Posted by Chase Stuart on August 16, 2011
Sam Bradford's rookie season has been incredibly overrated by nearly every football writer and talking head. If you wanted the perfect storm of a formula that would spit out an overrated rookie quarterback, you would want to have a quarterback who:
- Finished near the top of the league in attempts, overinflating his yards and touchdown metrics. Yards and touchdowns aren't good ways to grade quarterbacks, but that doesn't stop people from doing just that;
- Played for a team with just a couple of wins in the prior year, so the quarterback would get credit for any regression to the mean in the form of a significant increase in wins;
- Played a really weak schedule that boosted the quarterback's individual stats and team wins; and
- Played for a team whose defense got a lot better without adding any big names, so people can just think "what's the difference between them this year and last year? That rookie QB and not much else."
Some rookie quarterbacks will have some of those factors working in their favor, but Bradford has all four. This isn't a post blasting Bradford as much as it is blasting the Bradford backers. One of those includes the normally outstanding Mike Tanier, who thought Bradford had one of the best rookie seasons of all time. Kurt Warner thinks Bradford is going to be a superstar. Fantasy football fans are drafting him as the 15th quarterback in standard leagues. Article have been written based on the notion that the Rams have already drafted a future Super Bowl winner. Bradford's part-Aikman, part-Montana, part-Manning and part-Matt Ryan, but calling him part-Unitas would be too much.
The problem when it comes to evaluationg Bradford is that too many people are paying too much attention to the wrong stats. Bradford's 2010 performance wasn't very good, even for a rookie. Over the past 20 seasons, there have been 37 quarterbacks to throw at least 224 passes in their rookie season. According to the Net Yards per Attempt Index, which grades each quarterback by his average net yards per pass attempt adjusted for era, Bradford ranks just 22nd out of 37 quarterbacks. That puts him just behind Tony Banks and Trent Edwards, and right ahead of Joey Harrington and Matt Stafford. Bradford ranked 31st in NY/A last season, only topping Carolina's Jimmy Clausen; he ranked just 29th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. Does that scream superstar to you? Let's break down why Bradford's rookie season has caused him to be incredibly overrated.
High Pass Attempts
It's easy to get caught up in Bradford's 3,512 passing yards, second most among true rookies in league history behind Peyton Manning. But Bradford also broke the record for most pass attempts by a rookie while playing in one of the friendliest passing eras ever. If he didn't finish in the top one or two in rookie passing yards, that would be a red flag. It should be obvious that comparing his 2010 stats to rookies of yesteryear doesn't make sense. So what does?
A more fair comparison would note how he did relative to his peers. Bradford's 590 pass attempts ranked 3rd in 2010 but he ranked just 12th in passing yards. That ratio, of course, is terrible.
Since the merger, 205 quarterbacks have ranked in the top 5 in pass attempts in any given season. Bradford was just the 9th in that group to rank 12th or lower in passing yards in that same season. The list:
|QB||year||team||age||att||pyd||att rk||pyd rk|
There are some decent names on that list, but John Hadl was over the hill by 1975, Donovan McNabb added 629 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns, and Jay Cutler had the worst season of his career in '09. Jon Kitna had a long career, but his highly unproductive 2001 season has been outed on this blog before.
Looking at just young quarterbacks doesn't paint a prettier picture. Since the merger, 23 quarterbacks ages 22 through 24 ranked in the top five in pass attempts. Among that group, Bradford's 12th place ranking in passing yards is the second worst:
|QB||year||team||age||att||pyd||att rk||pyd rk|
It's easy to look at Rick Mirer right now and assume that Sam Bradford isn't anything like him. But after the 1993 season, Rick Mirer had set the "true" rookie passing yardage record. His 2,833 passing yards were the most by any rookie in NFL history, excluding Jim Kelly (who had played professionally in the USFL for two season) and Warren Moon (who had played professionally in the CFL for six seasons).
I know what you're thinking. Chase, are you seriously trying to compare Sam Bradford to Rick Mirer? If I am, I'm only doing so because Peter King paved the way. Here's what Peter King had to say about Mirer at the tail end of the '93 season:
Very quietly, kid quarterback Rick Mirer grew up in his first season in Seattle. Mirer became the first quarterback since the Bills' Joe Ferguson in 1973 to start every game of his rookie season. He broke virtually every record for a rookie quarterback, including attempts (486), completions (274) and yards (2,833). One of the reasons Mirer succeeded was that he tried not to think of himself as a rookie. Last Saturday, before facing the Chiefs in Kansas City, he was watching a TV promo touting his matchup with Montana and was asked if he felt a little overwhelmed at being billed beside the great veteran. "I'm not in too much awe of my situation," Mirer said. "I can't be in awe of Joe because then I'll always be the kid. It's like this: I don't want to be judged against the other rookies. I want to be judged against every other quarterback, because that's what I am."
Here's King again in his NFL preview before the 1994 season:
[Seattle's] brightest spot — and the main reason the Seahawks might find themselves still alive in January — is quarterback, where Rick Mirer has shown poise beyond his years. "Besides being far along in the maturation process," coach Tom Flores says of Mirer, "he has a burning desire to succeed that you rarely see in any player. You can't create it. I don't know where it came from, but I just know Rick has it." If Mirer falters or is injured, look for Seattle to fall well behind the pack.
Here's what King said about Bradford in November:
St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford may be on his way to being voted the unanimous NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, a rarity when fractious sportswriters vote for awards. That's because he's been one of the best quarterbacks in football -- not just one of the best rookie quarterbacks -- since the middle of October.
And it's not just King, of course. Steve Hymon wrote at the end of the '93 season that "Quarterback Rick Mirer is the no-brainer for the AFC Rookie of the Year award. Mirer has been particularly adept at learning Seattle's offensive schemes and reading coverages—for instance, he completed 50% of his passes out of the shotgun after the Seahawks added that formation six weeks ago." I'll spare his name, but here's a former player saying that Mirer looks like the next Joe Montana.
The point? We tend to be easily impressed when it comes to rookies. We expect them to play like Jimmy Claussen. And when they don't, we tend to assume they're going to be the next great quarterback. Here's King on rookie Tim Couch:
One player who gives Cleveland hope is Couch. "He's shown more mobility than we thought," Palmer says, "and his toughness far surpasses anything we'd expected. His vision of the field and mastery of the game are excellent." His 56% completion rate is good, considering that he has been sacked 56 times, the last of which resulted in a sprained left ankle on Sunday. He's not as savvy and polished as the Colts' Peyton Manning is, but Couch has shown that he has the tools to be one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.
The takeaway: Not every rookie who impresses people by not stinking up the joint turns into the next Dan Marino.
Bradford fans will note that he broke the rookie record for completions in a season. But how impressive is that when Bradford set the record for pass attempts by a rookie and played in 2010? Only four years in NFL history has the league-wide completion percentage topped sixty percent: 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. What if we adjust for Bradford's number of attempts (by using completion percentage instead of completions) and the era (by using the Completion Percentage Index on the Advanced Passing Table instead of completion percentage)? Bradford comes in with the 15th best performance in completion percentage since the merger.
But Bradford's completions record is misleading in a different way: it hides the fact that he was Captain Dink and Dunk. Bradford and Jimmy Claussen were the only two quarterbacks last season to average fewer than 10 yards per completion. We shouldn't care about Bradford's completions or completion percentage if he's making lots of easy throws.
What about yards per attempt? Bradford ranked 55th of 70 quarterbacks since the merger in Yards per Attempt adjusted for era; without adjusting for era, he was still only 50th in plain old yards per attempt.
But Chase, Bradford almost led the Rams to a division title! Look, we all know the NFC West was puke last season. In late December, all four franchises resided in the bottom six of the league according to the SRS. But sportswriters were fascinating by the way Bradford -- as a rookie! -- nearly took St. Louis from the cellar to the ceiling. To that, I say, so what? He led the Rams to a 7-9 record.
Out of context, a 7-9 record represents a pretty good turnaround for a team that held the #1 draft pick just months earlier. In context? The Rams had the easiest schedule in the league by a good margin. As bad as the NFC West was, the Rams only went 3-3 against it. St. Louis also beat the teams with the 1st and 2nd picks in the 2011 draft, Carolina and Denver. All 8 of those teams finished the year had an SRS of -5.8 or lower. In St. Louis' other 8 games, the Rams went 2-6, with an average score of 25-16 against teams that were only 1.5 points better than average.
But let's examine the 2010 Rams side by side with the 2009 version:
|Categories||2009 production||2009 Rk||2010 production||2010 Rk|
The 2009 Rams were horrible. There's no way to sugarcoat how ugly St. Louis was just two years ago. But was the "revival" of the Rams -- to the extent it wasn't largely schedule-inducted -- really because of Bradford?
One curious difference was that the Rams running game -- i.e., Steven Jackson -- declined from 2009 to 2010 in both rushing yards and yards per carry. And this wasn't just a case of Jackson's '09 performance being inflated by garbage time runs: according to Football Outsiders (#6 in DYAR to #40) and Pro Football Focus (#22 in run rating to #51), Jackson declined as well.
The pasing game improved, but not by much. The Rams were a bottom three team in NY/A and ANY/A in '09 and a bottom five team in those categories in 2010. The Rams passed more frequently, and Bradford's short-passing game led to more first downs, but the team still ranked just 26th in points and yards.
What about the defense? The pass defense went from being one of the league's worst to being above average. Now *that* is a significant improvement. Against the run, the Rams went from allowing 24 TDs to just 7. And on a drive-to-drive basis, St. Louis went from being one of the worst three teams in rushing first downs and total first downs allowed to being slightly above average.
Finally, St. Louis went from -13 to +5 in the turnover department.
Any reaosnable analysis of the 2010 Rams would conclude that St. Louis' defense was the strongest component of the team. In my preferred measures of rating defenses, St. Louis ranked #13 in ANY/A allowed and tied for 11th in rushing first downs allowed. Combined with a strong turnover ratio, which is largely due to luck, and it's hard to see how a 7-9 record on this Rams' team is the sign of a good offense.
Bradford's interception rate was great. But we've argued more than enough times on this blog that INT rate is largely random, so I'm not going to give him much credit for that, especially in light of the conservative passing offense the Rams had last year. Again, I'm not criticizing Bradford so much as the Bradford supporters. If you want to point to Bradford's stellar INT rate as a rookie as a reason to love him, that's fine, but please afford Charlie Batch and Neil O'Donnell
the same courtesy.
Let's be fair: we've left one part out of the analysis so far, and that's Bradford's supporting cast. Let's just assume for the sake of argument that St. Louis had the worst supporting cast in the league. (Of course, rookie Colt McCoy averaged 5.9 NY/A with a similarly ugly cast in Cleveland). But even if Bradford had the worst collection of receivers and tight ends that any quarterback was forced to play with, Bradford's Rams also faced the easiest schedule of any team in the league. So Bradford's stats reflect him playing with garbage teammates against garbage opponents. In that light, it's hard for me to say he was much better than his stats.
If you want to focus on the 7-9 record of the Rams, let's at least do it honestly. Bradford, while flanked by an above average defense, a Pro Bowl running back with a great reputation but who had a down year, and playing with a terrible cast of receivers and tight ends, while playing against the easiest schedule in the league, led the Rams to a 7-9 record.
To me, that doesn't sound any more imrpessive than an honest reflection of his stats: Of the 25 rookie QBs since 1990 to start 10 games and throw 224 passes, Bradford ranked 11th in ANY/A+ and 15th in NY/A+. It was a fine performance by a rookie, but one that says little about how the rest of his career will unfold. As the number one overall pick in the draft, Bradford has a bright future. But his rookie season was noteworthy for just one thing: he threw the ball a lot.