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You remember 2012, don’t you? Among quarterbacks with 200 pass attempts, Colin Kaepernick ranked 2nd in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, RG3 ranked 4th, and Cam Newton ranked a respectable 11th. The young quarterbacks — Kaepernick and Griffin were in their first years as starters, while Newton was just 23 — seemed poised to take over the NFL. If they were this good in 2012, how good would they be in 2014?

As it turns out, not all young quarterbacks improve gradually with age. Some even take a step back. Or, in the case of these three, two steps back. Take a look at their respective ANY/A ratings in each of the past three seasons:

Colin Kaepernick7.556.655.58
Robert Griffin7.475.485.17
Cam Newton6.655.695.45

In terms of Relative ANY/A — that is, ANY/A minus league average — Kaepernick has fallen from +1.6 to +0.8 to -0.6. Newton has had a similar decline but just from a lower starting point, dropping from +0.7 to -0.2 to finally -0.7. Griffin, of course, has seen the most dramatic change, going from +1.5 to -0.4 to -1.0 last year.

Each player has his own story. RG3 was lights out as a rookie, then struggled in 2013 seemingly as a result of tearing his ACL in the 2012 playoffs, a breakdown in his relationship with the Shanaclan, and [insert your other favorite reason here]. His descent continued in 2014, and he frankly looked like a lost quarterback, with this play being perhaps the most damning example.

For Newton, the issue seems to be entirely about a decline in his supporting cast, along with injury issues in 2014. I’m not particularly worried about Newton, who almost seems to make the cut (you’ll see what I mean below) on a technicality. I have little doubt that a healthy Newton with an improved supporting cast — you know, if we ever see that1 — would be a very productive quarterback. Kaepernick, to me, is the real wild card.

Kaepernick’s RANY/A dropped by 0.84 from 2012 to 2013, and then by 1.34 from 2013 to 2014.2 Which made me wonder: how often does a quarterback who is still in his 20s see a decline in RANY/A of at least 0.5 in consecutive years?

Since 1970, it has happened just 19 times, with Kaepernick, Newton, and Griffin being the most recent three. Newton and Griffin are also two of the three youngest, while Kaepernick is more in the middle of things (he was a sneaky old 27 in 2014).3 So what happened to the first 16?

Six of them did not retain their jobs, and you can read about them in this footnote.4 What about the other 10?

QuarterbackYear NTmYr N AgeYr N-2 RANY/AYr N-1 RANY/AYr N RANY/AYr N+1 RANY/A
Colin Kaepernick2014SFO271.620.78-0.56
Cam Newton2014CAR250.72-0.18-0.69
Robert Griffin2014WAS241.53-0.39-0.97
Daunte Culpepper2002MIN252.070.12-0.431.49
Dave Krieg1985SEA271.140.61-0.081.30
Neil O'Donnell1994PIT280.790.28-0.321.24
Neil Lomax1986STL271.690.01-0.890.79
Jim Everett1991RAM281.910.68-0.270.60
Ken O'Brien1987NYJ271.740.670.00-0.06
Jon Kitna2001CIN/SEA290.30-0.78-1.43-0.08
Boomer Esiason1990CIN292.771.480.07-0.09
Trent Dilfer1999TAM5270.30-0.26-0.90-0.74
Mark Malone1987PIT6290.46-0.76-2.19-1.21

There are some promising stories in here. Daunte Culpepper was great at age 23, decliend at age 24, was even worse at age 25, and then was great at age 26 and had a career year at age 27.

Dave Krieg had great efficiency numbers at age 25, pretty good (but worse) ones at age 26, and then struggled at age 27. But at age 28 he had a great season, and he had a great 9-game year at age 30.

Neil O’Donnell was a Pro Bowler in his first full year as a starter at age 26, but took steps backwards at ages 27 and 28. Then, at age 29, he had a career year and made it to the Super Bowl.

Neil Lomax was outstanding at age 25, then had RG3-like slides at ages 26 and 27. Then, at age 28, he had another great season, and followed it up with a great performance at age 29, too.

Jim Everett also took an RG3-like slide: he was unreal at age 26, but below average by age 28. He rebounded at age 29 and was above average during his age 31 and 32 seasons, too.

Ken O’Brien was lights out at age 25, worse at age 26, and then average at age 27. The age 25 year (1985) looks like the outlier, though: he stayed as a roughly league average quarterback from ages 28 through 31.

Jon Kitna looked completely washed up at age 29, but he rebounded with two solid statistical years at ages 30 and 31.

Boomer Esiason was the NFL MVP at age 27, still very good at age 28, and then just average at age 29. He had one more average year, then struggled at age 31 in his final year in Cincinnati, before a mini-resurrection with the Jets.

Trent Dilfer showed steadily decline from ages 25 to 27 during his final three years in Tampa Bay before… not really improving during his first year in Baltimore, despite you know, winning a Super Bowl. He did put up some impressive efficiency numbers over the next couple of seasons in part-time duty, however.

Mark Malone is an example of things not getting much better, but even he still rebounded at age 30 after declining at ages 28 and 29.

So What Does This Post Mean?

Well, let’s start with the obvious: it’s not common for a young quarterback to take consecutive steps backwards, and we have three of them that have done so since 2012. Kaepernick, at least to me, is the most intriguing of the bunch, as it’s harder (at least for me) to really understand what’s going on there. I have a pretty good idea of where Newton’s career is headed, and Griffin seems destined for failure in Washington (and perhaps beyond), while Kaepernick truly appears to be at a crossroads.

The table above presents overwhelmingly positive news if you are a 49ers fan. Could Kaepernick have a revival the way Culpepper did in 2003 and 2004? Could he turn into an above-average quarterback like Lomax or Everett? Eight of the ten quarterbacks who had declines like Kaepernick bounced back the following year. That’s promising.

Of course, it doesn’t mean all that much, either. Kaepernick is an individual, not an amalgamation of historical figures. And his struggles in San Francisco last year were very real, and didn’t appear to be a product of a poor supporting cast. And it’s not as though most of the news for the 49ers has been very positive this offseason, either.

But I guess if there’s one takeaway from this post, it’s this: even if a young quarterback struggles for a couple of years, the odds are in his favor that he’ll bounce back. For Newton, that seems like a safe bet. For Griffin, his ANY/A was so poor that an improvement seems very likely, too. For Kaepernick, the 2015 season looks like a real tipping point in his career, and one I can’t quite get a read on just yet.

  1. Carolina’s projected 2015 offensive line, from left to right: Michael Oher, who may be the worst starting left tackle in the NFL; Andrew Norwell, an undrafted free agent who was a rookie last year; Ryan Kalil, a Pro Bowl center; Trai Turner, a third round pick in 2014; and Mike Remmers, an undrafted free agent in 2012 who has been on six teams so far. At wide receiver, the Panthers have Kelvin Benjamin, who was tied for 2nd in the NFL in drops last year; Jerricho Cotchery, whom the Jets released in 2010 because he looked washed up; Ted Ginn, Jr., who had 14 catches last year; and second round rookie Devin Funchess. []
  2. The NFL ANY/A decreased slightly from 2012 to 2013, but then jumped by 0.26 last year, which is why you might not have noticed the true impact of the declines of Newton and Kaepernick based on just their raw numbers. []
  3. Note that Jon Kitna is the only one of the players on the list to switch teams, moving from the Seahawks to the Bengals. []
  4. Aaron Brooks declined with New Orleans from 2003 to 2005, and then joined the Raiders. He was an even bigger disaster there: he failed to reach 200 pass attempts, but produced career-low numbers and never played again in the NFL after 2006. Don Majkowski and his numbers dropped off with the Packers from ’89 to ’90 and then from ’90 to ’91; he entered ’92 as the starter, but was hurt early in the third game. That allowed Brett Favre to take the job and never look back. The Packers quarterback before the Majik Man also made the cut: Randy Wright saw his RANY/A drop off from ’86 to ’87 and then ’87 to ’88; he never played again in the NFL.

    Steve Grogan saw relatively modest drop offs in his RANY/A from ’79 to ’81; due to the strike and missing three games, he did not hit the 200 attempt cut-off in ’82, but he posted career-high efficiency numbers in ’82 and ’83. He’s our first success story. Pat Haden was excellent in 1977, declined in ’78, and then struggled at quarterback with the Rams in 1979; he lost the job to Vince Ferragamo, but after the ’80 season, Ferragamo went north to Canada. Haden played again in ’81, but posted career-low numbers. Haden started at least half his team’s games in five seasons, and incredibly, his ANY/A decreased in each year. And finally, Archie Manning saw his RANY/A drop from -0.1 in ’73 to -1.6 in ’74 and bottom out to -2.7 in ’75. He then missed all of ’76 due to shoulder surgery, but would turn in the best seasons of his career beginning in the late ’70s. He’s another promising sign, perhaps for Newton in particular, since both have been plagued with weak supporting casts. []

  5. Was on Baltimore in Year N+1. []
  6. Was on San Diego in Year N+1. []
  • Dan

    It’s interesting that the downward trend seems to be completely irrelevant for this set of 10 QBs. Year N+1 performance was (on average) almost exactly equal to the average performance over years N-2, N-1, and N. The 3-year average was +0.29 RANY/A, and then year N+1 was +0.32 RANY/A.

    • James

      Regression to the mean strikes again!

  • James

    Seems like it’s a good sign that all 3 QBs are still on their original team and two are still solidly viewed as the starter. The QBs that switched teams, particularly those that are in footnote 6, did extremely poorly. Still, that’s another hit against Griffin as they have already tried to replace him like Wright, Majkowski, and Haden.

  • Richie

    I’m not sure if there is a way to back this up analytically, but my impression is that Kaepernick and Griffin put together some good passing seasons because their threat to the run the ball was so great that it opened up the passing game. (Although a lot of that impression is based on Kaepernick shredding the Packers in the playoffs a couple times, which isn’t represented above.)

    Newton seems like a guy who is still good at running the ball, but relies on his passing ability a bit more. The other thing about Newton is that he had a year where he improved (between 2011 and 2012) that the other 2 don’t have.

    I just looked at Griffin’s sack percentage. He went from 7.1 to 7.7 to 13.4(!!!). Also, his TD percent went from 5.1 to 3.5 to 1.9(!).

    It’s those “hidden” stats that seem to be really killing Griffin.

  • Nick Bradley

    I don’t think this is the appropriate way to look at this. Most of Kaepernick’s ‘decline’ is being driven by horrendous offensive line play that led to 52 sacks and a whole lotta hurries.

    Now, I’m not arguing that there isn’t a decline. I looked at Pass EPA (from QBR), and I see that Kap went from t-4th in 2012 and t-4th 2013 in pass EPA per attempt to t-13th in 2014 (.155 to .123). That’s still average, Flacco-esque quarterback play when he’s not being sacked. When he’s getting sacked in 2014, t-22nd. Wilson went from t-4th in 2012 and 2013 in the same metric to 21st, but that’s not really discussed because he’s kept it going with his legs. RGIII went from 25th in 2013 to 32nd in 2014. Cam slides from 17th in 2013 to 26th in 2014.

    I expect the O-line to bounce back a bit, along with Vernon Davis who put in a terrible year. Torrey Smith stretches the field and opens things up.

  • Update: Kaepernick posted a 4.94 ANY/A average in 2015 in 9 games, losing his job in the process.

    He joins O’Brien and Esiason as the only members of this group to decline in 3 straight years, and his decline in Year 4 was the most significant.

    Today, though, he is getting his job back. It’s easy to get lost in the whole kneeling for the national anthem controversy, but Kaepernick’s decline is arguably unprecedented. He’s similar to Boomer and O’Brien in the beginning, but then he falls through the floor.

    I’ve been fond of a stat that’s new to me, yards per dropback, available on ESPN (h/t to 538 for giving me access). It’s just like NY/A, but it excludes spikes (good!) and it includes scrambles in both the numerator and denominator. I like that.

    In 2012, Kaepernick ranked 2nd in Yds/DB, at 7.39.

    In 2013, Kaepernick ranked 9th in Yds/DB, at 6.71.

    In 2014, Kaepernick ranked 22nd in Yds/DB, at 6.11.

    In 2015, Kaepernick ranked 35th in Yds/DB, at 5.46.

    So he went from All-Pro to Pro Bowler to below-average to replacement level. That’s insane for a guy at ages 25, 26, 27, and 28. His career trajectory would make a lot more sense if we found out he was actually ten years older.