Thursday, May 1, 2008

Start the rookie QB!

With John David Booty under the Vikings' control (and, also of interest to Vikings fans, with Brian Brohm wearing a Packer uniform in 2008) the call will likely go out at some point during the season that the team put in the rookie QB to inject some life into the offense. Just as quickly, sports pundits will decry the team's use of the rookie QB, saying instead that rookie QBs should be brought along slowly, perhaps not even starting a game until their second season, at least.

It seems to me that the whole idea of not starting a rookie QB right out of the gate began when Steve McNair was drafted #3 overall by the then-Houston Oilers in 1995. Despite his high draft status, he played sparingly his first two seasons -- a seeming aberration at the time -- sitting behind Chris Chandler on the Oilers' depth chart. McNair experienced great success, once he finally got the chance to start, and is always cited as Exhibit A for why rookie quarterbacks shouldn't see playing time their first year. The late starts to the careers of Tom Brady and Brett Favre, and the disastrous careers of Ryan Leaf and Tim Couch, each of whom started several games as rookies, is Exhibit A1.

But what about Peyton Manning, who's started every game of his NFL career? And where does someone like Drew Bledsoe fit in? Is giving a quarterback lots of playing time as a rookie just setting him up to fail later in his career? Or is that just a bunch of hogwash perpetuated by sporadic evidence?

To answer this, I went to the Historical Data Dominator on (which, for whatever reason, seems to be working for free now; I thought it required a subscription fee). I searched for all QBs from 1978 to 2002 who had at least 240 passes in their rookie season. I chose 1978 as my starting point because that was the year the NFL went to a 16-game schedule, allowing me to use 15 passes a game (times 16 games = 240) as my definition of a QB who saw "significant" action. Cutting the search off at 2002 gives me a nice, tidy 25 years of data while also letting me properly evaluate players who were drafted more than five years ago, providing a reasonable snapshot of their careers.

That search, shown here and sorted by yards, yields 30 quarterbacks. Three of them threw for more than 3,000 yards, and all (Manning, Warren Moon, and Jim Kelly) are Hall-of-Fame talents. The bottom of the list is occupied by Ryan Leaf, Steve Fuller, and Chad Hutchinson, and in-between are quarterbacks good and bad and awful. I've divided the quarterbacks -- somewhat arbitrarily, but hey, it's my blog -- into three categories.

Category A includes the great quarterbacks, the Hall-of-Fame-caliber players or very nearly.
Category B includes players who fall short of greatness, but still had (or are having) solid careers.
Category C includes everyone else, the abject failures.

Here's how they fall out:

Category A: Manning, Kelly, Moon, Marino, Aikman, P. Simms(?), Elway
Category B: Collins, Garcia, Bledsoe, Plummer, Batch(?), George, O'Donnell, Kosar, Deberg
Category C: Weinke, Mirer, Brock(?), Carr(?), Banks, Couch, Harrington(?), Komlo, Trudeau, Shuler, Hutchinson, Fuller, Leaf

Phil Simms is the only member of the A group not to be in (or destined for) the Hall of Fame, but I thought his two Super Bowl rings should count for something. Charlie Batch wavers between B and C. He was lousy with the Lions, but has carved out a second career as a solid backup with the Steelers, and if anything happens to Ben Roethlisberger, the team would probably do well. Similarly, David Carr and Joey Harrington each seemed destined for C-land but are young enough that they might turn their careers around. As for Dieter Brock, he posted decent numbers as a rookie for the Rams in 1985 (2,600 yards, 16 TD, 13 Int.). I don't know why he never threw another pass in the NFL -- maybe a Rams fan can enlighten me?

(Of course, as with Ichiro Suzuki, "rookie" can be a relative term. Brock, Moon, and Jeff Garcia all played in the CFL before coming to the NFL, and Jim Kelly starred in the USFL. And Chris Weinke was 29 his rookie season.)

In any case, the breakdown is 7 "A" quarterbacks, 9 "B" quarterbacks, and 14 "C" quarterbacks. That qualifies better than 50% (16/30) of rookie quarterbacks who threw 240 or more passes their first season as at least "decent" throughout their careers. In any case, the careers of those 16 weren't "ruined" by their getting starts as rookies. In fact, 7 of the 30 went on to exceptional careers. Of course, all seven of those players, save Moon, were first-round draft picks, and three (Elway, Manning, and Aikman) were first overall. This means that, in all likelihood, they were a) good; and b) going to get the chance to start as rookies. I'm not going to grade out every quarterback on the above list by round; suffice to say there are high (Leaf, Carr, Collins) and mid-low (Batch, O'Donnell, Deberg) picks sprinkled throughout the B and C levels.

At the very least, when the inevitable talk of, say, putting Booty, Brohm, or especially first-round picks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco in the starting lineups for their respective teams this year pops up, don't jump immediately onto the "Starting a rookie QB is bad for him" bandwagon. About half the time, that may be true (and the C-level quarterbacks might have been bad no matter when they first saw significant action); but you have just as good a chance of getting a solid player, or even a star, for years to come.

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