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Late Season Fades and Old Quarterbacks (plus, Romo may not be entirely to blame)

Posted by Jason Lisk on January 5, 2009

Several teams who were in prime position for a playoff spot one month ago struggled greatly in December and now find themselves at home. Four teams--Dallas, Denver, New York Jets and Tampa Bay, lead the way with their late season performances. For Dallas and Denver, this is nothing new. As Doug noted in this post from two summers ago, since 1978, Denver has the largest drop among teams between their winning percentage in the first 12 games of the season, and the last 4 games. Dallas was not too far behind.

I've got some thoughts on this that I want to explore further when I have time in the offseason, but it basically has to do with the fact that these teams play more "long" road trips than anyone else. Denver plays virtually every game in a different time zone, and the closest road trip is over 500 miles away, to Kansas City. Dallas, for those that may not realize it, is not in fact located in the Eastern part of the United States. They play three divisional games at a great distance from home, and unless Houston or New Orleans happen to be on the road schedule, also don't play any teams within 500 miles from home. This year, Dallas' closest road game was in Saint Louis. Perhaps these constant long trips (while teams from the East get to play at least half their games within a stone's throw of home) have a cumulative effect that results in reduced performance late in the regular season.

The other issue that I wanted to examine was teams with older starting quarterbacks. We've seen the Bucs with Jeff Garcia finish 0-4 after a 9-3 start (though it had as much to do with defensive collapses as Garcia), and also got to witness the complete collapse of Brett Favre with the Jets. This got me thinking, is there evidence that teams with older quarterbacks hit a wall. So I pulled every non-strike season since 1978 in which a quarterback who was age 35 or older threw at least 350 passes for a team, and recorded the team's record over the first 12 games, and the final 4 games, to see how these teams did down the stretch. Basically, I wanted to see if the Jets/Favre example was random, or if other older quarterbacks had led teams that faltered down the stretch. Without further ado, here are the results, sorted by age of the quarterback:

AGE		No.	F12	L4		DIFF
39+		6	0.542	0.333		-0.208
38		11	0.644	0.466		-0.178
37		12	0.625	0.604		-0.021
36		18	0.588	0.528		-0.060
35		20	0.558	0.638		0.079

Just so you understand what you are looking at here, Teams with a primary starting quarterback who was 38 years of age had a winning percentage of 0.644 over the first twelve games, and a winning percentage of 0.466 in the final four games, for a sizeable drop off of 0.178 compared to the rest of the season.

I had originally prepared this last week, and after I had written it, I saw, from reviewing Brian Burke's weekly roundup this weekend, that Bill Barnwell over at Football Outsiders wrote on a similar issue, and I encourage you to go check that out as well for a different perspective.

We've got a lot of big name quarterbacks on this list, and we can see that for the most part, they played on teams that were winners for most of the season. Here is the complete list of quarterbacks who threw 350+ passes in a season at age 38 or older, accompanied by their team's record in the first 12 and last 4.

player	team	year	age		W	L		W	L	T
moon		sea	1997	41		6	6		2	2	
testaverde	dal	2004	41		5	7		1	3	
favre		nyj	2008	39		8	4		1	3	
flutie		sdg	2001	39		5	7		0	4	
moon		min	1995	39		6	6		2	2	
simms		nyg	1993	39		9	3		2	2	
johnson		min	2006	38		5	7		1	3	
favre		gnb	2007	38		10	2		3	1	
testaverde	nyj	2001	38		7	5		3	1	
montana		kan	1994	38		7	5		2	2	
moon		min	1994	38		7	5		3	1	
tarkenton	min	1978	38		7	5		1	2	1
garcia		tam	2008	38		9	3		0	4	
marino		mia	1999	38		8	4		1	3	
elway		den	1998	38		12	0		2	2	
krieg		chi	1996	38		5	7		2	2	
morton		den	1981	38		8	4		2	2	

Now, it is entirely possible that these teams played more difficult schedules or the quarterbacks were injured, or the drop in wins was due to some factor other than a change in the quarterback's level of play--we are talking about only 17 guys (actually, 13, as Testaverde and Favre appear twice, and Warren Moon three times). Still, I pulled the game by game data, and for the quarterbacks before 1995, used the available games started data, box scores, and overall team passing stats to pull educated guesstimates of statistics for the final month. Twelve of the quarterbacks started all four of their team's final four games of the regular season; Moon in 1994 and 1997, Johnson in 2006 and Garcia this year played three, and Montana missed two of the final four games. Here are the splits from the early games versus the last four games in terms of completion percentage, yards per attempt, and adjusted yards per attempt, for the twelve that started every game the final month.

	Comp%	YPA	Adj YPA
EARLY	61.3	7.16	6.11
LATE	58.3	6.69	5.24

We see that, as a group, these twelve quarterbacks showed some decline across the board, some of this certainly could be the result of weather issues. The drop was most dramatic, though, in the adjusted yards per attempt category, primarily because of increases in interception rate. Brett Favre's collapse rates as the largest, but Tarkenton (back when league wide interception rates were much higher) also threw a whopping 14 interceptions in his final four regular season starts in 1978. Simms, Krieg, Flutie, and the ageless Warren Moon stayed pretty consistent. Marino and Testaverde limped to the finish line. And to bring it full circle, Craig Morton led Denver to an 8-3 start in 1981 and yet they missed the playoffs when they finished 2-3 and Morton was hurt and struggled. Who'd they lose out to? San Diego, on a tiebreaker.

This entry was posted on Monday, January 5th, 2009 at 10:53 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.