I began the research for this article intending to get a handle on what the career arc for quarterbacks through the years with similar statistics to Sam Darnold this year look like. Specifically, I was interested in whether there were any historical examples of successful NFL quarterbacks who went through years that were statistically similar to Darnold in 2020, and if so, who were they?
I chose the following statistical categories for comparison: yards per attempt, passer rating, touchdown percentage and interception percentage. I make no claim that these are the only relevant statistics. I simply chose a somewhat arbitrary set of statistical categories that for me presents a pretty good picture, in the aggregate, of the level of quarterback play.
Having decided on the categories, I chose to search for similar cases based on the index values of these categories. The index value represents a percentage relative to the NFL average in any given year. So, for example, if a quarterback has a passer rating of 70 in a year the average NFL passer rating is 90, his passer rating index would be 70/90 = 77%.
I chose to focus on index values rather than the raw numbers in order to avoid apples to oranges comparisons resulting from changes in the NFL, including rules changes that have made passing progressively easier. A quarterback that posted a 75 passer rating in 1989 would be an average starting quarterback. The same passer rating today would make you one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Using index values gives us more of an apples to apples comparison and allows us to get a sense of how players compare across very different eras.
Going into this research I had no pre-conceived notions of where this would lead. I simply was curious what history might tell us.
For Sam Darnold, his current index numbers are as follows:
Yards per attempt index: 67
Passer rating index: 68
Touchdown % index: 73
Interception % index: 87
Given these numbers, I searched Pro Football Reference’s database for all quarterbacks in NFL history who had a season with 200 or more pass attempts and index numbers lesser than or equal to Darnold’s numbers. As it turns out, the list is a short one. Specifically, in all of NFL history, there has been one quarterback with 200 pass attempts with index numbers equal to or worse than Darnold’s 2020 numbers. In 2009, JaMarcus Russell earned that dubious distinction. Gulp.
Not wanting to miss players who may have had broadly similar numbers but exceeded Darnold’s a bit in a category or two, I broadened my search. I raised each index number by 10% and searched again. Here are all the quarterbacks in NFL history who had a season with 200 or more passing attempts and index numbers no better than Darnold’s current numbers, plus 10%.
1966 Dick Wood
1968 Dan Darragh
1970 Joe Kapp
1971 Bobby Douglass
1976 Joe Namath
1985 Vince Ferragamo
1986 Jack Trudeau
1987 Mark Malone
1998 Bobby Hoying
1998 Ryan Leaf
2000 Doug Pederson
2005 Kyle Orton
2009 JaMarcus Russell
2012 John Skelton
2014 Blake Bortles
2015 Nick Foles
2016 Jared Goff
That’s the entire list. There are a few decent quarterbacks here. Joe Namath is a Hall of Fame quarterback, but his season listed here was his last disastrous season with the Jets. He played one more year, with the Rams, was replaced for ineffectiveness, and retired.
Vince Ferragamo was a decent quarterback, but the season listed here was his last as a starter. He never started another NFL game, and retired after one more season.
Joe Kapp was a decent quarterback for a few seasons, but the season listed here ended his career. He never played another game in the NFL.
There are perhaps one or two quarterbacks to hang your hat on here. Nick Foles won a Super Bowl, made a Pro Bowl, and led the league in passer rating in 2013. But he also has been a backup virtually his entire career. Jared Goff has had some success with the Rams after his awful rookie year, with two Pro Bowls under his belt.
If you’re looking in these numbers for reasons for optimism, Goff is probably your guy. However, there just aren’t any historical examples of a quarterback beyond his rookie year having a year as bad as Darnold is having in 2020 and going on to success as a starting quarterback in the NFL. The lack of historical precedent does not mean it is impossible that Darnold will be the first. There is always a lack of precedent the first time anything is achieved. In addition, Darnold still has the last half of the season to rally and make this entire analysis moot. However, if Darnold’s numbers don’t substantially improve the rest of the way this year, it seems unlikely, based on historical precedent, that he will ever achieve success in the NFL. If he does achieve success, he’ll be blazing a trail where no one has gone before.