The Myth Of The Quarterback Sophomore Slump


Jan 13, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) runs the ball in the fourth quarter of the NFC divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons won 30-28. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things we keep hearing this offseason is the potential of Russell Wilson having a “sophomore slump.” It’s funny that everyone takes it for granted. Quarterbacks tend to struggle more in their second year than they do as a rookie, right?

The explanation for this phenomenon is pretty basic. Defensive coaches have a chance to study the QB more closely, and figure out how to attack them. The QB’s production then decreased until the QB and the offense around him learns and adapts. It’s an explanation that seems to make sense, which increases our acceptance that the slump is real.

But what if it’s not? What if the “sophomore slump” is a myth just like the Loch Ness Monster or that rocket powered flying car that Adam and Jaime keep trying to build on Myth Busters?

To examine this, I decided to look at every QB who started at least 10 games in each of their first and second years in the league over the past 15 years. That gets us back all the way to Peyton Manning’s rookie season.

There are 15 players who fit that criteria. (Oddly, that’s just an average of just one per year. I have I theory as to why that is, but that’s a topic for another article.) Let’s take a look at each of them, and how they performed in a few key statistical categories.

Below is the change in their performance from their rookie and second season. I’ve color coded the the boxes to make it easier to scan the data. Green means the player got better, red means they declined.

Matt Ryan is the only player  on the list that had a “sophomore slump.” His stats decreased pretty much across the board, and there wasn’t an obvious reason as to why. Sam Bradford’s stats were more of a mixed bag, but I can see why people would include him with Ryan in terms of having a slump. Bradford’s problems were caused by some very poor offensive line play. He took a beating, and then kept playing even after an injury.

The other 13 passers all improved overall in their first two seasons, which is why the chart is mostly a sea of green, with the exception of sacks taken. Here’s a few highlights:

  • 10 out of 15 increased their completion percentage. This is significant since the training wheels are usually off for second year passers, meaning the offenses they are running are much more complex.
  • 12 of 15 had their Yards per Attempt improve or stay the same, with only one showing a significant decrease.
  • 8 of the 15 QBs threw more touchdowns in their second year, and three others matched their rookie numbers.
  • Only 5 of 15 threw more picks in their second season despite more complex offenses and many more passing attempts in their second year.
  • All but two players saw an increase in their passer rating, and over half (8) saw an increase of more than five points.

The one statistical category where there is consistently a so-called “slump” in year two is in sacks taken. Only 5 of 15 saw a decrease in the number of sacks, and only one other saw no change. This is concerning, since sacks have a tendency to end drives and thus “undo” some of the work the offense.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three reasons for this increase in sacks taken that have nothing to do with a “sophomore slump”:

1) A drastic increase in the number of passing attempts.
2) Coaches ask their QBs to go further into their progression before throwing the ball away.
3) A more difficult schedule. (Rookie QBs tend to be drafted by last-place teams and thus they play a very light schedule in year one.) This might actually be why people believe that the slump is real, but it has nothing to do with a drop in the QB’s play.

It’s pretty easy to see that the so-called “sophomore slump” is a myth. With the exception of Matt Ryan (and maybe Sam Bradford if you want to count him), the other QBs all posted better numbers in their second season than in their first.

With that history in mind, and given the work ethic that Russell Wilson has shown over the past year, I think we can safely ignore any worries that Wilson’s level of play is going to drop in 2013.