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When do good quarterbacks become good?

Posted by Doug on July 18, 2006

Yesterday's post on Alex Smith prompted some interesting reader comments. A reader named MDS pointed out that most of the excuses one could make for Alex Smith would also apply to Tim Rattay. And Rattay's numbers weren't as bad. That's something I want to explore further in future posts, but for now I'll turn my attention to this comment from a reader named Ben:

Typically (i think, please confirm), 2nd year is when most quarterbacks make the leap

So let's attempt to confirm for Ben.

The metric I'm going to use is Adjusted Yards per Attempt, which was devised by Pete Palmer, John Thorn, and Bob Carroll in a very good book called The Hidden Game of Football. It is computed as follows:


Adj YPA = (PassYd + 10*PassTD - 45*INT) / PassAtt

It's just yards per attempt with a 10-yard bonus for each touchdown thrown and a 45-yard penalty for each interception.

For each year since 1978, I found the 40 quarterbacks who threw the most passes and I ranked them all by adjusted yards per attempt. Then I looked at the first five season of every quarterback who debuted between 1978 and 2001. For each of those seasons, if that quarterback was among the top 40 in passes attempted, I computed his adjusted yards per attempt rank (1=best, 40=worst) for that year. Here are Brett Favre's first five years, for example:


====== Season ====
Quarterback 1 2 3 4 5
========================================
Brett Favre xx 17 32 13 2

The double-x indicates that he was not among the league's top 40 passers in his rookie year. In his second season he ranked 17th, in his third he ranked 32nd, and so on. Remember that all ranks are out of 40.

Here is a long list of quarterbacks. It is sorted by career passing attempts, so that, with a few exceptions, the best quarterbacks are near the top of the list.


====== Season ====
Quarterback 1 2 3 4 5
========================================
Dan Marino 5 1 11 9 10
Brett Favre xx 17 32 13 2
John Elway 34 24 25 16 5
Warren Moon 14 24 25 19 3
Drew Bledsoe 33 28 34 15 9
Vinny Testaverde 28 37 33 17 35
Joe Montana xx 15 7 7 7
Dave Krieg xx 10 19 2 17
Boomer Esiason xx 3 2 20 1
Kerry Collins 32 13 39 32 21
Steve Deberg 37 22 33 21 27
Jim Everett 24 27 7 4 11
Jim Kelly 12 21 12 8 3
Troy Aikman 40 33 5 9 3
Phil Simms 27 34 19 xx
Mark Brunell xx 22 8 5 9
Peyton Manning 31 5 6 11 13
Randall Cunningham xx 19 16 14 24
Rich Gannon xx xx 31 22
Steve Young 34 29 xx xx 1
Jake Plummer 24 23 40 35 12
Chris Chandler 29 xx xx 38 23
Jeff George 28 30 32 21 15
Jim Harbaugh xx xx 35 9 28
Steve McNair xx 1 29 20 17
Brad Johnson xx xx 10 16 xx
Ken O'Brien 21 1 13 13 21
Bernie Kosar 22 8 1 9 14
Trent Green xx 18 1 25
Steve Beuerlein 15 9 9 xx
Jeff Blake xx 11 20 16
Neil O'Donnell 13 11 13 18 8
Neil Lomax 30 18 8 4 14
Bobby Hebert 15 xx 11 23 12
Trent Dilfer xx 29 35 19 25
Donovan McNabb 39 27 14 14 12
Chris Miller xx 30 13 19 12
Jon Kitna xx 28 18 31 37
Jay Schroeder 12 15 22 24 26
Jeff Garcia 19 5 7 18 14
Aaron Brooks 9 22 16 8 18
Gus Frerotte xx 21 9 22 xx
Mark Rypien 11 6 20 2 24
Daunte Culpepper 4 16 28 4
Jim McMahon 10 17 3 9 34
Tom Brady xx 13 22 9 8
Stan Humphries xx 38 19 26
Doug Williams 23 33 18 6 20
Elvis Grbac xx 4 36 23 37
Bill Kenney 2 29 13 12 13
Wade Wilson xx xx 40 xx
Kordell Stewart xx xx 28 36 38
Tony Banks 21 20 30 12 32
Rodney Peete 20 10 31 8 36
Scott Mitchell xx 9 37 5
Kurt Warner xx 1 2 2 37
Jeff Hostetler xx xx
Mike Tomczak xx 36 33 8 32
Brian Griese xx 23 3 34 11
Erik Kramer xx 29
Bubby Brister xx xx 19 17 18
Matt Hasselbeck xx xx 28 7 6
Doug Flutie xx xx 33 39
Marc Wilson xx 34 xx 19 26
Rick Mirer 34 32 33 39 xx
Don Majkowski 15 27 11 24 34
Drew Brees xx 32 35 4 14
Jay Fiedler xx
Tim Couch 32 25 33 34 19
Billy Joe Tolliver 38 32 17 29 xx
Steve Bono xx xx xx xx xx
Mark Malone xx xx 22
Jack Trudeau 40 17 xx 28 16
Dave Brown xx 22 25 38

Now, here is a table showing how many quarterbacks ranked in the top 10 and the top 20 for the first time in their first year, in their second year, and so on. The second line, for example, shows that 20 quarterbacks ranked in the top 10 for the first time and 26 ranked in the top 20 for the first time in their second year.


YR T10 T20
=============
1 6 21
2 20 26
3 12 23
4 11 14
5 8 6

So it looks like Ben's intuition was on the money. While there are many exceptions (as always), year two does indeed look like a year when many quarterbacks make the leap.

A bit of fine print is called for here. My database does not know when a player's rookie year was. It only knows when he played his first game, which is why I keep using the term "first year" instead of "rookie year." It is unclear, for example, whether 2005 should be regarded as Philip Rivers' second season or his third. Some might even argue that it should be counted as his first.

If we ignore all seasons where the quarterback did not qualify (i.e. did not rank among the top 40 passers of the year) we do get a different picture:


YR T10 T20
=============
1 25 53
2 22 29
3 10 14
4 8 7
5 7 3

So exactly half of the quarterbacks who ranked in the top 20 at some point during their first five years did so in the first year in which they got substantial playing time.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 18th, 2006 at 4:37 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.