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Windy City Gridiron Fact Check: Do Quarterbacks Show Their Potential “Out of the Gate”?

When is it too early to tell what kind a player a quarterback is going to turn into?

Houston Texans v Chicago Bears Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Since 2016, I have taken to diving into the facts behind fan beliefs and seeing whether or not they have a grounding in actual evidence. My favorite such piece was this one, where I legitimately learned something new about research done on synthetic turf, but given the struggles of the last few years I have spent more and more time looking at the draft, like here.

Recently, though, there has been a lot of noise about whether or not a quarterback actually shows his true potential early on. So, I went to Pro Football Reference, busted out an extraordinarily simple Excel Spreadsheet, and I got to work. From 2011-2020, forty-four quarterbacks were drafted and went on to start at least ten games. For those forty players, I compiled a) their passer rating across their first four starts and b) their passer rating in their first season with at least 8 starts (for those quarterbacks who never hit that mark, it was their first season where they first reached 8 total starts). I then compared each of these numbers to their career average passer rating.

Myth #1: Besides a few outliers, most quarterbacks take a while to show their actual potential.

Of forty-four quarterbacks with at least ten starts in the NFL, only 2 of them (Ryan Tannehill and Kyler Murray) have gone on to have a career passer rating higher than the high point set by their first four games. In the case of Ryan Tannehill, his high point was 91 and his career passer rating sits at 91.5. In the case of Kyler Murray, his high point was 90.5 and his career passer rating sits at 92.9. That’s it. That’s the list of quarterbacks who have outperformed the high bar set by their initial four starts in the NFL.

There needs to be a slight qualifying statement to this survey because it does ignore many quarterbacks who never had enough starts to hit my 10-game minimum. In other words, the actual number of quarterbacks who hit their maximum performance in their first four games is much greater than the 95% indicated by these numbers. However, it seems disingenuous to include players for whom four starts would be half of their entire careers.

Some quarterbacks do go on to earn additional starts regardless of poor performance, though. For those who are curious, the quarterbacks with the lowest “best game of the first four” highwater mark are Blake Bortles (81.8), DeShone Kizer (85.7), Dwayne Haskins (86.2), Josh Rosen (88.5), and Geno Smith (89.9).

Verdict: False. The overwhelming majority of players never exceed the high-water mark hit by their first four starts.

Myth #2: A Quarterback’s First Season Does Not Reflect His Career Arc

What about the belief that it is common for a quarterback to start slow and then finally settle into better performance once coaches have made adjustments and once rosters are settled?

Of these 44 players, only six of them had a passer rating in their first season that was more than 10% below their career passer rating. The list of players who improved by 11% or more after their first season includes Ryan Tannehill, Josh Allen, Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, Geno Smith, and Zach Mettenberger. Most of these players improved only in a way that implied regression to the mean (Zach Mettenberger went from a 66.7 to a 75.4), but Derek Carr, Josh Allen, and Ryan Tannehill all improved from sub-80 passer ratings in their first season to marks closer to the 90s that they established as an upper boundary in their first four games.

Meanwhile, a greater number of quarterbacks (7) saw their career passer rating fall by more than 10% after their first year: Lamar Jackson, Nick Foles, Cody Kessler, Robert Griffin III, Tyrod Taylor, Drew Lock, and Jake Locker. While there are a few dramatic crashes (Nick Foles falls from 119.7 to 87.3 and Jake Locker drops from 99.4 to 79), the most poignant might be Robert Griffin III’s drop from 102.4 to 86.5, which has to leave question marks over his injury.

However, this means that thirty-one quarterbacks (70%) held within +/- 10% of the passer rating they established in their first season playing. Even the quarterbacks who fell outside of their first-season range had their career average fall within the high and low points established by their first four games.

Verdict: False. While there are enough outliers to give fans hope, the majority of quarterbacks (86%) have a career passer rating that is essentially at the same level set by their first season as a starter in the NFL, if not lower.

Myth #3: It’s too early to worry about the start Justin Fields has had.

Leave aside that for many fans, it’s never too early to worry about some aspect of their favorite sports team, this one is more subjective than most. However, without resorting to hyperbole, it is possible to assess in broad terms what Fields can likely accomplish.

First, if we grant that while Fields has had a few obstacles to overcome in his transition to the NFL, we should also grant that it is highly unlikely that his circumstances are dramatically worse than all 44 other quarterbacks in this sample. Quantifying the suffering of a fanbase is difficult, but there are a lot of franchises that have struggled over the last ten years.

Purely based on precedent, this means that the highwater mark set by Fields against the Las Vegas Raiders (wherein he recorded a 91.9 passer rating) would be an optimistic upper limit for his career passer rating. Most fans would prefer that number to his first season’s passer rating +10% (80.5). In both cases, those numbers would be more optimistic than using the start he has had to his second season as a baseline, wherein he has actually declined in performance.

While a 91.9 passer rating is not game-breaking success, it is a respectable level of performance. In 2022, that would slide him between #15 Derek Carr (92.0) and #16 Jared Goff (91.5). It would only place him just outside the top quartile of quarterbacks in this survey, ranking 12th of 44.

Verdict: Plausible. Even if Fields does not buck historical trends, those trends are loose enough and there is enough variety in both his performances and in the NFL in general to suggest that he could become a functional if unspectacular starter.

Just in case anyone has the time and wants to see if they find any interesting patterns in the data, here is a link to sanitized version of the spreadsheet: Link