The Mixed History of Rookie Starting Quarterbacks

by Andrew Mooney

At its most important position, the NFL is in the midst of an extreme youth movement. A record five rookie quarterbacks started games in Week One, to go along with another five starters in just their second year. It’s unclear what, if anything, this trend means for how teams handle the quarterback position. Perhaps they hope to accelerate the lumps-taking process for these young signal-callers, sacrificing a season or two for the sake of their more rapid development, like the Detroit Lions did with Matthew Stafford. It may also be that teams have recognized the essential nature of an upper-echelon quarterback in effecting the turnaround of a franchise and, given how rare it is to secure this type of player in free agency, have turned to the draft in larger numbers for a possible savior.

But before we anoint this crop of quarterbacks as the start of a new era in the NFL, or the best quarterback draft class since 19XX, it’s important to remember just how often young starters ultimately fail in the NFL, unable to deliver on whatever potential was identified in them. Let’s take a closer look at what history has to tell us in this regard.

I began by identifying every quarterback since 1970 that started the first game in which he appeared in the NFL. I then gathered the Weighted Career AV for each player, a measure developed by Pro Football Reference that assigns an “approximate value” to a player’s career based on the share of his team’s total offensive points he helped to create over the years. Comparing across positions using this metric is still a work in progress, but as I just dealt with quarterbacks, it provides a useful and uniform standard for evaluation. I omitted all players on my list that debuted in the NFL after 2005, as they had not played enough years in the league to reach the average career length for a quarterback (about eight seasons). After this modification, I was left with a group of 37 players ranging from Terry Bradshaw to Kyle Orton.

Below, I’ve charted the Weighted Career AV of each player along with the year he debuted in the league. To give you a little perspective on the meaning of the different values, Tom Brady has a Weighted Career AV of 129, Donovan McNabb’s is 107, Jeff Garcia’s is 88, Trent Dilfer’s is 52, and Joey Harrington’s is 31.


As you can see, the largest cohort by a significant margin is the 0-20 range, otherwise known as “Franchise Hand Grenades,” which includes such legendary figures as Ryan Leaf, Quincy Carter, and Chris Weinke. The next largest group is the 60-80 range, a list of sometimes productive, yet unspectacular quarterbacks like Jeff George and Steve Beuerlein. Landing a player of this caliber isn’t a disaster, but without an excellent supporting cast, it’s a road map to extended mediocrity.

Only six quarterbacks on this list possessed a Weighted Career AV above 90 and approached what I would term “elite” status: Troy Aikman (97), Jim Kelly (102), Drew Bledsoe (103), Peyton Manning (159), and Warren Moon (119), though Moon spent six seasons in the CFL before joining the Houston Oilers.

Now, at first glance, six out of 37 isn’t a terrible rate for reaching elite status; it’s fairly close to what we would find in any given year in the NFL. But to start a quarterback in his first NFL game presumably implies that his team thought he could develop into something special, unprepared as he was at the time to take the reins of a football team. This wasn’t the case for every player on this list—Orton was thrown into the fire only after a preseason injury to Rex Grossman—but it was true of the vast majority of cases. At the very least, I would have expected to find more than two quarterbacks in the 80-100 range.

The other cautionary element of this study is the proportion of catastrophic flops in this group of players. The data suggests that a team starting a player this raw is much more likely to end up with a severe setback than a top ten quarterback. One might think that advances in talent identification could help to resolve this problem, but the number of failed quarterbacks actually increased in the past decade, after a relatively successful period from 1985-2000. The bigger issue may be that it’s just extremely rare to have a solid career as an NFL quarterback; I haven’t looked at the data yet, but I wonder if the rate of failure is similar over the entire pool of starting quarterbacks, not just those who see significant action early in their careers.

An adjustment for draft position might yield further interesting results and is something I might return to in the future; after all, it’s probable that the Redskins are expecting bigger things out of Robert Griffin III than the Browns are out of Brandon Weeden, given what the Redskins gave up to draft him. Regardless, the study seems to imply that, within a few years, the majority of the teams currently employing rookie starters may look back on the current period with a sigh and a sad shake of the head.

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