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When should the Lions have given up on Joey Harrington?

Posted by Jason Lisk on September 19, 2008

In June, Chase Stuart wrote a series of posts about quarterbacks, including the worst quarterbacks of all-time. In that post, he had this to say about Joey Harrington:

There you have it — no QB has performed so far below the league average for so long as Joey Harrington. To be clear, Joey Harrington probably isn’t the worst quarterback of all time in an absolute sense. But in terms of being so far below average, but far enough above miserable to earn more playing time, Joey Harrington hurt his team more than any other QB in NFL history. If Harrington had been worse, he would have played less, and he wouldn’t have set back the teams he played on.

So that got me thinking. At what point should the Lions have given up on Joey Harrington? Let me define what I mean by "give up". It could mean releasing or cutting the player, but I don't necessarily mean waiting until that point. I more consider it the point at which the team should bring in a veteran quarterback, or another high draft pick, to legitimately compete as the starter and potentially beat out Harrington--and I don't count Mike McMahon as doing that. It's just hard to say all of that in a quick and easy way.

Chase opined that the reason that so many of the "bad" quarterbacks were recent high draft picks is because teams give them many opportunities to fail. I think that's right. And I'll go so far as to say that teams are far more likely to commit errors of holding on to a quarterback for too long, while rarely giving up on a quarterback to early--once they have seen him play any amount of time in a real NFL game. I can think of examples of quarterbacks who were drafted, never started for their original team, and found success elsewhere, but its relatively rare to find a quarterback who started but never had success with his original team, and moved elsewhere to have his first breakout.

But I think NFL teams who hold on to a bad quarterback for too long are compounding their problems, and committing a new and independent error. Drafting Joey Harrington may have been a mistake, but having him as the best quarterback on the roster, and starting him for four years, is a bigger one. All NFL teams make drafting mistakes or get unlucky, but the good teams move on quicker and do not compound their mistakes.

We can probably think of examples of young quarterbacks struggling, but was there a point at which Harrington's career path and numbers diverged from the quarterback successes? After all, he was the primary starter for four seasons--surely the decision could have been made before then.

I used Chase Stuart's database of all quarterbacks who had an above average season using the formula from this post, which included both rushing data and sacks. I pulled every quarterback who entered the league since 1970, and who had at least one above average season. Then, because there were backups who played a few games in a season who showed up as above average, I set a lower limit of +500 of value added from all of the above average seasons combined.

This isn't a very high standard. All of your recognizable hall of famer and all-pro quarterbacks of the last 38 years appear on the list, as do guys who had up and down careers, so long as they had some good seasons (or one really good one). Your new starters in Tennessee and Tampa Bay, Kerry Collins and Brian Griese? Check. Don Majkowski? You bet. Jay Schroeder, Scott Mitchell and Kordell Stewart? All on the list. Every quarterback who started for the Chiefs in the 1990's, from DeBerg to Grbac? Yes.

The three "best" quarterbacks to not make this list are probably Jon Kitna, Bubby Brister, and Trent Dilfer, after that, it really drops off (Oh, and you can add Super Bowl winner Eli Manning, though I suspect he would qualify for this list after this season). That's right, the Lions have followed up four years of Joey Harrington with three consecutive seasons with an aging journeyman who has still never had a single season where he was significantly above average. (Must . . . avoid . . . urge . . . to go on . . . Matt Millen rant. . . .)

The end result was a list of 98 quarterbacks. But then, it wouldn't be fair to compare how guys like Kurt Warner, Warren Moon, and Trent Green played in their first starting opportunities, since they came at a later age. Harrington started as a true rookie, albeit a relatively old one at age 24. So I kicked out everyone who threw 10 or more passes per game for the first time at age 26 or later. Let's dig in to the rest and see how they started their careers or played at similar age and experience level with Harrington.

Thirty quarterbacks on the Success list started as true, straight out of college rookies at age 25 or younger, and threw at least 10 passes per team game in their rookie season. It is common knowledge that rookie quarterbacks generally struggle. But there are different types of struggling, so I broke down each season by looking at completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, and interception percentage. A quarterback who throws for yards but throws alot of interceptions may be different than a quarterback who avoids interceptions but throws for few yards. Here are the bottom 10, along with Joey Harrington's numbers, for each of those categories, among our rookie starters. The last column is the raw number. The "adj" number is the adjusted number in relation to the team wide league average for that season. For example, interception rates were much higher in the 1970's, so a failure to adjust to league average would result in a list of guys almost exclusively from the 1970's on the interception list.

successes who threw 160 or more passes as rookies, worst completion percentage

first	last		year	age		adj	comp%
Doug	Williams	1978	23		-15.5%	37.6%
Terry	Bradshaw	1970	22		-13.0%	38.1%
Richard	Todd		1976	23		-12.1%	40.1%
Vinny	Testaverde	1987	24		-11.8%	43.0%
Don	Majkowski	1987	23		-11.5%	43.3%
Joey	Harrington	2002	24		-9.5%	50.1%
John	Elway		1983	23		-9.4%	47.5%
Kerry	Collins		1995	23		-8.7%	49.5%
Donovan	McNabb		1999	23		-8.0%	49.1%
Drew	Bledsoe		1993	21		-8.0%	49.9%
Joe	Ferguson	1973	23		-7.5%	44.5%

successes who threw 160 or more passes as rookies, worst yards per attempt

first	last		year	age		adj	ypa
Donovan	McNabb		1999	23		-1.91	4.39
Joey	Harrington	2002	24		-0.95	5.35
Troy	Aikman		1989	23		-0.63	5.97
Richard	Todd		1976	23		-0.43	5.37
Drew	Bledsoe		1993	21		-0.39	5.81
John	Elway		1983	23		-0.08	6.42
Joe	Ferguson	1973	23		-0.07	5.73
Jeff	George		1990	23		-0.06	6.44
Bernie	Kosar		1985	22		-0.04	6.36
Kerry	Collins		1995	23		-0.01	6.29
Dan	Fouts		1973	22		0.00	5.80

successes who threw 160 or more passes as rookies, worst touchdown percentage

first	last		year	age		adj	td%
Neil	Lomax		1981	22		-2.5%	1.7%
Richard	Todd		1976	23		-2.3%	1.9%
Joe	Ferguson	1973	23		-1.9%	2.4%
John	Elway		1983	23		-1.7%	2.7%
Terry	Bradshaw	1970	22		-1.6%	2.8%
Rodney	Peete		1989	23		-1.5%	2.6%
Vinny	Testaverde	1987	24		-1.5%	3.0%
Jim	Zorn		1976	23		-1.5%	2.7%
Dan	Fouts		1973	22		-1.2%	3.1%
Joey	Harrington	2002	24		-1.2%	2.8%
Troy	Aikman		1989	23		-1.0%	3.1%

successes who threw 160 or more passes as rookies, worst interception percentage

first	last		year	age		adj	int%
Terry	Bradshaw	1970	22		+5.8%	11.0%
Richard	Todd		1976	23		+2.6%	7.4%
Troy	Aikman		1989	23		+2.2%	6.1%
Jake	Plummer		1997	23		+2.1%	5.1%
Peyton	Manning		1998	22		+1.6%	4.9%
Dan	Fouts		1973	22		+1.4%	6.7%
Jim	Zorn		1976	23		+1.4%	6.2%
Kerry	Collins		1995	23		+1.3%	4.4%
Steve	Grogan		1975	22		+1.3%	6.6%
Chris	Chandler	1988	23		+1.3%	5.2%
Joey	Harrington	2002	24		+0.6%	3.7%

Okay, so let's summarize. Most rookies do struggle relative to the league average, at least in most categories. I certainly wouldn't exclude a player just because he threw alot of interceptions as a rookie. Alot of really good quarterbacks struggled with interceptions as rookies, moreso than Harrington. Only 36.7% of the successes were at or below league average in interceptions as rookies. Though I've previously noted that throwing for a high touchdown percentage at a young age is a positive indicator, a below average touchdown rate as a rookie is not a reason to exclude a player, as most of the rookies who struggled simply played on bad teams. 30% of the successes were at or above league average in touchdowns as rookies. Virtually all of our rookies struggled with completion percentage, with several posting seasons significantly below 50%, and only 20% finishing at or above the league average.

There is one category, though, where the rookies who became successes did pretty good as a group--yards per attempt. 70% were at or above the league average in this category. Even most of those that were below average were not significantly so. Most of the young quarterbacks who became good starters in the league may have struggled in completing a high rate of passes or in throwing interceptions, but they showed an ability to make plays. Joey Harrington ranked ahead of only Donovan McNabb in season-adjusted yards per attempt. However, I'm not going to exclude anyone based on their rookie year. This is different than saying that the rookie season doesn't matter--because it does. I would much rather have my rookie start his career like Dan Marino or Ben Roethlisberger--I would feel more confident in my choice right away. It's just that with the variety of circumstances (most rookies are playing for really bad teams) we can find rookies who struggled early and later became successful.

So, I'm not giving up on Joey Harrington after his rookie season, though it wasn't a particularly stellar one by any measure. We are dealing with only 30 comparable successes who started as rookies, and several of them who became good struggled in one or more categories.

Let's move on to year two. Here, I not only bring forward all of our successful rookies who, like Harrington, also started as second year players (all except for Steve Bartkowski and Chris Chandler) and also add in any other quarterbacks who began starting by age 25, the same age as Harrington in the 2003 season. This brings in an additional 29 quarterbacks who didn't play significantly as rookies, but started soon after, for a total of 57 successes to use in comparison to Harrington.

Here are the bottom ten performers in each category:

successes who threw 160 or more passes as a non-rookie, by age 25 or under, worst completion percentage

first	last		year	age		adj	comp%
Doug	Williams	1979	24		-12.3%	41.8%
Steve	Beuerlein	1988	23		-10.2%	44.1%
Jim	Zorn		1977	24		-9.9%	41.4%
Phil	Simms		1980	26		-8.2%	48.0%
Gus	Frerotte	1995	24		-7.9%	50.3%
Steve	Deberg		1978	24		-7.7%	45.4%
Jeff	Blake		1994	24		-7.0%	51.0%
Vinny	Testaverde	1988	25		-6.7%	47.6%
Michael	Vick		2002	22		-4.7%	54.9%
Steve	Grogan		1976	23		-4.2%	48.0%
Joey	Harrington	2003	25		-3.0%	55.8%

successes who threw 160 or more passes as a non-rookie, by age 25 or under, worst yards per attempt

first	last		year	age		adj	ypa
Wade	Wilson		1984	25		-1.17	5.23
Joey	Harrington	2003	25		-1.00	5.20
Steve	Deberg		1978	24		-0.80	5.20
Phil	Simms		1980	26		-0.63	5.77
Jeff	George		1991	24		-0.40	6.00
Donovan	McNabb		2000	24		-0.39	5.91
Chris	Miller		1988	23		-0.32	6.08
Don	Majkowski	1988	24		-0.09	6.31
Drew	Brees		2002	23		-0.06	6.24
Troy	Aikman		1990	24		-0.04	6.46
Mark	Brunell		1995	25		-0.03	6.27

successes who threw 160 or more passes as a non-rookie, by age 25 or under, worst touchdown percentage

first	last		year	age		adj	td%
Jim	Plunkett	1972	25		-2.2%	2.3%	
Ken	Anderson	1972	23		-2.2%	2.3%	
Wade	Wilson		1984	25		-1.7%	2.6%	
Jay	Schroeder	1985	24		-1.7%	2.4%	
Jeff	George		1991	24		-1.6%	2.1%	
Neil	Lomax		1982	23		-1.6%	2.4%	
Troy	Aikman		1990	24		-1.5%	2.8%	
Steve	Deberg		1978	24		-1.4%	2.6%	
Ken	O'Brien		1984	24		-1.3%	3.0%	
Don	Majkowski	1988	24		-1.2%	2.7%	
Joey	Harrington	2003	25		-0.9%	3.1%	

successes who threw 160 or more passes as a non-rookie, by age 25 or under, worst interception percentage

first	last		year	age		adj	int%
Vinny	Testaverde	1988	25		+3.6%	7.5%
Steve	Deberg		1978	24		+1.9%	7.3%
Jim	Zorn		1977	24		+1.9%	7.6%
Steve	Grogan		1976	23		+1.8%	6.6%
Jim	Plunkett	1972	25		+1.7%	7.0%
Wade	Wilson		1984	25		+1.5%	5.6%
Doug	Williams	1979	24		+1.4%	6.0%
Carson	Palmer		2004	25		+1.0%	4.2%
Troy	Aikman		1990	24		+0.9%	4.5%
Kordell	Stewart		1997	25		+0.9%	3.9%
Joey	Harrington	2003	25		+0.7%	4.0%

So, when should the Lions have given up on Joey Harrington? I say after the 2003 season.

I know it may sound drastic to suggest a team should have moved on from a high draft pick after two years, but the chances that Harrington would turn out to be a success were pretty slim. By the end of 2003, Harrington had already thrown 983 pass attempts, and had shown no improvement in his productivity as measured by yards per attempt. Donovan McNabb, the only rookie who Harrington exceeded in yards per attempt, had in contrast made drastic improvement in yards per attempt from year one to year two, made plays with his feet, and led his team to the playoffs in year two. Okay, so he did finish ahead of Wade Wilson in yards per attempt. But I'm not holding out hope that someone might turn out to be Wade Wilson, and Wilson had thrown less than 200 attempts by age 25, while Harrington had thrown over 900 passes.

What about his ability to avoid sacks? Certainly, Joey Harrington avoided sacks very well. If it were coupled with being productive on the plays where sacks were avoided, then we might have something. But it wasn't. And if we account for his sack % and generously assume there were 30 plays in 2003 where he was brilliant enough to avoid a sack and throw the ball away, avoid a grounding penalty, but not complete the pass, then removing 30 from the denominator only moves him slightly in YPA, ahead of Steve DeBerg as well.

It comes down how small the likelihood of success is necessary to exclude a player and risk making a "false negative" decision. The chances of finding a successful quarterback after the early part of the draft who qualifies for the list of successful quarterbacks used in this post is about 20%, and the chances of finding a genuine multi-pro bowl success is still close to 10%. So I don't think your standards have to be of the Lloyd Christmas variety--otherwise you will commit way too many "false positive" errors and continue to hurt your team that way. And after two seasons, the chance that Harrington turned out to produce a later career like Wade Wilson and Steve DeBerg were probably less than 10%, and the chance that he actually turned into a Phil Simms or Donovan McNabb were extremely small.

The Lions gave Harrington two more seasons after I say that the evidence was strong enough to comfortably decide to move on. I don't think Joey Harrington is the worst quarterback of all-time, far from it. I do think that his career certainly wasn't helped by being drafted by a bad organization. And Harrington's place on Chase's list is in large part due to the failures of Matt Millen, both in evaluating talent, and continuing to construct a roster without a legitimate starting quarterback. But you can also count me among the camp that doesn't buy the "The Lions ruined his confidence and he would have been a good quarterback on another team" stance. Harrington may have been Tony Eason in different circumstances, but that's about it. The talent and organization around a quarterback matters, but the eventual successes simply do more with limited talent around them than Harrington ever came close to doing.

But that's all in the past. Let's look forward. This should provide some good guidance on the minimum progress you want to see out of young starters today. For guys like Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco, I wouldn't worry too much about interceptions as rookies, or low completion percentages. Given that neither is playing with the greatest show on turf on offense, I would still like to see yards per attempt at or above 6.2 by season's end--below that and I might have some concerns. For JaMarcus Russell and Trent Edwards, the minimum expectation should be more in line with what we see in the second group of lists.

The prevailing wisdom I get is that teams simply write off the first year or two a guy starts and lump all bad play together. I suggest they use yards per attempt (to counter and/or in conjunction with their own assessment of the player) as a low end exclusionary tool to assess a player, even on a bad team, to see if he is making the minimum progress necessary.