Not Starting In Week 1 Is An Ominous Sign For Johnny Manziel

Johnny Manziel is great.

Sports is entertainment, and Manziel is an entertainer in a league that has a frustrating aversion to outgoing personalities. We’d love nothing more than to see him ripping up NFL defenses every week.

But Manziel losing the Cleveland Browns quarterback competition to Brian Hoyer is not a good thing. The numbers suggests that rookies who win the starting job in Week 1 turn out to be better players than their peers. In addition, the recent track record of 1st-round picks who fail to start in Week 1 is worrisome.

In the last seven years the conventional wisdom about how rookie quarterbacks should be integrated into the NFL has changed.

NFL teams used to treat rookie quarterbacks as apprentices, sitting them on the bench for months until they were completely ready to play. The theory used to be that throwing rookies into the fire would hinder their development. Was this true?

We looked at the performance of 1st-round quarterbacks from 1999 to 2009. Using Chase Stuart’s expected draft value data (which assigns a value to every draft position) and ProFootballReference’s “approximate value” stat (an advanced metric that quantifies a player’s total value), we looked at how all these QBs performed relative to expectations.

It turned out that the seven rookies who started in Week 1 from 1999 to 2009 were worth 78% more than their expected value based on draft position. The rookies who sat in Week 1 were worth 46% more than their expected value.

The guys who convinced their teams that they were good enough to start in Week 1 generally turned out to be slightly better players than those who didn’t.

There are a bunch of complicating factors here.

Stuart only uses the first five years of a player’s career in his draft data (check out the whole methodology here), so we only used the each quarterback’s total approximate value over the first five years of his career. As a result, late-bloomers like Aaron Rodgers (who didn’t start as a rookie) get penalised.

The sample size is small, so massive busts like JaMarcus Russell (82% worse than expected) and massive hits like Joe Flacco (370% better than expected) had a disproportionate impact on the numbers. That being said, the NFL’s most notorious busts (Russell, Akili Smith, Cade McNown, Brady Quinn) all failed to start in Week 1.

You also have to understand that this was a different era.

Between 1999 and 2009, only seven of the 31 quarterbacks taken in the first round of the draft started in Week 1. Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Jay Cutler all sat in Week 1.

In general, the guys who started in Week 1 were better during this period. But plenty of players sat in Week 1 and went on to be stars.

Today, rookie quarterbacks who are picked in the first round are expected to start.

Between 2010 and 2013, seven of the 11 QBs taken in the first round started in Week 1. Here’s the breakdown of 1st-round rookie quarterbacks:

  • Started Week 1 (7 players): Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden, E.J. Manuel
  • Sat Week 1 (4 players): Tim Tebow, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder

The guys is the first group are generally better than those in the second. Tebow and Gabbert are busts, and the jury is still out Locker and Ponder.

We’re in an era when it’s unusual for 1st-round rookies to sit on the bench. And the guys who have sat on the bench during this period haven’t faired well when they have eventually played.

Again, the sample size is small. There’s also a possibility that Manziel is being benched for reasons that have little to do with football. But at the end of the day, history tells us that failing to win the starting job is a bad sign.

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