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Lions Taking Huge Risk with Matthew Stafford

Despite several comments to the contrary, Jim Schwartz did make the announcement on the Lions starting quarterback today. As you can tell by the title of this article, I whole-heartedly believe it is the wrong decision. Jim Schwartz has said that there is not a right way or wrong way to do it, it just depends on the player. For a stats guy, I’m amazed he could make that statement. There is very concrete evidence that supports my theory that a rookie quarterback should not start the majority of their first season. Here is a list of every first round quarterback drafted in the first round since 1998 and the number of games they started and played in their rookie years. I will include the 2007 and 2008 draft classes as well, even though it is too early to develop a sound conclusion on whether they have panned out.

1998

Peyton Manning (16/16): Peyton Manning lead the NFL in interceptions and only won 3 games his rookie season, despite the rough start, he is obviously not a bust.

Ryan Leaf (9/10) (4 year career): Ryan Leaf is universally considered one of the biggest busts in NFL history.

1999:

Tim Couch (14/15): (6 year career) Tim Couch started the bulk of his rookie season on the expansion Cleveland Browns, he played fairly well his rookie year but never matched the promise he showed that year. Bust.

Donovan McNabb (6/12): McNabb sat on the bench for the bulk of his rookie season and started once the Eagles were out of playoff contention. He has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL over the last decade.

Akili Smith (4/7) (4 year career): Smith was never near ready to start in his rookie year, but was inserted into the lineup in week five. He was injured shortly after and didn’t play the rest of the season. He was a bust before the end of his second season.

Daunte Culpepper (0/1): Culpepper sat on the bench his whole rookie year except for some garbage time in one game. He made the Pro Bowl in his first season as a starter and had one of the best seasons in NFL history in 2004. His career was derailed after tearing every major tendon and ligament in his knee in 2005. Not a bust.

Cade McNown (6/15) (4 year career): McNown was a starter by week six his rookie year. He took a beating and would wind up missing several games during the season. He had one 300 yard game in his career (against the Lions) and didn’t take a snap in the NFL after his second season.

2000:

Chad Pennington (0/1): Pennington did not start a game until his third season in the league. He has completed fewer that 60% of his passes once in his career and has been a high level starter the bulk of his career. Definitely not a bust.

2001:

Michael Vick (2/8): Vick spent the majority of his first season on the bench and was used in a specific offensive package in six games. Despite never being a real passing threat at quarterback, he has made several Pro Bowls and lead the Falcons to the NFC Championship game. Spent two seasons in jail and recently signed with the Eagles. Not considered a bust on the field, but off field indiscretions robbed him of two years of his career and label him a bust as a human being.

2002:

David Carr (16/16): Started every game as a rookie and set the NFL record for number of sacks in a season. Never rebounded from the abuse and became tentative and gun-shy in the pocket. He has bounced around the league as a backup for the last two seasons. Despite the excuse making because of his horrible offensive line, he is a bust.

Joey Harrington (12/14) (7 year career): Harrington was drafted by the Lions despite the head coach not wanting him. He was hurried into the starting job in time to open Ford Field and actually had a promising rookie year until a rare heart condition sidelined him for the last two games. Sports Illustrated named him one of the best young quarterback prospects in the NFL. With two different coaching staffs not wanting him, he never reached the potential he showed his rookie year. He ended up being traded in 2006. He was recently cut by the Saints. He is a bust.

Patrick Ramsey (5/9): Ramsey was drafted to be the quarterback of the future for Steve Spurrier in Washington. He was constantly shuffled in and out of the line up during his rookie year and never got comfortable. He eventually was traded in 2006 and has bounced around as a backup for the last few seasons. Never reached his potential and is considered a bust.


2003:

Carson Palmer (0/0): Palmer did not take a snap in his rookie year, instead he spent the year learning on the bench. He was named the starting quarterback in the offseason and played well in 13 starts his second season. In his third season he blossomed into one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He had an injury riddled season last year, but when healthy is one of the best quarterbacks in the league.

Byron Leftwich (13/15): Leftwich started 13 games his rookie season and despite only getting sacked 19 times, he took a beating. Leftwich has a very elongated throwing motion that lead to him taking many hits. He has never started a whole season, battling injuries and eventually losing his starting position. He is starting for Tampa Bay this season, but he isn’t viewed as a long term solution. He is considered a bust.

Kyle Boller (9/11): Boller was handed the reins in week one of his rookie year and was injured by week 10. He threw one pass the remainder of the season. He started all 16 games his second season, but was not effective. He struggled with injuries for several years starting no more than nine games. His frequent injuries and ineffective play led to his release and he is now a backup in St. Louis. He is a bust.

Rex Grossman (3/3): “Sexy Rexy” started week one of his rookie season and was lost for the year by week three. He would only play in eight games through his first three seasons. He lead the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006 and started all 16 games, however common sentiment is the Bears made the Super Bowl in spite of him, not because of him. He threw 20 interceptions in 2006 and threw three more in the playoffs and Super Bowl. It is hard to categorize a player that led his team to a Super Bowl a bust, but considering they replaced him as a starter the year after he is still a bust.

2004:

Eli Manning (7/9): Eli Manning started off the season backing up Kurt Warner until the Giants were out of playoff contention. He would start 7 games and complete fewer than 50% of his passes that season. He has started every game for the Giants since taking over for Warner and won the Super Bowl in 2007. As much as I wish he were a bust for whining his way out of San Diego, he definitely is not a bust.

Phillip Rivers (0/2): Rivers didn’t start a game until his third season and he immediately became one of the top quarterbacks in the league. He has thrown 77 touchdowns in the last three years, made the Pro Bowl and led the NFL in quarterback rating last season. He is one of the best quarterbacks in the league.

Ben Roethlisberger (13/14): Big Ben is a bit of an anomaly because of the circumstances surrounding his rookie year. He started the last 13 games of the year after Tommy Maddox got hurt, but the Steelers dramatically altered their game plan once Ben was starting. They lead the league in rush attempts and limited his to short safe throws, frequently running on 3rd and long to avoid turnovers. He led the Steelers to the playoffs, but completely collapsed when he was forced to throw a lot. He threw 5 interceptions in two games and the Steelers were bounced from the playoffs. Despite not putting up flashy stats, Big Ben has won two Super Bowls and is one of the best in the league.

JP Losman (0/4) (5 year career): Losman sat his rookie year and took over as the starter in week one of his second season. He missed several games due to injury and played poorly when he was healthy. He had one promising season and seemed on the verge of a breakout but he would get injured and lose his job to Trent Edwards. He is out of the NFL and definitely a bust.

2005:

Alex Smith (7/9): Alex Smith took over the starting position in week five of his rookie year. He would get hurt after two starts and missed five games. He returned to finish out the season as the starter and didn’t throw his first touchdown until week seventeen. It would be his only one that season. He finished with a 40.8 quarterback rating and 11 to one interception ratio. He had a strong second season under Norv Turner’s tutelage, but regressed badly after he left and then struggled with injuries. He is one of the bigger busts of the last decade.

Aaron Rodgers (0/0): Rodgers took his first snap as a starter almost a year ago and turned in one of the best seasons of any quarterback last year. He spent three years on the bench learning the pro game and altering his mechanics. He is poised for another big season and cannot be considered a bust so far.

2006:

Vince Young (13/15): Vince Young was considered a project by many scouts, but the Titans started him early in his rookie year. He had a moderate amount of success throwing the ball, but his running ability helped him win the 2006 Offensive Rookie of the Year. He struggled in his second season and last season got injured and cracked under the pressure of being a starter. He is backing up Kerry Collins and is no closer to be a starter than I am. He is a bust so far.

Matt Leinart (11/12): Leinart had a strong showing his rookie year, despite putting up lackluster numbers. A lot was expected of him in his second season, but he played terribly and was frequently removed from the game so Kurt Warner could move the offense. He broke his collarbone five weeks into the season and never regained his starting job. His maturity and dedication has been called into question and so far he is considered a bust.

Jay Cutler (5/5): Culter started the last five games of his rookie year and almost led the Broncos to the playoffs after relieving Jake Plummer. Cutler put up strong numbers the last two seasons, but they didn’t translate into wins. Cutler left one of the best young offenses in the league behind in Denver, and his primary target is a converted kick returner. His numbers will suffer, but he will have a better shot at winning games. He is not s bust so far.

2007:

JaMarcus Russell (1/4): Russell held out until a few days before the season started which severely stunted his development. He played minimally his rookie year, but started 15 games last season. He seems more focused on being a playa rather than player at this stage in his career, and that has him headed towards being a bust. This season will go a long way towards defining his career.

Brady Quinn (0/1): Like Russell, Quinn held out and missed the bulk of training camp. He never was able to pass Derek Anderson on the depth chart and his only appearance in his rookie season was during garbage time. He took over the starting job late last year but got hurt after three starts. At this point he is more bust than not, but it’s still too early.

2008:

Matt Ryan (16/16): Ryan earned the starting job in the preseason and helped lead one of the biggest turnarounds in league history. He had an MVP caliber running back to rely on and a Pro Bowl receiver to throw to, but he enjoyed a great amount of rookie success. He will need to have a horrific sophomore slump to enter the bust conversation.

Joe Flacco (16/16): Joe Flacco took over the starting position when Troy Smith was out with severe tonsillitis and Kyle Boller went on injured reserve. The Ravens handled him in a similar manner as the Steelers did with Roethlisberger, rely on one of the leagues bests running games and defenses. Flacco rode the running game and defense to the AFC Championship game where his inexperience was exploited. Same as Ryan, he would have to have a collapse of epic proportions to raise the bust question.

Findings: 16 of the 29 first round quarterbacks since 1998 either started more than half of the games their rookie years, or were intended to start but got injured. Of those 16, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger are the only quarterbacks to pan out. Flacco and Ryan seem to be on the right path, but it’s still too early to definitively say they will pan out. Of the other 12, 10 were busts (Leaf, Couch, Akili Smith, McNown, Carr, Harrington, Leftwich, Boller, Grossman, and Alex Smith) with five of them out of the league (Leaf, Couch, Akili Smith, McNown and Harrington). Vince Young and Leinart are far closer to busts than successes, but they still have time to rebound.

The other 13 quarterbacks intentionally did not start more than half of their rookie season. Of those 13, eight have panned out (McNabb, Culpepper, Pennington, Vick, Palmer, Eli Manning, Rivers and Cutler) one is on the right path (Rodgers), two are busts (Ramsey and Losman) and Brady Quinn and JaMarcus Russell are undecided.

Statistically speaking, 75% of the early starters were busts, with only 15% of the players that sat being busts. That is an overwhelming difference.

When I was categorizing players as busts vs. players that panned out, I used a very simple set of criteria to determine the difference. If a team drafts a quarterback in the first round, they do so with the hopes that he is a long-term fixture. There are a couple of situations that were exceptions to that rule, such as Vick and Grossman. Vick led one of the most dominant running games of the decade and gave Atlanta a huge competitive edge. When he got hurt in 2003, Atlanta was terrible without him. Vick would probably still be with the Falcons today, if his off field issues didn’t derail his career there. Grossman started in a Super Bowl, but the Bears offense was built around limiting his deficiencies rather than featuring him. He played horribly except for an eight game stretch early in the season and was replaced as the starter the following year.

Obviously, every quarterback and his situation are different, but there are a few common threads. The quarterbacks that failed could be categorized by into two main groups, players that failed physically and players that failed mentally. Players that failed physically didn’t fail because of a lack of talent per se, but poor footwork, mechanics and technique. Players that failed mentally either weren’t mentally strong enough, weren’t good leaders or they weren’t able to get their team to believe in them. Some guys like Ryan Leaf fit into both categories.

When looking at the quarterbacks that succeeded when starting early, they had those leadership qualities and mental toughness. Manning set the NFL record for interceptions in a season, Roethlisberger was sacked a ton and he accepted the fact that he wasn’t ready to carry the team.

Some will ask, “What good does sitting on the bench do?” I wanted to try to answer that question while researching this article. My theory is quarterbacks get much more extensive coaching on mechanics in the NFL. They learn to make their throwing motion more compact, they work on footwork to remove wasted steps, sometimes they change their grip to accommodate the larger NFL ball and other such details. Quarterbacks that sit a year get their rookie offseason, training camp, a full year of practice, another offseason and another training camp to make their mechanics second nature. Rookies are too focused on all the other aspects of the game and they rarely get the opportunity to focus solely on their mechanics.

Almost all of Stafford’s errant throws in the preseason came when his mechanics broke down. When he is under pressure, or has defenders hanging on him it is understandable that he deviates from the fundamentals. That was rarely the case though. His mechanics would be bad on some plays when the pocket was clean. Try it yourself. Throw a pass off your back foot, then throw one stepping into your throw. The throw with poor mechanics is less accurate and takes longer to reach the target. Those throws will fly in college, but in the NFL they are intercepted. The quarterbacks that had the worst mechanics had the highest interception totals; interceptions kill the quarterback’s confidence and his teammates’ confidence in him. If they aren’t mentally tough enough to put the pick past them, they press and try too hard to make up for the mistake and that can lead to more mistakes. That’s why rookie quarterbacks generally throw interceptions in bunches. It’s a slippery slope that derails a lot of young quarterbacks’ careers.

What Does it All Mean for Stafford: Stafford seems unflappable, but everybody loved Joey Harrington’s optimistic attitude until the losses started piling up. Joey crumbled under the pressure and negativity. Stafford has been one of the most hyped football players in the country since he was a sophomore in high school. He never led Georgia to the heights people expected, but he never underachieved either. I broke down Stafford’s first three preseason games and did the same with Mark Sanchez. Sanchez stares down his receivers like a typical rookie, Stafford had a few rookie moments like that, but the majority of the time he was manipulating the defense with his eyes. It takes some quarterbacks years to master that aspect of the job. Stafford will face some intense scrutiny in Detroit, but there are very low expectations of the team at the national level. That could work in his favor. Time will tell if the Lions made the right decision, but the odds are stacked against them.


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4 Responses to “Lions Taking Huge Risk with Matthew Stafford”

  1. rainmker says:

    Anthony,

    The problem I have with people that hate this decision is that this argument essentially operates from the premise that its a bad idea to start a rookie qb, because he’s a rookie. If you examine the history of quarterbacks drafted in the first two rounds since 1980 (see advancednflstats.com), there is little evidence to suggest that a quarterback will eventually be better if he sits his first year. In the NFL, you either have the emotional and physical makeup to succeed or you don’t; the statistics actually bear that out.

    Although the results of your study are interesting, a more expansive look at prior drafts would have uncovered examples such as Browning Nagle or Dan McGwire- 1st or 2nd round qbs that sat their first years. In fact, there are only three qbs that started all sixteen games going back to 1980- Peyton, Rick Mirer, and David Carr. Clearly, that is an incomplete comparison. Lumping Stafford in with those that have started more than half, since 1980 would include Drew Bledsoe, Troy Aikman, John Elway, and Kerry Collins. Although I think Stafford will be a great player, I do not suggest that these numbers clearly bear that out that he will fall into the latter category. Rather, it is a guessing game with qbs and you won’t know until you thrust them into action. Given the state of the Lions, I would rather they start the experiment now while they struggle.

  2. I understand what you’re saying, but the game was a lot different in the 80’s and early 90’s. I chose the 1998 cut off date because I wanted to use guys that would still be in the league. In addition, the late 90’s marked the time when football really started to move to a year-round sport.

    My point is the area that Stafford struggles in, accuracy, could be greatly improved by spending more time working on his fundamentals. I wholeheartedly agree that if a guy doesn’t have the stuff to be a good qb, sitting a year won’t really matter. Losman and Ramsey are perfect examples.

    Thanks for the comments and the different perspective.

  3. […] Lions Taking Huge Risk with Matthew Stafford » Lions Gab […]

  4. steve says:

    Right now, I’d say he is already at least as good as your average Lions quarterback over the past several decades. Don’t make me name names. He can only get better with a little playing time. I’m not sure if starting him was the right thing to do, but I don’t think it’s a big risk. It’s not like expectations are high. He’ll get out there and do some dumb things and make some brilliant plays and hopefully they’ll win at least a few games this season. How is he going to be a better quarterback by sitting on the bench for a year?

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