The Usefulness of Rookie Seasons for Evaluating Quarterbacks

Kirby Lee / USA TODAY Sports

Jared Goff’s 2016-17 season one of the worst rookie campaigns by a quarterback in NFL history. His Adjusted Passer Rating of 20.32 was the third-lowest by any quarterback (rookies and veterans alike, He was only ahead of Bobby Hoying’s 1998-99 season (15.76) and JaMarcus Russell’s 2009-10 season (20.14). Both of these quarterbacks never played another snap in the NFL after their historically bad performance.

It wasn’t looking good for Goff. He was widely being labeled as a bust after just seven career starts. The fact that I’m comparing him to JaMarcus Russell should emphasize how bad Goff was.

Fast forward two years later and Jared Goff’s most disappointing moment is … a Super Bowl loss. He was pretty awful in Super Bowl 53 against the New England Patriots, but he’s certainly come a long way since his rookie season. Goff’s Adjusted Passer Rating in his sophomore season skyrocketed to 65.89, the best in the NFL. His rating remained relatively stable this season (61.63), but that number can’t quantify how his late-game heroics led the Rams to a come-from-behind win in the NFC Championship Game against the New Orleans Saints.

It’s still very unclear exactly how good Goff is, but there should be no doubt that he’s the Rams’ franchise quarterback. It’s obvious that his rookie season was an anomaly which ended up meaning absolutely nothing.

Goff is an extreme example of something we see all the time. A rookie starts off slow and is unable to meet extremely high expectations. The player is abruptly classified as a draft bust by fans. Is it fair to evaluate a quarterback after their first season playing professional football?

Probably not, but let’s prove it.

I looked at the career passing stats for every quarterback after their first three seasons and I compared these numbers to each of their first three seasons to see which season served as a more accurate prediction of their future performance. Players were only included in the study if they met the following criteria: (a) they were drafted between 1980 and 2010, and (b) they started in their first three seasons. We can’t accurately analyze recently drafted quarterbacks and quarterbacks who didn’t start until their second season cannot be compared to quarterbacks who started immediately.

I used Adjusted Passer Rating for this because it is adjusted for league average stats at the time while also fixing many of passer rating’s flaws. It is similar to adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) with a few differences. You can learn more about it here.

The trend isn’t too unsurprising. In general, a quarterback’s third season was the most indicative of future success, although their second season isn’t much different. Quarterbacks typically make a huge leap after their rookie season. There is still generally continuous improvement afterward, but that first leap is by far the greatest. An Adjusted Passer Rating of 50 is average, so it’s fairly interesting that the median rookie season among qualifying quarterbacks is below average. After all, quarterbacks had to start at quarterback in all of their first three seasons. That’s not rare, but it’s not extremely common either. A quarterback is typically pretty decent if an NFL team starts them through their first three seasons playing professional football. Even among this group of players, though, rookie seasons tend to be below average.

In any case, it’s clear that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge a quarterback’s ability based on their rookie season. Young quarterbacks like Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, and Josh Allen weren’t great this year. It’s far too early to reach any conclusions, though.

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