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The Rule of 59: Evaluating college quarterbacks anything but an exact science
Special to NFLDraftScout.com by Dan Pucci

Evaluating quarterbacks from the college ranks is anything but an exact science. Decisions like selecting Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf and Tim Couch before Donovan McNabb have changed franchises' fortunes dramatically and prove that drafting quarterbacks may be the toughest job a general manager ever faces. For every high selection franchise quarterback such as Manning or McNabb, there is a signal-caller who slipped through the cracks to find stardom, (think Tom Brady, Tony Romo).

I cannot claim to be able to find players like Brady and Romo, in the later rounds. However, what I have discovered after extensive research is a theory that is very effective and simple to test.

The theory warns teams to think long and hard before drafting a quarterback to be their future starter if he does not complete at least 59% of his passes during his last two collegiate seasons. This may not seem like a difficult rule to follow, since 59% is such a low number, particularly in the cozy confines of college. However, this has not stopped teams from drafting inaccurate college passers on a yearly basis, with the expectation of coaching them into productive NFL quarterbacks.

For years, front offices across the NFL have reviewed hundreds of factors when grading quarterbacks. While one quality in a quarterback may seem to be overrated by some, another has proved to be a much better indicator of success.

The quality I am referring to as the overrated factor is a quarterback's throwing power/velocity. It seems as though every year, a college quarterback jumps up draft boards after wowing scouts by throwing a football from his knees. Even though this is an impressive feat of strength, I am uncertain as to how it applies to being an NFL quarterback. This scenario has played out for years with similar results; from Jeff George to Todd Marinovich to Akili Smith and Kyle Boller. These cannon arms do not necessarily translate into NFL success.

There are many factors that help explain these passers' lack of success, but as these players move from college to the pro ranks, the margin allowed for error shrinks dramatically. Their strong arms can no longer save them from bad reads and high-risk throws. In a way, having a big arm in college can be a curse. It can cause players to develop bad habits and retard their ability to read defenses effectively. As every NFL expert will tell you, the speed and complexity of professional defenses is on a whole different level.

This is not to say that arm strength is not important. NFL quarterbacks must be able to make all the necessary throws, including the more difficult routes such as an out. But beyond having adequate throwing power, there are much more important factors to consider in a quarterback. Looking at the great quarterbacks of the past decade; (Peyton Manning, Brady, Favre, Warner, McNabb, Brees) only one, (Favre) possesses unparalleled arm strength. However, these quarterbacks all demonstrate combinations of outstanding leadership abilities, football intelligence, and decision making skills. Another quality that sets these quarterbacks apart is that they are all incredibly accurate passers. I will demonstrate that this very characteristic, passing accuracy, is a key indicator of NFL success.

The goal of every NFL team is to win the Super Bowl. After looking at previous Super Bowl teams, one thing stood out to me; almost all had very accurate signal callers.

In fact, the only team to win the big game in the sample below with a quarterback whose completion percentage was below the league average was the most recent champions, the New York Giants. So by simply using completion percentage and omitting defensive, rushing, and other very important statistics, we can be relatively certain that in the modern NFL scene, a very accurate quarterback substantially improves a team's opportunity for Super Bowl success.

These numbers show that of the last 18 Super Bowl quarterbacks, only three of these passers had completion percentages below the league average. The average completion percentage of the two competing teams has been 62.2, while the league average has been 59.4 during that same span. It may seem obvious that elite teams all have good quarterbacks, but that is a large statistical gap in a game of inches.

This brings me to the title of this paper, "The Rule of 59". After reviewing every NFL draft from 1998 to 2006, I analyzed the statistics of each quarterbacks' college completion percentages. I initially used their career numbers, but that system seemed to unfairly penalize four-year starters who inevitably made their fair share of mistakes in their freshman and even sophomore seasons. Players like Donovan McNabb, Jay Cutler, and Brady Quinn all narrowly missed the cut, due to the old system. Instead, I chose to use the quarterbacks' statistics from their last two seasons in college. This allows the quarterback time to mature in the offensive system and college game in general. For junior eligible players, I used their junior and sophomore seasons. I only used quarterbacks selected in the first three rounds of the draft. I did this because throughout recent history, it does not appear that teams consistently look for potential starting quarterbacks any lower than the third round. I have omitted the quarterback classes after the 2006 Draft since it would be unfair to judge them at this point of their career. Below is a breakdown of every passer who failed to accumulate a completion percentage of 59 or better in his last two years of college.

As you can see, the list is not very impressive. When we consider that four of these selections were top-5 picks and seven were chosen in the first round, the results are downright scary. Drafting a quarterback so high in the draft is a huge investment and making a mistake can cripple a franchise for a number of years.

Each of these quarterbacks have started in the NFL at some point, but none of these players have an NFL career completion percentage of 60 or higher, a number that most NFL coaches consider a benchmark. Taking the cumulative statistics of every quarterback in the above table and averaging them together, we are left with a signal caller who has started 27 games (less than two full seasons), completed just 56% of his passes, and has a rating of just under 70. This is not the kind of production most teams need from a high-selection quarterback.

The facts indicate that none of the above quarterbacks were very accurate passers in college and didn't seem to develop very much after entering the NFL.

This "Rule of 59" does not guarantee that compiling a gaudy completion percentage in college leads to NFL success. However, during the same time frame, the other side of 59 in our sample size has given us these quarterbacks. These players have combined for eleven AP All-Pro Selections. In the NFL, they have averaged 81 starts, a 62% completion rate, and a QB rating of 89.

As you can see, the majority of quarterbacks on this list pass the Rule of 59, the only exception being Rhett Bomar, the former Sooner. Note: Georgia's Matthew Stafford hit 59 in his last game.

Even though this quarterback class has often been described as weak, this group is one of the more accurate bunches in recent history. That does not mean that these quarterbacks come without their question marks though. The rapid growth of the spread offense in college has made life difficult for NFL staffs evaluating passers. Most spread offenses feature fewer downfield passes while doing a better job of protecting their quarterbacks. Still, players like Stafford and Sanchez remain high prospects playing for schools that employ pro-style offenses.

The new "wildcat" trend that swept through the NFL this season also looks to affect draft day with players such as Pat White benefitting the most from its use. Overall, with the spread offense sweeping across college and several NFL teams utilizing the wildcat, the process of scouting college quarterbacks has become very different than in years past. Rest assured however, that most of these players still pass the Rule of 59.

My background is not rooted in statistics and I strongly believe in scouting based on game film and on-field performance. This discovery was born from watching the game, not looking at box scores. As a manic observer of the NFL, I recognized a pattern of inaccurate college passers fizzling out of the NFL. I made an assessment but wanted to prove this wasn't just an opinion, so I conducted the extensive research to back up my beliefs. Since football is the ultimate team sport which evolves constantly, it is both impossible and short-sighted to judge players entirely on statistics. Eleven players moving constantly on each side of the ball cannot be quantified. However, sometimes statistics are the best way to look for proof in a theory.

With the NFL Draft fast-approaching, I hope this helps teams searching for a quarterback. The quarterback position is something sacred in football and has no equal in other sports. It is extremely demanding both mentally and physically and requires a set of skills most of us could only dream about. Great passers come in all shapes and sizes, from BCS schools and grocery stores. However, if we can learn one thing from recent history, it's this: It's a large risk a team takes in selecting an inaccurate college passer with expectations of greatness.

Dan Pucci


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