The dreaded sophomore slump. Is it real or just an easy way for journalists to explain the decline in play and production from second-year players?
Whether the sophomore slump is real or not, there is no doubting that several second-year quarterbacks are struggling in 2012. Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton have all seen far more bad than good this year, but this is not just due to the fact that each is in their second year.
So what's to blame for the ups and downs of the starting quarterbacks from the 2011 NFL draft?
A superstar rookie season likely put expectations way too high for Cam Newton during the 2012 season, but he's failed to live up to even conservative hopes for his second season. How much of that is on Cam, though?
Newton has struggled, but he's also playing behind an offensive line that is one of the worst in the NFL this season. Newton has been sacked only 17 times through eight games, but take into account his ability to scramble and save plays. The run game also hasn't been as impactful as it was in 2012. But what has Cam struggled with most individually?
As of Week 10, Newton ranks as the 28th-worst passer in the NFL in terms of completion percentage. It may seem like a small detail, but in his rookie season Newton completed 60 percent of his passes, throwing for 21 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. This season he's completing 57 percent, with six touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Those three percentage points add up, and so far they're the difference between a quarterback who makes plays and one who struggles.
It's not that Blaine Gabbert has struggled more in year two—it's that he wasn't very good to begin with.
The biggest issue on film when watching Gabbert isn't just his accuracy—a lot of the statistics are skewed by the many drops the Jaguars wide receivers accumulate—but more so his accuracy under pressure. This is where great quarterbacks are made, and so far a big reason why Gabbert isn't living up to expectations.
The graphic above shows Gabbert's play under pressure. A few key numbers to look at are completion percentage (58.5 percent) and interceptions (four). Of Gabbert's five interceptions this year, four have come when pressured. If there's one area where Gabbert has to improve before he can be a capable starter, it's his decision-making under pressure.
Christian Ponder got off to a hot start this year, but then defenses realized they could keep the second-year quarterback inside the hashes. Take away the underneath pass and Ponder struggles—simple as that.
Ponder's yards per attempt numbers—a great stat to evaluate quarterback play on—ranks No. 28 in the NFL this season at just 6.4. The quarterbacks worse than him? John Skelton, Matt Hasselbeck, Brandon Weeden and Blaine Gabbert.
Ponder has become the king of checkdowns, and defenses know this. Coordinators are banking on the fact that they can play aggressive on the edges with man coverage, because Ponder won't throw the ball that way. Instead, he's looking inside and underneath.
As seen above, Ponder is well below average when throwing deep. The knock on the former FSU quarterback when he entered the 2011 draft was arm strength, and so far that's showing up as a major flaw in his skill set.
You could say that a number of Andy Dalton's problems this year can be pinned on terrible play from his left guard and center, plus the fact that he has only one reliable wide receiver. Those things are true, but Dalton is far from being without blame.
Dalton was my pick for top quarterback in the 2011 class, but he hasn't played like it this season. He goes for the easy completion underneath, but in so doing often overlooks winnable throws down the field. Great quarterbacks know when to take chances, and they're confident enough in their own ability to convert big plays. When Dalton does take chances, he throws late over the middle far too often.
When a quarterback throws late over the middle, there is a good chance the wide receiver will be knocked out cold by a safety or the pass will be intercepted. For Dalton, the interceptions over the middle are piling up.
So far on the year, six of Dalton's interceptions have been thrown to the middle of the field, and three interceptions have occurred on throws deeper than 20 yards.
Deep and down the middle—Dalton either needs to improve on those throws or avoid them altogether. As a player with good velocity but questionable arm strength, attempting passes down the middle is a gamble. His passer rating of 10.2 on throws longer than 20 yards down the middle goes to show that the Bengals quarterback lacks the strength and accuracy to push the ball to this distance.
The four starters from the 2011 class are all talented passers with varying levels of upside. It's telling that all four—Newton, Gabbert, Ponder and Dalton—are all suffering from accuracy-related issues.
Whatever the case—whether it's an inability to make deep throws, limit turnovers or make good decisions on where to go with the football—accuracy is king for a successful NFL quarterback.
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