The Probability of Major Improvements from McCoy, Kolb in Second Years on the Job
The Arizona Cardinals and Cleveland Browns have been backed into a quarterback corner. And that corner is one they built themselves. And when the metaphorical gun got pointed at their heads, they responded very clearly: no, we don’t feel like we made a mistake at the quarterback position last year.
So why pursue Peyton Manning and Robert Griffin III respectively? Well, think of those moves as a potential Get-out-of-Jail-Free card. If Cleveland or Arizona goes forward with Colt McCoy/Seneca Wallace, and Kevin Kolb/John Skelton, there’s always a chance that they’ll be playing the fool at the end of the year, cornered and unable to avoid the idea that they don’t know what they’re doing at the game’s most important position. Getting Manning or Griffin prevents them from ever having to admit that.
Here’s what no one on earth is considering: what if those teams actually DID know what they were doing? What if the needed remedy to the quarterback conundrum each of these teams is in is more time with the current plan? How likely is this? If you ask around, you’d think the answer was zero percent. But both QBs come in under the age of 30, clearly it is not a zero percent issue. What I want to establish is how often a player in the mold of Colt McCoy and Kevin Kolb 1) returns as a starter to their current team, and 2) improves to earn another contract with that team. Does it happen more than we think?
Kolb 2011: -0.81 WPA, 9.6 EPA, 4.9 AYPA, 16.6% deep pass; career: -1.67 WPA, -5.3 EPA, 4.3 AYPA, 17.1% deep pass
McCoy 2011: -0.30 WPA, -7.9 EPA, 4.2 AYPA, 14.0% deep pass; career: -0.48 WPA, -51.3 EPA, 4.2 AYPA, 16.1% deep pass
Skelton 2011: -0.58 WPA, -24.9 EPA, 3.8 AYPA, 22.5% deep pass; career: -1.47 WPA, -51.3 EPA, 3.8 AYPA, 22.9% deep pass
Wallace 2011: -0.20 WPA, -3.9 EPA, 4.0 AYPA, 16.8% deep pass; career: -0.62 WPA, 8.2 EPA, 4.5 AYPA 16.7% deep pass
One of those guys is not like the others (hint: it’s Skelton). Skelton has been by far the least successful quarterback of that bunch, but he’s also the one attempting to assimilate to the pro game as quickly as possible by rifling the highest percentage of downfield throws. Colt McCoy had that going for him in Brian Daboll’s Browns offense in 2010 when he looked like a franchise quarterback growing into the role. However, he now plays for Pat Shurmur, who wants to make Colt McCoy into a west coast quarterback. He failed to do so in 2011 (and admitted as much), so he’ll either give it another try in 2012 or turn to Seneca Wallace or Ryan Tannehill, the former of which saw his numbers drop just as sharply as McCoy’s after going from a downfield attacking passing game to a stripped down west coast offense without weapons.
But what we’re really concerned with is how often a year two turnaround actually works. And maybe more than that, whether or not the underlying performance of the player really even matters in year one.
Consider the cases of 2008 Jason Campbell (1.24 WPA, 28.3 EPA, 5.0 AYPA, 15.0% deep pass) and 2009 Chad Henne (0.90 WPA, 47.2 EPA, 4.3 AYPA, 19.5% deep pass), both of whom were benched by their teams in at least one game a year later, then ultimately weren’t brought back. Those are pretty good performances, relative to the group above, wouldn’t you say? For careers, Campbell (3.08 YPA, 167.0 EPA, 4.9 AYPA, 18.8% deep pass) and Henne (-0.19 WPA, 72.1 EPA, 4.5 AYPA, 18.9% deep pass) have performed, but didn’t improve over early career success, and have moved on. What we’re looking from in the cases of McCoy, Kolb, Skelton and others is significant improvement, not established performance.
Drew Brees, 2004 (4.27 WPA, 151.0 EPA, 6.4 AYPA)
2004 was a significant year for quarterback improvement, and most would not sustain their gains in this fertile passing season. Daunte Culpepper (5.50 WPA, 214.6 EPA, 6.6 AYPA) and David Carr (1.23 WPA, 59.9 EPA, 5.0 AYPA) both enjoyed the best seasons of their careers, as did the more reliable Trent Green (3.89 WPA, 133.2 EPA, 6.1 AYPA).
To say Brees sustained this level of performance better than everyone else on this list isn’t entirely correct. This was Brees’ best season by a significant margin until his 2009 season, where he established himself as the NFC’s best quarterback. By that point, Culpepper was on his last tour of duty with the Lions after already being out of the league once, Carr had been a well traveled backup, and Green had retired. Considering Brees’ labrum injury after a statistical regression in 2005, it could have easily been Brees who didn’t get an opportunity to prove his 2004 season wasn’t a fluke.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, 2010 (-0.88 WPA, 11.1 EPA, 4.7 AYPA, 22.0% deep pass)
The current case study for the theory that any quarterback can develop if given enough chances. Your move, Alex Smith.
Fitzpatrick signed with the Bills as a backup for Trent Edwards, and he played sparingly in 2009 for Dick Jauron, and quite frankly looked like Ryan Fitzpatrick always had when he was in the game. In 2010 though, he inherited an awful Bills team, and the only reason people took any notice of this season at all was because he put up a fictitiously high touchdown rate that made him a decent back end option as a fantasy quarterback.
On the actual field, Fitzpatrick makes too many mistakes to ever be significantly above average at the position, but this year two jump resulted in a perfect marriage between Chan Gailey and Fitzpatrick that allows the Bills to get the most out of their talent on offense. As of October, 2011, Fitzpatrick signed a mammoth extension, and no longer was a good value at the quarterback position. He is now an overpaid system quarterback. The same thing the Cardinals will gamble Kolb is in the 2012 season.
Jay Cutler, 2010 (1.17 WPA, 56.6 EPA, 4.7 AYPA, 21.9% deep pass)
Matt Cassel, 2010 (1.18, 64.1 EPA, 5.1 AYPA, 21.2% deep pass)
These were the two biggest name quarterbacks traded in 2009, and both had awful seasons for the teams that got them. But because (like Kolb and unlike McCoy) it cost draft pick compensation plus an extension to get them, both returned as unquestioned starters for a second year with a shiny new offensive coordinator after the old guy took the fall. Both responded with healthy, 16 game seasons, an increased emphasis on vertical passing, and improvement in all the relevant metrics.
Matt Hasselbeck, 2002 (2.44 WPA, 74.2 EPA, 5.6 AYPA)
This is the case season coaches are referring to when they talk about a mastery of the west coast offense. If Colt McCoy’s problem in 2011 was that he was just running plays instead of systematically executing an offense, well, Hasselbeck was almost certainly worse in his first season running head coach Mike Holmgren’s scheme than McCoy was this past season running Pat Shumur’s scheme for Team President Mike Holmgren.
And golly gee, that might give McCoy the perfect tape to go study to try to make himself into a similar player.
To conclude, history suggests that Kolb’s chances of working out in Arizona might be a little higher than McCoy’s in Cleveland, even though McCoy was the better player in 2010 and 2011. History is littered with guys who took a jump in their second seasons who were handpicked for the job, much like Kolb. The biggest threat to Kolb might not be his injury history or performance, but that his backup John Skelton might have a higher ceiling and won plenty of games in 2011 (with inferior numbers to Kolb).
But history doesn’t suggest the Browns or Cardinals are foolish for giving either of these guys another crack. McCoy’s upside given mastery of the WCO remains a more athletic version of Matt Hasselbeck, and Kolb could easily become Ryan Fitzpatrick with a better physical skill set. Both could happen this year. However, if their teams don’t have a deeper, more significant plan to get to the postseason, then the acquisitions of (not the decision to stick with) Kolb and McCoy will look foolish in hindsight if and when the Cards and Browns continue to lose games.