Revisiting the “sophomore slump” theory with Andy Dalton and Cam Newton

“Sophomore slump” an NFL quarterback phenomenon or does it just sound good?

Andy Dalton and Cam Newton are going through sophomore slumps but that doesn’t mean “sophomore slump” is an actual thing. It really sounds like one of those snappy phrases that morning television programs use a topical springboard from presumed truth.

But “sophomore slump” is an interesting idea, especially after briefly thinking about the regression of Dalton and Newton in year two, how Matt Leinart actually looked promising at times during his rookie season, along with the two-win drop-off suffered by Baltimore (Flacco) and Atlanta (Ryan) in 2009.

It’s hard not to think: Is there anything to this?

A quick Google query found a helpful piece by Cold Hard Football Facts that — while I would make some significant tweaks to the parameters of their study that I will detail — draws some insightful conclusions. The gist of it is basically that the trend of rookie quarterbacks playing worse in year two after getting significant starting experience in year one stopped being true decades ago, in a completely different NFL era.

They gather their information back to 1950 which provides good research for their investigation, but I think it’s more useful to exclude everything before the tipping point in the proliferation of passing, which differentiates today’s game from the past: 2004 marks the year of both the QB Draft of the Millennium and critical pro-passing rules changes, two major factors in why trying to evaluate NFL QBs today compared to the 90s, 80s, etc etc Terry Bradshaw etc etc Sid Luckman….and it just starts to get wildly subjective.

Cold Hard Football Facts concludes that for awhile, including this 2004-present interval, that the whole sophomore slump theory is a fallacy. To me, it doesn’t make sense logically either. Why would a position that relies so much on learning, seasoning and experience in a pro-style offense see a trend of decline after getting that crucial first pro year under the belt?

Looking at it extrinsically, you could start to rationalize Newton’s slump and reframe the entire discussion. Defensive coordinators adjust and this doesn’t apply only to “sophomores” but to any quarterback coming off his first season of significant work as starter. It’s not going from age 22 to age 23, year one to year two — it’s giving all that pro game-film to the schemers on your schedule for an entire offseason. It’s how rounded a quarterback’s skill set currently is, and how they team with coach and coordinator to avoid their passing offense from getting effectively game-planned or even “blueprinted” in their second season under center, and struggling despite improving over the offseason.

When “sophomore slump” applies to second-year starters and not just second-year pros at the quarterback position, then the discussion at least becomes somewhat more intuitive. But does it have legs?

Parameters: QBs eligible for second-year slump dating from 2004-present must have started at least 5 games the previous year and entered the following season as opening-day starter.

YES for qualified as significant regression in year two, NO for did not, HAH for very much the opposite my friend. You can find stats on all these quarterbacks at ProFootballReference.com

Rookie starters to sophomore year since 2004. Significant regression?:

Bradford YES
Ryan NO
Roethlisberger — NO
Flacco — HAH
Leinart — YES
Young — YES
Cutler — HAH
Edwards — NO
McCoy — YES
Manning — NO
Sanchez — NO
Freeman — HAH

First seasons weren’t exactly ….promising, but was there a regression in year two?:

Gabbert — NO
Ponder — NO
Russell — YES
Smith — NO

IN PROGRESS:

Newton — YES
Dalton — YES

Non-rookie second-year starters:

Henne — NO
Boller — NO
Losman — NO
Fitzpatrick — YES (but also did change teams)
Palmer — HAH
Anderson — YES
Romo — NO
Stafford — HAH (actually, has slumped from his first full-season of action in 2011 to the current in here in 2012, though that Seattle game might change the path. Either way, hard to mark him down as a second-year slump.)
Rodgers — NO
Schaub — HAH
Garrard — NO
Croyle — ??(hardly played due to injury in year two as starter)
Cassel — NO (stat regression hard
Campbell — NO

Takeaways? Well, the non-rookie second-year starters appear more likely to make a jump in year two than the sophomore second-year starters.

Meanwhile, the sophomore slump really only hit Derek Anderson among second-year starters, while with rookies you have significant sophomore regression Sam Bradford, Matt Leinart, Vince Young, Colt McCoy, Jamarcus Russell and — in progress — Cam Newtown and Andy Dalton. Matt Ryan could qualify here but his rookie year was such an all-time great and his sophomore year marred by injury to both him and an in-his-prime Michael Turner — not too mention that he didn’t play dramatically worse than his rookie year — that the statistical regression doesn’t quite qualify as a “slump.”

However, since 2004 no quarterback that has gone on to any success (or any “good” quarterback) has regressed dramatically in their second year as starter — sophomore or no.

Now, that does not mean you can expect huge leap in year two for either classification with only Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, Carson Palmer, Josh Freeman and Joe Flacco improving by a large margin in year two as starter. From non-busts, you see almost entirely moderate gains or losses in the battle between sophomore quarterbacks and intrepid defensive coordinators.

This makes what is happening to Dalton and Newton not just part of a trend or the normal sophomore growing pains. Panthers and Bengals fans should be very concerned that these young signal callers at least hit close to their rookie form over the second half of 2012.

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