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Is Russell Wilson the next Ben Roethlisberger?

by Chase Stuart on August 27, 2013

in History, Quarterbacks

Wilson does his best Roethlisberger.

Wilson does his best Roethlisberger.

On the surface, Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger have almost nothing in common. Wilson was an undersized, overlooked, third-round pick, while Roethlisberger was a first round pick who is one of the most physically imposing quarterbacks in NFL history. But both players had pretty similar rookie years in a couple of respects.

In 2004, Roethlisbeger went 14-0 as the Steelers quarterback. Pittsburgh finished last in pass attempts that season, but Roethlisberger ranked 7th among quarterbacks with a 6.9 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt average. In 2012, Wilson went 11-5 as starter, the Seahawks ranked 32nd in pass attempts, and Wilson averaged 7.0 ANY/A, the 8th-highest mark in the league. Both teams were powered by great defenses and running games, and for a long time, Roethlisberger carried the label of game manager. He also appeared in three Super Bowls, winning two of them.

Wilson threw 393 passes last season, an average of 24.6 per game. The NFL average was 34.7 pass attempts per game, which means Wilson averaged 10.1 fewer attempts per game than average. I looked at 146 different quarterbacks with at least 50 starts since 1960 and noted how many passes they attempted in their first 16 starts. As it turns out, only four of them — Tom Flores, Chris Chandler, Joe Ferguson, and Roethlisberger — were farther from league average (on the minus side) than Wilson.

In Flores’ case, he was the starter for the Raiders in 1960 but he split time with Babe Parilli: they were essentially running a quarterback-by-committee in Oakland, so that explains why Flores didn’t throw many passes.

Twenty-eight years later, a similar situation unfolded in Indianapolis. Gary Hogeboom started the season, but was quickly benched for Jack Trudeau. Once Trudeau suffered a season-ending knee injury, Chandler took over, but Hogeboom still had 13 or more pass attempts in five of Chandler’s starts.

Joe Ferguson started every game as a rookie in 1973, the year O.J. Simpson rushed for 2,000 yards. Buffalo ran 605 times and threw just 213 passes. Given the strengths of the team — Buffalo ranked 2nd to last1 in both ANY/A and passer rating, and first in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards per carry — that ratio made a lot of sense. The Bills had the fourth-highest run identity of any team with a positive game script in NFL history.

Right next to the ’73 Bills on that list was the ’04 Steelers, representing Roethlisberger’s rookie year. As you can see, Wilson is in some rarefied game-manager company. But what does that mean? The next step is to see how many pass attempts these 146 quarterbacks averaged over the rest of the career, presented below. Here’s how to read the table: Flores started 67 games, and averaged 19.6 pass attempts per game in his first 16 starts. That was 13.3 pass attempts below league average (which was a weighted AFL average over the years in question). Over the rest of his career, Flores averaged 23.3 pass attempts per game, which was 8.8 attempts below average. This means that Flores averaged 4.5 fewer pass attempts (relative to league average) per game in his first 16 starts than he did over the rest of his career. The table is sorted by the First 16+ column, which shows the number of pass attempts below/above league average:

Quarterback
GS
First 16 Pass
First 16+
ROC Pass
ROC+
Diff
Tom Flores6719.6-13.323.3-8.8-4.5
Chris Chandler15219.1-12.625.1-7.6-5
Joe Ferguson17112.9-11.727-2.1-9.6
Ben Roethlisberger12620.9-1131-2.2-8.8
Bill Kenney7721.4-1032.81-11
Mike Tomczak7222.1-1026.8-5.5-4.5
Doug Flutie6621.9-9.931.5-1.4-8.5
Dave M. Brown6024-9.726.8-6.9-2.8
Jim Harbaugh14021.4-9.526.6-5.9-3.7
Mark Sanchez6124.1-9.232.9-1.2-8
John Hadl16722.9-926.1-1.9-7.1
Bob Berry5218.9-8.721.3-4.5-4.2
Trent Dilfer11325.9-8.727.3-5.7-3
Roger Staubach11417.3-8.726.1-0.3-8.4
Jim McMahon9723.1-8.325.3-6.6-1.7
Jeff Hostetler8322.8-8.327.7-5.2-3.1
Mike Livingston7518.3-8.222.1-4.2-4
Steve McNair15325.3-7.829.6-3-4.8
Don Meredith8519.4-7.824.6-3.3-4.5
Mike Pagel5423.7-7.724.7-7.1-0.7
Pat Haden5517.9-7.625.9-2.7-4.8
John Elway23124.3-7.331.8-0.4-6.9
Vince Young5025-7.324.8-8.71.4
Boomer Esiason17324.9-7.229.5-2.5-4.7
Michael Vick10126.4-7.227.6-5.3-1.9
Eric Hipple5724.6-725.4-6.6-0.5
Rodney Peete8724.1-725.5-70
Jay Fiedler5926-6.928-4.6-2.3
Neil Lomax10124.6-6.931.90-6.9
Alex Smith7525.2-6.929.2-4.4-2.5
Kyle Orton6925.4-6.933.40.1-7
Greg Landry9820.6-6.822-4.2-2.6
David Garrard7625.4-6.829.7-3.4-3.4
Charlie Batch5526.1-6.628.3-4.8-1.8
Bill Nelsen7421.3-6.625.6-1.6-5
Steve Young14325.9-6.328.5-3.9-2.4
Tony Banks7826.9-6.329.1-3.6-2.7
David Carr7927.8-627.4-4.7-1.3
Bernie Kosar10826.4-5.830.8-0.7-5.1
Bob Avellini5020.8-5.719.7-6.81.1
Vince Ferragamo5324.4-5.730-1.5-4.2
Jay Cutler9327.3-5.632.7-0.8-4.7
Richard Todd10819.9-5.527.6-3.1-2.5
Joe Flacco8026.8-5.532.2-1.7-3.8
Doug Williams8122-5.431.40.4-5.8
Tim Couch5928.4-5.329-4-1.3
Jim Everett15326.9-5.332.20.2-5.5
Kordell Stewart8227.5-5.327.5-5.40.1
David Woodley5325.8-5.221.9-9.84.6
Matt Ryan7827.1-5.235.51.6-6.7
Steve Beuerlein10226.7-530.7-2.3-2.7
Phil Simms15924.5-529.4-2.2-2.7
Mark Malone5327.1-4.928.1-4-0.9
Bobby Douglass5322.2-4.716.1-8.94.2
Craig Morton14423.6-4.623.6-3.8-0.8
Bobby Hebert10027.6-4.629.4-2.2-2.4
Troy Aikman16527.1-4.428.7-3.8-0.6
Archie Manning13921.1-4.326-1.9-2.4
Scott Mitchell7128.9-432.8-0.7-3.3
Matt Hasselbeck15229-3.932.8-0.1-3.8
Warren Moon20328.1-3.933.81.6-5.4
Lynn Dickey11121.9-3.827.8-2.8-1
Fran Tarkenton23923.5-3.6270.2-3.8
Daryle Lamonica8827.6-3.624.9-2.2-1.4
Brian Sipe11222.8-3.6311.7-5.2
Steve Bartkowski12723.4-3.627.6-2.6-1
Chad Pennington8129.8-3.628.6-3.70.1
Ken Stabler14621.3-3.625-3.50
Jason Campbell7129.3-3.530.3-2.9-0.6
Bubby Brister7528.3-3.426.4-5.11.7
Gus Frerotte9331-3.430.5-2.3-1.1
Matt Schaub8229.6-3.334.30.6-3.9
Jack Kemp10529.6-3.327.5-4.20.8
Daunte Culpepper10029.6-3.332-0.7-2.6
Philip Rivers11228.8-3.332-1.5-1.7
Randall Cunningham13528.9-3.330.6-1.3-1.9
Kerry Collins18031.4-3.133.91.1-4.2
Don Majkowski5528.7-3.130.1-1.6-1.5
Danny White9227.3-3.130.5-1.3-1.8
Chris Miller9228.8-2.930.8-1.3-1.6
Roman Gabriel15724.8-2.827.70.8-3.6
Ken Anderson17122.2-2.825.5-2.80.1
Jake Delhomme9629.7-2.729.7-2.70
Tom Brady17530.1-2.734.41.3-4
Terry Bradshaw15823.8-2.623.8-3.81.2
Bob Griese15127.4-2.621.1-5.52.9
Kurt Warner11631.2-2.634.61.9-4.5
Dan Marino24029.3-2.4352.9-5.2
Jim Plunkett14423.4-2.324.8-3.31
Tony Eason5129.5-2.328.4-3.81.5
Jim Kelly16030-2.329.9-2.2-0.1
Jon Kitna12431-2.334.51.6-3.9
Ron Jaworski14223.1-2.228.6-2-0.2
Mike Phipps7122.8-2.222.3-4.72.5
Dave Krieg17529.4-2.128.9-3.11
Wade Wilson6930-2.128-3.71.6
Joe Montana16329-232.40.5-2.5
Mark Brunell15132.3-1.929.8-31.1
Rick Mirer6830.4-1.827.7-5.94.1
Erik Kramer6729.4-1.832.5-1-0.8
Stan Humphries8128.3-1.730.5-2.71
Josh Freeman5631.9-1.634-0.3-1.3
Donovan McNabb16031.8-1.533.30.5-2
Dan Fouts17124.3-1.433.13.1-4.4
Jeff George12429.1-1.331.8-1-0.4
Eli Manning13530.9-1.233.20-1.2
Ryan Fitzpatrick6531.2-1.132.2-1.90.8
Rich Gannon13229.3-1.130.7-1.80.7
Drew Brees16932.9-0.936.63.6-4.5
Ken O'Brien11031.3-0.930.9-0.6-0.3
Dan Pastorini11724.4-0.924.1-2.81.9
Jake Plummer13631.7-0.931.8-0.90
Norm Snead15826.2-0.925.9-1.40.5
Bert Jones9625.1-0.826-2.41.6
Tony Romo9331.9-0.635.11.5-2.1
Bill Munson6627.2-0.524.7-1.91.4
Brian Griese8333.2-0.432.1-0.60.2
Neil O'Donnell10030.2-0.330.4-2.62.3
Jeff Blake10033.9-0.230.8-2.52.3
Elvis Grbac7033.5032.6-0.40.4
Jeff Garcia11633.4030.2-2.52.5
Jim Hart17828.6027.1-0.10.1
Joe Theismann12425.90.128.7-22.2
Mark Rypien7832.10.330-1.11.4
Gary Danielson6027.40.426.9-4.65.1
Billy Kilmer11427.90.523.3-2.93.4
Steve DeBerg14027.90.731.80.60.1
Jay Schroeder9933.10.825.3-6.16.9
Brett Favre29831.4134.11.1-0.1
Carson Palmer12133.11.133.90.70.4
Brad Johnson12534.11.132.701.2
Marc Bulger9534.11.233.20.80.4
Aaron Rodgers7833.51.233.4-0.61.8
Matt Cassel6233.61.230.9-2.94.2
Steve Grogan135281.324.5-4.96.2
Joey Harrington7635.72.331.7-0.52.8
Aaron Brooks9035.12.432.2-0.32.7
Charley Johnson12429.82.425.1-1.74.1
Marc Wilson6034.22.529.3-2.65.1
Joe Namath12934.82.626.7-0.93.5
Vinny Testaverde21434.42.730-2.45
Trent Green11335.3331.7-0.93.8
Peyton Manning22435.93.734.71.71.9
Drew Bledsoe19336.84.334.51.52.7
Tommy Kramer11033.7531.80.24.8
Jim Zorn10631.35.329-0.55.7

For you trivia buffs, Bill Kenney saw the biggest jump in attempts, going from 10 attempts below average to 1 attempt above average over the rest of his career. But Roethlisberger isn’t far behind Kenney, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Wilson ends up in a similar boat.

The correlation coefficient between the two main variables (pass attempts relative to league average in first 16 games and in rest of career) was 0.44, indicating a positive relationship. It’s easy to think that great quarterback = lots of pass attempts, but that’s not always the case. Of course, the NFL is constantly evolving, and it’s possible (if not likely) that someone like Troy Aikman would have thrown much more frequently if he entered the league now. If you think Wilson is going to be an MVP-caliber player, it’s probably reasonable to think he’s going to turn into a 550+ attempt quarterback. He’s not asked to carry the Seahawks now, but he has a long career ahead of him, and it’s tough to project any team more than a few years down the line.

Roethlisberger’s career has had its shares of ups and downs, and at times, he’s carried the Pittsburgh offense (but because he’s always missing games due to injury, he’s never finished in the top ten in pass attempts). It wasn’t until 2009 — after his third Super Bowl — that he hit the 500-pass attempts threshold. And while they weren’t nearly as extreme as Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and (to an even lesser extent) Tom Brady went from game managers early in their careers to high-attempts players.

When I asked who would lead the NFL in passing yards from 2013 to 2022, I put Wilson fifth. If I had to guess, I think we’ll see Wilson play in relatively conservative offenses, but he’ll have a big attempts season at some point in the new few years (perhaps when teamed with a healthy Percy Harvin). He doesn’t have to vault into the top five, but I don’t think the Seahawks will come close to finishing last in pass attempts in 2013, and I suspect Seattle will be in the top half either this year or next.

Let me end with one interesting, non-Wilson note. If you sort the table by the First 16+ column in descending order, you see that Jim Zorn (5.3 attempts above average), Tommy Kramer, Drew Bledsoe, Peyton Manning, Trent Green, Vinny Testaverde, Joe Namath, and Marc Wilson were extremely pass-happy as soon as they were named starters. Some of that was because they were on bad teams, some of it was philosophy, and some of it was just pure talent (Bledsoe, Manning, Testaverde, and Namath were all #1 picks).

What jumps out to you in that table?

Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams

  1. In last place: the San Diego Chargers, featuring both Dan Fouts and Johnny Unitas. []

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Shattenjager August 27, 2013 at 4:46 pm

The top for in negative rest-of-career attempts are a bit separated from the pack.

David Woodley was not supposed to be a starter for most of his starts after his first 16,* so it makes sense for his number to be low. Flores was in a time share for essentially his entire career, with just a few starts in Buffalo at the end, so of course his attempts are low. Then we have Bobby Douglass and Vince Young, whose low later career attempts per game are really because of their own incompetence as passers. Vince Young’s career is going to be chock full of bizarre trivia when he’s no longer so fresh in our memory.

*And what a weird situation his rookie year is! 35-year-old Bob Griese on his last legs, with his 30-year-old longtime backup (He had already been in Miami for six years.) Don Strock hanging around. And yet the primary starter, with 11 starts, was an eighth-round rookie!

Reply

Alex August 27, 2013 at 11:06 pm

“It wasn’t until 2009 — after his third Super Bowl ”

Third Ben’s SB was in 2010.

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