Looking at the Sophomore Slump, the 2012 QB Draft Class, and Andrew Luck

Brad Mills-US PRESSWIRE

There's a lot of talk in the NFL about quarterbacks potentially having sophomore slumps. Is this a legitimate concern? And will it apply to anyone this year? Specifically, what can we expect from Andrew Luck this year?

It’s inevitable, really. The sophomore slump discussion, I mean. Because of how the National Football League has truly become a 365-day a year attraction, there is plenty of time to discuss a variety of topics in between seasons. A large part of that discussion usually centers around those quarterbacks who had a very successful first season. And, of course, 2012 saw the most successful season by rookie signal callers ever.

Andrew Luck put together the best season a rookie quarterback has ever had. Robert Griffin III won the rookie of the year award. Russell Wilson surprised almost everyone and put himself right into the discussion of who the best of the three is, with many siding with Wilson. Even Ryan Tannehill, who was a distant fourth behind the others, showed a lot of promise.

Something that most fans just accept as fact and discuss is whether a good rookie quarterback will have a sophomore slump. Basically, the whole idea behind the sophomore slump theory is that a quarterback who had a good first season takes a significant step backwards in his second season. Many point to Matt Ryan as a recent example of this, but is it really all that common?

Not anymore. Nowadays, it is just a myth based off of a truth that stopped being true over thirty years ago. Last season, Scott Kacsmar wrote an article for Cold Hard Football Facts looking at the topic of sophomore slumps, as both Cam Newton and Andy Dalton had successful rookie seasons in 2011 and the discussion entering the 2012 season was about whether they would have a sophomore slump.

In a very in-depth study, Kacsmar (the best football stat guy you will find) analyzed the second year quarterbacks that qualified to be analyzed as a candidate for a sophomore slump – remember, in order to slump a quarterback must first have a successful first year. Let me share just a bit of what he discovered – according to his qualifications for the study, 35 quarterbacks made the cut (not including Newton or Dalton). Out of those 35, 15 had a sophomore slump (42.9%). Look even further, however, and you see that before 1980, 10 out of the 15 quarterbacks who qualified slumped (66.7%). Post 1980, the number drops to just 5 out of 20 (25%).

Here is what Kacsmar wrote about the sophomore slump:

"As sophomores, the quarterbacks had a small rise in attempts per game (APG), had a better completion percentage, but they only had a marginal gain in YPA, actually did worse at throwing touchdowns, and saw no difference in their rate of interceptions. The passer rating is not even a full point higher.

"While this does not speak well for a second-year improvement, it also debunks the idea of a sophomore slump. Collectively, these players improved by the smallest of margins. They did not decline."

Ok, so if history is an indication (and it usually is a pretty good one), second year quarterbacks coming off of a good rookie season usually stay the same. While it doesn’t necessarily indicate improvement, did the majority have a sophomore slump? Hardly.

In terms of having great second seasons, only 30 quarterbacks (including both Newton and Dalton in 2012) have thrown for more than 3,000 yards in their second year, and only 5 have topped 4,000. Only 21 have passed for more than 20 touchdowns, and only 10 (including Dalton) have hit the 25 touchdown mark in their second season.

Five quarterbacks have started a super bowl game while in their second year; though only two did so having played significantly the year before (Dan Marino in 1984 and Ben Roethlisberger in 2005). Only one quarterback in his second year has won 14 games, and that was Dan Marino in 1984 in what is undoubtedly one of the greatest seasons a quarterback has ever had, regardless of age or experience.

Since this is a Colts blog, the question all of you reading want answered is what does all of this mean for Andrew Luck in 2012? First, however, let’s look at the 2012 quarterback class as a whole, and then we’ll focus on the Colts’ signal caller.

Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson all were very good in 2012. Ryan Tannehill showed a lot of potential. Brandon Weeden and Nick Foles were stuck on a bad team, so it's hard to make an accurate judgement. Ryan Lindley was awful. We’re going to throw the last three out of this discussion, because there is no way they can slump. Remember – the biggest qualification for a sophomore slump candidate is that they must first have a season good enough to slump from. Tannehill, meanwhile, will be put in this discussion because he had an average year and improves the discussion rather than hinders it. Let’s look at all of the 2012 rookie quarterbacks, however, and see their stats in comparison:

GP/GS (POST)


W-L (POST)


CMP/ATT


YDS


YPA


TD


INT


RATE


RUSH *


Griffin


15/15 (1/1)

9-6 (0-1)

258/393 (65.6%)

3,200

8.1

20

5

120.4

120-815-7 (6.8)

Luck


16/16 (1/1)

11-5 (0-1)

339/627 (54.1%)

4,374

7.0

23

18

76.5

62-255-5 (4.1)

Tannehill


16/16 (N/A)

7-9 (N/A)

282/484 (58.3%)

3,294

6.8

12

13

76.1

49-211-2 (4.3)

Wilson


16/16 (2/2)

11-5 (1-1)

252/393 (64.1%)

3,118

7.9

26

10

100.0

94-489-4 (5.2)

Weeden


15/15 (N/A)

5-10 (N/A)

297/512 (57.4%)

3,385

8.5

14

17

72.6

27-111-0 (4.1)

Lindley


4/6 (N/A)

1-3 (N/A)

89/171 (52.0%)

752

4.4

0

7

46.7

4-7-0 (1.8)

Foles


6/7 (N/A)

1-5 (N/A)

161/265 (60.8%)

1,699

6.4

6

5

79.1

11-42-1 (3.8)

* Attempts – Yards – Touchdowns (Average yards per carry)


According to Kacsmar’s extensive research, history would indicate that one of the four players we’re looking at (Luck, Griffin, Wilson, and Tannehill) will take a significant step backwards next year while the other three would stay roughly the same. Every so often, there is a guy who improves a lot in his second year, but that seems to be the exception, not the rule – just like a sophomore slump.

I think that in 2013, we will see both Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill improve significantly. More on Luck in just a minute, but Tannehill impressed me last season and should show quite a bit of improvement this season. Not only did he gain valuable experience last year by starting all 16 games, but the Dolphins improved the talent around him, namely by signing the dynamic (but overpriced) speedster Mike Wallace. While I’m not sure he’s exactly the best candidate to "slump" because of his 2012 season, he is certainly a candidate to improve and regardless of whether or not he qualifies as a candidate to slump, I don’t think he will. I think he’ll show quite a bit of improvement.

I think that Russell Wilson will stay roughly the same. His success was quite unexpected a year ago, but I don’t think it was a one-time thing. He is a very good quarterback - but wasn’t asked to do as much. If they increase his workload significantly in 2013, I think we could see his numbers drop off a bit, if for no other reason than him adjusting to it, but I also don’t think they will increase his workload a ton. I think that Wilson really has the potential to be the second best quarterback from this draft and I think that we will see him improve over the years, but I don’t necessarily think that the improvement will be that significant from year one to year two.

The biggest candidate to take a step backwards of the four is easily Robert Griffin III. Easily. But I don't think it has anything to do with the fact that it's his second year. Like Wilson, he wasn’t asked to do as much in 2012 and because of his statistics he looked great. And, indeed, he played very well last year. But he is coming off of an ACL surgery and his tendency to run (he ran the ball 120 times a year ago) and put himself in a position to get injured again is worrisome. His durability is a huge concern. Adding to that is the fact that coaches (like Chuck Pagano) are adjusting their defenses to stop the read-option, which Griffin excelled at running last year. His passing skills are good, but if he is forced to stay in the pocket and do most of his damage from the pocket through the passing game, I think we will definitely see his play drop off as he adjusts. That’s not to say he can’t do it, but the adjustment will take a little time. If he continues to run the ball like he did a year ago, there is real concern about him getting hurt. It seems as if Griffin doesn’t plan to stop running anytime soon and that the Redskins are fine with that, so that concern is there and legitimate. I think that RG3 is a real good quarterback who had a real good 2012 season, but I think that he easily brings the most question marks into this season of any of the 2012 draft class.

Alright, now on to Andrew Luck. His 2012 season was the best season a rookie quarterback has ever had, so logically that means he has the most work to do to improve. Let me share a little secret about Luck that will deceive many into thinking that he improves tremendously in 2013 (even if he does take an unforeseen step back): because most people are what I call "fantasy analysts" (analyzing based off of fantasy football), Luck’s 2012 was nothing special. His stats didn’t show it. He was right there behind Griffin and Wilson, whereas Griffin and Wilson were something special. While indeed that may be true about those two being special, Luck was even more so. And whether or not he actually improves in 2013, his stats will, so most people (those same "fantasy analysts") will automatically assume that he did.

Why will his stats improve? One of the biggest reasons is the new offense. Pep Hamilton is bringing a shorter passing game, and a year ago Luck threw downfield more than anyone in the league (there will still be downfield passing, but it won’t be nearly as regular as it was last year). Also, Luck has 17 games started under his belt and has a cast of weapons on offense more experienced too, as Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, T.Y. Hilton, and Vick Ballard all were rookies last year. The team got rid of Donnie Avery, who was terrible. That move will make the offense better by itself, regardless of how Darrius Heyward-Bey does. Reggie Wayne should be Reggie Wayne. And, perhaps most importantly, the offensive line should be much, much improved (which says more about how bad they were last year not how good they will be this year). It’s hard to overstate how bad they were last year.

Add all those together, and I will guarantee you that Andrew Luck will be a much better fantasy quarterback in 2013 than he was in 2012. And so he will create the perception that he has improved a lot, even if he hasn’t. I’m ok with that. But also, to those of us who truly watch him, I think that we will see him really improve and take great strides forward as well – because of those reasons I already mentioned, and also just because of the fact that he is the most talented of the entire 2012 draft class and he has the most potential. There’s a reason this guy was one of the highest rated quarterback prospects ever coming out of college – he’s an incredible talent.

Here's what I wrote of Luck in my quarterback position preview this summer:

"There's no reason to think that he won't be better in 2013. Equipped with a new but familiar offense, a retooled offensive line, and better receiving threats, Luck could take the league by storm. Perhaps it is unfair to say this about a guy entering his second year, but I fully expect him to emerge as one of the NFL's best signal callers and I expect him to enter into the MVP race in 2013. Yes, I'm serious. This guy is as good of a young quarterback as I have ever seen - in fact, I have never seen a guy have a more impressive rookie season than Luck did. His numbers absolutely will improve in 2013 and his play will too. He will be the unquestioned leader of a team with playoff expectations from fans and Super Bowl expectations from themselves. Some (like me) think they will win the AFC South. All of these expectations revolve around one player, and that one player is Andrew Luck.

"If you think this is way too high of expectations for a second year quarterback, you are absolutely right. But if you look at Andrew Luck and take away his experience factor, he has all the makings of a quarterback ready to burst onto the scene even more than he did last year."

Statistically, I would say that Peyton Manning’s 1999 season is a good comparison as to what to expect (I know, the comparisons to Peyton just don’t stop). In 1999, Manning led the Colts to a 13-3 record, completing 331 passes (out of 533 attempts) with a 62.1% completion percentage, adding 4,135 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. The only difference I expect to be anything significant is I expect Luck to throw for a few hundred more yards than that, though 4,135 yards is a good expectation for him. He won’t get 13 wins, but a double-digit win total and a playoff berth is certainly to be expected.

Yeah, we’re setting high expectations for Luck, I get it. I get it that history says most guys stay roughly the same in their second year following a good rookie year. I get all that. But I also watched every single snap Andrew Luck took in 2012 (most of them more than once) and I am convinced that lumping him into that group isn’t fair – to him or the other guys.

One thing that is fair to say, however? He won’t be grouped into the sophomore slump category either. Because, really, it doesn’t exist anymore. If a player takes a step backwards in their second season, it’s an exception and not the rule. The sophomore slump is nowhere near as common as most think anymore, and most of the instances we do have of it nowadays don’t have much to do with it being their second season at all but are because of other factors.

The sophomore slump for NFL quarterbacks is just an outdated myth based on a bit of truth for people to debate without considering actual facts and statistics. In related news, welcome to the NFL offseason.

Good thing it’s almost over.

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