Ken O’Brien was immediately successful in his first full season starting for the New York Jets despite being sacked 124 times in his first three seasons.
Continuing dissecting this interesting post, we look at developmental aspects of quarterbacks. Does being pro-ready matter?
"So Bortles is a better QB than the elder Carr. So what? Well, besides r/NFL having a drastically different outlook on David Carr than Bortles, it’s also remarkable how far Bortles has come. He was drafted as a project QB who was obviously intended to sit his rookie year and work on his mechanics (Gee, that sounds familiar *cough* *cough* Trubisky/Watson.) but wasn’t afforded the luxury of having an acceptable backup. He was drafted for both his physical tools and his ability to avoid being discouraged. They knew he wouldn’t be put into a position to succeed and up until this coming season the offense was effectively expected to run directly through him. He isn’t ready for that kind of responsibility yet. He doesn’t have the experience to do so. According to ESPN, Bortles ranks 4th all-time for passes thrown in their first 3 seasons and averages 37.1 attempts per game, 3rd most all-time. (source). He was a project and unlike most projects, this prototype was expected to be able to handle everything the finished product could."
Any quarterback, project or otherwise, is expected to be able to handle things thrown his way. Not many quarterbacks who are thrown to the wolves are finished products when they take the field. For every Andy Dalton and Teddy Bridgewater there is a Sam Bradford or Ryan Tannehill. The expectations that they will be competent quarterbacks within a reasonable time frame exist for all of them.
For some, the “high floor” players, it is a little easier to get to competency because the offense can be designed to their strengths. Dinking and dunking like Bridgewater works for some players to keep up the completion percentage and play safely, for example. Controlling for the different offensive schemes and responsibilities in running the offense would be a massive undertaking in an in-depth study of young quarterbacks. I am going to assume that the common takeaway for many quarterbacks, whether a project or otherwise, would be that offensive coordinators limited the amount of complexity (half the field, one or two reads, for example) that a quarterback would be required to do.
College spread offenses are making it tougher to have adequately prepared players in the NFL, including coming from one-read systems that work in college but won’t in the pros. Every player has to make that transition at some point. Some are capable of doing it earlier than others.
Even Carr admits, years later, that “you have to be ready when your team’s ready,” which was a lesson he learned from Troy Aikman. Mel Kiper Jr. praised Carr for his pro-readiness following the 2002 NFL Draft, including how he learned Fresno State’s” sophisticated” offense but he simply wasn’t ready, much like Bortles.
Bortles’ other highly-sacked peers are all across the board, too.
- Randall Cunningham was the first true dual-threat quarterback and had his own offensive schemes built to his play-style in college and the pros (likely leading to his high sack total).
- Ryan Tannehill was a clear project for the Miami Dolphins, converting from wide receiver to quarterback at Texas A&M just two seasons before being drafted.
- Warren Moon spent years in the Canadian Football League (including five Grey Cup wins with the Edmonton Eskimos) before coming to the NFL in 1984. That lead to plenty of polish when he became a starter for the Houston Oilers.
- Tony Banks only spent two years at Michigan State before entering the NFL as a second round pick (and the first quarterback taken) in the 1996 NFL Draft. It was a bad year for quarterbacks with essentially the entire class being considered projects.
- Jake Plummer was a four-year starter at Arizona State University and was called “the only decent starting QB” in the entire 1997 NFL Draft when he was selected in the second round. He still didn’t start until Week 8 of the season.
- Ken O’Brien was a Division II stud at University of California, Davis where he won 17-straight games and also had the fewest interceptions in Division II his sophomore season while leading a “very sophisticated” offense. The New York Jets made him a first round selection in the 1983 NFL Draft. He became the highest-rated quarterback in the NFL (96.2) in his third season (and first full season starting) in 1985 en route to an 11-5 record.
- Jeff George was considered widely considered the best quarterback coming out for the 1990 NFL Draft. His ability to quickly learn offenses (he learned two at Purdue and Illinois) was a highlight, demonstrating his ability to be pro-ready.
- Russell Wilson was considered accurate in college and played in two offenses. He was pro-ready with one knock against him: his height.
Of the six successful quarterbacks in this highly-sacked study, four of them were polished before their first years in the NFL. Tannehill was a project and Cunningham is his own unique case project case. Not counting Plummer or Banks, which the original comparison did, would bring that number down to just two, which splits the successful quarterbacks in half.
While I personally can see being a project as a somewhat detrimental quality, even the unsuccessful quarterbacks are split. George and Carr were coming from sophisticated offenses while Bortles and Banks were projects.
Of the six pro-ready quarterbacks that were sacked the most in their first three seasons, four did well. Of the four projects, two became successes and two are considered failures (counting the struggling Bortles).