Matthew Stafford: Should He Start or Sit?

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The popular belief amongst fans and national media is that the Detroit Lions would be best served to sit shiny new quarterback Matthew Stafford on the bench for his rookie year. For instance, Sports Illustrated's Don Banks has advocated for giving Stafford a "redshirt" year, and Drew Sharp, ever the prophet, has vaguely counseled the Lions to exercise "patience" in rushing Stafford into the line-up.

I have always been skeptical of the idea that whether a quarterback starts as a rookie has much bearing as to whether he succeeds or not. The reasons why quarterbacks succeed or fail is sort of a "chicken or the egg" problem. Did Joey Harrington fail because he was on the Detroit Lions, or was he on the Detroit Lions because he was Joey Harrington (in other words, did Joey Harrington fail because he was in a "bad situation," or did the Detroit Lions draft Joey Harrington because they are poor judges of talent). I have been firmly in the camp that professional quarterbacks were "born and not made," but I understand why others think differently.

One of the key tenets of the "quarterbacks are made" theory is that teams are best served to sit quarterbacks for a year rather than bruise their fragile psyches by giving them too much playing time too early. Although I recall that the excellent blog over at Pro Football Reference did a similar study, I couldn't find it, so I was curious enough to try it on my own. I took all of the quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 1998 and measured the strength of the correlation between their pass attempts as a rookie and their ultimate success in the NFL. This, I think is the best measure, because the more a quarterback has to drop back to pass as a rookie the more chances, in theory, that that quarterback has to have his confidence shattered by an ill-tempered defensive lineman. "As a measure of "success" I used Football Outsiders' innovative DYAR metric (divided by number of passes attempted), which measures the value that a player adds to a team over a replacement level player. Here is a list of all of the quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 1998 sorted by the number of pass attempts that they had as a rookie:


QUARTERBACK
Peyton Manning
David Carr
Matt Ryan
Kerry Collins
Joey Harrington
Joe Flacco
Byron Leftwich
Tim Couch
Matt Leinart
Vince Young
Ben Roethlisberger
Ryan Leaf
Cade McNown
Patrick Ramsey
Kyle Boller
Donovan McNabb
Eli Manning
Alex Smith
Akili Smith
Jay Cutler
Michael Vick
Steve McNair
Rex Grossman
JaMarcus Russell
Aaron Rodgers
Philip Rivers
J.P. Losman
Chad Pennington
Carson Palmer
Jason Campbell
Daunte Culpepper
ROOKIE ATT.
575
444
434
433
429
428
418
399
377
357
295
245
235
227
224
216
197
165
153
137
113
80
72
66
16
8
5
5
0
0
0

Sure, David Carr is number two on the list, but Peyton Manning is number one and Matt Ryan is number three. Despite the heavy rookie workload, Peyton Manning has become one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and Matt Ryan, based on his rookie numbers, projects to be a perennial pro bowler. While Carson Palmer sat for his entire rookie season and became a very good NFL quarterback, except for five passes, J.P. Losman sat out his entire rookie year and has been one of the worst quarterbacks ever drafted in the first round. Alex Smith, Akili Smith, Rex Grossman, and JaMarcus Russell, all had comparatively little playing time as rookies and have not performed well afterwards.

The correlation between rookie pass attempts and success is exceedingly low with an R-squared of 0.04%, which means essentially that a 0.04% of why a quarterback succeeds can be explained by how much playing time they receive as a rookie. It's not statistically significant, and actually runs opposite to the conventional wisdom: quarterbacks who received lots of playing time as rookies actually performed slightly better over their careers than those who did not. Although it is true that there could be a trend that is simply not showing up in the data, it suggests that there really is not a lot of evidence for the "you need to let a quarterback sit" theory.

So should Stafford start or sit this year? I would suggest that there is actually an advantage to getting Stafford in the line-up sooner rather than later. Although there is no significant correlation between rookie pass attempts and success there is a fairly strong correlation between rookie quarterback performance and ultimate NFL success. Although it is true that most rookie quarterbacks perform poorly, the quarterbacks who turn out to be truly awful perform much worse than those who become good to great quarterbacks. What follows is a list of all of the quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 1998 sorted by their rookie performance (minimum 50 pass attempts). Again, success is measured in DYAR/pass, DYAR being an advanced stat from Football Outsiders which (among other things) adjusts for the strength of competition:
QUARTERBACK
Ben Roethlisberger
Steve McNair
Peyton Manning
Byron Leftwich
Matt Leinart
Vince Young
Patrick Ramsey
Cade McNown
Jay Cutler
Joey Harrington
Kerry Collins
Rex Grossman
Eli Manning
Kyle Boller
Michael Vick
Tim Couch
JaMarcus Russell
David Carr
Akili Smith
Ryan Leaf
Donovan McNabb
Alex Smith
DYAR/Pass in Year 1
2.81
1.31
0.95
0.73
0.61
0.26
0.084
0.024
-0.10
-0.61
-0.64
-0.67
-0.93
-1.17
-1.42
-1.46
-1.92
-2.07
-2.46
-2.54
-2.82
-4.49

Admittedly, this is a small sample size, but the relationship is strong. Everyone at the bottom of the list turned out to be poor quarterbacks except for Donovan McNabb--and he had a huge bounceback season in his second year. If Stafford gets significant playing time this season, the Detroit Lions will have two full season of tape on him, and if he is a bust, the Detroit Lions can move on.

This is intuitive to me. College football quarterbacks who perform at a high enough level to become high NFL draft pick are not delicate snowflakes: they are tough guys. If you're Peyton Manning, you're going to eventually be Peyton Manning whenever you start--irrespective of whether you throw 36 interceptions and or are sacked 60 times. However, if you're J.P. Losman, it doesn't matter if you have two years to learn and sit on the bench--when you are inserted into the line-up, you are going to fail.

The Detroit Lions almost made the right play with how they treated the "development" of Joey Harrington. Although they correctly inserted Joey Harrington into the line-up early, they refused to move on when he failed. The Detroit Lions, determined to throw good money after bad, refused to acknowledge their mistake. This failure came with a huge opportunity cost. If they had recognized that they had failed with Harrington, they were in a great position to draft Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 NFL Draft. Similarly, if Stafford plays poorly in his first two years, the Detroit Lions shouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger on a quarterback like Jevan Snead or Jimmy Clausen in the 2011 NFL Draft.

So put Stafford into the line-up, and if he succeeds, great. And if he doesn't, at least the Detroit Lions need not again pass up on a two-time Super Bowl quarterback in a future NFL Draft.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your statistical argument may help take into account some factors like the opponents strength, but it can't take into account all the factors that play into a QBs situation. The QB is dependent more on his surrounding talent than most other positions.

-Does he have a complement of good WRs an TEs? A QB that has at least one deep threat, one good possession receiver, and a solid TE as an outlet is going to outperform one that has below average receivers.

-How much pressure is he under due to poor line play? That isn't the same as sack numbers, as even pressures or just collapsing the pocket somewhat can force a QB to make mistakes, especially a young one.

-How good is his QB coach and offensive coordinator?

-Is he playing in an offensive system that fits his strengths?

-How effective is his teams running attack? That can take a huge amount of pressure off the QB. It is strange you didn't mention that at all, as it was a big factor in the rookie success of Ryan, Flacco, and Roethlisberger.

There are just so many factors that come into play. You noted that Alex Smith, for example, played horribly his rookie year. How can you NOT take into account the factors that played into that.

First of all, he had horrible surrounding talent. The 49ers were starting Johnnie Morton, Brandon Lloyd, and Arnaz Battle at WR. The top pass receiving TE was Eric Johnson, and he was out the entire year with a foot injury. His offensive line was very poor. The running attack was sub-standard due to the line issues. They also were still starting Kevan Barlow and gradually working Frank Gore into the offense as a backup.

It is pretty much impossible to predict who will succeed and who will fail because all of these things factor into it. Would Alex Smith have prospered if he had been drafted by the Packers and sat behind Favre all those years? Would Aaron Rodgers have succeeded being throw into a talent-poor environment of the 49ers, with the added problem of having to learn a new offensive system every year? Try all you want, but I don't think statistical analysis can answer those questions.

Sarah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andre WareAreTheyNow? said...

Hey Anonymous,

Thanks for your long and obviously well-thought out commment. I think the question that I am trying to answer is narrower than the one that you are addressing: I am not trying to answer definitively how much a quarterback's supporting cast has to do with his success or failure, I am trying to determine whether there is anything to back up the widespread belief that the best way to "develop" a quarterback is to sit him on a bench. I have concluded that there is no evidence for this: that in fact first round quarterbacks who have played right away have historically performed slightly better than their peers who have sat. I am merely noting that this issue comes up a lot in the context of the "are QBs born or made" debate.

To take Alex Smith, as your example, let's assume that he was ruined by a bad situation. All my analysis would say is that whether or not he was "ruined by a bad situation" it was not because he inserted as a rookie. In other words, if Alex Smith had sat out a year and then entered an equally bad 49ers situation as a first-year player, he would still fail. This post is all about the timing.

Another problem is that there is no way to predict what is a "good situation" or not. Nobody in their right mind would have said that the 2009 Atlanta Falcons were a "great situation" for a young QB like Matt Ryan to start in. Nobody would have said that the 1-15 Indianapolis colts were a "great situation" for Peyton Manning. Joe Flacco stepped into a historically bad Baltimore Ravens offense who had just lost pro bowler left tackle Jonathon Ogden. If Alex Smith would have succeeded, people would have said that he walked into a "great situation" with up-and-comer Frank Gore in the backfield--just like they say with Ryan this year.

AMH said...

"With [Matthew] Stafford, I think you throw him in there right away. I think he's lucky, the fact that he's coming in with a new coaching staff. That's a big advantage because basically he's just like all the other veterans as far as learning this new system, learning the way their new head coach is going to approach things, learning his philosophy ... I'm waiting for somebody to break that NFL rookie record for interceptions I set back in '98. Hopefully Stafford will give it a good run. But I'll say this, there's no way I could have played as well as I did in my second year if I hadn't played that first year.''
-Peyton Manning, as told to Peter King

Matthaios said...

I think, as said above, the situation in which the quarterback is thrown into is more for a factor then you mentioned.

I agree with what you said that quarterbacks are born and not made, but I think a real talent-born quarterback can become a failure due to lack of confidence, the main reason being he gets sacked a million times his rookie season. David Carr is of course the picture boy for this, and I just don't want what happened to Carr happen to Stafford. But on the other hand, Matthew Stafford is one of the most confident guys out there, and I think he is the kind of guy, maybe like a Peyton Manning (who, by the way, said the Lions should throw Stafford in there right away.) who has the confidence to bounce back from a poor rookie season.

It's a very tough decision to make and Schwartz along with the rest of the coaching staff are certainly going to have their work cut out for them. Let's just hope, whatever the decision, that Stafford isn't another Harrington, and like you said, if he is then let's hope the Lions organization can man up and move on before they let him screw us up for the next five years.

 

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