Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

13 Sep 2017

Do Great Week 1 QBs Sustain Their Greatness?

One peek at our quarterback stats from Week 1 shows an interesting development at the top. Sam Bradford, Alex Smith, and Jared Goff make up the top three in both passing DYAR and DVOA. All were No. 1 overall picks in their respective drafts, but none of them have really lived up to that hype to this point. This is only Goff's second season, but his rookie season was historically terrible. Smith has never finished higher than 12th in DYAR in a season, but he currently leads the NFL in passing yards (368) and is tied with Matthew Stafford for the lead in touchdown passes (four). Bradford's best DYAR finish in a season has been 16th, but he is coming off arguably the best game of his career.

Is this just a Week 1 fluke, or are these quarterbacks finally turning a corner to have the careers people expected from them coming out of college? How often does a top-three start in DYAR lead to a top-three finish in DYAR?

To help answer these questions, I looked at our data going back to the 1989 season for the top three quarterbacks in passing DYAR in Week 1, and where those players finished the season. That gives us 84 examples to look at. Here are some of the results:

  • Twenty-two of the 84 top-three Week 1 QBs (26.2 percent) finished the year as a top-three DYAR QB.
  • Average season finish for a top-three DYAR QB in Week 1: 9.9
  • Average season finish for the No. 1 DYAR QB in Week 1: 6.3.
  • Average season finish for the No. 2 DYAR QB in Week 1: 11.9.
  • Average season finish for the No. 3 DYAR QB in Week 1: 11.7.
  • The correlation between Week 1 DYAR and final DYAR is 0.29.
  • Four top-three Week 1 QBs failed to reach 200 passes to qualify for season rankings: Tony Eason (1989), Rodney Peete (1996), Glenn Foley (1998), and Mark Brunell (2003).
  • Out of 80 ranked seasons, only six players finished lower than 24th in DYAR: 1997 Neil O'Donnell (25th), 2001 Elvis Grbac (25th), 2006 Rex Grossman (26th), 2015 Marcus Mariota (30th), 2003 Drew Bledsoe (31st), and 2007 Eli Manning (31st).

Generally speaking, it takes a great quarterback to start Week 1 on fire and sustain it for the rest of the year. Of the 22 instances where a quarterback started and finished top three in DYAR, 18 were by someone who is in or will be in the Hall of Fame. However, Steve DeBerg (1990 Chiefs), Erik Kramer (1995 Bears), Jeff Garcia (2000 49ers), and Daunte Culpepper (2004 Vikings) also sustained their fast starts. DeBerg is especially similar to Smith, because 1990 was his 13th season in the league and he threw 23 touchdowns to four interceptions for the Chiefs in a career year. Smith is in his 13th season. Bradford could end up with a year comparable to Kramer, who joined Brett Favre and Detroit's Scott Mitchell as the only quarterbacks to top 1,500 DYAR in a crazy 1995 season for the NFC Central.

No one really expects the 2017 leaderboard to end with Bradford, Smith, and Goff on top. After all, Goff played an Indianapolis defense that is poised to make a lot of quarterbacks look great this year. The same can be said of Bradford's game against the Saints, who still look lost on defense. In fact, New Orleans only had 10 defenders on the field to start that game. Finally, Smith hit two 75-yard touchdown passes in New England after having two such plays in his whole career. That does not sound like a sustainable strategy, and we might be seeing the worst defense of the Bill Belichick era if things don't improve in a hurry.

For what it's worth, 60.7 percent of quarterbacks since 1989 who started hot finished in the top 10 in DYAR, so odds are still in favor of Smith, Bradford, and Goff enjoying career years. You could make the case that they have the best supporting casts around them in their careers this season.

We'll close with a table that shows the top three quarterbacks in passing DYAR for Week 1 in every season since 1989, and where they finished the season in DYAR. It should be pointed out that Bradford was third after Week 1 in 2013, and Smith was third after Week 1 in 2015. As you will see, this year's trio rivals 1989 (Mark Rypien/Vinny Testaverde/Tony Eason), 1992 (Jim Harbaugh/Chris Miller/Neil O'Donnell), and 2001 (Brian Griese/Elvis Grbac/Kerry Collins) for the oddest grouping of Week 1 studs.

Top 3 Week 1 QBs by Year, with Final Numbers
Year Player Team Wk 1 DYAR Rk Final DYAR Rk
1989 Mark Rypien WAS 169 1 1,129 5
Vinny Testaverde TB 131 2 153 20
Tony Eason 2TM 113 3 -181 -
1990 Jim Kelly BUF 184 1 1,042 6
Mark Rypien WAS 161 2 711 9
Steve DeBerg KC 151 3 1,178 3
1991 Jim Kelly BUF 168 1 1,082 3
Troy Aikman DAL 151 2 841 6
Dan Marino MIA 142 3 1,063 4
1992 Jim Harbaugh CHI 167 1 311 16
Chris Miller ATL 137 2 528 12
Neil O'Donnell PIT 115 3 401 14
1993 Phil Simms NYG 181 1 739 7
Joe Montana KC 157 2 917 4
John Elway DEN 145 3 1,493 1
1994 Dan Marino MIA 228 1 1,321 2
Drew Bledsoe NE 189 2 584 9
Joe Montana KC 178 3 724 6
1995 Steve Bono KC 167 1 165 21
Troy Aikman DAL 156 2 1,358 4
Erik Kramer CHI 143 3 1,585 1
Year Player Team Wk 1 DYAR Rk Final DYAR Rk
1996 Brett Favre GB 202 1 1,090 2
Rodney Peete PHI 124 2 78 -
Stan Humphries SD 75 3 432 15
1997 Troy Aikman DAL 257 1 547 11
Drew Bledsoe NE 252 2 809 8
Neil O'Donnell NYJ 219 3 65 25
1998 Steve Young SF 177 1 1,433 3
Glenn Foley NYJ 162 2 -10 -
Warren Moon SEA 153 3 78 23
1999 Brad Johnson WAS 201 1 1,074 4
Dan Marino MIA 180 2 259 22
Shane Matthews CHI 141 3 280 20
2000 Brian Griese DEN 154 1 1,062 5
Jeff Garcia SF 153 2 1,642 2
Mark Brunell JAC 148 3 689 10
2001 Brian Griese DEN 217 1 216 20
Elvis Grbac BAL 209 2 79 25
Kerry Collins NYG 125 3 334 16
2002 Brett Favre GB 220 1 584 14
Aaron Brooks NO 164 2 333 22
Tom Brady NE 158 3 779 9
Year Player Team Wk 1 DYAR Rk Final DYAR Rk
2003 Tommy Maddox PIT 241 1 450 14
Drew Bledsoe BUF 164 2 -135 31
Mark Brunell JAC 154 3 89 -
2004 Donovan McNabb PHI 207 1 1,275 6
Daunte Culpepper MIN 163 2 1,864 2
Marc Bulger STL 160 3 958 9
2005 Tom Brady NE 163 1 1,405 3
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 156 2 885 7
Peyton Manning IND 136 3 1,636 1
2006 Chad Pennington NYJ 206 1 739 7
Rex Grossman CHI 143 2 44 26
Eli Manning NYG 132 3 529 13
2007 Tom Brady NE 229 1 2,674 1
Tony Romo DAL 198 2 1,191 4
Eli Manning NYG 169 3 -190 31
2008 Jay Cutler DEN 184 1 1,141 5
Donovan McNabb PHI 158 2 816 9
Drew Brees NO 141 3 1,694 1
2009 Tom Brady NE 238 1 2,021 1
Drew Brees NO 211 2 1,692 4
Tony Romo DAL 166 3 1,432 7
Year Player Team Wk 1 DYAR Rk Final DYAR Rk
2010 Tom Brady NE 166 1 1,909 1
Peyton Manning IND 124 2 1,400 3
Carson Palmer CIN 99 3 731 10
2011 Tom Brady NE 222 1 1,994 3
Drew Brees NO 186 2 2,259 1
Ryan Fitzpatrick BUF 167 3 185 18
2012 Matt Ryan ATL 169 1 1,196 5
Joe Flacco BAL 167 2 358 17
Peyton Manning DEN 148 3 1,805 2
2013 Peyton Manning DEN 275 1 2,475 1
Colin Kaepernick SF 217 2 791 8
Sam Bradford STL 178 3 304 19
2014 Matt Ryan ATL 242 1 1,101 7
Matthew Stafford DET 174 2 423 15
Jay Cutler CHI 162 3 398 16
2015 Tom Brady NE 218 1 1,312 2
Marcus Mariota TEN 156 2 -53 30
Alex Smith KC 139 3 468 15
2016 Drew Brees NO 178 1 1,599 2
Matthew Stafford DET 158 2 761 9
Jameis Winston TB 141 3 556 15
Year Player Team Wk 1 DYAR Rk Final DYAR Rk
2017 Sam Bradford MIN 224 1 - -
Alex Smith KC 208 2 - -
Jared Goff LARM 147 3 - -

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 13 Sep 2017

14 comments, Last at 16 Sep 2017, 12:03am by LionInAZ

Comments

1
by ChrisLong :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 10:57pm

Aren't Bradford, Smith, and Goff the top three in YAR, not DYAR? Interesting look at these data but it'll be awhile before we know the true top 3 Week 1 QBs.

2
by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 1:09am

That's a very fair point. I think Smith and Bradford might still be safe, but Goff almost certainly is going to drop because of Indy.

3
by t.d. :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 8:26am

Surprised Steve DeBerg ever had a top-3 dyar season. Bradford and Goff are playing for their first competent coaches; Bradford already had a mini-jump in quality of performance last season. Goff was a surprise, but first-to-second year is typically when quarterbacks have their biggest growth spurt. As for Smith, he's been decent for a while now (he's another guy who spent the first half of his career with lousy coaches and teammates)- biggest change, to me, is that he's got several explosive targets now

5
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 12:13pm

That 1990 Steve Deberg season deserves to be in the pantheon of randomly great seasons by elderly journeyman quarterbacks...along with 1983 Lynn Dickey, 1998 Chris Chandler, and 1999 Steve Buerlein.

9
by Richie :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 7:05pm

Some other candidates:
1999 Rich Gannon
1980 Brian Sipe (he had some previous good seasons, but won the MVP despite never before in a Pro Bowl, and had was 1.00+ ANY/A better than any other season of his career)

10
by t.d. :: Fri, 09/15/2017 - 8:43am

Gannon's 2002 MVP season stands out, post-Mark Moseley, as one of the more random selections, post-merger. Not sure who I'd have picked, and Gannon was a fine quarterback at that point (by 2003, I remember a segment on espn radio about how the Ravens and Bucs had shown that you no longer needed a franchise quarterback to win the Super Bowl- funny how that turned out)

12
by Richie :: Fri, 09/15/2017 - 12:35pm

I don't remember having a problem with Gannon as MVP at the time. He felt pretty dominant.

He had the 5th best AV (18) behind Priest Holmes, Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp.

He led the league in DYAR, narrowly ahead of Chad Pennington(!).
https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/qb2002

(Favre was way behind in DYAR, despite being runner-up for MVP. Looks like Green Bay's 12-4 season was a bit of a mirage. FO has them with 9 expected wins and ranked 12th in DVOA. That was the year they broke their home playoff winning streak when they got blasted by Atlanta.)

MVP voting that year:
Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon (19 votes) — 11-5 record, 4,689 passing yards, 26 TD, 10 INT, 67.6 percent, 618 attempts

Runners-up

Packers quarterback Brett Favre (15 votes) — 12-4 record, 3,658 passing yards, 27 TD, 16 INT, 61.9 percent, 551 attempts

Titans quarterback Steve McNair (11 votes) — 11-5 record, 3,387 passing yards, 22 TD, 15 INT, 61.2 percent, 492 attempts

Chiefs running back Priest Holmes (1 vote) — 8-8 record, 1,615 rushing yards, 5.2 avg., 672 receiving yards, 24 combined TD

Falcons quarterback Michael Vick (1 vote) — 9-6-1 record, 2,936 passing yards, 16 TD, 8 INT, 54.9 percent, 421 attempts, 777 rushing yards, 8 TD

Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks (1 vote) — 12-4 record, 88 tackles, 5 INT, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 4 TD

13
by t.d. :: Fri, 09/15/2017 - 9:05pm

That's probably fair- I was thinking back to a football perspective article that was arguing against his selection that made a fairly strong argument, but, turns out, it was arguing against his selection as all-pro in 2000. Still might have given it to Holmes- pretty sure 24 touchdowns was a record-setting total at the time, but Gannon did lead them to hfa and those Raider teams were generally a tough out

11
by t.d. :: Fri, 09/15/2017 - 8:43am

/

4
by greybeard :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 11:57am

I think it would be interesting to see if the year end results of great week 1 QBs align more with their week 1 performance when their week 1 greatness is adjusted for defense.

6
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 12:14pm

The 1995 NFC North deserves it's own FO post for what a strange convergence of quarterback career arcs it was. Erik Kramer and Scott Mitchell decided to have excellent seasons at the same time (arguably their only good seasons), and Warren Moon had his last excellent season. Favre had broken out as a star the year before, but '95 remains his best season by yardage totals, and was his best by passer rating and ANY/A until he surpassed it with the Vikings in '09.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay was in the NFC Central at the time, and Trent Dilfer had one of the worst quarterback seasons I've ever seen (both on the stat sheet, and watching him live).

7
by ryan5581 :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 1:31pm

Only fitting that Brady (2007,2009,2010) and Manning (2013) are the only QB's to start and finish the season as #1.

8
by andrew :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 1:35pm

I see Bradford was top 3 before, not that long ago, and finished 19th.

14
by LionInAZ :: Sat, 09/16/2017 - 12:03am

I don't find any use for this analysis, except as statistical masturbation -- although I'm sure some post-facto rationalization will be offered.