The popular belief amongst fans and national media is that the Detroit Lions would be best served to sit shiny new quarterback Matthew Stafford on the bench for his rookie year. For instance, Sports Illustrated's Don Banks has advocated for giving Stafford a "redshirt" year, and Drew Sharp, ever the prophet, has vaguely counseled the Lions to exercise "patience" in rushing Stafford into the line-up.
I have always been skeptical of the idea that whether a quarterback starts as a rookie has much bearing as to whether he succeeds or not. The reasons why quarterbacks succeed or fail is sort of a "chicken or the egg" problem. Did Joey Harrington fail because he was on the Detroit Lions, or was he on the Detroit Lions because he was Joey Harrington (in other words, did Joey Harrington fail because he was in a "bad situation," or did the Detroit Lions draft Joey Harrington because they are poor judges of talent). I have been firmly in the camp that professional quarterbacks were "born and not made," but I understand why others think differently.
One of the key tenets of the "quarterbacks are made" theory is that teams are best served to sit quarterbacks for a year rather than bruise their fragile psyches by giving them too much playing time too early. Although I recall that the excellent blog over at Pro Football Reference did a similar study, I couldn't find it, so I was curious enough to try it on my own. I took all of the quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 1998 and measured the strength of the correlation between their pass attempts as a rookie and their ultimate success in the NFL. This, I think is the best measure, because the more a quarterback has to drop back to pass as a rookie the more chances, in theory, that that quarterback has to have his confidence shattered by an ill-tempered defensive lineman. "As a measure of "success" I used the same DYAR/pass metric that I used when I tried to evaluate Matthew Stafford's chances to become a quality NFL starter. Here is a list of all of the quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 1998 sorted by the number of pass attempts that they had as a rookie:
Sure, David Carr is number two on the list, but Peyton Manning is number one and Matt Ryan is number three. Despite the heavy rookie workload, Peyton Manning has become one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and Matt Ryan, based on his rookie numbers, projects to be a perennial pro bowler. While Carson Palmer sat for his entire rookie season and became a very good NFL quarterback, except for five passes, J.P. Losman sat out his entire rookie year and has been one of the worst quarterbacks ever drafted in the first round. Alex Smith, Akili Smith, Rex Grossman, and JaMarcus Russell, all had comparatively little playing time as rookies and have not performed well afterwards.
The correlation between rookie pass attempts and success is exceedingly low with an R-squared of 0.04%, which means essentially that a 0.04% of why a quarterback succeeds can be explained by how much playing time they receive as a rookie. It's not statistically significant, and actually runs opposite to the conventional wisdom: quarterbacks who received lots of playing time as rookies actually performed slightly better over their careers than those who did not. Basically, the conclusion that we can draw is that whether a quarterback plays early or not has absolutely no bearing on whether they will ultimately succeed or fail.
So should Stafford start or sit this year? I would suggest that there is actually an advantage to getting Stafford in the line-up sooner rather than later. Although there is no significant correlation between rookie pass attempts and success there is a fairly strong correlation between rookie quarterback performance and ultimate NFL success. Although it is true that most rookie quarterbacks perform poorly, the quarterbacks who turn out to be truly awful perform much worse than those who become good to great quarterbacks. What follows is a list of all of the quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 1998 sorted by their rookie performance (minimum 50 pass attempts). Again, success is measured in DYAR/pass, DYAR being an advanced stat from Football Outsiders which (among other things) adjusts for the strength of competition:
DYAR/Pass in Year 1
Admittedly, this is a small sample size, but the relationship is strong. Everyone at the bottom of the list turned out to be poor quarterbacks except for Donovan McNabb--and he had a huge bounceback season in his second year. If Stafford gets significant playing time this season, the Detroit Lions will have two full season of tape on Matthew Stafford, and if he is a bust, the Detroit Lions can move on.
This is intuitive to me. College football quarterbacks who perform at a high enough level to become high NFL draft pick are not delicate snowflakes: they are tough guys. If you're Peyton Manning, you're going to eventually be Peyton Manning whenever you start--irrespective of whether you throw 36 interceptions and are sacked 60 times. However, if you're J.P. Losman, it doesn't matter if you have two years to learn and sit on the bench--when you are inserted into the line-up, you are going to fail.
The Detroit Lions almost made the right play with how they treated the "development" of Joey Harrington. Although they correctly inserted Joey Harrington into the line-up early, they refused to move on when he failed. The Detroit Lions, determined to throw good money after bad, refused to acknowledge their mistake. This failure came with a huge opportunity cost. If they had recognized that they had failed with Harrington, they were in a great position to draft Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 NFL Draft. Similarly, if Stafford plays poorly in his first two years, the Detroit Lions shouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger on a quarterback like Jevan Snead or Jimmy Clausen in the 2011 NFL Draft.
So put Stafford into the line-up, and if he succeeds, great. And if he doesn't, at least the Detroit Lions need not again pass up on a two-time Super Bowl quarterback in a future NFL Draft.
Cross-posted at the "Goodbye, Ladies" Draft Report