I am not a man. I began as one, but now I am becoming more than a man, as you will witness.
– Francis Dolarhyde, Red Dragon
After the Iowa game last year, my nervous system instantaneously rushed to the precipice of meltdown every time Denard Robinson stepped onto the field. Mixing equal parts of anxiety and exhilaration yields a volatile cocktail. There were times when I couldn’t stand up because I was so nervous; only once or twice but, regardless of frequency, that ain’t right. Trembling calves, bated breath, dilated pupils, thumping heart. Then, a money Chewbacca impression; happy or sad, the reaction was the same. I can’t have been the only one.
There was good reason for such a strong pavlovian response. It seemed as though the outcome of a play with Robinson under center was the random result of the flip of a coin—tails: utter disaster, heads: spectacular success, on edge: just another play. Denard threw interceptions at a nauseating 13% rate on 31 passes. However, he also scored touchdowns 7% of the time on 100 total touches. Forcier only produced TDs a little over 3% of the time. Think about that for a second, Forcier had 399 touches last year and scored 13 TDs…Denard, theoretically, could’ve had 28. Those numbers are ridiculous to quote because Denard touched the ball so infrequently last year, but it isn’t fair to quote his turnovers without also quoting his TDs.
Anyway, eight months later we are faced with another batch of the cocktail, this time with a twist. A full offseason and a spring practice session have apparently yielded a thrilling prospect, Denard can throw. Maybe we can actually stomach the elixir and keep it down. That prospect sparks at least two questions. The first, how much could he have realistically improved? I mean, there’s improvement, and then there’s being good; the latter is not guaranteed. The second question is, who do you play, Tate or Denard? In this diary I hope to rigorously estimate an answer to the first question and hopelessly flail at the second.
Method to the Madness
My previous work with quarterback stats has provided some averages for first year starters that account for a lot of influences on their level of play . Most averages, though, have a funny trait—they don’t actually exist. For example, in a country with an average of 2.3 kids per household, you will never find an actual household with 2.3 kids in it. This is the type of fallacy that arises from the reckless application of statistics and leads many reasonable people to view the valuable information reported by statistics with a jaundiced eye. It is absolutely critical to understand what a statistic tells you and what it doesn’t. There’s a saying that says “guns don’t kill people,
LaMarr Woodley kills people kill people.” Similarly, statistics don’t lie, people do.
If you want to know about a specific case, you need to study that case and only that case. Thing is, we can’t study Denard directly because, you know, we can’t see the future…balls! Thankfully, we have the transitive property, if you believe in such things. If A = B and B = C, then A = C. Flashing back to football, if we want to know about how a guy like Denard develops as a passer from a dismal first year to the very next year, you need to study the second seasons of players that had dismal first years as passers. Find as many as you can and you have something you can work with.
- Include only players from BCS teams in order to provide some reasonable controls for supporting cast and opposing competition.
- First season as starter was first, second or third year after high school with a passer rating under 100 on at least 50 pass attempts.
- The player ‘stuck’ in the next season, meaning they showed enough improvement or benefit to not be replaced.
That last one is crucial. Presumably, Robinson cannot overtake/match Forcier in passing ability this year (perhaps never) so, in order to stick, Denard must be a significantly better passer than he was in 2009 thus allowing the rushing advantage he brings to the running game into play as a reasonable offset for the gap between his passing ability and Forcier’s. Otherwise, he won’t siphon off many snaps away from Tate. So, after picking rotten fruit, I rejected the ones that didn’t represent the case we’re interested: a meaningfully improved passer. In the transitive reduction picture shown above (right side), this is looking at the a-b-d-e chain and ignoring the a-c-d-e chain.
Meet The Proxies
|Name||Team||Year||Stars||QBRat||PaAtt||PaPct||PaY/A||TD %||INT %|
|Brady Quinn||Notre Dame||2003||4||93.5||332||47.3%||5.5||2.7%||4.5%|
|Matt Ryan||Boston Coll.||2004||3||91.5||71||49.3%||4.9||2.8%||4.2%|
|Stephen McGee||Texas A&M||2005||4||98.8||53||45.3%||5.3||3.8%||1.9%|
|Lyle Moevao||Oregon St.||2007||0||98.8||147||52.4%||6.0||1.4%||4.1%|
|Josh Nesbitt||Georgia Tech.||2008||4||96.3||123||43.9%||6.6||1.6%||4.1%|
Denard put up one of the lower passer ratings in the cohort primarily because of his extremely high interception rate. However, he also had the highest TD rate in the group and his YPA was third highest in the group. The high ratings in the playmaker categories suggest that D-Rob can improve his rating drastically by improving his accuracy and coverage recognition.
The following table shows how the proxies improved in the very next season.
|Name||Team||Year||Stars||QBRat||PaAtt||PaPct||PaY/A||TD %||INT %|
|Brady Quinn||Notre Dame||2004||4||125.9||353||54.1%||7.3||4.8%||2.8%|
|Matt Ryan||Boston Coll.||2005||3||135.7||195||62.1%||7.8||4.1%||2.6%|
|Stephen McGee||Texas A&M||2006||4||134.9||313||62.0%||7.3||3.8%||0.6%|
|Lyle Moevao||Oregon St.||2008||0||128.4||361||59.3%||7.0||5.3%||3.6%|
|Josh Nesbitt||Georgia Tech.||2009||4||148.7||162||46.3%||10.5||6.2%||3.1%|
|Name||QBRat||PaPct||PaY/A||TD %||INT %|
|2nd. Yr Prism||126.0||57.6%||7.1||4.7%||3.4%|
Un-wholly crap. The average player in this cohort went from being off-the-charts bad to exactly average; not only did the group get out of the hole, they caught up to the pack. In the prism categories, about half of the players met or exceeded the 2nd Yr threshold for completion percentage, yard per attempt, and interception rate; the touchdown rate threshold was met or exceeded less often. IF HE STICKS, there is a good chance that Denard improves to a point where he’s as good this year as Tate Forcier was last year; if he sticks. That plus Dilithium. Anyone else have goose bumps?
The Sticking Point
That is all very encouraging, but it hinges on the huge assumption that Denard will improve enough to displace Tate as starting QB; that’s not a gimme. In actuality, there are 25 players that meet all of the criteria except for the last (improved enough). Of those, 9 did not play in the following year (benched or transferred), and 5 were “Forcier blocked”. So really, there’s a 14 in 25 chance that Denard won’t improve enough to be the regular starter. HOWEVA, we already know that Denard has, in fact improved enough to be a challenger albeit in practice settings. So, focusing on only those players who stuck makes sense until we have more information (i.e. actual game observations).
I can’t imagine why things would be different for Denard than for the group selected above. Michigan has a veteran and finally deep offensive line, playmakers with experience in the receiving corps, a diverse stable of versatile and talented running backs, and an offensive scheme that has been proven to be effective and is now familiar to everyone on the two-deep.
Will it be different this time? Maybe. But, given what we’ve heard from spring practice and witnessed in the spring game, what reason is there to think that it will be?
Here I’ve written over 1800 words meticulously explaining why I think that Denard should not only be better, but he should be much, much better. After all that, I still don’t know.
See, Tate Forcier was as good as advertised and he wasn’t even at his best in 2009. His prism numbers were that of a 2nd year starter, just like we hoped they would be. But, when he went all six-million-dollar man on that diving touchdown in the fourth quarter against Indiana, the cape came off. Balls that smoothly soared 40 or 50 yards to hit a streaking receiver in stride in September, fluttered and sailed for easy interceptions in October and November. Yeah, the level of the competition had something to do with it, but so did his injury.
Now Tate stands to play like a 3rd year starter and with the offensive line and skill position talent Michigan has, Forcier could very well surpass the long term good passer rating of 139.2 and head for the 150’s or higher; quarterbacks do it every year. So the real question is, who would you rather have a mature Drew Stanton / Drew Tate or an immature but faster (!) Pat White? Either of those sounds great to me.
The best part about all of this is that this is not a typical quarterback competition. Tate and Denard have complimentary strengths and with a simple play call, they execute very different offenses. It is impossible to prepare to stop them both in 20 hours of practice time. Coach Rodriguez and his staff have the luxury of choosing the player they think gives them the best chance to win at that moment and actually believe it.
You are privy to a great becoming, but you recognize nothing. To me, you are a slug in the sun. You are an ant in the afterbirth. It is your nature to do one thing correctly. Before me, you rightly tremble. But, fear is not what you owe me. You owe me awe.
– Francis Dolarhyde, Red Dragon
There’s a song that has stuck with me for a while now that seems appropriate to share after writing this. I like because it is soothing and assuring, and because even video games come back to Michigan Football with me. Maybe it’s the happy anger. Maybe its the fact that, when I hear this song, I hear an angel choir singing Pachelbel’s Cannon in D in my mind, both literally and figuratively. Maybe it’s just the hook, bringing me back. Whatever the reason, I like it, and maybe you will, too.
Let’s Go, Blue.