Which Second Year Quarterback/Head Coach Duo Would We Take To Start An NFL Team?
Prompted by this question from DailyRoto’s Michael Leone on Twitter “What QB/HC duo would you want to start a team, separate from their current supporting cast? , I wanted to do a deeper dive into the four second-year quarterbacks and their new or returning head coaches. Which pairing is most poised for success regardless of their supporting cast? How will the tandems work together and how can we expect these players to perform moving forward?
We are excluding Baker Mayfield and Freddie Kitchens from this discussion because Mayfield is pretty clearly destined for stardom and Kitchens knows how to design an offense to make him successful.
Before we get into the rankings, I would like to make the note that rookie quarterbacks generally have a rough go of it. The following list is how several five-plus year NFL starters and All-Time greats did in their first seasons in the NFL in terms of Adjusted Yards Per Attempt
This is how the current class of rookie quarterbacks did in terms of Adjusted Yards Per Attempt:
Quarterback/Head Coach Rankings
Jackson is not the best pure passer of this group, the honor for that likely goes to Rosen or Darnold. However, Jackson showed the best ability to impact games at the NFL level immediately. Despite starting only seven games, Jackson set the record for carries by a quarterback in a single season with 147 at 4.7 yards per attempt. He missed zero games with injury, which is generally what we are concerned about with running quarterbacks and probably makes his timeline of effectiveness shorter than Mayfield, Rosen and Darnold. Something that I like to do when trying to contextualize players is to run statistical searches based on thresholds that a player has reached. For Jackson, I ran a search for quarterbacks with over 90 rushing attempts and more than 150 passing attempts as a rookie. Only six players have ever done that in NFL history and two of them did in the 1940s. The current players to have reached those thresholds are Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and of course, Lamar Jackson.
Will Jackson ever become an adequate passer? I think he has the skills to do it; we can see now that when he has his feet set, he is able to deliver accurate balls. When he is on the move or throwing off his back foot, no one knows where the ball is going. When not under pressure, Jackson completed 60% of his passes but was still below average with his accuracy. If Josh Rosen had shown more, I would definitely flip him over Lamar, but I give a tremendous amount of credit to a rookie quarterback who was able to lead his team to the playoffs.
The Harbaugh part of this equation is more difficult because he does not seem to have adjusted well to the new era of passing in the NFL. He was able to design a running offense that made Jackson effective but was clearly stymied against the three-safety look that the Chargers used in the playoffs. Harbaugh’s offenses have been above league average in points scored in seven of his 11 years as a coach but never higher than eighth. Overall, this ranking is more about Jackson’s development as a passer than Harbaugh’s acuity as a coach.
Josh Rosen/Kliff Kingsbury
This is an optimistic ranking. Darnold was much better than Rosen as a rookie. Rosen threw only 11 touchdowns in 14 games and had more interceptions than touchdowns. However, I liked Rosen more as a prospect at UCLA than I did Darnold at USC. Darnold had an issue with turnovers in college while Rosen threw only 26 interceptions on 1,170 pass attempts. Rosen averaged eight Adjusted Yards Per Attempt and started as an 18 year-old in a Power Five conference. Darnold did not start as a freshman and threw 22 collegiate interceptions on 846 attempts.
Rosen had Pro Football Focus’ worst graded offensive line; but not only were the Cardinals the worst pass blocking unit in the NFL, they were a standard deviation worse than the 31st worst pass blocking line. Rosen also had some of the worst play callers in the NFL to work with. Steve Wilks was a defensive minded coach who hired Mike McCoy to put Rosen behind the eight ball time after time with up-the-middle runs on first and 10. It was really a true nightmare scenario for Rosen and I am almost giving him a pass. His best offensive weapon was a misused pass-catching running back in David Johnson and a 35 year-old slot wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald. This was as bad as a situation gets and it showed in Rosen’s numbers.
Steve Wilks was fired at the end of the season and Mike McCoy was let go in the middle of the year. They have been replaced by Kliff Kingsbury and his coaching staff. Kingsbury led some of the most amazing passing offenses at Texas Tech, even if that did not always turn into wins. Kingsbury coached Baker Mayfield and chose to make him the first ever true freshman walk-on starter for a FCS-eligible team. He also coached Davis Webb and Patrick Mahomes. Both put up eye-popping numbers in Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense. The concepts of the Air Raid are so pure and effective that whatever team chooses to run those plays has a distinct advantage on their opponents. I am thrilled to see this system at work in the NFL and think the marriage of Rosen and Kingsbury has Top Five offensive potential if the offensive line situation gets fixed.
It’s a very unfair position for Sam Darnold to be in. He has been held up as an example of why the Giants should have selected a quarterback instead of Saquon Barkley at the number two spot in the NFL Draft (and they should have). That means that any time he has a poor game, the idiotic Barkley truthers extol his problems with turnovers as signs of him being a bust. Darnold, make no bones about it, is not a bust. However, his coaching staff did him no favors as a rookie and I am afraid that Adam Gase is not likely to help him much either.
Darnold finished the year with more touchdowns than interceptions, which is not easy to do as a rookie. Overall, I found myself impressed by his ability to get throws off when hit and he did not get discouraged while playing for such a poor team. Darnold had a higher Pro Football Focus passing grade than Jackson, Rosen and Allen but his “Under Pressure” numbers are damning. He threw seven interceptions on 124 Under Pressure attempts and had a Passer Rating below 40 on those throws.
The reason that I have ranked Darnold lower than Rosen on this list is who he is paired with. Rosen has a fresh and innovative football mind coaching him for the next few seasons. Darnold has now been saddled with a coach whose players hated him in Miami and he plays at one of the slowest paces in the NFL. The 2018 Dolphins ran only 878 plays last year, which was the lowest in the league by a country mile. The league average was over 1,000 plays! Gase had a magical season in 2013 with Peyton Manning, but given his results in Chicago (23rd in points scored his season there) and Miami (never higher than 17th in points scored or 24th in yards gained), I am hesitant to give him much credit. Unless Gase is able to change his stripes, there is going to be some ugly football in New York in 2019.
It’s just impossible to give a lukewarm take on Josh Allen. When he is on, he picks up chunk yardage on the ground and uses his cannon arm to throw to guys open 70 yards down the field. When he is confused or pressured heavily, he looks like a QB who is 14 months removed from being the third-team All-Mountain West quarterback. Allen had the third highest yards per carry of any rookie quarterback with over 50 rushing attempts and over 100 passing attempts. His eight rushing touchdowns put him behind only Cam Newton for the most rookie QB rushing TDs ever.
On the other hand, Allen also threw more interceptions than touchdowns and ran up his total numbers in a five touchdown performance in Week 17 against a Miami team that had already given up on the aforementioned Adam Gase. The Bills also had an elite defense that kept Allen from having to chase games against other mediocre teams.
It is harder to say anything definitive about Sean McDermott. He was able to take a fairly bad Bills team into the playoffs in 2017 but also made the horrible decision to bench Tyrod Taylor for the eternally awful Nathan Peterman. What we have seen out of Buffalo’s offense is not overly creative. I have enough reservations about Allen and McDermott to put them last on this list but acknowledge upside for both.