No rookie quarterback started his team's first preseason game this week. Most didn't even get to take snaps with the starters, or the guys pretending to be starters on a weekend when a hangnail could land a veteran on the "Active: Did Not Play" list.
Johnny Manziel took a bunch of hits during an up-and-down performance with the Browns backups: it may be time to call the Cleveland Indians coaches for sliding lessons. Teddy Bridgewater looked shaky for the Vikings, despite a series with the starters: he ran away from Justin Tuck a few times when scrambling, but that was more of an accomplishment circa 2009.
Derek Carr looked sharp with the Raiders backups. "Looked sharp" is non-committal sports guy speak for "his stats look okay, but I didn't really pay close attention to him." Blake Bortles was the most impressive of the rookies, playing exclusively with the Jaguars backups. He went 7-for-11 with 117 yards, no touchdowns or picks, one sack and a seven-yard read-option run. He was poised in the pocket and his throws had zip, though he has acquired a slight Byron Leftwich windup in his delivery. It must have been left in a locker.
Rookie quarterbacks have been doing this dance for years. A few get to start that first preseason game, most don't. The best climb the depth chart quickly, but quarterbacks that go on to great careers sometimes spend their first preseason figuring things out. All the while, we scrutinize and speculate, filling blogs and airwaves with tealeaf readings based on one three-and-out with the starters in the second quarter.
Drawing conclusions from this weekend is silly, but perhaps we can collect some basic evidence from these rookie cameos. What did Russell Wilson look like in his preseason debut? What about a dud like Blaine Gabbert? Or a lurking legend like Tom Brady?
Studying preseason quarterback performances is not a complete waste of time. It is a little like panning for gold: it requires patience, and you come up empty constantly, but the nuggets are worth searching for.
Rookies of Preseasons Past
Preseason statistics are the ultimate in disposable data. We barely acknowledge the numbers, even as they happen. I didn't even bother citing them for three of the four quarterbacks in the intro, because you know how much of the data is pure fluff. Scouting points are more important than numbers right now: Manziel must slide after scrambling, Bridgewater's decision process is not there yet, Bortles has good feet (but a slow release) to go with his size-speed-arm package.
While preseason stats are disposable, they biodegrade slowly. NFL GSIS (pronounced "NFL JEE-sus") saves them, because NFL GSIS is wise and benevolent. So with a little digging, we can excavate preseason data from the last 15 years of so. If you are curious about how J.P. Losman looked in his rookie debut, I can tell you: he went 5-for-5 for 100 yards, all of it in the third and fourth quarters. He was obviously off and running toward a stellar career!
Bortles, Bridgewater, Carr and Manziel, unlike Losman, got to play in the first halves of their preseason debuts. Let's compare the 2014 rookies to a more impressive set of rookie quarterbacks than Losman. The players on the list below were selected because they all had excellent rookie seasons. Maybe we can find some commonalities in their preseason performances. The data is for their entire rookie preseasons; we will break down their actual debuts afterward.
Wilson's rookie preseason was so awesome it is almost an outlier. Efficiency ratings in the 100-range are rare for quarterbacks with 50 or more preseason attempts, rookie or otherwise. Two other young quarterbacks of the last 15 years leap off the preseason stat sheet the way Wilson does: Matt Hasselbeck in 2001, which was his third NFL season but first in Seattle (458 yards, six touchdowns, one interception, 116.0) and Nick Foles in 2012 (553 yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions, 110.1). If a young quarterback tears things up to that degree, you should keep an eye on him.
Wilson inflates the overall preseason performance of our rookie stars, most of whom did nothing statistically special. Let's look at each quarterback's preseason in a little more depth:
Robert Griffin was the Redskins' starting quarterback before the team even officially drafted him, and they treated him like an established starter in his first preseason. He went 4-of-6 for a touchdown in his first preseason game, 5-of-8 in a half of work in his second. He fumbled in each of those games, so it was not as if he left those early games with nothing to prove. Robert Griffin has thrown a total of 35 preseason passes in three years: 31 in 2012, four so far this year. At some point, the Redskins may want to examine whether a more traditional preseason workload might smooth his development.
Andrew Luck, like Griffin, won the starting job before he officially joined his team. Luck started the Colts' first preseason game and threw a catch-and-run touchdown to Donald Brown with his first pass. Luck remained in that game for the rest of the half and played well. It is important to always remember that Griffin, Luck and Wilson represent a unique rookie quarterback class: once-per-decade at worst, once-per-half-century at best. Most rookie quarterbacks don't get weekend-long brainstorming sessions with their offensive coordinators in the weeks before the draft.
Russell Wilson was not as ballyhooed as Luck and Griffin and had to compete from behind to win a starting job from Matt Flynn. Flynn played with the starters through two preseason games in 2012, completing a bunch of four-yard passes and looking very unimpressive (though not as hapless as the story goes). Wilson had been gaining on Flynn since the day he joined the Seahawks. He went 13-of-19 for 185 yards and two touchdowns when he earned a start in the dress rehearsal. There was no looking back, of course. Wilson's preseason trajectory provides a misleading template for how a fast-moving quarterback prospect climbs a depth chart. It's rarely as meteoric or clear-cut as Wilson made it look, as we will see a little later when we look back at Tom Brady.
The Bengals were in a weird place, quarterback-wise, when Andy Dalton started the team's first preseason game in 2011. Carson Palmer was half-retired, half-exiled in the wake of the team's 2010 circus, and no one knew if he would return the next day, the next month or (as would eventually occur) get traded from the Bengals frying pan to the Raiders fire in midseason. Dalton threw an interception on his first attempt. The Bengals then got skittish and handed off a bunch of times on Dalton's next series. Dalton ended the game 11-of-15 for 69 yards and an interception. Whenever you see a great completion rate and suspiciously low yardage total, your Spider-Sense should tingle: Dalton threw a lot of five-yard passes that day.
Dalton won the starting job in 2011 in the meeting rooms and on the practice field, although history would be different if not for the Palmer trial separation. Dalton, like Wilson, has "firm handshake" skills that win over coaches and teammates; they demonstrated the same attributes that put young executives on the fast track, in addition to their on-field merits. Psychoanalyzing quarterback personalities from afar is an easy ticket to a 72-hour evaluation in the mental hospital, but you can usually hear the buzz about players who are getting A-plus ratings in the film room and locker room during training camp. None of this year's quarterbacks are getting that kind of buzz.
Matt Ryan did not start a preseason game until the Week 3 dress rehearsal in 2008. Chris Redman started the first game, Joey Harrington the second. Ryan entered each game when the Falcons still had starters on the field, allowing him to hand off to Michael Turner and throw to Roddy White in some second quarters. Ryan went 9-15-113-1-0 in his debut but 8-16-62-0-1 in the second game. He was solid in the dress rehearsal, and both Redman and Harrington looked like Redman and Harrington when they stepped on the field. If you forget what Redman and Harrington looked like, think Brian Hoyer and Matt Cassel.
Joe Flacco was a developmental long-range prospect from an I-AA program when Ravens camp opened in 2008. He entered the team's preseason opener late in the fourth quarter and got strip-sacked on his second play. He was also sacked on his second drive, finishing the game 0-for-3 with two sacks. Flacco entered the second preseason game as a fourth-quarter third stringer and again got strip-sacked on his second play. (The Ravens recovered it.) Flacco then played the entire dress rehearsal. He finished 18-37-152-1-0 with two more sacks, completing just four first-half passes.
Flacco started 16 regular season and three postseason games in 2008. Kyle Boller and Troy Smith, the expected competitors for the starting job, both had weak preseasons, but as you can see, Flacco was not exactly performing like Russell Wilson in 2012. John Harbaugh was playing the long game with Flacco, gambling that the big guy's durability and velocity-distance package would eventually serve the Ravens better than Smith's spunky mobility or whatever the hell Boller ostensibly offered. It worked sooner than expected.
Ben Roethlisberger did not start a preseason game at all in his rookie year. He did not start the 2004 season as the Steelers quarterback, either: Tommy Maddox held him off until Week 3. Big Ben did get a lot of early-game reps with regulars and semi-regulars that preseason, going 8-13-84-1-0 in the opener but throwing interceptions in his next two appearances.
Roethlisberger, Flacco and Ryan all offer hope for Manziel and the gang. A first-round pick can spend the whole preseason trapped behind journeymen or looking lost, then go on to not only a fine rookie season but a successful career. The 2012 quarterbacks spoiled us, so we are impatient for the 2014 rookies to kick down the depth chart doors, but that is neither common nor necessary for short-term success.
Taking the Bad with the Good
Sure, some rookies have messy preseasons but go on to win Super Bowls. What about the all-time busts? Can you spot a kid on the Ryan Leaf Express to Gabbertville based on a crummy preseason game or two?
Leaf's preseason data predates the NFL GSIS era, but we can examine Gabbert and some other rookie busts in search of clues to what was going wrong at the very start of their careers:
Geno is not on this list because we plan to bury him forever. He just had the kind of rookie season that this year's class would be pleased to avoid. Locker is not a precise fit, either. He looked pretty good in some brief rookie action, and is still the Titans starter, but his flailing sophomore effort was not a confidence booster.
On the whole, quarterbacks who would go on to successful rookie seasons and careers looked better in the preseason than quarterbacks who would drift or flop. But some players on the bust list outperformed some of the players on the boom list, and Wilson alone accounts for much of the difference. If I jumbled the boom and bust lists together and stripped the names off, only Wilson and Russell would stand out.
We're not going to go through this bunch one-by-one like we did with the rookie stars. That would be too depressing. Two things stand out about the busts. First, their sack rates are generally higher, with Gabbert and Leinart producing sack totals that only Flacco matched among the rookie stars. It's a small sample, but I would be wary of any rookie quarterback who keeps getting dumped in the preseason. Remember that game plans on both sides of the ball are vanilla, and in all the backups-and-scrubs confusion, there is usually an open running back in the flat somewhere. No one getting drilled on 10 percent of his dropbacks is ready to start right away, unless Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are on the defense and the team commits to winning by 17-to-10 scores early in the season.
Second, beneath the numbers in the table above lurk some tragic tales of organizational confusion. Geno got thrust into a starting role when Mark Sanchez hurt his shoulder in the preseason. Gabbert inherited a starting job when the Jaguars suddenly gave up on Dave Garrard at the very end of camp. Russell held out as a rookie. Leinart could not unseat Kurt Warner, of course, and the succession plan between them became a disorderly mess. Take a so-so rookie quarterback and place him on an organization with a case of the yips, and you have the recipe for a memorable failure.
If you did not just think of the Browns and Jaguars at the end of that last paragraph, then I am not doing my job properly. That said, there has been nothing unusual about the handling of Hoyer-Manziel or Chad Henne-Bortles (or Matt Schaub-Carr or Cassel-Bridgewater, which is not just a quarterback tandem but a battle setting in the next Hobbit movie). The rundown of how most rookie stars were handled reveals that there is nothing unusual but giving the journeyman an extra allotment of starts in the preseason. If anything, it could be the wisest course of action. A little Tommy Maddox or Chris Redman can go a long way.
Even Legends Play in Meaningless Games
Let's send the rookies to the bench for baseball caps and Gatorade. In a reversal of the usual preseason routine, it is time for the veteran superstars to take the field for the fourth quarter.
Drew Brees is battling an oblique injury. Even if he was healthy, resting him against the Rams would have made sense on Friday night: he's DREW BREES, and the Rams pulverized him in their last meeting. On the other hand, the Seahawks did evil things to Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl, yet Peyton dropped to pass 13 times against the Seahawks on Thursday. The Patriots announced that Tom Brady would not play against the Redskins, and Brady did not play against the Redskins, marking the first time the Patriots have volunteered accurate information since 2001.
There would not appear to be any rhyme or reason to how teams handle legendary quarterbacks in the preseason. But all the days off and extended warmups are just variations on an established plan. Brady, Brees and Manning have received a steady and somewhat standardized diet of preseason playing time since ascending Mount Olympus. Here are their three-year preseason averages from 2011-13, or 2010-13 in Manning's case, to account for his lost year:
Brady's and Brees' preseason averages are so similar it is spooky. Manning attempts a few more passes, but that is largely a function of his tendency to attempt a few more short passes per drive than the others. Each legendary quarterback gets about a real game's worth of action, spread across four exhibitions.
The legends all have their own syncopated micro-rhythms. Brady sometimes rests the first week (2011, 2014), sometimes the second (2012). Manning generally has a dress-rehearsal game that really does look like a dry run: he threw 34 passes against the Rams in the third week last year, 23 in the second week against the Seahawks in 2012. Brees is more likely to be traditional: a series or two in the first game, a quarter in the second, a half in the third. Brady and Brees have thrown a few passes in Week 4, which is generally considered a mop-up situation. None of the legends gets specialized kid-gloves treatment: 40-50 passes is a typical workload for an established NFL starter.
The legends also typically look like themselves in the preseason: completing 60-70 percent of their passes, getting the ball downfield and generally playing well. It may not matter much to coaches how the first-team offenses move in the preseason, but the legends move their offenses well enough to be recognizable.
Patriots fans may be hyperventilating at that final column. Yes, Brady absorbs 2-3 unnecessary sacks per summer. A preseason sack or two may be healthy for a veteran quarterback, who goes untouched through training camp practices. Manning said after his neck injury that he needed that first sack to regain confidence that he could still play without getting shattered. There is a little bit of recklessness hidden in Brady's sack totals. The Lions have sacked him four times in two preseason games (2011, 2013). The Greg Schiano Buccaneers got him twice in 2012. If there are two teams I would not subject my Hall of Fame quarterback to, they would be the Schiano Bucs and Ndamukong Suh Lions. But Brady survived.
The table above underscores just how ridiculous the Redskins and Robert Griffin were when they rushed into the regular season after sitting out the preseason in 2013. If Peyton Manning needs 50 passes to establish his timing, a second-year quarterback needs at least one.
The Primordial Brady
Let's dig deep into the preseason archives to explore a little Tom Brady folklore, or "Bradiana," as collectors call it.
As everyone knows, Brady was an unheralded sixth-round pick with a busboy's physique in 2000. He impressed Bill Belichick enough to stay on the roster. In 2001, he climbed past Damon Huard on the depth chart, putting him one injury away from replacing superstar Drew Bledsoe.
So in Brady, we have a case of a camp-filler quarterback mopping up preseason games with no expectations as a rookie, then grinding along for a backup opportunity in his second year. That camp fodder would become a Hall of Famer. Was there any evidence of greatness, or even goodness, in his preseason stats?
Here are the numbers:
The Patriots played five preseason games in 2000. Brady did not play in the third or fourth games, which would have been the dress rehearsals. He outplayed all of the other Patriots quarterbacks statistically in 2000, but of course it was mostly cleanup duty. And note the high sack total, which would be a sign of unreadiness if Brady were not the third or fourth quarterback on the depth chart.
Brady's 2001 preseason usage indicates that he was clearly being groomed as the primary backup: 14 attempts in the preseason opener, 18 in the second game, three in the Bledsoe rehearsal, then 19 attempts in the final preseason game so he could get much-needed live reps (Bledsoe actually played a half in that game, the whole "don't play anyone essential" tactic for the fourth preseason game is a recent phenomenon).
Brady's early-career preseason performances are good, but not fantastic. True Bradiana aficionados know that Brady developed under fire in 2001 anyway: the quarterback we see now was forged in the heat of playoff battles, not preseason reps against third-stringers. But his 2000 and 2001 preseason numbers look indistinguishable from dozens of young prospects who never got far past the "let's give him extra reps in Week 4" stage. Future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in preseason, like serial killers at the mall, look like everyone else.
The worst preseason quarterbacking performance of recent history probably belongs to Quinn Gray for the 2008 Colts. Gray was a late-blooming prospect who played well for the Jaguars in 2007. The Colts gave him a chance to compete with Jim Sorgi and Jared Lorenzen for Peyton's backup job. Gray threw two touchdowns and six interceptions in 81 attempts. Fighting for his job in the final week, he went 3-of-12. The Colts kept Sorgi.
Tim Tebow's preseason completion percentage for the 2010 and 2011 Broncos was 64.3 percent. Admit it, you were curious.
Kevin Kolb holds the record for most preseason pass attempts in a season in the last 15 years: 106 in 2007, his rookie year. Kolb was also sacked six times that preseason, which was a bad omen.
The typical preseason leaders in passing attempts, yards and other counting stats are second- or third-stringers with lots of mop-up responsibilities, plus a Hall of Fame game appearance to pad the numbers. Dolphins third-stringer Pat Devlin led the preseason in attempts (80) completions (47) and yards (504) last year. He played in five games. Ryan Nassib leads the league in attempts, completions and yards right now, having played two games in relief for the Giants.
Devlin was also sacked eight times last preseason. Cowboys stunt double Alex Tanney, who played in five preseason games, led all quarterbacks with 11 sacks last year. As the "legends" tables show, it is unusual for an established starter to endure more than three sacks in a preseason. But backups often suffer extra punishment. The 2012 preseason was quiet, sack-wise, but four quarterbacks were sacked seven or more times in 2011: Tyrod Taylor (Ravens), Stephen McGee (Cowboys), Greg McElroy (Jets) and, well, Blaine Gabbert. Tony Romo's backups take a lot of hits so he does not have to. Taylor has already been sacked three times this year.
Sorgi absorbed 30 preseason sacks as Peyton's backup from 2004 to 2009.
Speaking of Romo, his preseason statistics were nothing special in 2004 and 2005, when Sean Payton adopted him as a pet project. In 2006, when he had worked his way to the second string, Romo went 64-92-833-3-3 for a 95.1 passer rating, with two sacks and 26 rushing yards. He and Bledsoe were the only Cowboys quarterbacks who attempted passes that preseason. If a young quarterback is getting every single backup snap behind an immobile veteran who has already lost a starting job elsewhere, it is a good sign that the youngster is a top prospect. That does not come up often. At any rate, a zillion passes, lots of touchdowns and lots of interceptions add up to very Tony Romo-like numbers, even back when we did not know or care how Tony Romo-like numbers would look.