How Unusual Are Wentz and Prescott’s Starts?

It’s been unusual enough in recent years for rookie quarterbacks to be ‘not terrible’, but through three weeks 2016 has been downright shocking. Turning my focus on Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott, I look at just how unexpected these performances are, given recent NFL history.

Five rookie quarterbacks have played already, four of them stating games, and the only one of them to have thrown an interception was undrafted anyway. This unit is led by the NFC East, with two rookies starting, excelling, and generally guiding their teams to winning-record starts. Full disclosure: I wanted to make this piece a bit of a film study of Wentz and Prescott, but I’ve been ill most of the week, and much as Philadelphia’s trouncing of Pittsburgh last week felt like a fever dream, actually watching it while feeling only half-tethered to reality was way weirder. So here’s some context on the pair of them.

Carson Wentz

Through three weeks, Wentz has been a revelation. Having been expected to sit for the first part of the year (as I wrote about), he played only a smattering of preseason snaps, and carried only lower-tier college football as prior experience. Yet he’s come in and seemingly dominated. Three games, three wins, all by two possessions or more. He’s completed 66 of 102 attempts, at an average of 7.5 yds/attempt, with 5 touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 103.8.

What does that mean? Well, it means he’s been efficient (65% of passes completed), not overly cautious when throwing (7.5 yards/attempt), he’s been effective in the redzone, and made the most of opportunities (5 touchdowns), has been careful enough (or lucky) throwing the ball (no interceptions), and as a whole, the Philadelphia offense is humming along nicely (103.8 passer rating). ESPN’s quarterback rating system is slightly more cautious, placing Wentz 11th among QBs (though given their system places Blaine Gabbert eighth…). ProFootballFocus says Wentz has been the best QB in the league so far, and has started off better than any rookie quarterback since they’ve been grading games (since 2006).

Every man and his dog are falling over themselves to ask “just how did this happen”, and I recommend Doug Farrar’s look at his game against Pittsburgh, for a brief breakdown of some things he’s done right, as well as the PFF piece linked above.

Dak Prescott

Prescott’s start is perhaps less surprising (for a given value of less surprising!), as he came in for an injured Tony Romo during preseason, and looked every inch the careful game-manager Dallas were lacking last season (leading to this very site rolling the heat-proof tarp off the fiery takes and predicting a bright future). Which, that’s pretty remarkable when you think about it. “Careful game-manager” is a fairly positive final outcome for a late-fourth round pick quarterback. Achieving it in your first meaningful top-level action, that’s impressive. Anyhow, Prescott has carried on where he started now the regular season’s underway, completing 66 of 99 at an average of 7.7 yds/attempt, with one passing touchdown (and two rushing!), no interceptions, for a passer rating of 93.3.

These figures look broadly similar to Wentz’s, with the main difference being Prescott’s 1 passing touchdown to Wentz’s 5. And indeed, Prescott doesn’t quite look as natural a reader of the game as Wentz, but heck, when you’re talking about rookies completing three games and not throwing an interception, that’s definitely not something for long-term concern. The fact that Prescott’s already established his floor as being somewhere Dallas would’ve been at peace had it been closer to his ceiling, means he looks like a cracking pick.

2016 In Context

Other than the chance to talk rookie quarterbacks, writing about this excites me because it’s an opportunity to crack out the spreadsheets. Yay, spreadsheets! Because it’s really instructive to see just how Wentz and Prescott have done compared to other QBs starting their first three possible regular-season games after being drafted.

wentz-prescott-spreadsheet

Ooft! That’s a lot of data. What do we make of it? Well, as everyone’s discussed, Wentz and Prescott are the only of these quarterbacks to be without interception after three NFL games. That’s incredibly impressive! There are some very good names here, who themselves got off to famously good starts in pro football. Also, Wentz and Prescott are both top three in number of completions, and in completion percentage. Admittedly, that would mean little if their average yards/attempt were low, but both rank comfortably in the top half of quarterbacks here.

Of course, the presence of – and early success enjoyed by! – Robert Griffin III (who also recorded 3 rushing TDs and 198 rushing yards), and to a lesser extent EJ Manuel and Mark Sanchez, tips the wink that early success is not a guarantee of future success. Of quarterbacks from 2013 and earlier, we have 10 of 13 being regular starters, and perhaps only two of them (Tannehill and Bradford) with real questions over their long-term efficacy. So that’s pretty good company for Wentz and Prescott to be in, and I’d say it bodes well for their future, but you know, it’s not the company that bodes well, it’s how well they’ve played irrespective of the context.

So?

Well, this is a piece without a “so”, I guess. But it’s really surprising just how well Wentz and Prescott have done in context. That said, you look at other rookie QBs who’ve started this season, Jacoby Brissett and Cody Kessler, and neither of them have thrown a pick between their 61 combined pass attempts this year either. Maybe it’s that head coaches have worked out how to best work their rookie QBs into games. Maybe they’re just all that good. Maybe it’s just dumb luck. But it’s worth savouring and appreciating, nodding and saying “fair play” to teams lucky enough not to have to sit through, say, Matt Stafford or Brandon Weeden’s opening, pick-heavy games.

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