Justin Fields has not had a lot of support since the Chicago Bears traded up to draft him, but it might not be too late. The question, however, is what exactly does a new quarterback need to succeed?
Is a strong running game really the best way to help a new quarterback? How about a stiff defense? Over time, a considerable body of lore has developed over the best way to help new quarterbacks succeed. As usual, much of that lore is based on nothing more than one-off observations and tradition based on assumption instead of actual evidence. As a word of warning, if you truly believe that apples cannot even be compared to other apples because every orchard is just that unique, or if you think that quarterbacks and their teams are each like snowflakes falling in on a bright winter morning, I invite you to check out some of the excellent interviews and draft coverage we offer.
However, if there really is a “key” to developing a successful quarterback (or at least to helping a quarterback be a little more successful), then that key should present itself repeatedly over time. Some quarterbacks will succeed or fail on their own, obviously, but it should be possible to parse loose trends from recent history. Thus, this article series is going to offer descriptive analysis framed with as much as can be gleaned in the way of simple objective metrics. Football is too unpredictable for trends to be absolute, but patterns should present themselves more often than not if they are going to be invoked as the basis for decision-making.
In order to have as consistent of a pool as possible, I am looking only at quarterbacks drafted after the rookie contract system went into effect (i.e. 2011); likewise, I am only looking at quarterbacks drafted long ago enough that we can assess whether or not they in fact became franchise quarterbacks for their team after their initial 4-year contracts were up (so the pool ends in 2018). I am also ignoring all quarterbacks drafted after the first two rounds who did not start at least ten games in their first five years, quarterbacks who were traded (like Jacoby Brissett), quarterbacks who were spent most of their time as backups for established starters (like Mason Rudolph), and quarterbacks whose careers and potential were limited by injury (like Robert Griffin III). I kept track of all of those players for deeper discussion, but for the primary analysis I only wanted to look at quarterbacks who had a legitimate shot at being The Guy.
This gave me 36 potential candidates. I then evaluated each of these candidates by five criteria–did he have at least 40 starts in his first 80 potential games, did he earn a first Pro Bowl or AP1 distinction within five years, did he earn a second Pro Bowl or AP1 distinction in five years, did he have a playoff win within five years, and did his team keep him for at least a fifth year? A player with a score of ‘4’ or ‘5’ was deemed a success, and a player with a score of ‘0’ was deemed a failure. The remaining twelve quarterbacks were tracked but not deemed successes or failures.
This gave me the following list of successful quarterbacks who fulfilled every criteria unless noted: Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Kirk Cousins (missing a second Pro Bowl), Derek Carr (missing a playoff win), and Deshaun Watson (not kept for a fifth year).
The list of failed quarterbacks, meanwhile, looks like this: Christian Ponder, Jake Locker, Brandon Weeden, EJ Manuel, Mike Glennon, Geno Smith, Johnny Manziel, Paxton Lynch, Cody Kessler, Trevor Siemian, DeShone Kizer, and Josh Rosen.
The Candidates Themselves
It doesn’t make a ton of sense to “average” draft position, as indicated by the fact that the successful group had an average draft round of 1.83 compared to the 2.0 of the failure group even though only six of these candidates were drafted in the second round at all. Slightly more interesting is the fact that the “successful” quarterbacks averaged being roughly the fourth quarterback selected (3.9), with the “failure” group being a little higher in the pecking order (3.5), but that just shows why averages only have limited value with pools this small. After all, of sixteen quarterbacks taken in the Top 10, five were successes and only two were failures. While the top quarterback taken was successful 3 out of 8 times, only 1 of the 7 quarterbacks taken second in a year was successful (Patrick Mahomes).
I have a database of quarterbacks who pass the various elements of the “Parcells Test” (save graduating college). I have previously failed to find much evidence that the Parcells test works, but it is worth reconsidering it in light of the stricter standards for success in this review (and one piece of additional information that I will cover later). The twelve successful quarterbacks fulfilled anywhere from two elements of the Parcells’ test (e.g. Josh Allen) to six (e.g. Russell Wilson), the exact same range as the twelve failed quarterbacks (and, for that matter, the twelve in the middle). Someone who feels strongly about the Parcells’ test can take comfort in the fact that the successful group had a mean score of 4.8 whereas the failure group had a mean score of 4.3 (with the middle group at 4.5). However, given the small sample size and the closeness of these numbers, this is basically a candidate or two off from being even. However, there is slightly more to it than that.
Four of the twelve successful quarterbacks sat for at least the first eight games of their first season before starting, including three of the five who underperformed the most on the Parcells test. In fact, nine of the twelve successes either passed the Parcells test or sat for at least half a year. The three exceptions are Cam Newton, Josh Allen, and Deshaun Watson (and Watson passed five of the six recorded markers Parcells would have wanted). Given Josh Allen’s pronounced early struggles, the argument could be made that Cam Newton is the only true outlier for a softened “Parcells or Sit” rule.
Meanwhile, the only two failures to sit were Jake Locker and Trevor Siemian. Locker is the more pronounced case, obviously, in that he was taken in the top ten and therefore might reasonably be expected to play sooner rather than later. Siemian was less “sitting” than he was a backup quarterback who eventually got a chance to start.
The Drafting Teams
Where things get even more interesting is looking at the teams that drafted these candidates. Of the twelve successful quarterbacks, eleven were drafted by teams with at least ten wins in the previous two seasons combined, and five of those went to teams that had at least sixteen wins across the previous two seasons. However, of the nine quarterbacks drafted by teams with fewer than ten wins across the prior two seasons, only one met the criteria for success, and he is the only “success” not to have a playoff win in his first five years—Derek Carr. While being drafted by an average team is not a guarantee of success, by any means, the number of quarterbacks who succeeded after being drafted by such a team outnumber those who failed by nearly 2:1. Two of the only three failures were both drafted by Denver on the downswing of their Super Bowl run (Siemian and Lynch); the other was Christian Ponder.
I was curious if this was simply an indicator of whether or not the quarterbacks in question went into unstable coaching situations, but both failures and successes went through an average of 1.42 coaches in their first three years in the league (or in their total run playing if they did not make it three years).
Perhaps Running Helps?
Perhaps those “winning” teams (or, let’s be honest, less-losing teams) provided their new quarterbacks with a strong running game in order to set them up for success? Maybe not. A workhorse running back does not seem to be the key. Looking at each team’s #1 running back for the start of each candidate’s career, seven quarterbacks enjoyed being partnered with what was on average a top ten running back in yards per season, and less than half of these players (3) went on to success. At the other end, of the sixteen quarterbacks paired with a running back outside of the top twenty, and six were clear successes (Mahomes, Newton, Jackson, Carr, Allen, and Luck) with only four turning out to be clear failures (Kizer, Manziel, Weeden, and Glennon).
Did Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott benefit from Lynch and Elliott respectively? Certainly. Christian Ponder got no such boost from Peterson, though, and Josh Allen and Andrew Luck did not need a top running back to help them out. Having a top running back does not seem to be necessary for a quarterback to succeed and it certainly doesn’t seem like it’s sufficient to make a difference consistently.
The trend gets only slightly more interesting if we look at the strength of the running game as a whole. Of the twelve quarterbacks who enjoyed teams that were in the top ten in average rushing yards, five were successes and another three were failures. Likewise, of the five quarterbacks who were on teams with an average number of rushing yards in the bottom ten, three of those were failures (Glennon, Weeden, and Rosen) while two were successes (Carr and Dalton). Here it’s worth remembering that it can be difficult to separate cause and effect, and it is likely that some of the poor rushing results of the Buccaneers, Browns, and Cardinals in those earlier cases were due to no defense fearing their passing games. Still, it’s hard to find a clear trend at all unless we look at one more number.
Of the thirty-six quarterbacks under consideration, eight played for teams that were in the top ten in terms of rushing attempts per season for each of their first three seasons (or, again, for their active seasons). Half of those were successes and only two were failures. Meanwhile, nine played for teams that were in the bottom ten in terms of rushing attempts. Two were successes but six were failures. That’s not conclusive at all, but that strong of a disparity is worth noting.
The simplest explanation is that having a “good” running game is not a clear advantage, but being willing to run the football even without clear results does seem to do something to help take pressure off of the quarterback. It doesn’t seem like the rushing attempts need to be particularly effective, they just need to be there. A deeper dive should also consider that at least some of the success enjoyed by these run-a-lot teams comes from the quarterbacks themselves doing the running (Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson come to mind).
One more thought before moving on to defense, though. There are the five quarterbacks who enjoyed the services of a tight end who was in the top ten in terms of average receiving yards in their formative years: Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz, Lamar Jackson, Marcus Mariota, and Cam Newton. Not only do all of those players come from teams whose top running back was outside of the top twenty, three of them are successes. In fact, six of the twelve successful quarterbacks had an RB1 or TE1 who was in the top ten in total yards during their formative years. Christian Ponder is also the only quarterback to have one or the other and still turn out as a distinct failure. Again, it is difficult to sort out cause and effect, but that is suggestive of the idea that a safety valve of some kind is valuable for a developing quarterback–even if it’s not always the traditional workhorse halfback.
Defense is Friend-shaped
Defense is a simpler story, because there is a clear trend. Of the eight teams with a defense in the top ten in terms of points allowed, half fielded new quarterbacks who turned out as successes and none were failures. Of the twelve with a defense in the bottom ten? Only two were successes and six were failures. One of those two successes (Carr) is also the only success without a playoff win in his first five years; the other (Cousins) is the only one without multiple Pro Bowls. At the other end of the spectrum, Mitchell Trubisky is the only first-round draft pick to be partnered with what was on average a top ten defense and still not make it as a success.
Simply denying the other team yards overall has less clear results, though. Of the thirteen teams in the top ten in that regard, five had successful quarterbacks and four had failures. Even here, though, a defense that struggles too much is not a good sign. Of the seven teams in the bottom ten, four quarterbacks were failures and Carr was the only success. So, of the two truisms calling for a good running game or a good defense to aid a new quarterback, recent anecdotes definitely favor the defense.
Without diving into any really complex math, here are the quarterbacks with the best “average” defense (points allowed and yards allowed) combined with the strongest average running game (rushing attempts and RB1 rank). They have an average overall “help” rank in the top ten, with successes being starred: Russell Wilson*, Colin Kaepernick, Dak Prescott*, Brock Osweiler, Lamar Jackson*, Mitchell Trubisky (10.17), Andy Dalton (10.17)*. Substituting in tight end yards for the running game adds Patrick Mahomes* and Carson Wentz.
Meanwhile, here are the quarterbacks who went into the most “stable” situations (teams with at the most wins prior to their being drafted without experiencing a coaching change): Patrick Mahomes*, Christian Ponder, Deshaun Watson*, Carson Wentz, Lamar Jackson*, Josh Allen*, and Dak Prescott*.
Here are the quarterbacks on both lists, thereby representing the players who were drafted into what have to be considered the best opportunities in football, at least superficially: Patrick Mahomes*, Carson Wentz, Lamar Jackson*, and Dak Prescott*.
By contrast, here is the list of those quarterbacks with an average “help” rank in the bottom ten, with success stories again being starred: Cody Kessler, Mike Glennon, Blake Bortles, Brandon Weeden, Derek Carr*, Josh Rosen, DeShone Kizer, Sam Darnold, and Jake Locker.
Likewise, here are the quarterbacks who landed on teams with fewer than ten wins and who also underwent a coaching change: Sam Darnold, Brandon Weeden, Marcus Mariota, Mitchell Trubisky, Derek Carr*, Blake Bortles, Jameis Winston, and Baker Mayfield.
Here are the quarterbacks who went to the least stable teams with the least help, arguably making them doomed from the start by conventional reasoning: Blake Bortles, Brandon Weeden, Derek Carr*, and Sam Darnold. At this point, honestly, my strongest conclusion is that I have not appreciated enough exactly what Derek Carr has managed to overcome in his career.
Next week, I want to evaluate the successes and failures a little more closely, and I want to start digging into the way teams constructed their rosters both before and after each new quarterback took over.