What Really Causes Sophomore Slumps Among NFL Quarterbacks?

Michael Schottey@SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterJuly 26, 2013

BALTIMORE, MD - JANUARY 06:  Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts walks off of the field dejected after they lost to the Baltimore Ravens 24-9 during the AFC Wild Card Playoff Game at M&T Bank Stadium on January 6, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Nothing worries an NFL franchise like its rookie quarterback taking a step backward in his second season.

Think about it: No matter where a quarterback is drafted, the idea is for him to continually improve in his first couple of seasons. From year one to year two, it is even more crucial as the young quarterback gets his first full offseason of work with his teammates.

The issue, then, is when quarterbacks take a step backward (or even sideways), leading to almost immediate questions about long-term viability and whether or not he is an "elite" or "franchise" passer.

The idea of a sophomore slump is especially intriguing in 2013, as last year's rookie crop was special in so many ways. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson were among some of the most impressive passers in the league last season. Throw in Ryan Tannehill, and there is plenty of opportunity for this fantastic group to excel or underwhelm.

As the season is about to start, should teams and their fans be looking out for a decline in production?

Do Sophomore Slumps Really Exist?

This phenomenon seems to be one of those things that people take for granted. 

The phrase rolls off the tongue in a variety of sports—college basketball, college football, NBA, NFL—and people just sort of accept that it happens. Now, of course it does happen. It only takes one rookie to slump in his second year for it to exist as a potential thing. The more honest question, though, is whether it's some widespread reality and whether or not it affects NFL quarterbacks.

The recent evidence is less than compelling.

Bleacher Report's own Scott Kacsmar has done plenty of work on this topic both for B/R and for another outlet—Cold Hard Football Facts. For the latter, he wrote last offseason, "The research process was difficult, but we emerged with the definitive proof that the quarterback sophomore slump is a myth. Oh, it used to be real, but that was over 30 years ago."

The more one digs into the hard data or the tape of sophomore quarterbacks, the more it seems like this is a faulty narrative having mostly to do with unrealistic expectations. This could be seen very clearly in Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton last season, as his numbers were not far off his rookie-year mark, but people started trumpeting the idea of a slump because the Panthers weren't winning games, and they expected more.

"Wins," as a stat, is near-useless for quarterback analysis. It is neither Newton's fault nor a fair assessment of his play that Panthers center Ryan Kalil went down last year. Nor is it his fault that the defensive backfield couldn't get stops. Unless he started playing defensive tackle in his free time, we can't blame him for the lackluster play there either.

But he "slumped," because someone somewhere needs a headline. I jumped into the fray early last season, doing my best to point out that Newton's numbers weren't really down all that much. If someone had the gumption to call Newton out for his play in 2012, they would've had to honestly rescind the votes they cast for his Rookie of the Year award the year before. In many ways, he was essentially the same player.

A rookie quarterback excites the fanbase. The media latches on to that as a compelling storyline. Then, at any sign of trouble, the dreaded "s-word" (compulsory link) is trotted out and debated. When something gets repeated often enough on sports radio, people begin to either believe it or disbelieve it strongly enough that it'll get repeated again and again for good measure.

What Special Challenges Do Second-Year Quarterbacks Face?

If quarterback slumps don't exist as a widespread phenomenon, it's still possible they exist in more minor ways in smaller situations. This may be a better question: What unique hurdles do sophomore quarterbacks have to face in the NFL?

The first challenge—and biggest in my mind—is what second-year quarterbacks are asked to do by their respective coaching staffs. After a quarterback is drafted, he is given (and expected to memorize) the team's playbook. Most do this in short order, as this is something they've been asked to do since freshman year of high school.

However, in game situations, teams very often run a much smaller set of plays than their entire playbook. Things get whittled down to a game plan and then put onto play sheets at a fraction of the size of the whole. For smart QBs, they can often know what the play call will (or, at least, might) be, simply because of the down, distance and package out on the field.

As a quarterback gains confidence and heads into his second season, coaching staffs will "open the playbook" up a little bit. That seven-yard out route that no one was asking the QB to throw in his rookie season now becomes a viable option. That "gadget set" of special plays gets installed a little more extensively. The new rookie receiver needs a few plays to get the ball in his hands.

Without really expanding the playbook overall, the play sheets and game plan can get more confusing. It doesn't have to be "too much"; it's just more. Throw in all of the off-field stuff that NFL players can get caught up in as their fame expands, and it's understandable that their heads might spin a little here or there.

An example of this (albeit an imperfect one because it was written in Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan's third season) can be found in Sporting News (via Yardbarker, as the original SN article has been deleted with time), which describes how Ryan's no-huddle package tripled in his third season.

It is those kinds of jumps that can cause a rookie quarterback to make mistakes he did not make in the past, because he is given latitude to both succeed and fail at much greater rates than before.

For some quarterbacks, the problem may be less what their coaching staff has done over the offseason and more what opposing coaches are doing: studying tape. Every NFL player has tendencies. Study tape long enough and one can reasonably guess what a player will normally do in certain situations. Coordinators live on that study and do their level best to take advantage of it.

So, that dump-off that turned into a big gain in year one turns into an interception because the linebacker knew it was coming. The rookie scramble that made SportsCenter turns into a two-yard gain because a safety was spying. The man-to-man coverage that was picked apart the first two times a quarterback faced his divisional rival was disguised in year two and shut him down.

In many ways, this presents a special challenge for quarterbacks in 2013 who extensively used read-option or pistol formation plays in 2012. Because it took the league by storm in such a visible way last season, defensive coordinators will be working overtime to try to stop it in the upcoming year. That means Griffin and Wilson will be facing defenses much more prepared than last season.

How Can Sophomore Quarterbacks Overcome Challenges?

Perhaps the easiest way to avoid even the slightest mention of a sophomore slump is for a quarterback to take care of his body in the offseason. The 16-game NFL year is already a bigger challenge than college quarterbacks face. Add in the playoffs and offseason workouts, and it becomes awfully evident that professional football is just that—a full-time job.

Miss a game here, play banged-up there, and all of a sudden the numbers are down.

Of course, a player can't always control the hits he takes or the many fluke injuries that may come his way, but he can do everything in his power to make sure he's at 100 percent when camp starts and well rested when it's time to play.

The other big way a sophomore quarterback can avoid the dreaded slump is to play within himself. Sometimes the hype generated by fans and media can be felt by young players who attempt to do too much. The pressure to make bigger plays can turn into taking bigger risks.

This also means that coaching staffs need to be prepared to not overload their second-year sensations. For someone like Wilson, who is known as a playbook-studying aficionado, it's easy to imagine a team believing (and rightfully so) that he can handle a hefty increase in offensive responsibility.

It may be true, but it may not be the right course of action. As much as players need to play within themselves, coaches also need to manage young players who will naturally try to push those limits and do too much.

Overall, it's silly to worry about sophomore slumps across the board for last year's tremendous group of passers, but it's still worthwhile to expect them to struggle, at times, in their second season. If history repeats itself, quarterbacks like Luck, Griffin, Wilson and Tannehill should be just fine when all is said and done.

Odds are, we'll look back and find it silly that anyone ever doubted them.

Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.