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Sam Bradford and Breaking Out At Age 27

Bradford will move from St. Louis to Philadelphia via 195,000 eight-yard passes.

Bradford will be moving from St. Louis to Philadelphia, presumably via 195,000 eight-yard passes.

As a rookie at age 23, Sam Bradford averaged 4.73 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt1 at a time when the league average ANY/A was 5.73; as a result, we could say that Bradford had a Relative ANY/A of -1.00. The next year, he averaged 4.49 ANY/A with a RANY/A of -1.41. In 2012, he was at 5.64  and -0.30, and in seven games in ’13, he averaged 6.10 and +0.23.  In other words, he’s been mostly below-average for his career.

In order to calculate his career RANY/A to-date, we need to weight his production by his number of dropbacks, which were 624 in ’10, 393 in ’11, 586 in 2012 and 277 in his last season of play. Do the math, and Bradford has a career RANY/A of -0.68 entering the 2015 season. But could he have a breakout year playing with Chip Kelly in Philadelphia?

I decided it would be interesting to look at the question from the reverse angle: how many of the quarterbacks that were really good at age 27 were not so good before that? I defined “really good” to mean a RANY/A of +1.00 on at least 224 dropbacks since 1970 (i.e., a quarterback who had an ANY/A average at least one full yard better than league average, had a significant number of dropbacks, and did so since the merger). I also required that such quarterback had at least 500 career dropbacks through age 26 (Bradford has 1,880 career dropbacks prior to the 2015 season.)  There were 24 quarterbacks who met those criteria.

The best RANY/A season since the merger by an age 27 quarterback was Craig Morton; the Dallas quarterback hadn’t played much prior to 1970 (just 615 career dropbacks), but he had been effective in limited time before then (a career RANY/A of +1.58 prior to the ’70 season).

The second best age 27 season came from Boomer Esiason, in his MVP season of 1988. That year, he had 418 dropbacks and averaged 2.77 ANY/A better than the league average; prior to 1988, he had 1,531 career dropbacks, and a career RANY/A of +1.32. The table below shows that data for all 31 quarterbacks:

QuarterbackTmyear_idDBRANY/ACAR DBCAR RANY/A
Craig MortonDAL19702273.066151.58
Boomer EsiasonCIN19884182.7715311.32
Daunte CulpepperMIN20045942.3919940.79
Philip RiversSDG20085032.3310020.66
Drew BreesNOR20065722.219010.32
Peyton ManningIND20035842.1429250.95
Dan FoutsSDG19784032.0511940.29
Troy AikmanDAL19934182.011641-0.18
Aaron RodgersGNB20105061.7712291.2
John ElwayDEN19874301.71870-0.07
Joe MontanaSFO19835481.6911911.17
Scott MitchellDET19956141.585060.07
Mark BrunellJAX19974681.5410210.22
Ben RoethlisbergerPIT20095561.4720970.5
Brett FavreGNB19965831.4722780.58
Carson PalmerCIN20065561.419850.72
Dan MarinoMIA19886121.425612.31
Terry BradshawPIT19753171.391348-1.24
Chris MillerATL19922691.311889-0.05
Tom BradyNWE20045001.2916480.37
Matt RyanATL20126431.0921070.67
Aaron BrooksNOR20035521.0813810.22
Tony EasonNWE19864910.99928-0.09
Ken AndersonCIN19763720.9915991.83

As you would suspect, the majority of quarterbacks who had great seasons at age 27 were pretty good before age 27, too. In fact, only one quarterback with any sort of previous workload had a worse career RANY/A than Bradford through age 26, and then had a breakout year at age 27. And that player was also a former number one pick: Terry Bradshaw.

And the next worst QB after Bradshaw to break out at age 27 would be… Troy Aikman. Oh, and John Elway also had a below-average RANY/A through age 26.2  There is nothing special about “age 27”, but as I’ve written before, quarterbacks selected first overall usually go to bad teams and are expected to be saviors; sometimes, it takes them awhile to break out.

Bradshaw, Aikman, and Elway were struck on really bad teams; Bradford has been, too, especially at wide receiver. So the conclusion here is really in the eye of the beholder. If you don’t believe in Bradford, you’d note that there’s only one quarterback who was as bad as Bradford was through age 26 and then broke out at age 27, and that happened 40 years ago. Nobody in recent history comes close to fitting that description. Take a look at the table, and sort by year: nobody in recent memory that was very good at age 27 was anyone near as Bradford has been through age 26.

On the other hand, it would hardly be considered unusual for a first overall selection at quarterback to take some time to break out. Then again, don’t blame me if I’ve convinced you that Sam Bradford is poised to have a breakout season.

  1. Defined as Passing Yards + 20 * PTDs – 45 * INTs – Sack Yards Lost, all divided by total dropbacks (i.e., including sacks). []
  2. Oh, and another first overall pick, Eli Manning, had his first Pro Bowl season at age 27. []
  • Anders

    If Bradford is healthy, he should produce his best season ever

  • Delevie

    When I saw this I thought it could be Jim Plunkett, but it turns out that he didn’t have his 1st big SB year until he was 33 years old.

    • Rob Harrison

      Rich Gannon also comes to mind. It would be interesting to re-run this exercise looking for QBs who broke out at 27 or older, not just in their age-27 year.

  • Bradford is terrible. I half think Kelly gave Foles to the Rams to help them make the playoffs so they could actually do something with the talent from the Griffin trade and stick it even more to the Eagles’ division rival.

    • greg b

      uhhhhhh, nope. Chip doesn’t hate the Washington team as much as you and I, or the typical eagles fan. If that’s how he thought, he would never have made it this far.

  • sacramento gold miners

    Being durable is such a huge part of the QB position, and I’m not sure Bradford will ever be healthy enough to reach the level of a good QB. Troy Aikman was one of those HOF QBs on the list who took a terrible beating early on, but played, gained the valuable experience required, and his natural talent meshed with the improving Cowboys team. Watching Bradford, I just don’t see that type of ability, and the Rams may have figured that out.

    Agree about some QBs breaking out earlier than others, there’s really no set pattern. I knew Manning and Big Ben would be special QBs during their rookie seasons, but Rodgers didn’t play much early, and looked shaky in preseason action. Chris Miller was a promising QB, but injuries derailed his career. Ken Anderson had a very good career, but if Greg Cook doesn’t get hurt in 1969, I don’t think Anderson ever sees the field in Cincinnati.

  • jtr

    If we look at years of pro experience rather than age, Alex Smith would give Eagles fans reason to be optimistic. After being picked first overall like Bradford, Smith had three terrible years that made his name synonymous with terrible qb play. He missed his fourth year entirely, before coming back in his fifth season to have two OK years with a qb rating a little over 80 (don’t have any/a numbers to hand), starting a streak of solid play that has made his name synonymous with blandly average qb play–and as we know, an average qb is a damn handy person to have on your roster. Bradford’s first four years have been better than Smith’s, so there’s some reason for optimism.