We are living in an unprecedented era. In the history of pro football, never before have there been so many talented young quarterbacks enjoying so much success early on in their career. Last season, six of the twelve starting quarterbacks in the post-season were either rookies or sophomores. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, and Russell Wilson each lead their teams to the playoffs as rookies whilst Andy Dalton, Christian Ponder and Colin Kaepernick made the post-season in their second years in the NFL. In addition to the aforementioned, you also have the likes of Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton and Josh Freeman with 1988/89 birthdays who have enjoyed success in their first few years in the league. As I mentioned recently, the days of drafting a quarterback and having him sit behind a veteran for a year or two are well and truly gone; we now live in an age where fans (and teams to a certain extent) expect almost immediate results from newly drafted signal callers. In their first few years in the league, players are expected to either break a record, earn a playoff berth or at the very least dazzle stadiums with exciting touchdowns. This new age of heightened expectations and 24/7/365 media coverage has caused us to look at quarterbacks under a different light. It’s under this light that Brandon Weeden’s rookie season was a consummate failure.
Weeden didn’t break any records as a rookie. He didn’t throw for more yards than any other rookie in NFL history (like Andrew Luck did), nor did he tie Peyton Manning’s rookie touchdown record (like Russell Wilson did). Weeden didn’t come out of college with a trendy Twitter campaign to his name (like #SuckForLuck) nor does he have a nickname that makes him sound like a laser throwing robot (I do genuinely wonder if RG3 is actually a laser throwing robot). He didn’t lead Cleveland to the Super Bowl (like second year quarterback Colin Kaepernick did); in fact he only managed to get Cleveland’s win total to a meager 5. Weeden didn’t excite stadiums with his feet (he didn’t score a single rushing touchdown; Griffin (7), Luck (5), Wilson (4)) nor did he shower defenses with the deep ball (only 9 completions of over 30 yards; Luck (18), Wilson (15)). He plays for the Browns; the only franchise in the NFL that can claim they’ve neither been to the Super Bowl nor even hosted the Super Bowl. Weeden doesn’t play for a sexy franchise like the Colts, the 49ers or the Redskins - franchises who have illustrious history and records of success – he plays for a franchise named after Paul Brown but one more synonymous with the color of shit. A 29 year old red headed rookie with a name that sounds like something growing in your yard, playing for arguably the least successful franchise in the NFL, Weeden couldn’t be less marketable or attractive to the neutral. That is why many have said he’s not a franchise quarterback, that his rookie year was a failure; it has nothing to do with his performance on the field, it’s because of subjective bias by both the media and fans alike.
Let’s look at some numbers. Below is a table detailing the rookie year statistics of the every Super Bowl winning quarterback dating back to 2005, plus Weeden’s statistics. I opted to omit Aaron Rodgers from this because he never started until his fourth season in the league, by which point he was obviously far from a rookie. In addition, Eli Manning only started 7 games as a rookie so I opted to use his sophomore numbers where he stated the full season, consequently providing a better data sample. Anyone who might accuse me of cherry picking Manning’s second year numbers because they were worse than his rookie year numbers, trust me on his one, Eli’s rookie year stats were not good. Equally so, I could have prorated Eli’s rookie statistics into what they would have projected to if he had started all 16 games but I didn’t think that this would be a fair representation. Finally, Drew Brees never started a game as a rookie so I used his second year numbers (his first year starting under center where he played all 16 games). I’m not pretending that this is an exact science; I’m simply trying to show the statistics of each of the last five Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in their first year starting or rookie year, compared to Brandon Weeden’s statistics in 2012:
|Name||Yards||TD||Int||Comp %||Yards / Att||Att / G||Yards / G||Games Started|
The first thing to note is that Cleveland weren’t afraid of letting Weeden drop back and throw the football. With nearly 35 attempts per game, Weeden trailed only the Manning brothers for pass attempts per game. For me, it’s interesting to look at Weeden’s numbers next to those of Brees (who had the luxury of sitting for a year, watching tape and studying the playbook before starting 16 games); they’re almost identical in most respects and Weeden bests Brees in several categories. As for comparing Weeden’s stats with everyone else, he really doesn’t look out of place. The only statistic he truly falls short on is his touchdown to interception ratio which is in the negative compared to the rest of the players on that list. All in all though, you don’t look at Weeden’s numbers and think that he’s fundamentally out of place alongside the statistics of the eventual Super Bowl winners.
When you look at the receiving corps of the 2012 Cleveland Browns, it’s impressive that Weeden threw for 385 yards, let alone 3,385 across the season. Josh Gordon, Gregg Little and Travis Benjamin headline this band of merry men whilst Mohamed Massaquoi, Josh Cribbs and Josh Cooper also lined up outside the hash marks. To give you some perspective on how terrible this lineup is, Football Outsiders advanced statistics ranked Gordon and Little as the 54th and 65th best wide receivers in the league last year (the other suspects didn’t have enough receptions to be ranked). You know that guy you pick up off your fantasy football league’s waiver wire in week 10 because he had a good performance in week 6 and maybe, just maybe, he might repeat it again in week 11 when AJ Green is on bye week? Well, Josh Gordon and Greg Little weren’t even good enough to be that guy last season. What about Cleveland’s tight ends? Sure, Weeden’s receivers weren’t up to much but surely he had an outlet at tight end? Nope. According to Football Outsiders, a man named ‘J. Cameron’ who Google tells me is Jordan Cameron ranked as the 38th best tight end whilst supposed starter Benjamin Watson ranked 40th. Cleveland’s run game? Third overall pick Trent Richardson performed like the 37th best back in the league. The Browns’ offensive line? Ranked 20th in run blocking and 12th in pass protection.
Aside from above average pass protection, Brandon Weeden has NOTHING surrounding him last season. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. He put up comparable rookie numbers to that off five eventual Super Bowl winners and at least three future Hall of Famers and he had absolutely no supporting cast around him. Peyton had Marvin Harrison and Marshall Faulk to throw to in his rookie year; Eli had Plaxico Burress and Jeremy Shockey; Brees had LaDainian Tomlinson; Flacco had Derrick Mason; Roethlisberger had Hines Ward. Weeden’s best weapon was Josh Gordon; a rookie taken in the supplementary draft who was kicked out of Baylor for repeatedly failing drugs tests and consequently sat out the 2011 college football season.
Just because Weeden didn’t shine as brightly as the likes of Luck, RG3 and Wilson last season, doesn’t mean he’s a bust who has no hope of leading the Browns to post-season success. Weeden’s somewhat up and down rookie year doesn’t mean he won’t build upon it and improve. His numbers stand tall next to five of the last six Super Bowl winning quarterback’s first year numbers; did Drew Brees, Eli Manning or Joe Flacco look like they were going to become Super Bowl MVP’s after their first season? Heck, the last two of those didn’t look like they were going to become Super Bowl MVP’s after week 17 of the year they won it, let alone after their first year starting under center. Peyton Manning lead the Colts to three wins in his rookie year and threw 28 interceptions; that’s two less wins and 11 more picks than Weeden yet no one was screaming for the Colts to draft another quarterback in the 1999 NFL Draft. Times have changed; we live in the Twitter age where up-to-the-second news is the norm, where quarterbacks don’t sit for a season, where expectations are high from the outset. Brandon Weeden didn’t have half as bad of a rookie campaign as some would like to believe and there’s nothing to say that he won’t lead the Cleveland Browns to a Super Bowl in his career (well, maybe the high interception number could be a sign of things to come but that aside). Weeden was unfortunate to come out in the greatest quarterback draft class in NFL history alongside Andrew Luck, RG3 and Russell Wilson; had Weeden been able to stay in school another year and enter this years’ draft, he would be the highest rated quarterback on the board, higher than Geno Smith; a statement that the likes of Mel Kiper agree with (for what it’s worth).
Nevertheless, Weeden enters the 2013 season on the hot seat. He’s the draftee of a previous administration and a quarterback that the current administration won’t name as the starter. He’s under the watchful eye of the media and fans alike; both waiting for the first slip up to criticize him. He undoubtedly hopes that the Browns add some talent around him (we all saw what he was able to do with Justin Blackmon running downfield for Oklahoma State on the way to their 2011 Fiesta Bowl win over Andrew Luck’s Stanford Cardinal) but at the end of the day, only one person can show that Weeden has the caliber of a franchise quarterback and that’s Weeden himself. Whether the 30 year old quarterback can step up in his second season starting in the NFL remains to be seen. Don’t be too surprised if it turns out the old gunslinger has it though. Just watch.