FO 10th Anniversary: Worst Quarterbacks
by Danny Tuccitto
We're back with Part II of our 10th anniversary series detailing the best and worst individual performances since 1991 according to DVOA and DYAR. A few days ago, I'm sure most of you did pretty well on our pop quiz. Except for Wade Wilson having the best DVOA season since 1991 (well, with a minimum of 100 passes), there were few surprises; Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Michael Vick were obvious answers that also happened to be correct.
Today's foray into the worst quarterbacks also yields a predictable cast of characters. In the comments section of Wednesday's piece, impeccably named reader John Courage foresaw a ton of Bears and Cardinals on our list of worsts, and it turns out he was rather clairvoyant. (There's even a Bears-Cardinals game!) However, after reading this, you will probably come away with the belief that four quarterbacks of the past 22 years sit feet and ankles below the rest. One of them may actually be starting for his team in 2013. Oh, and rest easy, there won't be a pop quiz today. There will be enough schadenfreude to start your week off right, though.
Jumping right into the stats, our first category is "worst DVOA seasons ever by a quarterback." The envelope please...
|Worst Pass DVOA, Season, 1991-2012 (min. 100 passes)|
What a difference that seventh offensive coordinator makes. In a near unprecedented tale of redemption, Alex Smith has undergone the following career transformation:
- 1) a bit of a reach as number one overall pick
- 2) least efficient passing season ever (so far)
- 3) San Francisco's quality control assistant and videographer
- 4) quarterback of a near-Super Bowl team
- 5) established starter worth two second-round picks in trade
It's a good thing he was able to extract $9 million in guaranteed money from Kansas City this offseason because, in addition to the three percent cut reserved for his agent, another 33 percent should go to Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman. In the six seasons before their arrival, Smith had never ranked higher than 27th in DVOA. The past two seasons, he ranked 14th and 10th. As we'll see later, Harbaugh and Roman essentially saved Smith from being discussed as one of the worst quarterbacks since 1991.
To really appreciate how much Smith improved under Harbaugh and Roman, however, we have to look at the details of that disastrous 2005 season. For instance, he completed 50 percent or fewer of his passes in four of seven starts, averaging 4.3 yards per attempt. In 2012, he completed 70.2 percent of his passes and averaged 8.0 yards per attempt. With six more attempts, he would have qualified for the official NFL rankings, and those two stats would have finished No. 1 and No. 5, respectively. In addition to perceiving Smith as a highly accurate quarterback these days, we also perceive him as highly conservative with the football, almost to a fault. Well, back in 2005, his 11 interceptions and 10 fumbles in 194 pass plays translated to a turnover rate of 10.8 percent, which remains the highest in our database to this day.
Of course, Smith is an exception to the rule with the worst quarterbacks in DVOA/DYAR, as he actually got an opportunity to redeem himself. Almost all of the worst performances over the past 22 years involved players who didn't throw many passes in a game or season, and didn't have very long careers. In other words, the survivor effect is on full display. At one point, these guys may have been on Team Upside, but they quickly became XFL Wannabees. And in a few cases, they were forced to look back on their forgettable performances as "The First, The Last, My Everything."
For instance, in the above table, JaMarcus Russell was the only quarterback with 224 pass plays during the season in question, and you have to go 33 rows before you reach an NFL-qualifying bottom 10. The quarterback with the least efficient season over 300 or more pass plays was Akili Smith in 2000 (-51.4% DVOA); the record for 400-plus and beyond was David Carr, franchise cornerstone (-47.4% DVOA in 2002). Meanwhile, Craig Krenzel and Keith Null made the worst of their opportunities, each posting bottom 10 DVOAs during the only season they ever saw the field.
Below is the table showing the 10 least valuable DYAR seasons by a quarterback since 1991. You'll notice that, unlike our foray into the best quarterbacks, we're only showing pass DYAR. That's because a list of worst rush DYARs would end up doubling as a list of quarterbacks with the most fumbles on attempted handoffs. Don't worry, we'll include rush DYAR for the purposes of career total DYAR rankings at the end of the piece. Anyway, the envelope please...
|Worst Pass DYAR, Season, 1991-2012 (min. 100 passes)|
Because DYAR is a measure of total value rather than value per play, this list has several high-volume seasons, including the two I just mentioned. So, it's at this point where we can start really making fun of awful quarterbacks and the coaches who kept calling their numbers over and over. For instance, let's exhume the remains of Bobby Hoying, whose seppuku in 1998 led to the just-ended Andy Reid era in Philadelphia. If Alex Smith throwing only one touchdown in 194 dropbacks as a rookie was a statistical Hindenburg, then Hoying's zero touchdowns in 265 dropbacks as a third-year pro is what produced the Chicxulub impact crater. All at once, it ended his own Eagles career, and was bad enough to send Dana Bible back to college after his first and only season as an NFL offensive coordinator. As with the dinosaurs, Ray Rhodes' head coaching career was lucky enough to survive the initial impact, but died a short time later. Other organisms, like offensive line coach Juan Castillo, were resilient enough to survive the entire mass extinction.
Of course, 1998 wasn't just Hoying's last year in Philadelphia. With only seven attempts in the subsequent two seasons, it also marked the ostensible end to his NFL career. On that count, he has plenty of company in the table. Kelly Stouffer, Russell, Trent Dilfer, and Krenzel never threw another pass in the NFL (although Russell's trying to change that). Akili Smith played only three more games. Technically, Jimmy Clausen is still an "active" member of the Panthers, but his arm hasn't been active in a game since 2010. That leaves Carr, Blaine Gabbert, and Alex Smith as the only quarterbacks who had any semblance of a career after their all-time bad season, but all three were rookies drafted among the top 10 picks in the draft. You might say they failed forward fast.
Gabbert is getting one final shot to be the Jaguars starting quarterback, and there's one thing he can hang his hat on in comparisons to Carr and Smith -- well two things, but the second one comes later: He has yet to have one of the 10 worst games according to pass DYAR. Those winners are below. (Click on the game week to see the box score; asterisk means the team won in spite of their quarterback.) The envelope please...
|Worst Pass DYAR, Game, 1991-2012|
(UPDATE: I profusely apologize to Browns fans who were hoping to see one of their own here. It turns out Brandon Weeden's -284 pass DYAR in Week 1 of last year should be No. 3 on the list. If you would like to relive it, here is a paragraph from Vince's Quick Reads column and here is the PFR box score.)
This is my favorite table of the day. There's a certain amount of haphazardness that goes into having a horrible season, but performance variation becomes theater of the absurd when we magnify things down to specific games. The only thing more entertainingly random would be if Catholic Match Girl re-emerged to take me back after seven years apart.
To my doe eyes, I have no idea how Carr's slapstick in Week 2 of his rookie year wasn't one of the worst five games since 1991. Ryan Leaf's implosion against the Chiefs is another possibly underrated game, but he only had 15 pass plays in that one, and two interceptions was nowhere near the depths to which Mr. Wonderful's heel-turning could sink. Carr's game, on the other hand, included 25 dropbacks, and he was either sacked or threw a pick on nearly half of them; ditto Alex Smith (nine sacks or interceptions on 23 pass plays). Meanwhile, you also have to admire the confluence of factors that emerged in Landover, Maryland in December 2003. Tim Hasselbeck at quarterback, Steve Spurrier's offense, and a 14-0 halftime deficit gave us 2.2 yards per attempt and almost as many completions to Cowboys defenders (four) as there were to [Redskins] receivers (six).
For me, though, easily the most inspiring performance in the table is Rex Grossman's. It was a message to young quarterbacks everywhere: "Kids, one day you might play about as badly as any quarterback to have ever put on a helmet and pads, but football's all about the team. You can still win that game, and you can even call the media ignorant right before you start the Super Bowl three months later." Of course, on that specific day in October 2006, it was another reactor who beat Grossman to the meltdown. And like the sad tales of other NFL careers going the way of the dodo in no small part because of horrible quarterback play, Dennis Green's lasted only 10 more games.
Finally, let's move on to the career lists. As I mentioned earlier, this is the only place where we're including rush DYAR. And as I did for the best quarterbacks, I'm presenting three different measures: a simple sum of total DYAR, a weighted sum of total DYAR, and total DYAR in the quarterback's six best seasons (asterisk means the quarterback's still active). One last time before this turns into the 2002 Academy Awards, the envelope please...
All three tables agree on one thing: Leaf, Gabbert, Russell, and Akili Smith are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse when it comes to NFL quarterbacking since 1991. If you asked me which horseman is which, I'd say Gabbert's flowing blonde locks make him Ric Flair, Russell and Smith are the Anderson brothers, and Leaf is Television champion Tully Blanchard. And since Bob Bratkowski coached Gabbert and Smith to truly offensive displays, he has to be James J. Dillon.
Leaf's career has been the subject of at least one mockumentary (ironically directed by a guy named Carr), so let's focus instead on Gabbert. I said earlier that there was a second thing that set him apart from fellow horrible rookies Carr and Alex Smith. That something is the fact that Gabbert easily had the worst second year of the three. Carr actually performed above replacement level in 2003 (122 total DYAR) and Smith "improved" to -147 total DYAR when he had the good fortune to play for offensive coordinator Norval Eugene Turner, one of the least fortunate head coaches in NFL history. In contrast, Gabbert's -264 DYAR last season put him nearly twice as far from replacement level heading into Year 3.
Here's another issue for Gabbert's future. You might recall the draft efficiency series I did earlier this offseason. The final installment identified the worst draft picks since the merger, and it turns out that Gabbert's fellow horsemen were three of the worst five. Because he was drafted 10th overall instead of first, his career so far wouldn't rank anywhere near theirs, but that's probably cold comfort for Jaguars fans who were expecting him to be at least as mediocre as David Garrard.
Can Gabbert resurrect his career like Carr and Smith did? Stranger things have happened. Is it likely? No. As I alluded to earlier, the most remarkable thing about all of these tables is how the vast majority of these quarterbacks got just enough rope to hang themselves, but not enough to miraculously pull their lifeless careers out of the gallows. Players like Carr, Dilfer, and Alex Smith are massive historical outliers: The mean outcome is for a neophyte quarterback as bad as Gabbert to be swinging in the wind by Year 4. Just look at the table on the right. For the best quarterbacks, only one of 22 had played fewer than six seasons. For the worst quarterbacks, though, only three of 22 played at least six seasons. In that context, Gabbert's almost as likely to become a United States congressman or end up in the new United States Football League as he is to become the C-list star of America's new pastime.
In closing, I'll offer two more observations. First, Josh McCown may have "beaten" almost every other quarterback for worst career of the past 22 years, but I bet he can't beat Final Fantasy IX in one sitting. Second, as much as I've said about Gabbert, I can't fumble away the opportunity to make Mark Sanchez the butt of at least one joke. Here goes: His career has really hit rock bottom.
That's it for me! Good night, everybody! Next time, our celebration continues with the best running backs since 1991.