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Young Guns, Part 2: The Good, the Bad, and the Minshew

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When the old guard retires, which passers are going to be leading the NFL? Well, the AFC championship game was a pretty good preview of years to come.

Kansas City Chiefs v Chicago Bears Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The last time I looked at how the young guns were developing, I looked at each quarterback’s ANY/A across his best eight games, each passer’s rating in “clutch” situations, and the tendency of each player to beat himself by seeing what percentage of snaps resulted in sacks or interceptions.

However, beyond those three statistics, I also wanted to look at how reliably a quarterback was able to finish drives and end up with touchdowns instead of settling for field goals or being kept off the scoreboard. Some of this was motivated by the disappointing result of the 2018 season, when an inability to finish drives cost the Chicago Bears big time. More of it, however, was based on the idea that many of the available stats seem incomplete. I wanted some way to measure how well a quarterback was able to keep drives alive, and I didn’t really care whether or not that was by making smart decisions, by keeping drives alive with fancy footwork, or by taking risks that paid off.

Background

I disqualified all drives that were obviously not about scoring. For example, when a team that had the lead knelt out the end of either half, it did not get logged. Likewise, when the team made a drive but quarterback wasn’t even on the field (e.g. due to injury), I didn’t count it. I was pretty demanding, though, in that if a quarterback had time and had the chance, I wanted to see results. Obviously not every game situation is the same, and that means that sometimes quarterbacks and their coaches were playing for field goals or to bleed the clock, but over enough games these different goals should balance out.

The need for a consistent rule meant that I needed to make a decision on how to handle Lamar Jackson’s early games, when he was on the field but was not always the quarterback. That, in turn, also made me consider which games I was going to track for all quarterbacks. To keep things simple, I only counted drives by quarterbacks in games where they were the listed starters. This will mean that I excluded some good and some bad games, but it was the best “level playing field” I could manage.

So Who Delivered?

As I mentioned last time, there were thirteen quarterbacks who qualified. These players put together just under 3700 drives, and those drives resulted in more than 800 touchdowns. In fact, 22% of all drives had touchdowns, and five quarterbacks delivered ahead of that mark: Mahomes (35%), Jackson (31%), Watson (25%), Goff (25%), and Mayfield (23%). Two more quarterbacks were just on the mark (technically a little under without rounding)—Jones and Murray.

The quarterbacks below that mark are arguably either disappointments or Gardner Minshew. Trubisky and Allen both managed a 19% touchdown rate, and Darnold isn’t far behind with his 17% rate. Gardner Minshew had a 15% rate, Kizer was 14%, and Rosen was 12%. Rosen and Kizer are basically done as starters at this point and Minshew was a pleasant relative success coming out of the sixth round. The jury is still out on Trubisky, Allen, and Darnold. These statistics show (again) why that is. They aren’t necessarily bad. They just aren’t very good.

As I pointed out in Part 1 when discussing the “promise” shown by players in their best games, some quarterbacks have more games to pick from. That means that those quarterbacks were more likely to put together eight good games. Based on some of the commentary, some people feel more strongly about that distinction than others, but it has relevance for any statistic—essentially, a smaller pool of results will allow individual performances to carry more weight. There is a chance that players’ results will vary, especially as they gain experience. Still, even Gardner Minshew and Daniel Jones have 12 starts each and more than 130 qualifying drives under their belts. They are not unknown players, anymore.

Results By Season

However, these accumulated drive statistics only tell part of the story. Some players had only scraps of seasons at a time, but the quarterbacks collectively put together at least twenty-five seasons where they led at least 70 drives. That feels a little arbitrary, but placing the cutoff at the nice round number like 100 drives leaves out too many rookie seasons. Jared Goff (88), Lamar Jackson (72), and Deshaun Watson (75) all accumulated meaningful experience in their first seasons, and their results in those seasons are worth studying.

Three quarterbacks have two seasons in the top eight (Mahomes, Watson, and Goff). Mahomes and Watson both beat the 22% mark in each of their seasons, and Jared Goff has three seasons above 22%. Add that into those three quarterbacks’ cohort-leading composite scores from the other three categories, and it’s obvious how they have established themselves as the leading young quarterbacks.

Meanwhile, only two quarterbacks have two seasons in the bottom eight (Darnold and Trubisky). Josh Allen also has a pair of seasons in the 18-19% range. Given Darnold’s below-average performance in “Promise” per ANY/A, “Clutch” passer rating, and an ability to beat himself, he is the worst-performing of any quarterback besides Rosen and Kizer, overall.

However, there is one more thing to consider. How does experience factor into a quarterback’s ability to get the ball into the endzone? Well, the results are pretty dramatic. Of the 10 worst seasons by touchdown rate, eight of them belonged to players in their first season. The other two belonged to Mitchell Trubisky (16% in his third season) and Sam Darnold (16% in his second season). Both of those quarterbacks’ rookie seasons were also in the bottom ten. By contrast, only Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield made it into the top ten best seasons in their rookie campaigns.

It is not true, however, that every player improved as time went on. Watson and Mayfield both saw dips in their performance in their second seasons compared to their firsts, and Goff’s fourth season represented a major step back from his third.

Putting it All Together

So, which young gun is the best? A lot of it depends on how factors are weighted. My students frequently misunderstand the idea of a curve, because they have high school teachers who “curve” tests by taking the highest score in the class and calling that a perfect grade. Everyone else is then graded by how close they get to the “best student.” Let’s pretend for a moment that we follow that same system and evaluate the quarterbacks as a whole.

Lamar Jackson (97%) and Patrick Mahomes (93%) become ‘A’ students. Deshaun Watson gets a ‘B’ (85%), and Jared Goff (79%) falls into C+ range because his passer rating when trailing is just terrible. Josh Allen (73%), Mitchell Trubisky (73%), and Gardner Minshew (71%) are all ‘C-’ students, while Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield come in just under the 70% mark to earn D+s (69% and 68% respectively). Daniel Jones also gets a D (66%), and Sam Darnold is a D- (61%). Rosen and Kizer fail (54% each).

Trubisky’s “grade” is bolstered by a relatively low failure rate. He tends to avoid interceptions (Pro Football Reference has him at or above the average interception rate for two of his three years) and his line keeps him relatively clean (his sack rate has been average or better than average each of the last two years). Still, no matter how he gets there he fights his way to a passing grade. Likewise, Jared Goff would be a ‘B’ student if we just discounted his rookie season, but a lot of players look better if you cut off their worst performances.

On the one hand, these numbers back up what we already knew. Jackson and Mahomes have both been 1st-team All-Pros, and they are playing well almost no matter which numbers you use. Watson and Goff have earned multiple Pro Bowls. Josh Allen and Mitchell Trubisky are matching the performance of a good back-up quarterback, and Mayfield would probably be there if he had a better team around him. The verdict is justifiably still out on Daniel Jones, but it’s hard to get excited about the other three.

One final note—Jackson and Mahomes were both considered gambles when they were drafted. They played for a chance to make it to the Super Bowl, and Mahomes is on his way. Right now, a pair of AFC GMs are looking like they know exactly which bets to place.