Why the Quarterback Sophomore Slump Is Football Myth

2016 could be the season when we're finally forced to stop relying on the second-year trope

Credit: Ronald C. Modra/Getty

The first week of football is always full of surprises, from upsets to injuries, but few were as big as Jameis Winston absolutely owning the Atlanta Falcons. He started the game miserably, 3-7 with an interception, but then turned it on from the second quarter on ending up with 281 yards at a nearly 70% clip, four touchdown passes to four different receivers, and a QB rating of 122.1. Just like that the Bucs are starting the season atop the NFC South and Jameis Winston looks like his second year is not going to be affected by any sort of regression.

So that leads us to some bad news for some columnists out there that love to rely on a certain trope, especially in football: there's no such thing as a sophomore slump for quarterbacks. Yes, anecdotally, Cam Newton may not have been as good in year two, but, statistically, it checks out that the sophomore slump is basically a scary story we tell each other. It's the monster under a football fan's bed. 

In 2012, Football Nation crunched the numbers. They looked at year-one and year-two data and found 35 quarterbacks who had some success during their rookie season (not first season with significant playing time, mind you), starting at least five games and attempting at least 100 passes, and found that, as a group, their second years were better. The complete group had a higher winning percentage, more attempts, completions, and yards per game, and a higher passer rating their second seasons. The overall findings were that the slump was a real thing, statistically, until the 1980s, but hadn't been true since (good work, 1984 Dan Marino). The study's writer, Scott Kacsmar, concluded:

"That is the NFL today. Rookies now have expectations, because they can meet them. There is no sophomore slump. This is the year you take it to the next level, because that is what you are supposed to do."

Since 2012, several quarterbacks have joined that data set. Names like Zach Mettenberger and Mike Glennon were not good in year two, but they weren't setting the world on fire as rookies either. Matt McGloin's crack at year two disappeared the first time Derek Carr put on his Raider gear. By the first time he hooked up with Amari Cooper the next season, it was clear the sophomore slump wasn't happening in Oakland. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl in Russell Wilson's second season, and his improvement was a part of that, certainly. Andrew Luck has been carrying the Colts on his battered frame since Day 1. Ryan Tannehill is a mini-Luck. Injuries derailed Robert Griffin III's second year as much as anything, but he might turn things around in Cleveland now that he's not doing a Gallipoli impression - of course he needs to get over his latest injury for that. Blake Bortles threw three times as many touchdowns in his second year. Teddy Bridgewater, with an assist from Adrian Peterson, took the Vikings to the playoffs. Of recent year two disappointments, Nick Foles and Geno Smith, their setbacks were a mix of market correction (Foles came out of nowhere, NFL defenses weren't unprepared the next season) and chaos (J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets). Still, as a group, that's marked improvement.

So, what's the prognosis for the two quarterbacks who fit the bill for the rest of the 2016 season: Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota?

Winston's a safe bet to see continued improvement, and if Week 1 is any indication, he'll be a superstar before Election Day. After winning the fan vote as rookie of the year by throwing 22 touchdowns and over 4,000 yards, Winston still has last season's offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter calling the plays, but now as head coach. Continuity like that is how franchises develop quarterbacks.

It helps that the Bucs offense was in the league's top five last year. Doug Martin bounced back and, if he can stay healthy, should continue to take some pressure off of Winston. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson are big-play receivers that most quarterbacks in the league would love to throw to 30 times a game. Winston was sacked less than two times a game last season, and by most observations, the line's gotten better and more athletic. The final tally from Sunday: Jameis's jersey stayed very clean. The offense went up-tempo this preseason with very promising results and that success continued in Week 1. If Roberto Aguayo can keep it together, the Bucs' offense will be good enough to keep them in every game and let them make a run at a wild card spot. 

Tennessee Titans QB Marcus Mariota's 2016 debut was essentially his rookie year in a nutshell after a first season filled with ups and downs. He torched Winston and the Bucs in the first game of 2015 for four touchdowns and a perfect quarterback rating, but he ended the season with his second MCL sprain (the two injuries limited him to 12 games). In Week 1, playing in only his 13th game, Mariota played extremely well, throwing for 271 yards and two scores while completing over sixty-one percent of his passes. His one mistake was a killer though: a pick-six on a play he tried to force that pretty much sealed the game for the Vikings. There was enough there though to believe that Mariota's going to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump label too, though.

Given the absolute haul the team received from the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for the right to select Jared Goff, the Titans are set to add a lot of young talent in the next two offseasons, especially if they play like head coach Mike Mularkey teams typical play and add several high picks of their own. The sophomore slump may only exist anecdotally, but if it happens to Mariota, it won't be his fault—unless you think people can control the ligaments in their knees.

The sophomore slump seems to hold true for bands putting out their second albums and television shows, but, like the perceived year-two slump in the NFL, that has much more to do with fan expectations and shows that were surprises. Even then, it's an iffy proposition. Has Mr. Robot's second season been a let down? Maybe, I haven't seen it yet, but Breaking Bad's certainly wasn't. Expect Mariota and Winston to get their Walter White on this season, even if their teams end up holding them back one way or another, just with a significant reduction in murder and inadvertent-plane-crash-causing.