As seasoned, and no doubt well-read, members of the NFL fan community, we have all likely heard the term “sophomore slump” bandied about in football discussions amongst so-called analysts and sports radio rhetoricians (just yesterday Dan Hope of Bleacher Report posted an article which has a Luck sophomore slump as the Colts' "nightmare scenario"). In certain circles it’s a phenomenon that’s reached near axiomatic-like reverence, an expectation rather than a potentiality.
The term “sophomore slump” is a clever alliterative turn of phrase used to illustrate the difficulty inherent in following up a solid performance. Success leads to heightened, often unrealistic, expectations which in turn frequently lead to disappointment.
In music, a sophomore slump refers to an artist or band that fails to back up a good first album with a second, in higher education, as many of us undoubtedly know, it’s common to have a significant dip in GPA from year one to two, and in football the term is generally used to describe a drop in production that a second year QB experiences as they transition from a learner in year one (with room to make mistakes) to a leader in year two (and all the responsibility and pressure that entails), or so the story goes.
In a recent conference call with season ticket holders, Colts’ head coach, Chuck Pagano, fielded a question from a concerned patron on this very issue. Chuck dismissed the notion as unworthy of consideration, at least as it pertains to Andrew Luck:
“We don’t talk about a sophomore slump at West 56th Street, believe me. Nobody is harder on themselves than Andrew. This guy’s a tireless, tireless worker.”
Traditional coach-speak platitudes or genuine lack of concern?
Being the dogged seeker of truth that I am, I decided to investigate. The results might surprise you.
The Sophomore Slump: Fact or Fiction?
It’s probably fair to say that the trend of starting rookie quarterbacks week one is relatively recent. Consider that the greatest quarterback draft in NFL history, 1983, in which five quarterbacks were drafted in the first round, three of them going on to become hall of famers (Elway, Kelly, and Marino), did not see a single rookie QB start week one of the NFL season (to be fair, Jim Kelly was playing in the USFL at the time). Elway, the #1 overall pick, did play in Denver’s week one game (attempting 8 passes) but split time with Steve DeBerg the entire 1983 season, starting 10 games overall.
With the increased emphasis on protecting quarterbacks, the advantages afforded receivers downfield, and the consistently improving tutelage of incoming college prospects, more than ever before is being expected of fresh faced rookie QBs, especially those taken high in the draft, and starting right away has become the norm when once it was the exception.
From 1966 (the year of the NFL-AFL merger and the beginning of the Super Bowl era) to 1997, 55 QBs were drafted in the first round, or roughly 1.8 per year. In 1998 Peyton Manning rewrote the rookie record book and in the process altered forever what teams expect from rookie quarterbacks.
In the past 15 years, 44 QBs have held up a #1 jersey on draft night, a rate of nearly 3 per season. In that same period, 23 rookie quarterbacks started 12 or more games, including 12 in just the past five seasons; the previous 32 years saw only 16 such instances total.
Clearly, the emphasis placed on the quarterback position has increased as the NFL game has evolved to heavily favor the passing game, and with it has come the emergence of the day one rookie starter.
Below is a chart of all rookie QBs starting at least 12 games since 1998 sorted by draft position and year. The color gradient illustrates best to worst in the category as a degree of color, dark green being best and dark red being worst. I’ve highlighted the current rookie class in blue for context.
Okay, so cool chart right (a bit much I know)? Immediately you’ll notice that this list has some pretty disconcerting names on it. Tim Couch, David Carr, Joey Harrington, Vince Young, etc. You’ll also notice, however, that the players with a lot of green in their rows have gone on to have solid careers while the ones sprinkled with red are mostly names we associate with draft day busts.
Rookie season performance, at least in this small sample size, appears to be a decent indicator of future success; not exactly groundbreaking, but still… interesting.
Here are the same 18 quarterbacks (minus the 5 rookies of course) in their second seasons.
Again, when compared against each other we see that the cream of the rookie crop continue to rise as they develop and adapt to the NFL game. It’s perhaps worth noting that the later round picks, Chris Weinke and Kyle Orton (who was only starting due to an injury to Rex Grossman) were demoted to backup roles even though they compared reasonably well to some of their more highly drafted cohorts (the life of a late rounder I’m afraid).
By combining these two charts we can really get a good idea of how these quarterbacks stack up against themselves, not just each other, from year one to two, which is, after all, the point of this exercise right?
Below is a (rather large) chart showing this comparison. Numbers in red represent the lower of the two seasons. A lot of red in a player’s bottom row suggests what might reasonably be called a sophomore slump. So how bad is it? If you don't care for numbers just skip down to my analysis, if you don't care for that just skip straight to the comment section, and if you don't care for that, well, I'm not real sure what your purpose is here.
I know this looks like a lot of nonsense, and while I probably would have been better served, given the inconsistencies in playing time, using efficiency stats (like INT% and TD%) in place of more traditional bulk statistics (I’ll do this and see if it changes anything), the takeaway is still a pretty convincing one: the success or failure of an NFL quarterback in his second season is very similar to the success or failure of said quarterback in their rookie season (though generally a little better; sometimes a lot better).
Removing Orton and Weinke from the equation (fourth round picks clearly not intended to be the long term starter), who really had a season significantly worse than their first?
· 14 of the 16 quarterbacks increased their passer rating, only Sam Bradford (who was playing through injury and sacked 36 times in 10 games) and Matt Ryan (perhaps the poster boy for the sophomore slump and the most oft cited example of the phenomenon) were less efficient quarterbacks as sophomores.
· 11 of the 16 improved their completion percentage, several (including Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning) by more than 5%.
· 10 of the 16 won more games in their sophomore season than they did as freshman, three of the six who didn’t still managed to win 9 games. Only Sam Bradford and Blaine Gabbert lost considerably more games than they had the previous season, going a combined 2-18 in their sophomore seasons (though their rookie record of 11-19 wasn’t exactly impressive either).
· 11 of the 16 threw the same or fewer interceptions in their second season, and 11 of the 16 also threw the same or more touchdown passes.
· Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Mark Sanchez, and Blaine Gabbert all saw double digit jumps in their passer rating while Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Byron Leftwich, and David Carr saw more than five.
· 12 of the 16 quarterbacks threw for more yards per game and the same number managed to increase their yards per attempt.
If anything can be cited as causing a sophomore quarterback to slump, it’s injuries. Charlie Batch, Ben Roethlisberger, Blaine Gabbert, Sam Bradford, Tim Couch, and David Carr all played in markedly fewer games. Only Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Cam Newton, Joe Flacco, and Andy Dalton managed to start all 16 games in both their freshman and sophomore NFL seasons.
No matter how you choose to slice it, a substantial majority of rookies starting at least 12 games were, when healthy, better in their sophomore seasons than they were as rookies. That’s not to say that they were all good sophomore quarterbacks, that’s clearly not the case, but neither were they all good rookie quarterbacks. The bad stayed bad (though slightly less bad perhaps) and the good got better (most of them anyway).
Should we be worried?
There’s very little evidence to suggest that good quarterbacks are prone to second season regressions, the most we can say is that occasionally a good quarterback fails to get appreciably better in his second season (Ryan and Bradford for example), but that’s very different from saying they regressed, or slumped, as the bards would have it.
Andrew Luck wasn’t a good rookie quarterback, he was a spectacular rookie quarterback. The majority of the players in this study were not #1 overall picks, were not asked to throw 627 times (you’ll notice that most of these rookies threw the ball between 300-450 times), and were not faced with the impossible task of filling the role of the greatest quarterback in the history of the sport. Luck was.
It’s truly unbelievable what Luck accomplished last season as a rookie on an offense made up of other rookies and patchwork pieces.
With the hiring of Pep Hamilton, the acquisition of legitimate offensive linemen, and the further development of Luck’s rookie weapons, I see very few scenarios (barring injury of course) that would have Luck failing to build on what he was able to do in his first year with truly unprecedented odds stacked against him.
History says that rookie starters get better, even the bad ones, and often the good ones become great. I can't promise that Luck will continue this trend, but there's very little reason to think he won't.
As always, follow me on Twitter if that’s your thing, @Colt_Following I’m always happy to talk football with anyone at any time. Well, almost anyone.
This is strange, because I've only ever heard about the "second-year leap", and the data seem to bear that out. We've got so many returning rookie contributors I think we're in good shape.
@ColtsHead_Ben The second year is considered a major leap year for most positions, but for whatever reason there's an undercurrent of skepticism when it comes to quarterbacks. I think it's really just a product of unfair expectations and not reality, but it's there.
I am really not worried at all about Luck. (I am very worried that the Colts could actually be a better team, but not have near the record they did last season.)
In regards to sophmore slumps, I think they are much more likely for QBs that made big splashes their rookie seasons due to unique circumstances. (I don't want to say "novelity".) I think it will be more interesting to see how the league adapts to RGIII and Wilson, and then how they adapt to how the league tries to defend the read option.
@DougEngland The read-option is certainly the talk of the NFL these days. Defenses in the NFL adapt quickly, though there will always be situations that put them at a disadvantage; having a QB who is as much a rushing threat as the running back is definitely one of those situations. That being said, QBs are such precious commodities that you wonder how reliant a team can really be on the read-option without risking the long term future of their franchise. Like you, I am very interested to see how that plays out this season.
Really liked this. It really is bunk. I can't even think of too many notable examples of this happening. Matt Ryan is probably the best example, but it's not like his game just fell apart.
I think many people equate the performance not getting markedly better to 'slumping'. Take Cam Newton. First off, there was no way he was doing what he did in 2011, but his performance didn't actually get any worse. It just didn't get much better. Getting better at QB takes time. We've never seen someone dominate from Day 1.
@dmstorm22 Thanks for the kind words, and I agree with you. Like I say in the introduction I think that the "slump" perception comes about as a result of unrealistic expectations. A player does well as a rookie so the media assumes he will be that much better as a sophomore, so when that QB plays about the same, or even a little better, than he did as a rookie they consider that a disappointing season. Cam Newton is a great example of this. Just looking at the charts you can see he had a comparatively excellent sophomore season to most other players and yet it was seen as a disappointment.
Nice work; charts easy to follow. The most glaring SS to me was Ben R, and his rookie year was incredible, while his year 2 was injury-plagued, so it's no so much of a slump as impossible to live up to a 13-0 rookie precedent, especially when hurt. And Newton... I HAD thought his second year bit the big one but it was pretty respectable... not quite to the standards of his rookie campaign, but still a very good year for a young QB. Really looking forward to Luck in 13. Always liked Palmer and viewed him as the second coming of Manning, but damn, did not realize his stats were THAT good. Amazing what a couple injuries can do. Then again, Bert Jones taught me THAT lesson decades ago.
@Bobman1 Palmer really was in that "who's the best NFL quarterback" discussion early in his career along with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. He has since been replaced by Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers to go along with Peyton and Tom (who have both shown remarkable consistency), but that injury, later compounded by a couple others, did really derail his career trajectory. Who knows though, maybe he'll make a resurgence with Arizona and Larry Fitzgerald.
@Bobman1 Despite his good seasons in 2006 & 2007, one of the biggest what-if's for me of the 2000s is 'What if Kimo von Olhoffen doesn't shred Palmer's knee?'. It wasn't a joke to say that Carson Palmer was the 3rd best QB in the NFL heading into those 2005 playoffs. His '05 season was really great. That Bengals team was a lot of fun (not the tired mess they became later in the Chad era).
Of course, my least favorite part of the what if is that if Palmer doesn't have his ACL torn and completes the game and the Bengals win, the Colts probably win the Super Bowl that year.
I enjoyed your analysis. I was always skeptical of the sophomore slump idea. I kept hearing coaches say that the greatest growth (in general, not for QBs singled out as a position) comes between the rookie season and season two. The scouts have singled out Luck as a once in a decade talent. With a season behind him, better pass protection, (hopefully) a better running game due to better blocking and more growth by Hilton, Allen and Fleener, I have no reason to expect anything but better offensive results. I am SO very impressed with Luck's composure late in games. That is why we made the playoffs. No doubt.
@TrueBlue Luck does have that other-worldly calmness about him. Why the QB position is singled out as one that sees second year regression more than other positions which are, like you said, generally considered to make major strides from year one to two is not entirely clear to me. You do hear people talk about the fact that in the second season a QB has NFL game tape that defensive coaches can game plan against, and there may be truth to this, though why that's not also true of all other rookies is not clear, but the gains that QB makes seems to be more than enough to overcome that.
@TrueBlue I think studies have shown that the greatest increase comes between years 1-2 and years 4-5. The 4-5 thing is amazing if you look at some recent QBs.
Eli Manning's fifth season in the NFL was 2008. Since 2008, he's been statistucally a good to very good QB, while before that he was bad to average.
Tom Brady's fifth season in the NFL was 2004. Starting in 2004, Tom Brady's been Tom Brady, a sure-fire hall of famer. Before that, he was Tom Brady, a game manager who's defense won the Patriots two Super Bowls.
Ben Roethlisberger's fifth season was 2008, and while his 2008 season was a step down from 2007, 2008 was the first time he didn't have a dependable running game, and starting then he really took his game up a level.
Even Peyton had it, with 2002 being his 5th season, and it was a big step up from 2001 (although his 1999-2000 seasons were great). Rodgers had it too, but then his fourth season was his first as a starter.
Finally, last year was both Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco's fifth year. Ryan had his best year of his career, and Flacco did what he did.
So, basically, I can't wait for 2016.
Good Stuff! There are so many variables that go into the 'sophomore slump' myth that you can't just assign it amass. Great job disputing it. I don't think all the stats are necessary though, it comes down to the individual players commitment to the craft and the teams willingness to do everything it can to help him progress. We're in good shape on both accounts.
@smonroe You're absolutely right about that. My goal was really just to demonstrate that even players we consider to be draft disappointments did not have would could fairly be called a bad second season, in almost every case a QB gets better with experience and not worse (as the sophomore slump argument would assume). In the end these quarterbacks might fail because they're bad quarterbacks, but there doesn't seem to be anything special about the second season that makes them play worse or struggle more than they did as rookies.
Since I know you're a sharp lot here I figure someone will catch this, but I wanted to let everyone know that I do realize Carson Palmer was drafted in 2003, not 2004 as I show on the chart.
I will fix the charts as soon as I can but just wanted to put your minds at ease. In the meantime enjoy the stuff that isn't completely wrong (I've got to think I got at least half of it right).
Since Palmer idn't play his rookie year, I figured you were just using his second season, but the first he actually played, as his freshamn season.
@DougEngland This is true, which is why he came up in the filtered data I was looking at, but still, it's a little unfair since he had a year to sit and learn the NFL game before being asked to play. Nobody considers Aaron Rodgers a rookie starter (or Tom Brady for that matter) even though he sat for years before starting.
Ultimately it doesn't change much about the data itself, though Palmer is certainly an example of a fantastic "sophomore season" which does help my conclusions a bit.
Luck should do just fine. One BIG plus is that he should finally have an offensive line that can run and pass block. With Hamilton's offense his completion percentage should go up. With better blocking his INT's will go down.
@couchspud44 Here's that link btw, since I failed to include it. Not much analysis but the charts are worth checking out anyway.
@couchspud44 PFF posted an article about quarterback "sack responsibility." They determined Luck was only responsible for 4 of the 41 sacks he took last season. So I agree with you, improved protection should really bring out the best in Luck.
@codrutc I'm digging the new Livefyre, I apparently have not commented in a while. Time to correct that indiscretion.