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|
|Dave M. Brown||60||24||-9.7||26.8||-6.9||-2.8|
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