By: C.J. Doon
This past week in the NFL we witnessed a changing of the guard, the passing of the torch, the emergence of the “new school”, the…okay, I get it. No more clichés. Fine.
What I’m trying to say is that for the first time in what seems like a decade, the NFL is experiencing an inflation of youth at quarterback. Out of the 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL, 16 have five years of experience or less playing under center, including five rookies. Through the first three weeks of the season, some have played brilliantly (RG3 in Washington), some have played well (Christian Ponder of the Vikings), and some have played…*ahem* rather poorly (I’m looking at you, Brandon Weeden).
It’s almost impossible to determine who will have the best career at such an early stage, but we can see who is ahead of the curve, and who needs to work out a few kinks.
Let’s start by breaking down the 16 quarterbacks into five tiers: The Fifth Year Seniors, Boom or Bust, the Good Guys, the Average Joe’s, and the “Wait, you want ME as your starting quarterback?!” Head-Scratchers.
The Fifth Year Seniors
Ah, yes, the fifth-year seniors. Known for their apathy and ability to procrastinate like no other, they can be found snoozing on the couch while their classmates attend lecture. We all know those fifth-year seniors, but the ones I’m referring to are Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. Flacco and Ryan, each entering their fifth season in the NFL, could be considered NFL veterans, but have not established their identities as quarterbacks. As a result, they have yet to prove that they can lead their team to a Super Bowl, but with hard work and dedication, maybe one day they can get that job and move into their own apartment.
Flacco and Ryan are each great quarterbacks in the NFL, and are a big reason why their teams are so successful. Matt Ryan took over for a Falcons team that was reeling after the arrest and imprisonment of their franchise player, Michael Vick, and led the team to an impressive 11-5 record and a second place finish in the NFC South his rookie season. Joe Flacco led the Ravens to a Conference Title appearance in his rookie season, and was the first rookie quarterback ever to win his first two road playoff games. After such early success, both quarterbacks were thought to become stars in the NFL, and carry their team to the Super Bowl in just a few seasons.
That hasn’t exactly happened yet, and here’s why: for the first four years of their careers, Ryan and Flacco were coddled by their coaching staffs. When a team has an inexperienced quarterback at the helm, they tend to play more conservatively on offense. That means more screen passes, check downs, and a bigger emphasis on running the football. As a result, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco each had a completion percentage of over 60% in their rookie season, and rarely passed for more than 300 yards. In fact, out of the combined 64 games each quarterback played during their first two seasons, the duo only surpassed the 300-yard mark six times. That’s relatively average for young quarterbacks, but the point I’m trying to make is that fans often saddle young quarterbacks with unrealistic expectations, and that affects their performance. In the years following their rookie seasons, each quarterback experienced a noticeable change. Ryan completed less than 60% of his passes, increased his interception total from 12 to 14, threw for 500 fewer yards, and the Falcons missed the playoffs with a record of 9-7. Flacco actually improved his numbers (800 more yards, higher completion percentage, more touchdowns), but the team slipped to 9-7 and lost in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Entering Week 4, Ryan and the Falcons are 3-0, while Flacco and the Ravens are 2-1 after a come-from-behind win over the Patriots on Sunday night. Each quarterback has posted impressive numbers, and are on pace to lead their teams to playoff berths. What remains to be seen is whether or not they can win the “big game” this year. Ryan has never won a playoff game, and although Flacco has reached the AFC championship game twice, the Ravens have lost both times. At this stage in their careers, Ryan and Flacco are both Top 10 quarterbacks, but can move into the Top 5 with deep playoff runs.
Boom or Bust
Jake Locker, QB, Tennessee Titans – Locker is entering his second year with the Titans, but this season marks his first as the indisputable starting quarterback. Dating back to last season, Locker has a 59% completion rate, 1,323 yards passing, 8 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and 123 yards rushing through six games, with a Total QBR of 67.2. That’s a relatively small sample size, but we can draw a few conclusions from those numbers. For starters, Locker does a great job of taking care of the football. Most rookie quarterbacks throw more interceptions than touchdowns, but through six games, Locker has posted an incredible 4:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His ability to scramble and extend the play makes him a nightmare for opposing defenses, and he is a huge threat when he decides to tuck it and run. So why is Locker in the Boom or Bust category? It’s simple: I don’t trust Locker’s decision making. Take a look at this pass from the Titans’ win over the Lions on Sunday. Yes, the play does result in a 71-yard touchdown, but the ball should never have been thrown in Washington’s direction. He is blanketed by the defender, and the only reason the ball wasn’t intercepted is because Lions’ safety Louis Delmas never turns around to look for the football.
Locker has a huge upside, but needs to be more alert and focused in the pocket before he can make the leap to being a consistent NFL quarterback.
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers – No my friends, this is not a typo. Superman is, in fact, one of the biggest boom or bust candidates in the entire NFL, even after a tremendous rookie season. Newton received incredible hype coming out of college, after winning both the national championship and the Heisman trophy, and delivered a 4,000-yard passing season to lead the Panthers to six wins in the NFC South. However, when you look past all the glitz and glamour Newton throws your way (rushing ability, size, strength, etc.), he has a modest 7-12 record as a starting quarterback. After sulking on the sideline during Thursday’s blowout loss against the Giants, wide receiver Steve Smith even questioned Newton’s leadership. “I watched D.A. and Jimmy (Clausen), they don’t play in 20-something games last year, and they get up and they observe and learn,” Smith said. “I told (Cam), ‘You can get some mental reps or you can sit on that bench and sulk.’”
Harsh words for the second-year quarterback, but I completely agree with Smith. Through Newton’s first 19 games as a starting QB, Cam has more interceptions than touchdowns (22 vs. 23), and a total QBR of less than 55% (50 is average). We all know how dangerous Newton is running the football, but until Cam can limit his interceptions, he will remain in the Boom or Bust category.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks – The rookie quarterback out of Wisconsin is taking the league by storm, and has the Seahawks sitting pretty at 2-1 entering Week 4. After an improbable victory against the Packers on a controversial last-second touchdown pass to Golden Tate, Wilson and the Seahawks are in contention to win the NFC South and earn a home playoff berth. Through just three games (again, a small sample size), Wilson has thrown for 4 touchdowns versus only one interception, and has posted a completion percentage of 57%. Modest numbers indeed, but it has been Wilson’s leadership and determination that have propelled this Seattle team. This piece on ESPN.com does a great job of documenting Wilson’s rise to the top, and his success overcoming the odds to become the starting quarterback.
Until Wilson can prove that he can maintain this level of play, I’m keeping him in the Boom or Bust category.
Christian Ponder, QB, Minnesota Vikings – Ponder looked like a huge bust in his first season with the Vikings, finishing with a record of 2-9 in 2011. He threw 13 touchdowns vs. 13 interceptions, and never seemed to grasp the Vikings’ offense. But then last week, against the fearsome 49ers defense, BOOM! 21 of 35 for 198 yards, two touchdowns, and a gutsy 23-yard touchdown run to give the Vikings a 14-3 lead that they would never relinquish. The 2012 version of Christian Ponder looks more like Aaron Rodgers than Jay Cutler, throwing for 701 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a remarkable completion percentage of 70%.
If Ponder can maintain his current form, he will absolutely emerge as more of a Boom than a Bust.
The Good Guys
Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals – Who says redheads can’t be great quarterbacks? Big Red, otherwise known as Andy Dalton, has been superb in first two seasons in the NFL. As a rookie, Dalton led the hapless Bengals to a 9-7 record and a spot in the playoffs, before losing to the Houston Texans, and threw an impressive 20 touchdown passes versus only 13 interceptions. On Sunday against the Washington RG3’s Redskins, Dalton completed 70% of his passes for 328 yards and 3 touchdowns, and finished with a near-perfect Total QBR of 93.4.
Dalton is certainly not the next Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, but for a second-year player, he is mature beyond his time. He’s everything you want from a franchise quarterback: poised, confident, and smart with the football. As a result, Dalton is one of the best young quarterbacks in the league today.
Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins – All that talk about how Tim Tebow supposedly “shattered the mold” last season sounds a bit ridiculous now, doesn’t it? You want to talk about shattering the mold? How about a 6’2”, 217-pound quarterback that runs a 4.38 40-yard dash and can make throws like this 68-yard bomb to wideout Leonard Hankerson.
With Griffin taking the snaps, the Redskins have moved from 16th to 6th in total offense, and are giving defenses fits with their new option attack. Through his first three games, RG3 has accounted for 7 touchdowns (4 pass, 3 rush), thrown for 747 yards, and posted a completion percentage of 67%. The Redskins are 1-2 after losing close games to Cincy and St. Louis, but Washington owns the 9th easiest schedule in the NFL this season, so they have a chance to post a respectable record, and possibly sneak into the playoffs.
There is no question that Griffin is going to struggle at times this season, because although he has tremendous talent, he is still a rookie. Once Griffin learns how to prepare and handle NFL defenses, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner will be an unstoppable force in this league.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions – Entering his fourth season in the NFL, Stafford has been nothing short of a miracle worker for the Detroit Lions. When Stafford was drafted #1 overall in 2009, the Lions were coming off a season where they looked terrible atrocious abysmal horrendous. The 2008 Detroit Lions did not win a single game, finishing 0-16, and limped through the worst statistical season in the history of football. When Stafford took over in 2009, there was basically no pressure. I mean, it couldn’t get any worse than 0-16, right?
The Lions finished 2-14 in 2009, with Stafford winning both games as the team’s starting quarterback. Although Stafford threw far too many interceptions (20 INTs vs. 13 TDs) in his rookie season, the Lions’ faithful saw potential in the young QB. After suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in 2010, Stafford returned to field in 2011 and catapulted the Lions to a 10-6 record, and the team’s first playoff berth in 12 years. Injuries shut down the Lions’ two top running backs, forcing Stafford to throw on 67% of their offensive plays. With the help of stud wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Stafford threw for more than 5,000 yards and 41 touchdown passes, earning a spot in his first-ever Pro Bowl.
Stafford has gotten off to a shaky start in 2012, throwing 4 interceptions in his first three games. However, the Lions’ QB continues to produce at a high level, completing 68% of his passes for 863 yards and three touchdowns. It appears as if Stafford might be headed for a regression, but those numbers are just a sign of his gunslinger mentality. It’s only a matter of time before we start seeing Stafford throw more touchdowns than interceptions, and when he does, opposing defenses better take notice.
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts – Touted as one of the best quarterback prospects since Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck has been the focal point of this year’s draft class. The #1 overall pick got off to shaky start in his first NFL game, throwing three interceptions in a loss to the Bears. But Luck bounced back the next week against the Vikings, completing 64% of his passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns en route to a 23-20 Colts victory. Through three games, Luck has a completion percentage of 53%, 5 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, and 846 yards passing, which are very respectable numbers. However, what jumps out to me is his total QBR rating of 82.0. Total QBR is an advanced statistic that takes into account win probability, expected points, dividing credit, and other advanced metrics to form a number on a 0-100 scale. 50 is average, while numbers in the 65-70 range translate into a Pro Bowl season. Luck’s 82.0 through three games put him in an elite category, ranking him second in the league behind MVP-candidate Matt Ryan.
Luck is going to be a great quarterback in this league, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone that would argue against that. Like all rookie QB’s, he will go through his share of tough games, but in a few seasons, Luck will be one of the best.
The Average Joe’s
Josh Freeman, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The fourth-year quarterback out of Kansas State has had a rollercoaster of a career, posting a 10-6 season in 2010, followed by a 5-11 season in 2011. During the 2010 season, Freeman threw 25 touchdown passes to only 6 interceptions, and finished with a respectable 64.7 Total QBR. The 2011 campaign saw a drastic regression in performance, with Freeman throwing for only 16 touchdown passes versus 22 interceptions, while posting a hideous 37.7 total QBR during the Bucs’ nine-game losing streak to end the season.
So why was there such a dip in performance over a brief one year period? There could be many reasons, but the one that is primarily responsible is Freeman’s inability to consistently score points on offense. During his successful 2010 season, the Bucs scored a modest 21.3 points per game, but dropped to a dreadful 17.9 points per game in 2011. Freeman has shown he has the ability to lead the Bucs to great heights on offense, as evident by the 34 points they scored against the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants. However, more often than not, Freeman looks confused in the pocket, and is not able to sense pressure from the defense. As a result, you end up with plays like this: Freeman on his backside, and the ball being kicked around by the Bucs’ endzone.
Until Freeman can put up consistent numbers at quarterback, and limit his turnovers, the Kansas State product will remain just another Average Joe.
Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis Rams – The former #1 overall pick from the 2009 NFL draft started his career with a bang, setting the NFL record for most completions by a rookie quarterback, en route to winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. After that impressive rookie season, Bradford missed six games due to a high ankle sprain and was one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the league. In 2012, Bradford has gradually returned to form, completing 64% of his passes for 660 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions.
Bradford has only played one full season as the starting quarterback, and that was his rookie year. He is not the type of quarterback who fills up the stat book, although he has shown flashes of brilliance at times. Last week I predicted that Bradford would have a breakout season this year, and throw for more than 4,000 yards. I still believe Bradford can be a productive quarterback, but until we see a full body of work from the third-year pro, he will remain an average quarterback.
Mark Sanchez, QB, New York Jets – Has there ever been a quarterback that has been scrutinized more than Sanchez? The former USC Trojan is entering his fourth season in the NFL, and people are still not sure what they’re going to get from Sanchez. Just ask Jets fans.
After leading the Jets to two straight AFC Championship appearances to start his career, Sanchez and the Jets missed the playoffs in 2011, after losing three straight games to end the season. Although Sanchez has steadily increased his touchdown passes since 2009, turnovers have been Sanchez’s Achilles heel. Last season, Sanchez threw 18 interceptions, with seven of them coming in the final three games of the season: games the New York Jets had to win to stay alive. His lifetime QBR is 37.7, an atrocious number, considering that 50 is the average for starting quarterbacks.
One positive to take away from Sanchez’s game is his performance in the playoffs. When the big games arrive, Sanchez has a QBR of 73.4, and his pedestrian 1-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio jumps to an impressive 3-1. For Sanchez to improve his status as an NFL quarterback, the Jets need to find a way back into the playoffs and earn their place among the NFL’s elite.
The “Wait, you want ME as your starting quarterback?!” Head-Scratchers
We’re talking about bad quarterbacks here, so I’m going to be brief. Here it goes…
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins – Through three games: 51% completion rate, 615 yards, one touchdown, four interceptions, and a whopping 31.9 QBR. But before you go jumping off the Tannehill Express, have you seen his wife?
Blaine Gabbert, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars – For starters, the former Missouri stand-out looks more like he should be starring in an episode of “Friday Night Lights”, rather than playing quarterback in the NFL. But he brings people like me great joy. Where else can we find a stat line like this? Versus the Texans: 7 for 19, 53 yards, and…wait for it…a Total QBR of 9.6. If you asked Jaguars fans how painful that game was to watch on scale of 0-10, they would probably say somewhere around, oh I don’t know, 9.6?
Brandon Weeden, QB, Cleveland Browns – You know you’re probably in for a rough afternoon when even the American Flag is taking potshots at you. Through three games: 54% completion rate, 3 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, and a total QBR of 10.1. But fear not Browns fans! With the game on the line, Weeden is known to be deadly accurate…on throws to the other team.