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Mile High Hopes

Posted by Chase Stuart on September 21, 2006

On Tuesday, I analyzed the Jets' inept running game by comparing it to other similarly ugly starts. Based on how those teams finished their respective seasons, there wasn't much cause for optimism in New York.

But what about in Denver? Jake Plummer has been a very good QB since joining the Broncos. Plummer's ranked among the top 10 in "value added" in each of the past three years (value added defined as adjusted yards per attempt multiplied by attempts). That ignores his strong rushing skills, so by almost any objective measure, Jake Plummer's been one of the very best quarterbacks in the game since 2003.

That's what makes Plummer's terrible start so surprising. He's currently averaging 2.34 adjusted yards per attempt, well below his impressive averages of 7.09, 6.64 and 6.68 in recent seasons. Seeing Plummer's AY/A in the twos will bring to mind visions of 1999, when Plummer had one of the most damaging seasons to a franchise in history. But I find it hard to imagine he's regressed so much, especially since the talent around him is still very good.

So I'm left with this question: how often is it that a QB has a really bad start to the season but then turns it around and performs well? If it happens often, then Broncos' fans have little to worry about. If it rarely happens, Jay Cutler may be named the starter before October.

I looked at all quarterbacks since 1995 that attempted at least 25 passes in their first two games of the season (not necessarily weeks 1 and 2) and would eventually throw over 300 passes in the season.

EAtt = Early number of attempts (attempts in games 1 and 2)
EAY/A = Early Adjusted Yards per Attempt
FAY/A = Final (or season ending) AY/A
Value = AY/A * Attempts
FAtt = Final (or season ending) number of attempts
Ratio = (FAY/A^2) / (AY/A) (This isn't that important, but was the metric used to sort the list and create a cutoff point.)

Player Year EAtt EAY/A FAY/A Value FAtt Ratio
Jake Delhomme 2003 43 1.58 5.99 189.68 449 22.68
Steve McNair 2000 49 2.24 6.20 207.89 396 17.15
Jake Plummer 2003 38 2.74 6.68 335.95 302 16.30
Charlie Batch 1998 63 2.94 6.66 262.35 303 15.11
Donovan McNabb 2003 82 2.43 6.03 220.26 478 14.97
Trent Green 2004 66 4.11 7.37 721.45 556 13.22
Steve McNair 2001 51 3.76 7.01 585.04 431 13.04
Brett Favre 2003 69 2.68 5.80 108.66 472 12.53
Tom Brady 2003 72 3.17 6.28 376.50 527 12.46
Kordell Stewart 2001 59 3.36 6.23 256.89 442 11.57
Jake Plummer 2005 85 4.40 7.09 592.78 456 11.41
Peyton Manning 2005 64 5.48 7.90 956.13 453 11.37
Peyton Manning 2003 64 4.75 7.26 956.41 566 11.08
Jeff George 1995 78 4.45 6.98 662.28 557 10.95
Tony Banks 1999 48 3.40 6.08 143.18 320 10.89
Jake Delhomme 2005 57 4.23 6.76 424.27 435 10.81
Jim Harbaugh 1997 67 3.88 6.41 215.63 309 10.58
Chris Chandler 1995 44 3.57 6.12 118.32 356 10.51
Peyton Manning 2004 62 8.15 9.25 1580.54 497 10.50
Randall Cunningham 1998 41 6.85 8.46 1131.46 425 10.43
Chris Chandler 1998 59 7.61 8.76 969.29 327 10.08
Mark Brunell 1997 73 5.19 7.23 662.18 435 10.07
Brett Favre 1995 88 5.47 7.38 906.99 570 9.97
Steve McNair 2003 62 6.32 7.85 913.44 400 9.75
Chris Chandler 1997 42 5.90 7.54 624.21 342 9.62
Rich Gannon 2002 92 5.57 7.28 947.79 618 9.52
Scott Mitchell 1995 79 5.24 7.06 741.70 583 9.52
Trent Green 2003 53 5.51 7.15 827.77 523 9.28
Jeff Blake 1996 73 3.75 5.89 191.13 549 9.25

There are a few promising examples up there, but remember that table covers every QB for the past eleven seasons. If Plummer ends the season with a 7.00 AY/A, he would have a ratio of 20.94, which would rank second best in the past 11 years. A season ending adjusted yards per attempt of 6.00 would still give him a ratio of 15.4, and would land him squarely in the top five. So a turn-around from horrible to good happens once every few years; a turnaround from horrible to very good happens roughly once a decade.

Jake Delhomme started off 2003 poorly, but maybe not as badly as that AY/A indicates. He was 21/43 for 218 yards, 3 TDs and 4 INTs. Plummer's currently 29/56 for 311 yards, 0 TDs and 4 INTs. But that was Delhomme's first year starting and he was learning a new system, excuses Plummer can't rely on.

Steve McNair might be a better example. He had been on the Titans for awhile and had started for a couple of years, before having a miserable first two weeks in 2000: 28/49, 245 yards, 0 TD/3 INT. That line looks a bit like Plummer's actually; and McNair ended up having a (as of then) career year passing in 2000.

And look who is number three on the list: good ol' Jake. Plummer's thrown 10 INTs in his last four week one games, so there's a valid argument that he's just a slow starter. The 2003 Jake sure turned things around, and led the Broncos to a 9-2 record (including a 2-0 start, despite his subpar performances).

A rookie Charlie Batch had serious struggles in the beginning, but ended up being one of the better QBs in the NFL that year. Donovan McNabb struggled in 2003 -- and Rush Limbaugh had some choice comments on that -- but he turned it on in the second half and led the Eagles to the NFC Championship game. He was completing just 45% of his passes and had thrown 0 TDs against 4 INTs, so he looked just as terrible as Plummer.

Lots of quarterbacks start the season poorly. Occasionally, a very good QB having a very good season will be among that group. Plummer's been good enough for long enough that if I was Mike Shanahan, I'd give him the benefit of the doubt for two more games (especially considering his other slow starts). His next two games are against the Patriots and Ravens, two teams with historically tough defenses. New England's pass D isn't what it used to be, but the Ravens defense looks menacing this year. If Plummer can't play well this Sunday Night, he'll probably be forced to split reps with Jay Cutler during the week four bye. He might start week five, but there's a good chance he'd play poorly enough to be benched. It might be wisest for Denver to then insert Jay Cutler for games against Oakland and Cleveland, to prepare him for the rest of the season.

One word of caution: it's still worth noting that we're dealing with small sample sizes. If one of Plummer's interceptions had instead been a sack, his AY/A would be 3.20 instead of 2.34, and his future would look a bit more promising. But Plummer's AY/A was over 7.00 last year, which is the sign of a very good passer. If Plummer is able to reach that level again this year, it would truly be a historic turn-around. If he can't, Jay Cutler better be ready.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 21st, 2006 at 4:09 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.