Nobody wants to be compared to Ryan Leaf, so it tells you all you need to know about Jared Goff‘s rookie season that such a headline doubles as a legitimate question. Let’s start with the raw stats, even though we know the passing environment has changed significantly since 1998:
Goff’s statistics are better, but only by a little. And what about once we adjust for era? Let’s go down the line.
Completion Percentage: Leaf completed an abysmal 45.3% of his passes, which was still terrible for 1998. The league average was 56.6%, so Leaf was at just 80% of league average. In 2016, the league average was 63.0%, so Goff was at 87%.
Yards per Completion: Leaf averaged 11.6 yards per completion, which was actually below average for 1998. The league average was 12.1, so Leaf was at 96% of league average. This was another sore spot for Goff, who was at just 9.7 YPC, which was 86% of 11.35 league average.
Yards per Attempt: This stat, of course, is a combination of the prior two, which makes it the most useful metric so far. Leaf averaged 5.26 yards per attempt in 1998, but Goff wasn’t much better at just 5.31. The era adjustments aren’t as big as you might think: league average was 6.85 in 1998, and 7.15 this season. But that’s still large enough to tilt things towards Leaf, who was at 77% of league average, relative to Goff, who was at 74%. Thought of another way, Goff was 1.84 Y/A below league average, while Leaf was “only” 1.59 Y/A below it.
Touchdowns: Leaf threw just two (!) touchdowns on 245 passes, while Goff had five on 205 attempts. That’s a big advantage for Goff: at 2.4%, he was still far below the league average of 4.30%, but he was 57% of league average, while Leaf was just 19% of the 4.25% 1998 league average.
Interceptions: Leaf threw 15 interceptions, for an embarrassing 6.1% INT rate; by comparison, Goff’s seven interceptions and 3.4% interception rate doesn’t sound so bad. But you need to adjust for era: in 1998, the league average was 3.3%, and it’s just 2.3% now. That makes it much closer: Goff was at 151% of league average, while Leaf was at 186%.
Sacks: Goff was absolutely terrible in this regard, which makes his already-terrible (but not Leafian) completion percentage and interception rate numbers much less impressive. Goff was sacked on 11.3% of his dropbacks, and the league average in 2016 was at a historical low of 5.8%. Goff is at 195% of the league average rate; Leaf was at 114% of the league average rate, with a 8.2% sack rate while the league average was 7.2%.
Goff’s sack rate was really bad: at 11.3%, only RG3 (13.0%) was worse among players with at least 50 pass attempts. More distressingly, Goff has taken a ton of long sacks. He averaged 8.54 yards lost per sacks, which was the worst in the NFL in 2016. He’s lost 0.96 yards due to sack per dropback! While we typically focus on sack rate when it comes to sacks, it’s notable here (because we use it to calculate ANY/A) that Goff took a lot of long sacks, while Leaf’s average sack cost the Chargers 6.36 yards.
Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt: This is the king of our stats to measure passing ability. Leaf was at a pathetic 1.93 ANY/A, a figure that was horrible even for 1998 (though, in a twist, it actually wasn’t the lowest that season, as Bobby Hoying had a historically bad year and averaged 1.43 ANY/A). The league average was 5.31, so Leaf was at -3.38 ANY/A relative to average, or 36% of league average.
Goff was at 2.82 ANY/A, an equally distressing figure in this modern era. The league average in 2016 was 6.22, which means Goff was actually at -3.39 ANY/A. Because of the higher league average, Goff was at 45% of league average.
Record: Leaf went 3-6, with those wins generally coming courtesy of the defense and kicking game (though Leaf was at least decent in one of those wins). Goff went 0-7, although that wasn’t even the worst mark by a rookie this year: Cody Kessler was 0-8 for the Browns.
Rushing: Neither was good here. Leaf had 80 yards rushing, but had 8 fumbles and only 2 fumble recoveries. Goff had just 16 rushing yards and one touchdown, and he had 5 fumbles and only 1 fumble recovery.
Supporting cast: On paper, the Rams have the better supporting cast. Todd Gurley was the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year last season, Kenny Britt had a 1,000-yard season; along with Brian Quick, Tavon Austin, and Lance Kendricks, those five players were all drafted in the top 50 picks. And Case Keenum had a 5.06 ANY/A average. For San Diego, the other quarterback was Craig Whelihan, who posted a terrible 2.98 ANY/A average. The running backs were Natrone Means and Terrell Fletcher, while Charlie Jones, Bryant Still, and Freddie Jones were the top targets in the passing game.
Neither team had much in the way of an offensive line. I’m not sure how to grade this one, but I don’t think it helps Goff much.
Worst Rookie Passing Seasons Since 1970
With a -3.39 Relative ANY/A — i.e., his ANY/A relative to league average — Goff has passed Leaf for the least efficient rookie season since the merger, among players with at least 200 dropbacks. If we lower that threshold a bit, we can get in a few worse seasons, including a new Rams season at the top. Take a look:
In this era of incredible passing numbers, you need some historical context to understand just how far from average Goff’s numbers really were. And by at least one measure, they were the worst since the merger among passers with at least 200 dropbacks, even falling below the Leaf line. If you want one other point of comparison, JaMarcus Russell averaged 2.68 ANY/A as a rookie on 66 passes. The league average was 5.52, giving him a RANY/A of -2.84. His biggest statistical struggles came in year three.