The Sophomore Slump: Fact or Fiction?

Jan 6, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) sacked by Baltimore Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger (99) during the AFC Wild Card playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

As seasoned, and no doubt well-read, members of the NFL fan community, we have all likely heard the term “sophomore slump” bandied about in football discussions amongst so-called analysts and sports radio rhetoricians (just yesterday Dan Hope of Bleacher Report posted an article which has a Luck sophomore slump as the Colts' "nightmare scenario").  In certain circles it’s a phenomenon that’s reached near axiomatic-like reverence, an expectation rather than a potentiality.

The term “sophomore slump” is a clever alliterative turn of phrase used to illustrate the difficulty inherent in following up a solid performance.  Success leads to heightened, often unrealistic, expectations which in turn frequently lead to disappointment. 

In music, a sophomore slump refers to an artist or band that fails to back up a good first album with a second, in higher education, as many of us undoubtedly know, it’s common to have a significant dip in GPA from year one to two, and in football the term is generally used to describe a drop in production that a second year QB experiences as they transition from a learner in year one (with room to make mistakes) to a leader in year two (and all the responsibility and pressure that entails), or so the story goes.

In a recent conference call with season ticket holders, Colts’ head coach, Chuck Pagano, fielded a question from a concerned patron on this very issue.  Chuck dismissed the notion as unworthy of consideration, at least as it pertains to Andrew Luck:

“We don’t talk about a sophomore slump at West 56th Street, believe me. Nobody is harder on themselves than Andrew. This guy’s a tireless, tireless worker.”

Traditional coach-speak platitudes or genuine lack of concern?

Being the dogged seeker of truth that I am, I decided to investigate.  The results might surprise you. 

The Sophomore Slump: Fact or Fiction?

It’s probably fair to say that the trend of starting rookie quarterbacks week one is relatively recent.  Consider that the greatest quarterback draft in NFL history, 1983, in which five quarterbacks were drafted in the first round, three of them going on to become hall of famers (Elway, Kelly, and Marino), did not see a single rookie QB start week one of the NFL season (to be fair, Jim Kelly was playing in the USFL at the time).  Elway, the #1 overall pick, did play in Denver’s week one game (attempting 8 passes) but split time with Steve DeBerg the entire 1983 season, starting 10 games overall. 

With the increased emphasis on protecting quarterbacks, the advantages afforded receivers downfield, and the consistently improving tutelage of incoming college prospects, more than ever before is being expected of fresh faced rookie QBs, especially those taken high in the draft, and starting right away has become the norm when once it was the exception.

From 1966 (the year of the NFL-AFL merger and the beginning of the Super Bowl era) to 1997, 55 QBs were drafted in the first round, or roughly 1.8 per year.  In 1998 Peyton Manning rewrote the rookie record book and in the process altered forever what teams expect from rookie quarterbacks. 

In the past 15 years, 44 QBs have held up a #1 jersey on draft night, a rate of nearly 3 per season.  In that same period, 23 rookie quarterbacks started 12 or more games, including 12 in just the past five seasons; the previous 32 years saw only 16 such instances total.

Clearly, the emphasis placed on the quarterback position has increased as the NFL game has evolved to heavily favor the passing game, and with it has come the emergence of the day one rookie starter.

Below is a chart of all rookie QBs starting at least 12 games since 1998 sorted by draft position and year.  The color gradient illustrates best to worst in the category as a degree of color, dark green being best and dark red being worst.  I’ve highlighted the current rookie class in blue for context.

Okay, so cool chart right (a bit much I know)?  Immediately you’ll notice that this list has some pretty disconcerting names on it.  Tim Couch, David Carr, Joey Harrington, Vince Young, etc.  You’ll also notice, however, that the players with a lot of green in their rows have gone on to have solid careers while the ones sprinkled with red are mostly names we associate with draft day busts. 

Rookie season performance, at least in this small sample size, appears to be a decent indicator of future success; not exactly groundbreaking, but still… interesting.

Here are the same 18 quarterbacks (minus the 5 rookies of course) in their second seasons.

Again, when compared against each other we see that the cream of the rookie crop continue to rise as they develop and adapt to the NFL game.  It’s perhaps worth noting that the later round picks, Chris Weinke and Kyle Orton (who was only starting due to an injury to Rex Grossman) were demoted to backup roles even though they compared reasonably well to some of their more highly drafted cohorts (the life of a late rounder I’m afraid).

By combining these two charts we can really get a good idea of how these quarterbacks stack up against themselves, not just each other, from year one to two, which is, after all, the point of this exercise right?

Below is a (rather large) chart showing this comparison.  Numbers in red represent the lower of the two seasons.  A lot of red in a player’s bottom row suggests what might reasonably be called a sophomore slump.  So how bad is it?  If you don't care for numbers just skip down to my analysis, if you don't care for that just skip straight to the comment section, and if you don't care for that, well, I'm not real sure what your purpose is here.

I know this looks like a lot of nonsense, and while I probably would have been better served, given the inconsistencies in playing time, using efficiency stats (like INT% and TD%) in place of more traditional bulk statistics (I’ll do this and see if it changes anything), the takeaway is still a pretty convincing one: the success or failure of an NFL quarterback in his second season is very similar to the success or failure of said quarterback in their rookie season (though generally a little better; sometimes a lot better). 

Removing Orton and Weinke from the equation (fourth round picks clearly not intended to be the long term starter), who really had a season significantly worse than their first?

·        14 of the 16 quarterbacks increased their passer rating, only Sam Bradford (who was playing through injury and sacked 36 times in 10 games) and Matt Ryan (perhaps the poster boy for the sophomore slump and the most oft cited example of the phenomenon) were less efficient quarterbacks as sophomores. 

·        11 of the 16 improved their completion percentage, several (including Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning) by more than 5%.

·        10 of the 16 won more games in their sophomore season than they did as freshman, three of the six who didn’t still managed to win 9 games.  Only Sam Bradford and Blaine Gabbert lost considerably more games than they had the previous season, going a combined 2-18 in their sophomore seasons (though their rookie record of 11-19 wasn’t exactly impressive either).

·        11 of the 16 threw the same or fewer interceptions in their second season, and 11 of the 16 also threw the same or more touchdown passes.

·        Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Mark Sanchez, and Blaine Gabbert all saw double digit jumps in their passer rating while Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Byron Leftwich, and David Carr saw more than five.

·        12 of the 16 quarterbacks threw for more yards per game and the same number managed to increase their yards per attempt.

If anything can be cited as causing a sophomore quarterback to slump, it’s injuries.  Charlie Batch, Ben Roethlisberger, Blaine Gabbert, Sam Bradford, Tim Couch, and David Carr all played in markedly fewer games.  Only Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Cam Newton, Joe Flacco, and Andy Dalton managed to start all 16 games in both their freshman and sophomore NFL seasons. 

No matter how you choose to slice it, a substantial majority of rookies starting at least 12 games were, when healthy, better in their sophomore seasons than they were as rookies.  That’s not to say that they were all good sophomore quarterbacks, that’s clearly not the case, but neither were they all good rookie quarterbacks.  The bad stayed bad (though slightly less bad perhaps) and the good got better (most of them anyway).

Should we be worried?

There’s very little evidence to suggest that good quarterbacks are prone to second season regressions, the most we can say is that occasionally a good quarterback fails to get appreciably better in his second season (Ryan and Bradford for example), but that’s very different from saying they regressed, or slumped, as the bards would have it.

Andrew Luck wasn’t a good rookie quarterback, he was a spectacular rookie quarterback.  The majority of the players in this study were not #1 overall picks, were not asked to throw 627 times (you’ll notice that most of these rookies threw the ball between 300-450 times), and were not faced with the impossible task of filling the role of the greatest quarterback in the history of the sport.  Luck was.

It’s truly unbelievable what Luck accomplished last season as a rookie on an offense made up of other rookies and patchwork pieces.

With the hiring of Pep Hamilton, the acquisition of legitimate offensive linemen, and the further development of Luck’s rookie weapons, I see very few scenarios (barring injury of course) that would have Luck failing to build on what he was able to do in his first year with truly unprecedented odds stacked against him.

History says that rookie starters get better, even the bad ones, and often the good ones become great.  I can't promise that Luck will continue this trend, but there's very little reason to think he won't.


As always, follow me on Twitter if that’s your thing,  I’m always happy to talk football with anyone at any time.  Well, almost anyone.