As a Cowboys fan, this past year was something special for me. Getting to watch the emergence of Dak and his incredible first season is something as a fan I’ll never forget. Some of the games he had, specifically against Detroit in week 16 and the playoff contest against the Packers, they harkened back to Romo’s December of 2014. By the end of the year, after setting rookie records for passer rating, completion percentage, TD and Int %, I knew that what we’d witnessed was historic: I wrote three separate fanposts diving into his stats and how well he performed relative to the other qualified QBs in 2016 (up to Week 15, that is).
However, I wanted to know if his season was truly the best rookie quarterback year in NFL history, and that got me thinking how to judge QB performance at large, and going down the long road of quarterback stats, Excel spreadsheets, and statistical analysis…
No position/responsibility in all of sports is as important as that of the quarterback. An elite QB can lead an otherwise underwhelming team to the Super Bowl (see Dan Marino in 1984, though they didn’t win), while a rotating cast of sub-par QBs can have a hugely detrimental effect on a franchise that lasts for years (just look at the current state of the Cleveland Browns). There’s also no question that the QB is the most impactful position on the football field: only he touches the ball on every play and ultimately, the burden of responsibility for the success of the team (or lack thereof), at least in the public’s view, is attributable to the quarterback: he’s praised beyond what he deserves when the team does well, and relentlessly criticized when the team falters (we Cowboys fans know this all too well with the perception of Tony Romo the public holds at-large). With all that being said, perhaps no one in sports is under more pressure than a rookie QB.
In this first of three posts, I’m going to dive into the greatest statistical seasons by rookie quarterbacks. In part two, we’ll go into the best QB seasons stats-wise of all-time. For our last part, we’ll try to find out, using the same metrics, who’s the greatest quarterback of all-time. First off, though, I want to explain my methodology and the metrics I’ll use to evaluate their performances.
Judging a quarterback is always a chore. There are so many different metrics and ways to evaluate a QB independent of statistics that it’s practically impossible to get a consensus opinion on the effectiveness of his performance. However, if we combine various stats, I think we can arrive at a more accurate measurement of how well a quarterback performed. Taking that into account, I utilized four metrics:
- Passer rating (PR)
- Adjusted yards-per-attempt (AY/A)
- Touchdown percentage (TD%)
- Interception percentage (Int%)
I then adjusted each of them for league average for that particular year, arriving at a modified version of Pro-Football Reference’s Advanced Statistics. Basically, the larger the figure, the better the QB performed in that metric relative to the rest of the league (i.e. a 125 PR+ is better than an 80 PR+). I amalgamated all their advanced metrics and ranked them against one another, getting their percentile.
Finally, I took the percentile of each figure and added them together, resulting in a "score" for each season (For future reference, I did the same for part two and three). The larger percentage total a player has, the better he performed (at least according to the metrics I chose).
Also, on one final note, concerning the red highlighted cells below, those represent the zero percentile for a category; the 100th percentile is highlighted in green.
I should say upfront that while I do not pretend that my methodology and metrics I chose are foolproof in any way, I do think they’re accurate, on the whole, at evaluating the performance of a QB. Note that I only include quarterbacks who qualify for official NFL efficiency metrics such as passer rating, which is that they must average 14 pass attempts per team game played. There have been 126 rookie QBs who met that criterion, so those are the seasons we’ll be analyzing.
As what I wrote above, I took how these rookie QBs performed in those four aforementioned metrics relative to league averages, then ranked them in terms of percentile compared to other rookie QBs. This was done mainly to account for differences in eras and the way the game has changed; it wouldn’t be fair to compare the rookie seasons of Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz from this past year to Johnny Unitas’ in 1956. Controlling for year played allows us to more accurately compare how well each rookie QB played relative to one another, as well as rank them accordingly. So, right before we get to the good stuff, below are the standard deviations for each advanced category (this helps us see how much a player differed from the average in the data set).
|SD PR+||SD AY/A+||SD TD%+||SD Int%+|
Now that we’ve got all the details out of the way, let’s move on to the fun part: ranking the best rookie QB seasons in NFL history, starting with Nos. 75-126.
What’s interesting about this table is that several QBs inducted into the HOF performed horribly in their first years, among them Troy Aikman, John Elway, and Terry Bradshaw; saying they went through their fair share of struggles would be a massive understatement. Still, those three guys went on to have great success in their respective careers (though on a personal note, I think they’re all three overrated in general, but that’s just my opinion). However, when looking on these guys as a whole, you have to say it’s unimpressive.
This group includes some of the worst quarterbacks in NFL history who qualify for efficiency stats over their career (1,500 or more attempts), with guys like Rick Mirer, Mark Sanchez, Blake Bortles, and Joey Harrington (if I were an Eagles fan, I’d sincerely hope that Carson Wentz doesn’t end up like those four, as his rookie season was objectively poor). As mentioned, the best of this group is probably Elway, followed by Aikman and Bradshaw, I would argue in that order.
While it’s not a death sentence to be included in this group by any stretch, if you can help it, you’d like to avoid it. In fact, Bud Schwenk, who under my criteria was the 3rd-worst rookie QB in NFL history, actually holds the record for lowest-qualified passer rating in NFL history, registering an abysmal 25.4, horrible even in 1942.
Then there’s Ryan Leaf, who’s in a class of his own when it comes to futility in a QB’s rookie outing. Yes, Terry Bradshaw threw 24 interceptions on only 218 attempts, and Jimmy Clausen only passed for 3 TDs in 299 throws, but Ryan Leaf, man he was disgustingly awful. He was horrific in every one of these metrics: only Leaf ranked in the bottom 10% for all of the statistical categories I chose. Add in that he only had 2 TDs and 15 Ints, 1,289 yards in 9 starts, as well as the fact that this was the only season he qualified to be a league leader in efficiency metrics, and you get arguably the greatest draft bust in NFL history; the more one digs into his first year, the more difficult it is to say that he wasn’t the worst draft pick of all-time, as well as one of the most horrific QBs ever.
With the worst of the worst out of the way, let’s move on to #s 26-75.
Here’s where we get to include some of the greatest QBs in NFL history, with names like Peyton Manning, Warren Moon, Sammy Baugh, and to a lesser extent, Joe Namath. Promising youngsters like Derek Carr, Jameis Winston, and Marcus Mariota show up here as well, so finding oneself amidst this company is definitely something to take pride in. Add-in good-to-great quarterbacks like Sam Bradford, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, and Andrew Luck, on the whole, this is a really good group to be a part of.
Of course, there are some objectively poor QBs included here, among them Vince Young (and that hurts me like heck to say as a die-hard Texas Longhorns fan who remembers his transcendent performance in the 2006 Rose Bowl), Tim Couch (one of the biggest draft busts the NFL has ever seen), Tony Banks (benched for Trent Dilfer), and Matt Leinart (another bad draft bust). They demonstrate that having a decent rookie season is by no means a guarantee for sustained success in the future and that it takes impressive mental aptitude as well as a good support system to thrive for a prolonged period of time (none of those aforementioned four had great offensive minds leading them for the majority of their careers, which both Troy Aikman and John Elway enjoyed).
Still, when viewing this list of QBs from an objective standpoint, it’s hard to walk away unimpressed by the depth and star power exhibited here. Furthermore, it shows that a QB can improve and get better after enjoying relative success in his initial year: Peyton Manning, Marcus Mariota, Andrew Luck, Nick Foles (yes, his 2013 season, at least from a purely statistical perspective, was fantastic), Derek Carr, and Teddy Bridgewater showed substantial improvement from year one to their sophomore campaign. While every quarterback’s situation is different, if he has the talent, hunger to succeed, and a quality team around him, there’s a good chance sustained success is in his future, and these guys in this list flesh that out.
However, while the guys on the list above may have been really good in their first years, they can’t compare to our final group, the best of the best, the top 25 rookie quarterbacks in league history. Who’s number 1, where does RG3 land, how many HOFers are on that list? Let’s find out…
So here they are, the best rookie QBs in NFL history, at least according to the metrics I chose and the methodology I used. Just looking at this list, you can tell that some of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time reside here. You have Ben Roethlisberger, Fran Tarkenton, Johnny Unitas, Jim Kelly, Y.A. Tittle, and Dan Marino. Other notable QBs include Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson, and Charlie Conerly, so when it comes to distinguished rookie QBs and how they ended up in their respective careers, the top 25 are about as good as it gets.
Dak comes in at number 3, with some of the greatest rookie QB stats ever, and his Int %+ figure of 244.19 (remember, larger is better) is 14.48% better than second-best Dan Marino. His ability to protect the ball is truly something special indeed, and while he can get better in terms of touchdown efficiency (Romo was truly one of the best in that aspect), his interception percentage is already elite, which should help his confidence grow in terms of taking more chances to throw TDs.
Overall, I’m ecstatic about Dak’s potential and prospects going forward. Of course, there will always be those who bring up RG3 (and statistically, his rookie season was awesome) and project Dak to fail in his career like Griffin, but those of us who watched both know the way they play is completely different. While none of us know for certain what the rest of Dak’s NFL years will entail, I think looking at the company he kept his first year gives us great confidence.
Thank y’all so much for reading my fanpost, guys. While I know I may tick off some of my fellow Cowboys fans sometimes with my demeanor and opinions, at the end of the day I view us all as a family (even if it’s dysfunctional at times, heh heh); that won’t ever change, I’m sure of it.
Also, if y’all would like access to the database I made for this research, send me an email at the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org (for the subject line, put "BTB Database"). I’m working on the next two parts of the series, and if these posts get traction, I’d love to continue doing more of them, diving into whom the best QBs were during specific decades, a comparison of the best seasons between two or more, stuff like that, all with fresh (hopefully, lol) statistical insight and commentary. Again, thank y’all a ton and hope you enjoy it. And please leave a comment if y’all want to, especially if you see something I could have done better concerning or you see an error. Or, just give your opinion and say how wrong I am, heh heh. In any case, all you guys have a great one, and I look forward to continuing to discuss Cowboys football with y’all.
Note: I’ve been working on this fanpost before our fellow SB Nation commenter CleSportsEcon did his guest fanpost on May 30. I took nothing from his model nor did I garner inspiration from him. I did explore his methodology though and while I agree with some of his variables, mine are mostly different. Here is the link to his post: http://www.bloggingtheboys.com/2017/5/30/15714702/dak-prescott-historical-comparisons-amp-career-predictions