The Mahomes Experiment: Do NFL Quarterbacks Benefit from Sitting their Rookie Seasons

Last year, Chiefs general manager John Dorsey intentionally sat first round rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes so that the young star could learn under veteran QB Alex Smith, a move that was questioned at the time. Now, as Mahomes is having a breakout year and has the Super Bowl in his sights, Dorsey is being praised for his patience and foresight.

After transitioning to GM of the Cleveland Browns in the offseason, Dorsey attempted to use the same formula, announcing that number one overall pick Baker Mayfield would sit out his rookie season to learn under Tyrod Taylor. However, that plan came crashing to a halt when Taylor suffered a concussion late in the first half of the Browns’ week 3 matchup against the Jets, and Baker Mayfield was forced to enter his first NFL game down 14-3 at the half.

Baker

Incredibly, Mayfield mounted a comeback to defeat the Jets, and was able to secure the Browns’ starter position for the remainder of the 2018 season. In this situation, many critics argued that Mayfield was NFL-ready from day 1. “He doesn’t need the Mahomes treatment!” they cried. And the evidence is pointing in their favor—Mayfield has been impressive this year.

These two recent cases have called into question Dorsey’s (and others’) philosophy that sitting a rookie QB for a year makes them more “NFL-ready”. Does a quarterback truly perform better in his first year starting if he sits out his rookie season, or does it not make a difference?

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I want to examine this question through a historical lens, comparing past quarterbacks who were thrown straight into the fire and started their rookie season to quarterbacks who did not become a starter until their second season (who I will call “sophomore starters”). I am also only examining the quarterbacks’ statistics during their first year as a starter. Basically, we’re just testing whether “NFL-readiness” is increased by “the Mahomes treatment”.

            Of course, there are some shortcomings to this approach. Some quarterbacks are simply better, and will be stars in the NFL regardless of their role during their rookie seasons. I don’t think anyone can argue that Payton Manning should have sat his fiery 1998 rookie season—Manning was top 5 in touchdowns and passing yards as a rookie. To account for differences in talent, I separated 1st round quarterbacks from non-1st round quarterbacks and examined the groups separately. I also used a large sample size, looking at quarterbacks drafted from 1988 to 2016 in an effort to soften the impact of breakouts like Manning or duds like Jimmy Clausen, who was eternally banished to NFL backup status after a dismal rookie season with the Panthers in 2010.

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I picked four statistics to judge a quarterback’s entire first year performance: Completion %, Touchdown %, Passer Rating, and Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. These statistics certainly do not capture a quarterback’s entire season’s performance, but they do a good job summarizing it. Completion % indicates a quarterback’s accuracy, TD % illustrates a quarterback’s ability to actually score, and passer rating acts as an overall analyzer of performance. Finally, adjusted net yards per attempt, or ANY/A, shows a quarterback’s deep ball ability with an emphasis on touchdowns and a penalty for interceptions. For example, here is prolific passer Carson Wentz’s rookie year performance in those categories:

CWentz

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When I looked at the performance of all of the first-round quarterbacks since 1988, I split them into two groups to compare: rookie starter and sophomore starters, and then compare the average rookie starter stats to the overall first round stats and see if there is a significant difference (and do the same for the sophomore starters). Through my findings, Byron Leftwich embodies the average 1st round rookie starter; he is right around the average for this group in all four stats. As for 1st round sophomore starters, JaMarcus Russell is our middle-man. As you can see below, the two quarterbacks put up shockingly similar statistics in their first seasons as starters (and just for fun, I will include Ben Roethlisberger’s monster 2004 rookie season).

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These two similar examples confirm the findings of my statistical analysis—there is no significant evidence that sophomore starters perform differently than rookie starters among first rounders! The slight variations in the averages that you see below are not considered “statistically significant,” which is nerd talk for ‘not big enough to be conclusive.’

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The average later rounders are shown below; Derek Carr and Tyler Thigpen characterize their respective groups very well.

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Again though, my statistical analysis finds no significant difference between the rookie starters and the sophomore starters—the averages for both groups practically mirror the averages for all later round quarterbacks.

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I’m certainly not saying that every rookie quarterback should start, or that John Dorsey is an idiot (quite the contrary, I actually love what Dorsey has done for the Browns). Maybe Patrick Mahomes really did play better because of his time as a backup, and that could be true for other quarterbacks as well. However, historically, there is no conclusive evidence that quarterbacks who have a season to sit and learn perform better in their first season as a starter. With an exciting group of college quarterbacks including Dwayne Haskins and Tua Tagovailoa entering the draft in the next few years, it will be interesting to see whether GM’s continue to deploy the ‘Mahomes treatment’—who knows, maybe we will see the next Ben Roethlisberger light it up in their rookie season!

Sources

Stats:

http://www.drafthistory.com/index.php/positions/qb

https://www.pro-football-reference.com/years/

https://www.si.com/nfl/photo/2016/10/11/best-rookie-quarterback-seasons-nfl-history#1

https://www.sportingcharts.com/dictionary/nfl/adjusted-net-yards-per-pass-attempt.aspx

Photos:

https://deadspin.com/yep-patrick-mahomes-is-still-ridiculous-1829257500

https://www.crimsonandcreammachine.com/2018/9/21/17886428/oklahoma-sooners-football-baker-mayfield-cleveland-browns-shirt-cleveland-special-rally-possum

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Twitter Fingers: The Landscape of NFL Team Twitter Accounts

Featured image courtesy of AdWeek

Ten years ago, NFL teams had few means to reach out and directly interact with fans around the world. The vast majority of what people learned about their favorite team would come from secondary sources such as online blogs, television shows, or talk radio. The only direct access many fans had was through the team’s website, which often operated like an online team store with a roster and an occasional press release sprinkled in. Some fans stuck to online message boards, spreading speculative news through the grapevine while they waited for the next game and all of the new story lines that would come with it. Although it may not have seemed like it in the moment, the routine of gathering information was relatively simple.

And then social media came along.

Social media has changed the way the world connects, and arguably no other platform has influenced the sharing of information the way Twitter has over the last decade. More so than Instagram and Facebook, Twitter has become a source of breaking news and personal perspectives for its users, so much so that three years after its launch, in 2006, ABC News called Twitter the “news outlet for the 21st century”. Since 2010, Twitter has seen its active user population grow from roughly 30 million users per yearly quarter to over 326 million currently [LINK]. Even if you don’t have a Twitter account, odds are you’ve seen a tweet somewhere. Outlets from SportsCenter to CNN use tweets from athletes, politicians, and public figures in their broadcasts, elevating Twitter beyond just spreading the news, but being the news.

Soon enough, sports teams and athletes from all around the world began making accounts on Twitter. More so than ever before, people could control their own narrative and instantly provide content directly to their followers.

The NFL is a prime example of the use of Twitter in professional sports. Each franchise has an entire social media team in charge of running their various accounts. Even though there is only one game a week, these account teams are constantly creating and posting content for their Twitter feeds. Their job, in essence, is to promote the team and portray them in the most favorable light possible, hoping to generate buzz and excitement within the fan base. For example, the Seattle Seahawks have tweeted more than almost any other team in the NFL, and a portion of those tweets are direct and unprompted replies to supporters.

In theory, an active Twitter presence keeps supporters grounded and builds fan loyalty and knowledge about the team. The goal and hope is that this will lead to improved ticket sales, fan satisfaction, and win over new fans both locally and abroad. Take this exchange from the Dallas Cowboys twitter account, for example, where a fan simply retweeted the Cowboys’ tweet, won a prize, and responded with pure joy.

Teams clearly use twitter frequently as a powerful promotional tool, but what exactly are the tweeting habits of NFL teams? Do they tweet more during certain weeks or after certain results? How many followers does each team have? Do good teams tend to tweet more than bad teams? Using the statistical software R, Twitter’s API, and the rtweet package, I sought to answer these questions and more.

First, let’s establish a general picture of the NFL landscape. To do that, let’s simply look at the follower count of each franchise as of December 11, 2018, organized alphabetically by the teams’ Twitter handles in the graph and numerically in the table.

(Note: A “Twitter handle” is the username, or @, that they are uniquely identified by. For example, the Washington Redskin’s Twitter handle is @Redskins.)

Team Followers Bar GraphTwitter Followers

 

As seen above, the New England Patriots have by far the most twitter followers of any NFL team, coming in at more than 4.3 million. The Patriots are perennially one of the best teams in the league, having won five Super Bowls since 2001 and claiming their divisional title every year but two in the same time frame. Following the Patriots are the Dallas Cowboys, who are steeped in tradition and have become known as “America’s Team,” a moniker referencing their wide-ranging fan base and ravenous supporters.

Holding the crown for the least followers, however, are the Jacksonville Jaguars at less than 650,000, joined by the Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Los Angeles Rams, each reaching out to less than 800,000 followers whenever they tweet. There are many factors that could contribute to these teams having smaller followings. Chief among these reasons could be that the Jaguars, Titans, and Buccaneers all hail from smaller markets compared to the rest of the league, while the Los Angeles Rams are relatively new to LA, moving there for the beginning of the 2016 season.

Furthermore, over two-thirds of NFL teams have less than two million followers, with ten teams tallying less than a million. These numbers serve to emphasize the fandom that teams like the Patriots and Cowboys have, more than doubling the number of followers of most teams.

While number of followers is useful, how about the total tweet count of each team account? Maybe the teams that have more followers tend to tweet more, or maybe the reverse is true. Here is a graph and table of every team’s total tweets as of December 11th, 2018:

Number of Tweets by Team GraphTotal Tweets

One of the most striking aspects of this data is the apparent consistency across the board of NFL team Twitter accounts. Over two-thirds of teams are between 40,000 and 60,000 tweets, with the Bengals establishing the floor at 21,686 tweets. The closest team to the Bengals would be the Colts at 32,540. For reference, the Bengals joined Twitter in March of 2009, while the Saints, the most twitter-happy team in the league, joined one month later, in April. Over roughly nine years and 8 months, the Saints have tweeted 51,747 more times than the Bengals. This rounds out to the Saints sending, on average, about 14.5 more tweets a day than the Bengals, with no known continuity issues concerning the Bengals account.

Without performing any advanced statistical analysis, it appears that there isn’t a strong relationship between follower count and number of tweets. As stated previously, there could be countless factors that influence the number of tweets a specific team posts. For example, some accounts could go more dormant in the off-season than others, while other franchises might be facing a prolonged losing period. It is nearly impossible to account for every variable.

To account for some of these factors, I turned my attention toward the current 2018-2019 NFL season. The idea is that by singling out the current season, we can analyze each team’s behavior over time depending on factors such as whether they won, lost, had a bye week, or are in the hunt for the playoffs. Using the last 3200 tweets of each team, I have charted the amount each account sent out during a given week of the season, starting on Sunday, September 2nd, the last Sunday before the regular season began. Each team is compared in a slide with the rest of its division, and each division is placed in the slideshow corresponding to its conference.

(Note: When comparing teams from two separate divisions, pay attention to the scales of each graph, they are different. Also, if it shows there are zero tweets for a team’s first week, that is because the team has tweeted more than 3,200 times since the start of the season. Rtweet only allows up to 3200 tweets to be collected from a timeline at once.)

NFC:

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AFC:

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By examining these graphs alongside team schedules and league standings, we can get a grasp of how team accounts react to how a team performs over time.

One of the easiest observations to glean from these graphs is the timing of a team’s bye week. Almost every NFL team sees a dramatic drop in the number of tweets posted during their week off, only to see the amount rise back up the next week. Otherwise, there does not seem to be a dominant trend across all divisions upon first glance. While some current division leaders like the Saints, Texans, Cowboys, and Bears have found themselves as leading tweeters among their peers, other exceptional teams such as the Chiefs, Rams, and Patriots have failed to deliver consistent weeks of high-volume tweeting despite their superior records. In the Patriots’ AFC East, for example, the 7-6 Miami Dolphins tweet much more than any other team despite having a relatively mediocre record the entire season. Thus, it becomes apparent that winning does not necessarily mean more tweeting, at least relative to the league as a whole.

These charts are perhaps most useful when focusing on one franchise at a time. Each team has their own media personnel after all, with their own habits, preferences, and ideas in regard to social media presence. How else could you explain the case of the Philadelphia Eagles, who, coming into the season as reigning Super Bowl Champions, have remained relatively constant in their week-by-week tweet counts despite a relatively forgettable 6-7 record? Then there’s the case of the Carolina Panthers, who, after beginning the season at 6-2 and were poised to make the playoffs, have face-planted with five straight losses. As one would expect, after several high-volume weeks to begin the season their rate dropped considerably.

So, is there a definitive trend that spans all NFL teams? From this analysis, the only trend that appears to be universal is that teams tweet far less during their bye week. Otherwise, each team acts relatively independent of each other. One team may tweet less following a loss while another may actually tweet more. There are simply too many questions and too many factors to consider to accurately predict how a team’s Twitter account will behave. Playoff position, Pro Bowl voting, wins, losses, past season success, and other variables all go into what is tweeted and how often a team takes to social media.

Regardless, the data covered in this article is important for many reasons. Social media is one of the most powerful tools a team has to interact with and energize a fan base. Promotions, replies, and player involvement all connect fans to a team in a way that no beat reporter, journalist, or national outlet can. A team cannot necessarily control the number of tallies in the win column, but they can help control the narrative surrounding their franchise through Twitter and other outlets. An excellent social media presence can invigorate and maintain supporters even in the darkest of times. Therefore, social media patterns are one of the first things a team should look to when experiencing issues with their fan base.

The relationship between the NFL and Twitter is so intricate that it is impossible to do more than scratch the surface. Individual players interact with peers, fans, and other teams through the platform, and countless casual observers have become rabid fans through their exposure to NFL Twitter feeds. Some careers have been ruined, while others have been reimagined through the power of Twitter. So, while the notion of how many followers a team has or how often they tweet may at first seem trivial, the story everyone is talking about often begins and ends with the people forming the narrative behind the account.

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Andrew Brown’s journey to the NFL practice squad

Bengal fans begin to fill the stadium for the first preseason game of 2018. As game time approaches, the cheers get louder and adrenaline begins to rush throughout the stadium. After endless hours of preparation, the team charges out of the locker room onto the field. A few of them are rookies, experiencing the out-of-body feeling for the first time. The audience meets them with a roar of appreciation and eagerness to get this 2018 season started.

In the fourth quarter, the Bengal’s defense lined up for a snap. To fans, this pre-season game was insignificant to their year. But to rookie Andrew Brown, fifth round pick, he would remember it forever. It was his first appearance in the NFL, and the beginning of a lot of change.

“Hut! Hut! Hut!” The throaty grunt was followed by 26 players dogpiling into a mass of people, legs and helmets poking out here and there. After the aggressive shoving and colorful language calmed down, the players begin to pick themselves up and the mass begins to slowly disperse. But one player took a little longer to rise. Andrew Brown gripped his hamstring with a winced face. He had been playing football long enough to know that something was wrong. Coaches and trainers guided Brown to the sideline and then the training room where they informed him of news he did not want to hear.

Brown had torn his hamstring in his first NFL game appearance. At this moment, Brown’s outlook on football took a 360° turn from when he began the sport.

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When Andrew was just 10 years old, his mother, Sonia Carter, died after a long fight with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and two bouts of breast cancer. “The death of my mom at such a young age molded me into the man I am today. I was able to deal with adversity, rise above it and become something of it.”

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After the death of his mom, football was his escape during his developmental years. He found his second family there, the coaches that had his best interests in mind. He made a majority of his childhood memories through it. “As a child, I was obsessed with the game of football. I wanted to play it every chance I had.” He explained how he spent countless afternoons on the field. Not because anyone forced him to, but because he loved the game. It just so happened that he was pretty good at it as well.

Brown’s high school years are heralded with accolades and unbelievable statistics. In his senior season he recorded 93 tackles, 30 for a loss, 18 sacks and forced nine fumbles. This continued domination led to Brown becoming a two-time USA Today All-American, ESPN’s No. 1 defensive tackle recruit, 2013 Gatorade High School Football Player of the Year and many more.

“I remember receiving each award in high school. Even the smaller ones, I wanted to remember that experience.” In July 2014, Brown received one of the highest awards a high school football player could be awarded. He had the opportunity to walk the red carpet at the ESPY Awards as Gatorade Player of the Year. He stopped to snap pictures with NBA star Kevin Durant and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Three years later, Brown recalls the exact feeling, “Just the look in my dad’s eyes, to see how proud he was of me. That definitely touched me and made me want to go back as a result of my accomplishments.”

IMG_6451.PNGThis was a highlight in Brown’s football memories. He remembers the satisfaction and joy that this sport had brought him and that led him to this moment. During his trip to L.A., Brown was able to get to know number one draft pick, Karl Towns. “It was an experience that I’ll never forget. I became best friends with Karl from that experience. I still talk to him from time to time.”

Meeting Durant, Winston and Towns is not his sole memory from that night. But rather his steadfast desire to earn his way back to the red carpet. At this point in his life, football began to take on a bigger meaning. He saw how his efforts could impact his future. Brown could only imagine what his next four years at UVa would hold, but he hoped that his love for the sport, his talent and his support system would guide him to the next level.

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Brown began at the University of Virginia in 2014, where he held the Defensive End position. When talking with Brown in his Senior year of college, the future of his football career was up in the air. He knew that, but he reacted with the maturity that he had learned throughout his life. “I believe that everything happens for a reason. I put a lot of faith in God to decide where I will end up.”

Brown had showcased his talents throughout his junior season and had emerged for his senior season with a resounding boom. Despite many injuries, the 6’4” senior, regarded as one of the most heralded recruits in UVa history, has lived up to the expectation. “This year’s more of an aggressive approach because it is my final year and I have to show the NFL scouts that I can play the run versus just a third down player. I’ve played the run better than I’ve ever done in my career.”

NFL talk crept in when explaining how friendships have an impact on staying with the sport. Brown still found time to talk with those that got him to this point. This included a childhood friend, Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama defensive end. The two five-star recruits formed a mutual support for one another and a love for the game. “I still talk to Da’Shaun a lot. We just sit down and talk about our problems and what our motives are. We’ve come to a collective agreement that were here for one goal and one goal only and that’s to make it to the NFL and make our families proud of us.” At this point, Brown viewed football as his potential career after college. That automatically put a more serious tone on his outlook of practice and games.

When asked if there was an individual who motivated him to finish off his final season at UVa dominantly, Brown answered, “If I could narrow it down to one, it would be my mom over top of anything. That’s my number one motivating factor to get through everything.” Brown also turns to his faith. “Growing up my grandmother kept me in the church a lot. Ever since the days when my mom would pinch me to keep me awake.” The tougher days had helped him appreciate the uncertainty of his future in the NFL at the time.

sOWZyNaw

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A lot can change in one year. The Cincinnati Bengals selected Andrew Brown in the fifth round of the NFL draft. He had dreamt of this day for quite a while. “I had just gotten out of the shower and saw that a Cincinnati area code was calling. I looked over at the TV and saw Cincinnati was up to pick next.”

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There were tougher days ahead. His outlook on football would change drastically. Throughout middle school, high school and college, football was Brown’s source of family, friends and enjoyment. After his hamstring injury in his first preseason game, Brown was placed on the practice squad. He took on a different tone when discussing football in the NFL. The emotion behind the sport had been removed, it was more methodical. “My outlook has changed not by viewing football as more of a job but more of a business and that emotions cannot be mixed in with it.”

He told one reporter that his mindset was “to show everybody that the five-star Andrew Brown never went anywhere, I’ve always been here.” His statements are a little more guarded and defensive. The days of “I believe that everything happens for a reason” are replaced with “never feel complacent. Because someone out there is always working to take your job.”

Brown spent two months letting his hamstring injury heal, and worked his way back to practice. Brown was then reminded how quickly things can change in the NFL. On November 15th, Brown broke his hand during practice. Reporter’s called this a “season-ending injury.” The Bengals shelved Brown and placed him on the injured reserve list.

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The life of a IR and practice squad player in the NFL is riddled with emotional ups and downs of fighting for a spot on the active roster. NFL teams can place up to ten players on their practice squad. They can earn a minimum of $6,900 per week during the season, and can be cut at any point. If a practice squad player is cut, there is a 24-hour dead period where another team can claim them for their active roster. If he does not receive an offer from anyone else, he heads home.

When you think of an NFL player, you think of those playing on Sunday or at least standing on the sidelines. There are ten other players who are either watching from the stands or on the television from their couch. During the week, practice squad players are the first to enter the locker room. They spend countless additional hours studying playbooks and film in order to know that week’s opponent. Practice squad players have to be prepared to fill in for active players during practice. This may be the only chance they have to play with the active roster for the week.

Andrew Brown knows that any day could be his last. This period of limbo has tested him to a level he could not have expected. “There’s a lot of ups and downs right now. I’m working harder than I ever have and I know how close I am to seeing my dream.”

From pouring his feelings into football after the death of his mother, to his journey to the red carpet and now fighting to keep his career alive – Brown has been forced to re-conceptualize what the sport means to him.

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