If there's one disadvantage of Russell Wilson’s success this season, it's that no one wants to have the Luck/RG3/Wilson debate with me any more. With RG3 on the bench, Luck ranking 28th in the league in completion percentage, and Wilson being touted as a (2nd place) MVP candidate, I don’t necessarily blame them. At this point, Wilson vs. Nick Foles is a more interesting debate anyway.
However, one argument I still hear often in favor of the other guys is that they have a "higher ceiling" than Wilson. I assume this means that they have some particular skill-set that Wilson doesn’t...or it's just another height joke. Regardless, I decided to comb through some stats on pro-football-reference.com to see if I could find a precedent for marked improvement after two seasons as a starter in the league - a stipulation which applies more to Luck than to RG3, since RG3 already showed us last year that he can be an efficient NFL passer – something Luck hasn’t yet done.
I looked at the passer rating of every quarterback with at least five seasons (min. 12 starts/season) in the NFL that has played in the last decade:
In these stats I noticed something interesting, though not particularly surprising:
After the first season as a starter, every quarterback has a relatively small range in performance over their career – regardless of the quality of the supporting cast.
Quick side note on passer rating - I love it, and you should too. Here’s why:
- With the exception of adjusted net yards per pass attempt (ANY/A), no other non-proprietary quarterback stat has a higher correlation to wins than passer rating.
- The formula is simple. It has just five variables and can be calculated from a basic stat sheet.
- The scale (0-158.3) makes sense. It follows the High Expectations Asian Father grading method. 110 is excellent. 100 is good. 90 is ok. 80 and you’re serving french fries next year.
- The most common complaint with passer rating is that it doesn’t include everything - rushing, sacks, fumbles, etc. You know what? Doesn't matter. If you aren’t an efficient passer first, everything else is moot.
Back to the box plot: what it tells us is that while there are occassional outlier seasons (especially for those with longevity), most quarterbacks have a ~20 point range in passer rating which they maintain over their careers. Peyton Manning for example has 14 seasons of data, and with the exception of 3 outlier seasons - his rookie year (71.2), 2004 (121.1), and his current season (112.9) - his passer rating has always fallen within the ~85-105 range. Eli? 70-90. Joe Flacco? 75-95.
Attempting to apply a trendline to each QB over time proved futile. The ~20 point range in efficiency seems to correlate less with experience and more with external factors, like the quality of the rest of the team:
One more thing that stood out to me in the box plot is Jay Cutler. Even though I often hear Bears fans say he would be much better if only he had a better offensive line or better receiving weapons, after five full seasons of data, the truth is that we have probably seen Cutler’s ceiling. I'm not saying it's a guarantee that he won't still improve - after all it wasn't until Tom Brady's 6th full season as a starter that he experienced explosive statistical improvement (of course by that point he already had 3 Super Bowl victories under his belt, too.) And in a league with a "what can you do for me now" mentality, Cutler likely won't be given many more opportunities to show it.
Back to Luck/RG3: not surprisingly, it's only a couple guys we consider elite - Brees, Rivers, and Favre - who showed marked improvement between their 2nd and 3rd seasons as a starter:
While this is promising for a guy like Luck, who has so far yet to live up to his "next Peyton Manning" moniker, it also illustrates that from this point forward, there will be an increasing sense of urgency for him to improve.
But the most important question: what about Russell Wilson? It's entirely plausible that Wilson's effective passer rating range could end up being ~100-120, a position echoed by Seahawks stat guru Davis Hsu:
I said Russell Wilson was a 110 rating QB with protection, scratch that- he may be a 120 QB with protection....— Davis Hsu (@DavisHsuSeattle) November 18, 2013
At the same time...I honestly have no idea just how much growth we can expect from DangeRuss, because there is no precedent for what he's doing. No other quarterback in history has had a 100+ passer rating over his first two seasons. Yes, Wilson is aided by the best defense, special teams, and running back in the league. We also saw him run for his life for half the season behind the worst offensive line in terms of pass protection for 8 weeks with 3 UDFA receivers, and still average a 100+ passer rating over that stretch. Logic dictates that when the quality of Wilson's supporting cast declines, he too will regress to the mean. Of course the experts thought that would happen this season, too.
If history is any indicator, Wilson's performance over his first two NFL seasons is closer to his floor than his ceiling.
Happy holidays and Go Hawks!