Sunday, May 26, 2013

Projecting Russell Wilson's Sophomore Season Part III: The Incomparable

Russell Wilson was a revelation as a rookie. He led the Seahawks to a playoff victory, and very nearly the NFC Championship game. Everyone wants to see what he does in his second season. Some talk of sophomore slumps. This series will explore what history can tell us about just what to expect from Wilson in 2013.

Part I: Rookie Winners
Part II: The Century Club
Part III: The Incomparable

Examining the past is often helpful in predicting the future. Russell Wilson challenges that notion more than most. Every NFL fan knows by now how rare it is to have a player of his height find success at the quarterback position. Wilson made sure that his height was not the only unique aspect of his game during a stellar rookie season that can only truly be appreciated once seen through the prism of NFL history.

Part two of this series looked at how ground-breaking the 100.0 passer rating Wilson registered was, even if overshadowed somewhat by Robert Griffin III finishing with an even higher rating. The independent elements of passer rating, along with some key combinations, allow for some eye-opening comparables to quarterbacks that preceded Wilson.

Passing Touchdowns

No rookie quarterback has ever thrown for more than the 26 passing touchdowns Wilson collected in 2012. Only Peyton Manning matched that number. Consider that in the thirteen seasons since that rookie campaign, Manning has never thrown for less than 26 touchdowns. Only Brett Favre has more career passing touchdowns (508 vs. 436) than Manning. 

Those 26 passing touchdowns were not only rare for a rookie. Only 20 quarterbacks in NFL history have thrown for 26 touchdowns or more in their first three NFL seasons. Some, like Manning, did it multiple times in their first three seasons, but the point remains that Wilson was treading on high ground.

Total Touchdowns

Wilson brought more than an arm to the NFL. He also ran four four touchdowns. His total of 30 touchdowns in 2012 was the second-highest for a rookie in NFL history. Cam Newton amassed a jaw-dropping 35 touchdowns (21 passing, 14 rushing) during his 2011 rookie year. The 2012 class of quarterbacks was astonishing for a variety of reasons. Their ability to run and throw is possibly what separates them from past "super classes" of quarterbacks. 

Only five rookie quarterbacks have ever thrown for more than 20 touchdowns and rushed for more than four. Three of those five quarterbacks played last year, and four of the five played in the last two years. 

Passing Touchdowns & Interceptions

Manning may have equaled Wilson on passing touchdowns as a rookie, but he threw more passes to opponents (28) than he did to his teammates in the end zone. Wilson was far less charitable, throwing just 10 interceptions. No other rookie in NFL history has had a better touchdown-to-interception ratio than Wilson's 26:10 in 2012. Griffin was the closest with +15 last season, and Dan Marino is third with +14 back in 1983. 

Only thirteen players have managed a +16 or greater spread of touchdowns minus interceptions in their first three seasons in the NFL, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. And only three other players  (Matt Ryan, Jeff Garcia, Frankie Albert) have totaled 26 or more touchdowns and 10 or fewer interceptions in any of their first three seasons.

Yards Per Attempt

One of the great measures of quarterback efficiency is how many yards a player gains for each pass they attempt. Wilson finished 2012 with a 7.93 YPA in 2012. Even more impressive was his YPA of 9.03 in his final eight regular season games. Five other rookie quarterbacks managed a YPA of 7.9 or greater (min 10 starts), but only one of those (Ryan) had more pass attempts than Wilson. 

Completion Percentage

Accuracy is a crucial element of any quarterbacks game. There is no perfect measure of accuracy, but percentage of attempted passes that are completed is a reasonable place to start. Wilson completed 64.1% of his throws in 2012. Only two other players, Griffin and Ben Roethlisberger have reached that level as rookies (min 10 starts). Only seven other quarterbacks could even break the 60% mark as rookies.

Passing Touchdowns & YPA & Completion Percentage

It should come as no surprise that there are no rookie comparables when these individual statistical achievements are combined. I widened the search to include the first three years of a player's career to find seasons that matched what Wilson did as a rookie. One of the more remarkable results came when exploring how many quarterbacks had thrown for at least 26 touchdowns, had a YPA of at least 7.9 and completed at least 64% of their passes. This combination speaks to production, efficiency and accuracy. 

Just two players were able to match Wilson's achievements in these areas. And remember, every other quarterback got three seasons to try and do what Wilson did in his first. The two names were Kurt Warner (1999) and Marino (1984). Those two seasons are among the best a quarterback has ever produced in the NFL. Both resulted in Super Bowl appearances. One, Warner's, resulted in a Super Bowl ring. That is how rare it is to be that productive, efficient and accurate. 

Warner would repeat the feat in 2001, his fourth season, and again make it to the Super Bowl. Marino never managed to repeat his lethal combination of 1984, and never returned to the big game. 

Even if you were to broaden the search further, to include the first five seasons of a player's career, only three additional quarterbacks are able to match Wilson's rookie year. Aaron Rodgers did it in 2009, his 5th year. Philip Rivers did it in 2008, his 5th year. Tony Romo did it in 2007, his fourth year. All three of those players repeated the achievement in future seasons. Rodgers did it from 2009-2011, and won a Super Bowl in 2010. 

Passing Touchdowns & YPA & Completion Percentage & Rushing Touchdowns

As rare as it was for a quarterback to be so productive, efficient and accurate as a young player, the company is even more select when Wilson's rushing ability is taken into account. No other player has ever had a season where they passed for 26+ touchdowns, had a YPA of 7.9+, a completion percentage of 64%+ and ran for over 400 yards. Nobody except Wilson, as a rookie.

Set the rushing yards aside and take a look at the rushing touchdowns. Only two other players have ever had a seasons that matched Wilson's numbers and had at least four rushing touchdowns. Rodgers did it in 2010 and 2009, and Steve Young did it in 1994. Two of those three seasons resulted in Super Bowl victories. 

Rarefied Air (and Ground)

The more Wilson's rookie season is analyzed, the more remarkable it becomes. He has already done things no player has ever done. His ability to manage these achievements as a rookie makes projecting his future even more difficult. There are some, like Steve Young, that appear to solid comparisons, but they were not as precocious as Wilson. It will continue to be tempting for some to wonder if Wilson was a one-year wonder. People like to throw out names like Rick Mirer, Mark Sanchez and Cam Newton. Set aside the fact that Newton had a pretty darn good sophomore season, improving on many of his rookie numbers. What Wilson did as a rookie does not compare to any of these players. It does not compare to any player. It was unprecedented. Wilson is not competing with other quarterbacks that had strong rookie years. Wilson is one season into competing for the title of best quarterback to play the game. 

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