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QB Sophomore Slump
by Hollywood Sports - 10/25/2012
Five rookie quarterbacks from the 2011 NFL class all seemed to have secured starting jobs in 2012. Yet all of these five QBs have suffered from the proverbial sophomore slump. Cam Newton is the prime example of this phenomenon. After passing for more than 4000 yards and registering 35 combined touchdowns through the air and on the ground, Newton has managed only 8 combined TDs while passing for only 1387 yards. But Newton is certainly not the only one to experience regression in his second season. Andy Dalton was the only rookie quarterback to guide his team to the playoffs. Dalton's efficiency was critical to his game as he tossed 20 TD passes to just 13 interceptions. But Dalton has gotten loose with the football this season as he has already tossed 10 interceptions including 6 over his last three games. Christian Ponder has been a surprise this season as he did not toss an interception in any of his first four games. However, he has thrown two interceptions in each of his last three games and managed a mere 58 passing yards last week against Arizona. Blaine Gabbert has probably improved this season from a very rough rookie campaign -- but he is being managed closely by head coach Mike Mularkey as he is averaging just 5.7 yards-per-pass-attempt and has passed for only 906 yards in his six games. Jake Locker gets an incomplete at best given his injuries this season although it is certainly fair to say that he was not lighting up the scoreboard in either the preseason or the beginning of this season. In all, these five second-year starting quarterbacks all are facing adversity as they enter the midpoint of the season.
Why is this happening? Are these random results -- or does this pattern suggest a harbinger for things to come for the five rookie quarterbacks that are starting for their teams this season? Lets look to Newton. The signs of his regression began late last year when he failed to throw for more than 200 yards in each of his last three games. Much of Newton's early success was due to the Panthers' prescient decision to implement much of the offensive playbook from Auburn that Newton was already familiar with. Not only did this play to Newton's unique talents but it facilitated his development since he was already comfortable running those plays. Washington, Indianapolis and Miami have done similar things with Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill as the Baylor, Stanford and Texas A&M playbooks have been borrowed upon for those respective systems. But the NFL is a league that adapts. In the case of Newton, defenses last year began to assign a safety to spy on Newton and limit his ability to run the football and force him to rely more on his arm. Given the offseason -- and then a few more game tapes from the beginning of this season -- and defensive coordinators can scheme to really begin to take away from what QBs like Newton want to do.
What Newton and the other second-year quarterbacks are experiencing is certainly not new to them. Lets look at some other recently drafted QBs who took over the starting job in their first season. Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman are all QBs who experienced some regression in their second season. And given the fact that Matthew Stafford injury-filled first two season resulted in him appearing in only 29 games entering this season, perhaps that explains some of the struggles he is having since his experience level equates to a second-year starter. While Sanchez still led his team to the AFC Championship in his second season, he is a QB that is still struggling to take his game to the next level. Interestingly, Bradford and Freeman are finally showing some signs of improvement over their last few games. And both Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco are quarterbacks who took the starting job in their rookie campaign who are thriving in their development a few years later -- but it is fair to say there were some hiccups in their second season.
Why did Ryan and Flacco seem to come out the other side as quarterbacks worthy of their high draft pick? First, they successfully handled the adversity that they faced when struggles inevitably occurred. Remember, most of the blue-chip quarterbacks have rarely experienced hard times in high school or college. For a player like Cam Newton who won National Championships in junior college and then at Auburn, after perhaps finishing the greatest statistical season for any rookie quarterback, this is the first time he has ever struggled on the football field. Handling that pressure is a stepping stone in their maturation process -- and not everyone can do it. Second, quarterbacks have to improve and learn how to adapt to the new schemes that defenses are challenging them with. For Newton, he has to learn how to threaten to run to freeze his spying safety and then quickly step back and find the likely open receiver that this safety is leaving open. This is a talent that RG3 is thriving with right now.
But does that mean RG3 won't experience his own sophomore slump? The evidence suggests that he will regress a bit eventually -- and it may happen before the season is out as it did for Newton. Defenses will adapt and force him to do something that he has yet to demonstrate he can execute. The same can be said for Luck, Tannehill and the two other rookie starters this year in Brandon Weeden and Russell Martin. How RG3 and these other young quarterbacks handle this adversity emotionally and how they learn to make the tactical adjustments on their own will determine if they make the step to the next level. Best of luck -- Frank.