When a young player gets off to a slow start, I do my best to figure out the historical context.
Every year we hear about rookies stepping in and making an immediate impact, but they tend to be the exception to the rule. Adjusting to the NFL takes many players some time. Some positions are more difficult than others. None is more difficult than quarterback.
Quarterbacks are heavily scrutinized. In many cases I think this becomes unfair. The position requires a large degree of development. Many quality quarterbacks have gotten off to slow starts.
Just as we can’t dismiss a quarterback for early struggles, I think we need to understand that not all struggles are created equally. There are different types of mistakes. A rookie getting tricked by a complex coverage is different from a rookie airmailing a routine throw.
Three weeks into his NFL career, Zach Wilson had 7 interceptions. That was an inordinate amount. Looking at the history of the league, I found there seemed to be very little correlation between a lot of interceptions in the first few games and career quality.
Given Wilson’s struggles this year, I wanted to dig deeper to look at other quarterbacks who have had comparably rough seasons. Wilson’s issues are many. His 56.1% completion percentage is very low. Of course, a low completion percentage isn’t necessarily the end of the world. A quarterback might be taking a lot of deep shots down the field. These plays are lower percentage, but they produce a higher yield. Unfortunately Wilson’s yield is a paltry 6.1 yards per attempt. If we aren’t getting efficiency, are we at least avoiding big mistakes? Again, that’s a no. Wilson has a 3.9% interception rate, second highest in the league among qualifiers.
There isn’t much good you can say right now, but what does it mean going forward? Can a quarterback overcome such a bad season? I decided to turn to the Stathead database to find out. I did a search of every quarterback whose numbers were equal or worse than Wilson’s in a single season since 2000. I did not limit the search to rookies since my goal was just to find out how plausible bouncing back from a rough year was in general. I also searched for quarterbacks who started at least eight games in that season for sample size purposes.
The positive news is there is a clear example of a quarterback who bounced back after such an inefficient year. Even more encouraging, it was a rookie who took over as his team was in the beginning stages of a rebuild. The quarterback is Matthew Stafford of the Lions in 2009. Stafford, of course, developed into a high quality starter who has been a top ten quarterback at his best.
Stafford provides hope. That’s the good news.
What’s the bad news? It’s the entire non-Stafford portion of the list.
The other quarterbacks to have seasons as bad or worse than Wilson in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and interception rate since 2000 are as follows: Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, DeShone Kizer, Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller, Quincy Carter, Doug Pederson, AJ Feeley, and Andrew Walter.
If you made a list of the biggest Draft flops of the last twenty-five years, there would be a lot of overlap between those two lists along with a few journeymen who never amounted to anything in the NFL.
Another area I looked at was ESPN’s QBR metric. Wilson currently rates last in the NFL with a 24 QBR. For reference, Sam Darnold was last in 2020 with a dismal yet appreciably better 32.9 QBR.
Looking back in history doesn’t make the story much better. Wilson is currently on pace to be the first qualifying quarterback to post a full season QBR under 25 since Josh Rosen in 2018.
ESPN has QBR stats going back to 2006, and the only quarterbacks in that span to fall below Wilson’s 24 in a single season are Blaine Gabbert (22.2) in 2011, Jimmy Clausen (13.8) in 2010, and Andrew Walter (23) in 2006.
While we might expect rookies to struggle, what Wilson has done to date goes beyond a rookie struggling. His current pace is on par with some of the worst seasons (and yes worst quarterbacks) in recent NFL history.
Again I’m not trying to cause panic for the sake of causing panic. A few months ago I even argued Wilson’s interceptions in the first three games were not cause for great alarm. However, we are getting past the point where these struggles can be completely dismissed.
Is it fair to call Zach Wilson a bust today? No, I don’t think so. Can we definitively close the book on his career? Again I would say no.
But can we ignore the extent of his poor play? I would have to say no to this as well.
You don’t want to belong in one club that calls Russell, Leaf, Kizer, Boller, and Harrington members or another club which has Gabbert and Clausen.
With this in mind, I think the last four games of the season have more importance for Wilson than they might for your typical rookie. His current trajectory at least to some extent is alarming. You want to see any rookie finish his first season strong and show improvement, but beyond that it is imperative that Wilson show he can be better than his current numbers and the quarterbacks who have produced comparably.