Is There a Correlation Between Sitting or Starting a Rookie QB and Future NFL Success?

Given our pending quarterback situation, a common topic that continues to surface is whether we should start or sit our rookie quarterback.  Like everything, each individual example has it's own context.  Still, I was interested if there was any correlation between NFL success and starting as a rookie quarterback.

Luckily for us, Pro Football reference has a fancy new player search tool.  I used to the tool to produce a couple of searches, one for former players and another for current players.

As it relates to former players, I was really only interested in the elite of the elite.  In that instance, I searched for all QB's that began their career in 1969 or later that have entered the Hall of Fame:

Games
Rk Player Year Tm G GS
1 Jim Kelly* 1986 BUF 16 16
2 Dan Marino* 1983 MIA 11 9
3 Warren Moon* 1984 HOU 16 16
4 Troy Aikman* 1989 DAL 11 11
5 John Elway* 1983 DEN 11 10
6 Terry Bradshaw* 1970 PIT 13 8
7 Dan Fouts* 1973 SDG 10 6
8 Steve Young* 1985 TAM 5 5
9 Joe Montana* 1979 SFO 16 1
10 Roger Staubach* 1969 DAL 6 1
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/16/2011.

 

The chart above shows these ten Hall of Fame Quarterbacks and the number of games started their rookie years.  It's intended to be sorted from Most to Least amount of games started, but for whatever reason Marino's number acts like it's 16 GS (maybe it's meant to compensate for a lack of Super Bowl rings).  Anyhow, you can see that there's very little correlation between a meaningful number of starts (Bradshaw and above) and career success.

While I find that information interesting, it's hardly conclusive as teams can obviously be very successful with a QB that isn't quite HOF level, and it also doesn't account for current HOF level quarterbacks.  So, I decided to take a look at data from the last 15 years.  The first data set I examined was QB's since 1996 that started 8 or more games their rookie seasons:

Games
Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm Lg G GS
1 Sam Bradford 2010 23 1-1 STL NFL 16 16
2 David Carr 2002 23 1-1 HOU NFL 16 16
3 Joe Flacco 2008 23 1-18 BAL NFL 16 16
4 Peyton Manning 1998 22 1-1 IND NFL 16 16
5 Matt Ryan 2008 23 1-3 ATL NFL 16 16
6 Kyle Orton 2005 23 4-106 CHI NFL 15 15
7 Mark Sanchez 2009 23 1-5 NYJ NFL 15 15
8 Chris Weinke 2001 29 4-106 CAR NFL 15 15
9 Tim Couch 1999 22 1-1 CLE NFL 15 14
10 Tony Banks 1996 23 2-42 STL NFL 14 13
11 Byron Leftwich 2003 23 1-7 JAX NFL 15 13
12 Carson Palmer 2004 25 1-1 CIN NFL 13 13
13 Ben Roethlisberger 2004 22 1-11 PIT NFL 14 13
14 Vince Young 2006 23 1-3 TEN NFL 15 13
15 Charlie Batch 1998 24 2-60 DET NFL 12 12
16 Joey Harrington 2002 24 1-3 DET NFL 14 12
17 Bruce Gradkowski 2006 23 6-194 TAM NFL 13 11
18 Matt Leinart 2006 23 1-10 ARI NFL 12 11
19 Jimmy Clausen 2010 23 2-48 CAR NFL 13 10
20 Jeff Garcia 1999 29 SFO NFL 13 10
Games
Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm Lg G GS
21 Matthew Stafford 2009 21 1-1 DET NFL 10 10
22 Kyle Boller 2003 22 1-19 BAL NFL 11 9
23 Trent Edwards 2007 24 3-92 BUF NFL 10 9
24 Josh Freeman 2009 21 1-17 TAM NFL 10 9
25 Chad Hutchinson 2002 25 DAL NFL 9 9
26 Ryan Leaf 1998 22 1-2 SDG NFL 10 9
27 Jake Plummer 1997 23 2-42 ARI NFL 10 9
28 Quincy Carter 2001 24 2-53 DAL NFL 8 8
29 Colt McCoy 2010 23 3-85 CLE NFL 8 8
30 Andrew Walter 2006 24 3-69 OAK NFL 12 8
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/16/2011.

Again, nothing mind blowing here. In my opinion, there aren't any meaningful conclusions that can be drawn from this table. Really, the only correlations I can see from this search is that high QB draft picks start early and often. Beyond that, there's a hodge podge of excellent, mediocre, and awful QB's littered throughout this list.

Up to this point of the research, I'll admit, I was a little biased with the information.  I had run the two searches above, both of which I found interesting, and used them as the premise for this post.  In fact, the original title was "No Correlational Data between Starting of Sitting a Rookie QB."  So, like many of you, I found the next little tidbit to be quite surprising.

A cool thing about the PFR Search tool is that you can use the cumulative data across seasons.  So, my search criteria was for combined seasons from 2006-2010, with at least 32 games started over that period, sorted by passer rating.  Put another way, this ranks the most efficient (as ranked by QB rating) passers over the last 5 years provided they've played a meaningful number of games:

Games Passing
Rk Player GS Rate
1 Tom Brady 65 103.1
2 Aaron Rodgers 47 99.0
3 Philip Rivers 80 97.5
4 Peyton Manning 80 96.9
5 Drew Brees 79 95.9
6 Tony Romo 61 95.5
7 Matt Schaub 54 93.2
8 Kurt Warner 47 93.2
9 Ben Roethlisberger 73 91.0
10 Chad Pennington 44 88.4
11 Joe Flacco 48 87.9
12 Donovan McNabb 67 87.7
13 David Garrard 68 87.0
14 Matt Ryan 46 86.9
15 Brett Favre 77 86.0
16 Carson Palmer 68 85.6
17 Jay Cutler 68 84.3
18 Kyle Orton 46 84.3
19 Matt Cassel 45 83.5
20 Eli Manning 80 83.0
Games Passing
Rk Player GS Rate
21 Jason Campbell 64 82.6
22 Jon Kitna 45 81.4
23 Marc Bulger 51 78.7
24 Jake Delhomme 47 77.6
25 Matt Hasselbeck 63 77.5
26 Alex Smith 43 76.0
27 Vince Young 47 75.7
28 Trent Edwards 33 75.4
29 Ryan Fitzpatrick 33 74.9
30 Kerry Collins 32 74.6
31 Derek Anderson 43 68.8
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/16/2011.

 

So, as compared to the previous list, only two of the top ten NFL Quarterbacks over the past 5 years were thrown into the fire their rookie years (Big Ben and Peyton Manning), and only four of the top fifteen (Flacco and Ryan being the other two).

But, wait, it gets worse.  I did another search.  This time for combined seasons from 2001-2010, first round draft QB draft picks, at least 10 games started, and ascending by QB Rating.

Games Passing
Rk Player GS Rate
1 JaMarcus Russell 25 65.2
2 Brady Quinn 12 66.8
3 Matthew Stafford 13 67.1
4 Joey Harrington 76 69.4
5 Mark Sanchez 31 70.2
6 Kyle Boller 46 70.4
7 Trent Dilfer 29 70.4
8 Matt Leinart 17 70.8
9 Rex Grossman 34 70.9
10 Alex Smith 50 72.1
11 David Carr 79 74.9
12 Patrick Ramsey 24 74.9
13 Tim Couch 38 75.4
14 J.P. Losman 33 75.6
15 Vince Young 47 75.7
16 Vinny Testaverde 52 75.9
17 Kerry Collins 105 76.4
18 Sam Bradford 16 76.5
19 Tommy Maddox 32 76.7
20 Drew Bledsoe 72 79.4
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/16/2011.

Yikes!  Among top 15 on this list, nine of fifteen started a meaningful number of games their rookie year (8 or more).  Even two of Palmer's very own protege's appear on this list (Couch and Carr).

I've generally sided with the "let him sit" crowd, but I expected the data to be much more balanced.  Surprisingly, recent data doesn't appear that way.  While every situation should be examined individually, I'd argue that there is pretty compelling evidence that sitting your highly drafted quarterback for the majority of the first year is the superior strategy if it can be tolerated.  Fans and front offices alike want to see an early return on their high draft picks, but from a "big picture" perspective that may not be the best option.  As it relates to the Titans, I think they'd be wise to target a high profile free agent quarterback with the idea to let Locker sit for at least one, and maybe two years.

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