— No matter who wins the NFC West on Sunday night, Sam Bradford already has won. He has enjoyed one of the greatest rookie seasons by a quarterback in NFL history, establishing himself as a franchise cornerstone for the up-and-coming Rams.
Just how good has Bradford been? So good that he might be the second-best rookie quarterback of the past 25 years.
Bradford's raw numbers — 3,357 yards and counting, 18 touchdowns, 14 interceptions — are good enough to stand next to an established veteran’s. But how do they stack up against other great rookie seasons?
This table compares Bradford's raw stats to those of some of the decade's best rookies: Ben Roethlisberger, Vince Young, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez. For argument's sake, we threw in the best rookie quarterback ever: Dan Marino in 1983.
A look at the table shows that someone doesn’t belong. Sanchez is developing into a solid quarterback, but he wasn't in the same class as the others as a rookie. Young is also a notch below the others, though his running ability made up a little of the difference in value. Bradford is clearly superior to both Sanchez and Young as rookies.
Roethlisberger’s quarterback rating was 20 points higher than Bradford’s, but by Sunday night Bradford will have thrown for about 1,000 more yards. Roethlisberger and Flacco each got the opportunity to lead run-heavy offenses for defense-minded teams; the quality supporting casts and simplified game plans improved their percentage statistics and victory totals. The quarterback most similar to Bradford is Matt Ryan, who climbed into the saddle of a rebuilding team and led them to the playoffs in his rookie season of 2008. Ryan’s raw numbers are comparable to Bradford’s, and his percentages are better.
But Marino is in a class by himself. Six interceptions as a rookie? In 1983, when even great quarterbacks threw about 20 picks a season? Sheesh. Let’s take him out of the field.
Let’s go beyond yards, touchdowns and wins. The second table shows three other important statistics for evaluating quarterbacks. Two are self explanatory. Sack percentage is the number of times a quarterback is sacked per 100 attempts. You may think of sacks as the offensive line’s fault, but a confused rookie quarterback can really kill an offense by getting dumped too often. Fumbles include fumbles lost and recovered, so the quarterback doesn’t get any breaks if a left tackle flops on the ball for him.
DYAR is a Football Outsiders statistic: Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement. We take every pass a quarterback throws, account for every variable (down and distance, length of pass, quality of defense, and so on), then calculate how many yards would a "replacement" quarterback throw for if given the same attempts in the same situations. By replacement we mean a guy such as Derek Anderson: your basic journeyman spot starter, the kind most teams can acquire if they need one.
These intangibles again show that Sanchez and Young are a notch below the others. The sack numbers also close a little of the gap between Bradford, Roethlisberger and Flacco: In their don’t-lose-the-game offenses, Roethlisberger and Flacco took a lot of sacks. Bradford also has done a relatively good job holding onto the ball, though Roethlisberger was outstanding in this area. Once again, Ryan laps the field for recent rookies: his sack rates were low, he didn’t fumble often, and according to advanced Football Outsiders analysis, he was over 1,000 yards better than the typical journeyman.
According to DYAR, Bradford is nowhere near Roethlisberger or Ryan; in fact, he’s much closer to Young, who added extra value as a scrambler. If high-tech analysis says Bradford isn’t that special, who am I to disagree?
Well, there are a few things DYAR cannot account for, including one biggie: quality of receivers.
There’s no good way of statistically separating a quarterback’s performance from the efforts of his receivers. If Hines Ward makes a leaping, one-handed, 40-yard catch on a less-than-perfect throw by Roethlisberger, there’s no reliable way of penalizing the quarterback for the bad throw or rewarding the receiver for the great catch. If Danny Amendola drops the exact same pass, then Roethlisberger gets 40 yards and Bradford doesn’t, and all of the spreadsheets in the world can’t adjust for the difference.
To illustrate how amazingly weak are the Rams’ receivers, we compared them to the receiving corps of the other rookie quarterbacks. Receivers and tight ends were split into Great Targets and Good Targets. A Great Target had two 1,000-yard seasons before the rookie arrived, or was a tight end with two 60-catch seasons under his belt. A Good Target had either one 1,000-yard season, two 50-catch seasons or was a tight end with two 40-catch seasons. In addition, we put a strict five-year limit on the good-great seasons, so 38-year old receivers who had their best seasons when the quarterback was in junior high didn’t qualify. And to be clear, the good-great seasons had to occur before the rookie arrived.
As this table shows, every quarterback on our list — except Bradford — had at least one Good Target (or better). Roethlisberger had Ward and Plaxico Burress, plus Antwaan Randle-El, who nearly qualified. Vince Young had Earl Bennett and David Givens; Bennett is no Jerry Rice (and Givens quickly got hurt), but he would easily be the top receiver for the 2010 Rams. Ryan had Roddy White, who grew from Good to Great Target on his watch. Flacco had Derrick Mason and Todd Heap. Sanchez had Jerricho Cotchery and Braylon Edwards.
How bad are the Rams receivers? Michael Clayton was Flacco’s third-best receiver in 2008. The Ravens cut him at the end of camp this season, the Rams signed him, and Clayton immediately became Bradford’s No. 1 receiver before getting hurt. We could have made a third category called Decent Targets and filled it with 500-yard receivers and highly-drafted rookies. That list would have included Randle-El, Michael Jenkins, Dustin Keller, Bo Scaife, Mark Duper and others, but the only Rams receivers to make the cut would be Clayton and possibly Amendola (depending on how the list was defined).
There is no good way to adjust for the weakness of the Rams' receiving corps, but we can make some quick-and-dirty guesses. Hines Ward’s DYAR in 2004 was 325, meaning that he gained 325 yards that a journeyman receiver wouldn’t gain in the same situation. Replace Ward with Brandon Gibson, and Roethlisberger’s DYAR dips to 605. Replace Roddy White with Amendola in 2008, and Ryan’s DYAR falls to 768. Take away Derrick Mason, and Flacco’s DYAR falls to 134. Take away Bradford’s best receiver and nothing happens, because Bradford’s best receivers grade out as league-minimum starters.
Among the best
We could keep going with this line of reasoning, subtracting away Burress and others, but DYAR isn’t designed for that kind of analysis, and if after too much number-fiddling the argument becomes unconvincing. Here’s what is clear:
Ryan had the best rookie season of any quarterback in the last decade, probably the best since Marino.
Sam Bradford has a reasonable case for second best.
Bradford is much better, as a rookie, than Sanchez or Young. Factor in sack totals, raw numbers, advanced analysis and strength of receivers, and he appears to be better than Flacco. That leaves him behind Roethlisberger. Big Ben had the wins and the percentages, but he stepped into a dream situation as a rookie. Bradford has the raw totals, the sack rates and the sympathy of anyone who tried to spell the names of his tight ends, let alone throw to them.
Even if Bradford ranks behind Roethlisberger, he is in great company. Ryan, Big Ben, and Flacco are all headed for the playoffs. Along with Sanchez, Ryan and Flacco (and Josh Freeman) form the advance guard of the next generation of great quarterbacks. Bradford is right there with them, no matter what happens against the Seahawks on Sunday night.