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Was Smith's fast finish a sign of things to come?

Was Smith's fast finish a sign of things to come?

In Geno Smith’s first 12 NFL starts, he completed 179 of 327 passes (54.7%) for 2,256 yards, with 8 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Those numbers translate to a 6.9 yards per attempt average, quite respectable for a rookie, and a 4.8 Adjusted Yards per Attempt average, abysmal for anybody. But over the last four weeks of the year, Smith went 68/116 (58.6%) for 790 yards with 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. His yards per attempt actually went down slightly to 6.8, but he averaged 6.7 AY/A, much closer to league average. Touchdowns and interceptions are less sticky statistics than yards per attempt, but Jets fans looking for reasons for optimism would cling to the massive flip in touchdown-to-interception ratio over the final quarter of the season.

The real question is whether any of that matters. In general, I’m a Splits Happen type of analyst, but I thought I would run some numbers. As it turns out, perhaps there is some reason to think Smith’s strong December (subject to the caveats below) is a sign of good things to come.  Here’s what I did:

From 1990 to 2013, there were 51 quarterbacks who threw at least 224 passes during their rookie season. Toss out the 2013 rookies (EJ Manuel, Smith, and Mike Glennon), along with the nine quarterbacks who threw fewer than 100 passes in year two (Jimmy Clausen, Ryan Leaf, Kyle Orton, Chad Hutchinson, Andrew Walter, Bruce Gradkowski, Chris Weinke, Ken Dorsey, and Matt Stafford), and that leaves us with 39 quarterbacks who threw at least 224 passes as a rookie since 1990 and then at least 100 passes in their second season. For those quarterbacks, I calculated their Y/A and AY/A averages over their final 4 games of the season, and their Y/A and AY/A averages over the first 1-12 games of the season (with the 224 pass attempts minimum, I felt pretty confident that we would have a large enough sample on the “early” portion of the season).  Then I looked at how those 39 quarterbacks fared in their second years.

The table below shows all 39 quarterbacks, plus the 2013 rookies.  Here’s how to read the table below.  Heath Shuler, a rookie for Washington in 1994, had 150 “early” season attempts, defined as all pass attempts before the final 4 games of the season.  His early year Y/A average was 5.0 and his AY/A average was 2.8.  Shuler had 115 “late” season attempts, defined as pass attempts in the final four games.  His Y/A in the late part of the season was 7.9, and his AY/A was 7.8.  As a result, Shuler improved his Y/A by 3.0 and his AY/A by 5.0 over the final four games of the season.  In Year N+1 — i.e., 1995 for Shuler — he had 125 pass attempts, and averaged 6.0 Y/A and 3.9 AY/A.

QuarterbackYrTeamE_AttE_Y/AE_AY/AL_AttL_Y/AL_AY/ADiff Y/ADiff AY/AN+1 AttN+1 Y/AN+1 AY/A
Heath Shuler1994WAS15052.81157.97.83512563.9
Carson Palmer2004CIN31864.71148.
Russell Wilson2012SEA3177.47.57610.
Charlie Batch1998DET2156.86.1888.
Drew Bledsoe1993NWE3065.64.11236.470.82.96916.65.6
Nick Foles2012PHI995.54.3166771.52.73179.110.5
Tony Banks1996STL2826.35.3868.
Jeff Garcia1999SFO2426.45.21337.
Geno Smith2013NYJ3276.94.81166.86.7-0.12-00
Peyton Manning1998IND4496.34.81267.
Patrick Ramsey2002WAS103751246.66.8-0.41.83376.46.1
Matt Leinart2006ARI2716.55.51067.5711.51125.84.5
Ben Roethlisberger2004PIT2128.188310.
Vince Young2006TEN2575.84.81007.
Tim Couch1999CLE2915.85.11087.
Brandon Weeden2012CLE3976.25.31207.
Jake Plummer1997ARI1567.65.71407.36.7-0.20.95476.85.8
Kyle Boller2003BAL1795.54.3456.
Cade McNown1999CHI1386.14.7976.
Ryan Tannehill2012MIA36375.91216.16.5-10.65886.76.2
Cam Newton2011CAR41387.11047.37.5-0.70.448587.6
EJ Manuel2013BUF18965.71177.161.10.3-00
Jeff George1990IND2196.35.51156.
Andrew Luck2012IND5037.16.41246.36.5-0.90.15706.76.8
Rick Mirer1993SEA3616.24.71254.74.8-1.50.13815.65.4
Byron Leftwich2003JAX3006.85.71186.65.8-0.20.14416.76.3
Mark Sanchez2009NYJ2826.94.9826.14.9-0.805076.56
Blaine Gabbert2011JAX2975.34.81165.64.70.3027865.7
Joe Flacco2008BAL3316.96.4977.26.20.3-0.24997.27
Kerry Collins1995CAR2996.551345.84.8-0.6-0.23646.76.4
Trent Edwards2007BUF1576.75.41125.25.1-1.5-0.33747.26.6
Andy Dalton2011CIN3876.86.31295.86-1-0.45286.96.6
Robert Griffin2012WAS3048.28.7897.98.3-0.3-0.445676.5
Craig Whelihan1997SDG976.14.91405.54-0.6-0.93205.63.5
Joey Harrington2002DET3075.64.51224.73.6-0.9-0.95545.24
Josh Freeman2009TAM1696.64.81216.13.6-0.5-1.14747.37.8
Sam Bradford2010STL44265.81485.84.4-0.2-1.33576.15.6
Matt Ryan2008ATL3337.97.91018.16.40.2-1.44516.56
Neil O'Donnell1991PIT1557.57.41316.15.5-1.4-1.93137.36.8
David Carr2002HOU3296.25.21154.83.3-1.4-22956.85.5
Mike Glennon2013TAM2906.86.91265.14.7-1.6-2.2-00
Christian Ponder2011MIN21676.2754.42.5-2.6-3.74836.15.7

So more than any other quarterback, Shuler showed the largest improvement in AY/A down the stretch of his rookie season. That’s not a positive sign for Smith, of course, since Shuler was, well, Shuler. But if you look at the top ten biggest improvers in AY/A (excluding Smith), they averaged 5.0 AY/A during the early part of their rookie years and then 7.9 AY/A during the home stretch. Then, in year two, they averaged 7.1 AY/A (after averaging, as a group, 6.0 AY/A as rookies). Nick Foles was a big reason for the group’s average improvement, so to the extent you believe that Foles’ breakout 2013 season wasn’t connected to his relatively strong finish in 2012, the data would be misleading. But all of the ten quarterbacks who made big jumps down the stretch in AY/A showed improvement in Year N+1 relative to their early-season numbers as rookies.

What about the quarterbacks who slumped down the stretch — and Glennon, at least statistically, would be one of the — how do they fare in year two? The eight1 quarterbacks (excluding Glennon) with the biggest dropoff in late-season AY/A averaged 5.8 AY/A in the “early” part of the season, 4.2 in the “late” part of the season, and then only 5.6 as sophomores.

We’re dealing with pretty small sample sizes here, but that’s just life when crunching numbers on NFL quarterbacks. It’s also worth keeping in mind that quarterbacks on average, fare better in year two than in his rookie year (even though many media members like to write articles about “sophomore slumps” for quarterbacks). But the 10 quarterbacks that were “fast finishers” as rookies averaged 6.0 AY/A over the full season and then 7.1 AY/A in year two; the quarterbacks who “hit the rookie wall” and struggled in the final quarter of the year averaged 5.3 AY/A as rookies over the full season and then only 5.6 AY/A as sophomores. The middle group was at 5.9 as rookies and then 6.1 as second-year passers. So there is certainly some evidence to indicate that a strong December is a good sign for a rookie quarterback and not just a “splits happen” type of event.

For Smith, the way quarterbacks like Foles, Manning, Bledsoe, Garcia, and Palmer finished their rookie years is a promising sign; however, I admit to still being a bit skeptical. In Smith’s case, his “early season” numbers are dragged down by a horrible November, not necessarily by a bad start to the season. Smith didn’t show steady progress throughout the year, he was just inconsistent and finished well; that would lend more credibility to the “splits happen” theory than Smith “figuring out the game as the season moved on.”

The better argument, in my opinion, for Smith’s future success is beyond the numbers. He played with perhaps the worst set of skill position talent in the NFL last year. According to Pro Football Focus, Stephen Hill led the team with 350 snaps on pass plays, followed by Jeremy Kerley (338), David Nelson (305), Santonio Holmes (304), Bilal Powell (280), Jeff Cumberland (261), Kellen Winslow (219), and Tommy Bohanon (118). Evaluating a rookie quarterback with those weapons is pretty challenging (especially when you remember that the “name players” in Hill and Holmes were close to useless when they were on the field). Smith finished 2nd to last (ahead of only Matt Schaub) in AY/A as a rookie season, but the Jets should add at least two wide receivers and a tight end through draft and free agency. That, more than a good December of not turning the ball over, is the most likely path to Smith becoming a viable NFL starter.

  1. Why eight and not ten? Because that’s the more appropriate cutoff based on the data. []
  • ScK

    Good piece. Would be nice to see this turn out well for Smith and the Jets. One question: Does Palmer really belong in this study? He didn’t throw any passes his rookie year, 2003.

    • Chase Stuart

      Thanks, ScK. Yeah, I sometimes forget to exclude Palmer from these sorts of queries. He probably doesn’t belong, although I’m not too bothered by his inclusion.

    • The same is true of Neil O’Donnell, who did not throw a pass in 1990. Craig Whelihan also did not throw a pass in his first TWO seasons before starting 7 games in 1997.

      • Richie

        Are those the only QBs who threw zero passes in rookie seasons, but eventually started multiple NFL games? That’s such an unusual circumstance. Even Aaron Rodgers had 16, 15 and 28 pass attempts those first 3 seasons.

        On the other hand, for purposes of this evaluation, did Palmer have any significant advantage sitting on the bench for a full year before playing? (Did he ever enter a game in that rookie year.) To put another way, is there really a problem with comparing Palmer’s first year as a starter to all those guys who threw 224+ passes as a rookie? Are the second-team reps Palmer got in practice giving him better NFL experience than playing for a National Championship caliber team in college?

        • Definitely not the only ones (Steve DeBerg also threw zero passes as a rookie and he eventually started 140 games.), but I don’t think there are that many, because as you said most of the eventual starters do end up throwing at least some passes as rookies. Even Brian Griese, who was behind not just John Elway but also veteran Bubby Brister, threw three passes as a rookie.

  • Ty

    Geno faced (using ANYA) the 8th ranked Dolphins defense (twice), the 4th ranked Panthers, the 10th ranked Browns, and the 31st ranked Raiders. Besides the Raiders, that’s a pretty tough stretch of defenses.

    • Ty

      I just noticed that you said final four starts, rather than December starts. You can take away the first Miami game, then.

  • Dave

    I think the Jets should keep going with Geno. He looked pretty good at times. He had 5 game winning drives and two 4th quarter comebacks. I know he beat the Pats. He quietly had 6 rushing td’s. He’s already been put through his first qb controversy and he has to endure the NY/NJ media.

  • This is a really good read. Being an old fart, the stats used are not anything I’ve ever used to evaluate QB’s but I get where your going. As a former coach and college QB I have a decent idea of what I’m seeing on a football field and would like to offer a different perspective.
    Early in the season Geno seemed to have a Darrel Lamonica “mad bomber” thing going on as he threw deep a lot more often than most Jet fans are accustomed to,and with decent results. It really wasn’t until the Cincinnati game that the wheels seemed to come off and his confidence seemed to evaporate before our very eyes. Of course the next three games produced similar results and in two of those games he was eventually actually benched. As said in the article he did rebound over the last 4 games but it seems to me a lot of that was a result of Marty reeling him in by implementing a more conservative game plans focusing on the running game and shorter pass es as well. As he threw for only about 792 yards over those games i cant get too excited about that because today’s NFL is clearly a passing league and I’m not sure you can compete long term throwing for less than 200 yards a game?

  • minstrel

    In reference to an encouraging sign being the awful talent around him, was it particularly bad in a historic sense (“history” being this sample of quarterbacks)? Just quickly scanning through that list, most of those quarterbacks strike me as ones who inherited pretty bad situations (and, a priori, I’d guess anyway that most quarterbacks who meet your pass attempts threshold for their rookie and second years would be higher picks drafted by weaker teams), so does Geno Smith really stand out among this group in terms of bad luck with skill position players around him?