of 79.0 and an adjusted net yards per attempt of 4.9. It is not one of the best rookie years of all time. That’s no surprise, we generally accept the fact that passing has become easier in the NFL and that in order to be a good rookie, one must do more than to put up better numbers than rookies from 1961. The vast majority of you know this, but every so often I have to spell this out—the last from an email of someone who told me that Ponder’s numbers compared favorably to Tarkenton’s.
Just for the interesting visual:
I think everyone knows that passing has improved significantly since the 1970s, and most people know that the rule changes in 1978 had a big influence on those events. Not as many people are aware of the fact that passing was easier in the early 1960s and dipped continuously through the late 196os into the late 1970s before bouncing back. In fact, passing was even (marginally) easier in the 1950s! It’s not shown on the graph, but the league average adjusted net yards per attempt in 1958 and 1959 was 4.6, higher than 1960, 1961 and 1962. 1947 was even more prolific than that.
That has less to do with league averages than it does the dominance of both Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman, as well as the introduction of the Wing T (which of course led to the biggest lopsided game in NFL history—Sammy Baugh’s Washington team lost to Luckman’s Bears by 73 points in 1940), combined with the fact that the NFL had very few teams before 1960/1961 (the pre-merger averages above include the AFL as well).
Anyway, back to era-adjustments. The league’s best passer in 1977 was Roger Staubach. His adjusted net yards per attempt was 6.03, which is exactly the same as Eli Manning’s is right now, currently ranked 20th in the statistic (pretty similar paths to it, too—Staubach’s yards per attempt was 7.3, while Eli’s is 7.0. The TD rates (5.0, 5.0), INT rates (2.7, 2.5) are even more alike, but the sack rates (7.7, 5.6) are not).
Jim Hart went to the Pro Bowl that year, throwing at 52.4 percent, on 355 passes for 2542 yards. He threw only 13 touchdowns to 20 interceptions (!). In Hart’s favor, he was ridiculously good at avoiding sacks, hitting the ground at a league-low 3.5 percent of the time. Any non-rookie doing that this year would be eviscerated. His adjusted net yards per attempt was almost identical to Teddy’s current rate, although Teddy owes more to that to a low yards per attempt and high sack rate than a scary turnover rate.
Ken Stabler owns the third-highest turnover rate that year (6.8 percent of his passes were intercepted) and went to the Pro Bowl (and frankly, he deserved it—he had the fourth-highest completion rate despite an above average depth of target and a touchdown rate identical to his interception rate (second-highest) for a top-five passer rating and top-eight adjusted net yards per attempt).
At any rate, that means we have to do era adjustments. Thankfully, human performance tends to be normally distributed, and even though NFL quarterbacks are theoretically at the tail-end of the “ability to quarterback” curve, their performances in the NFL also tend to be normally distributed. That means we can simply take the distance from the mean of that year (measured not in the original unit, like yards per attempt, but in “standard deviations” so that a certain percentile of performances will always fall below a common standard—so a performance 1.0 standard deviations above the mean will have 84.1 percent of performances fall below it) and apply it to 2014, so we have a common set of units. Further, because volumetric totals will be different by year and so on, it makes sense to give everyone a number of attempts that matches 2014 so we can get a better grasp of what the old numbers would mean. I picked 500 attempts (and pro-rated Teddy to 500 attempts for the comparison).
So, after adjusting for era and attempts, we can compare Teddy Bridgewater’s rookie season to the first season of every Hall of Famer who has played in the 1960s on up. “First season” is difficult to define, of course—if someone starts one game, does it count? What about five? What if, like Don Strock in 1981, you didn’t start any games, but you threw significant passes in all of them?
Do we do it by attempts? Starts? 34 attempts can be someone’s first action in the NFL, but it’s not a meaningful representation of how good they are. Christian Ponder’s first 34 attempts in 2012 were really, really good—he averaged 8.9 yards per attempt and threw no turnovers (and in his next 34 passes, he continued not to throw picks, threw two touchdowns and had 8.5 adjusted yards per attempt).
Generally speaking, yards per attempt should stabilize around 200 attempts, so that’s what I chose. Steve Young had 159 dropbacks (138 passes) in his first non-USFL professional year (with the 1985 Buccaneers) and I did not include that, for example. He started five games and threw for 935 yards while rushing for 233 more—a textbook case of a borderline example. Charlie Connerly only started four games but threw the ball 299 times (in fairness, he was in an odd platoon system as well in 1948—starting four games but playing very significant snaps in all 12), and Patrick Ramsey in 2002 started five games, whilst throwing it 227 times—an interesting year by itself.
Danny Wuerffel started the year, and predictably was terrible. Washington was in the middle of a three-quarterback controversy (sound familiar?) and named Wuerffel the starter for the year. Right before Game 4, Steve Spurrier refused to name a starter, but stuck with Wuerffel… for one drive (they scored a field goal, but he went 1/3 for 11 yards and rushed for one yard). Patrick Ramsey took over the rest of the game and threw it 34 times for the win. He started the next two games (total: 111 attempts) but then was benched for going 0-2 in those games (and throwing four interceptions to one touchdown).
He only threw two more passes in Weeks 10 and 13 (total: 113 attempts) while Shane Matthews (a former Florida quarterback, like Wuerffel, who had played with Spurrier in Florida) started. Here’s what happened then:
Spurrier told his quarterback corps on Monday morning, then reiterated at an afternoon press conference, that Shane Matthews will be demoted from No. 1 to No. 3 on the depth chart and replaced by either Danny Wuerffel or first-round draft choice Patrick Ramsey for Sunday’s game against St. Louis.
The Washington Post reported in its edition Wednesday that Wuerffel would get the start.
“Shane has struggled, but it’s not all his fault,” said Spurrier, who is making his fifth quarterback switch since the week leading into the regular season. “The offense has struggled. We’ve struggled in pass protection. So it’s not all on Shane. But we want to see what the other guys can do.”
Only three weeks ago, Spurrier essentially said he was married to Matthews for the balance of the year. Of course, he earlier made a similar comment about Ramsey, who has started two games this season.
While it appears Wuerffel and Ramsey could split snaps at the beginning of the week, league and team sources told ESPN.com on Monday morning that Spurrier is leaning heavily toward starting the former against the Rams. He would, however, give playing time to Ramsey as well, as Spurrier continues to seek a viable quarterback around whom he can build.
So Wuerffel got the start in Week 12, but he wasn’t good enough to stave off Patrick Ramsey in Week 14, when they played the Giants. Wuerffel started the game, but the Giants—who were so injured that they had started a player they signed a previous week (off of Washington’s own IR list!) at safety—forced Spurrier to choose Patrick Ramsey in the third quarter after Wuerffel fumbled off of a sack, giving him 27 attempts (total: 140 attempts). Ramsey started the rest of the year, averaging 32 attempts a game to hit that 200-attempt total (and then some) his rookie year.
It’s not always easy separating these cases out, but I decided a simple 200-attempt cutoff would work, even in older eras when passing wasn’t so prolific.
Below are all the first years Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have played since the 1960s, plus Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (and Teddy Bridgewater). They’ve all been colored in with the original jersey color for the team they played for that year.
This is, again, after adjusting for era and attempts (those whose first years were not rookie years have been asterisked. The dagger superscript over yards per game indicates that this was the one stat not adjusted for by era or attempts):
The table is sorted by descending adjusted net yards per attempt. Unsurprisingly, Dan Marino had the best rookie year of all time (although an argument could be made for Marc Bulger, of all people), and the best rookie year of all of those Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Below him, by quite a margin, is Johnny Unitas, followed very closely by Joe Namath. Roger Staubach’s 1971 wasn’t just the best first-year of all time, it was one of the greatest passing seasons in NFL history. His unadjusted 104.8 passer rating in 1971 would rank 4th today.
Teddy Bridgewater is close to Peyton Manning and John Elway, and actually closer to Dan Fouts than John Elway despite the number of quarterbacks in between. It can get kind of confusing when you include quarterbacks who had careers outside of the NFL (Warren Moon, Kurt Warner, Jim Kelly, Steve Young). Below is a list of only quarterbacks who played their first year as a rookie and did not play in another professional league:
First, Hall of Fame quarterbacks are rare. Big shock. Second, Hall of Fame quarterbacks who started as a rookie are a small sample to choose from. We know that Elway, Aikman and especially Bradshaw had struggling rookie years and though people didn’t say it at the time (check out the first link above for a more complete media analysis of Peyton’s rookie year), Peyton’s wasn’t stellar either.
For those three, their era-adjusted quarterback ratings of 70 or below are a pretty decent indication of how poorly they did, though John Elway’s is dragged down further than it should be with a mediocre completion rate—something passer rating overvalues. Instead, he had a very good adjusted yards per attempt (despite a 16:17 TD:INT ratio) because of his abilities as a deep-ball thrower (an average yards per completion of 11.9 is tied for second-highest in the set) but without the absolutely shocking completion rate or interception rate of Terry Bradshaw. Like Teddy, Elway suffered from a mediocre offensive line, pushing his sack rate up to 7.3 percent by modern standards (still better than Teddy’s 8.1 percent). Unlike Teddy, he took long sacks, averaging 7.8 yards a sack to Teddy’s 6.6.
The one thing that strikes away from the set is his yards per attempt for rookies: the worst in the set. All rookie statistics are bad indicators of future performance, but yards per attempt is the least bad. Still, Teddy fits within the parameters of the other rookie performers in most areas. The median of the rookie HOFers and the HOFers who started later in their career are listed in the first figure.
Teddy is just below the median rate on adjusted net yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt and passer rating, above the median rate in interceptions and below the median rate in touchdowns by quite a margin. It’s a fun look. If one were to look at distance from the mean in key indicators of playing style, like completion rate, interception rate, touchdown rate, yards per attempt and yards per completion, the closest quarterbacks to Teddy’s first year are Steve Young and Peyton Manning, with Dan Fouts and Troy Aikman not that much further away.
Again, this is all meaningless. It’s still a fun look, and we can do the same thing to former Vikings quarterbacks. Check out all these quarterbacks who took significant snaps for the Vikings compared to Teddy in their first NFL years (jersey color again modified for the original year they played for that team)!
The reason Randall Cunningham can go 22:10 with 6.9 yards per attempt and still have a 3.9 adjusted net yards per attempt is because that year he held the NFL record in total sack yards lost.
I hope this was as fun for you as it was me.