“Third-year jump” is a phrase that brings fond memories to some NFL fan bases and lives in infamy for others.
Referring to young quarterbacks improving off their first year(s) of significant play, the jump, at times, is unattainable. For those that do achieve it, a career of success seems inevitable, and for those that don’t, the end of their career is imminent.
In recent, the phrase has gained reinvigorated traction in large part due to Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen. Allen’s improvement from rookie season to third year has become the stuff of legend. Bills fans fawn over what their signal-caller has accomplished while other fan bases with young quarterbacks insist they have the “Next Josh Allen”. This leads one to ponder just how rare the leap Allen made is, and does it happen as often as some choose to believe?
To investigate this, we will take a look at the growth rates of four metrics of young quarterbacks. The metrics in question are completion percentage, yards-per-touch, touchdowns-per-touch, and turnovers-per-touch. The quarterbacks generating these stats are ones who played significant time in either their rookie or sophomore season as well as their third season. Since 1994, 70 quarterbacks meet these requirements, inclusive of some big names (i.e. Peyton Manning) and others lost in the history of the NFL (i.e. Patrick Ramsey).
Accuracy is a key component of analyzing young quarterbacks. It’s often suggested that completion percentage is indicative of accuracy, an assertion that has been disproven many times, but it does provide a good base for discussion. As quarterbacks gain more live game experience in the NFL, the expectation is that their processing and touch improve. Coming into the NFL, the belief was that Josh Allen would be unable to improve on this aspect of his game, he may have disproved that.
Of the 70 qualified quarterbacks, 65.7% improved their completion percentage in year three with 34.3% regressing. Of all quarterbacks, 36.7% saw significant growth, improving by +10.0% with 7.1% seeing a -10.0% regression. There was, however, one quarterback who proved to be an outlier, achieving a +31.09% increase, 12 points higher than second-place Matthew Stafford (+19.09%), none-other than Josh Allen.
Allen’s completion percentage jumped from 52.8% in his rookie season to 69.2% in his third season. Credit game plan, weapons, adjustments, whatever you like, but Allen’s growth here is unheard of in the past three decades of the NFL.
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) December 23, 2020
A more complex discussion begins with that of yards-per-touch. There is an argument within some NFL circles that rushing stats should not be considered when discussing quarterbacks, but why? Is there truly any difference between a quarterback rushing 10-yards for a first down or completing an out route to a receiver at the sticks? Since the answer to that question is NO, yards-per-touch consists of passing, rushing, AND sack statistics.
Since 1994, surprisingly just 48.6% of quarterbacks improved their yards-per-touch while 51.4% declined. A near “flip of a coin” between improving and deteriorating saw the likes of Matthew Stafford, Peyton Manning, and Andrew Luck improve by +10.0% and Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, and Dak Prescott decline by -10.0%. Josh Allen saw his yards-per-touch improve from 5.70 to 6.87 for a growth rate of +20.53%. This ranked #7 amongst other quarterbacks but significantly behind Jared Goff’s +94.58% jump caused by going from 3.69 to 7.18 yards-per-touch.
Modern #NFL Quarterbacks continue to Rush More & More
'94-'97: 4,145 Att, 14,503 Yds
'98-'01: 5,119 Att, 21,344 Yds
'02-'05: 4,520 Att, 16,822 Yds
'06-'09: 4,220 Att, 14,435 Yds
'10-'13: 5,137 Att, 21,015 Yds
'14-'17: 5,393 Att, 24,210 Yds
'18-'21: 6,211 Att, 27,495 Yds
— Hansel (@UberHansen) July 4, 2022
The debate over the inclusion of rushing stats tends to rage most when referring to touchdowns. With surprising frequency, fans either consciously or subconsciously choose to ignore quarterback rushing touchdowns. This is the difference between saying “Josh Allen had 36 touchdowns in 2021” and “Josh Allen had 42 touchdowns in 2021”. It’s simple really, whether it be a touchdown pass or a touchdown run, the result is six points for the offense.
For the 70 quarterbacks factoring into this conversation, 52.9% improved their touchdowns-per-touch while 47.1% backtracked. Due to the nature of the metric, the swings in touchdowns-per-touch were much more drastic. 17.1% of quarterbacks saw a +50% increase in touchdowns-per-touch while 12.9% saw a -40% decrease. Ryan Leaf saw the largest increase at +325% while Bobby Hoying had ZERO touchdowns in his third season resulting in a drop of -100%. Meanwhile, Josh Allen improved on his rookie season by +59.22% ranking #11 in growth among all measured quarterbacks.
A caveat of including rushing stats in the evaluation of quarterbacks is that you must then also include fumbles lost. Just like touchdowns, whether a turnover occurs in the air or on the ground, the result is the same, the other team gets the ball. In 2021, Dak Prescott threw just 10 interceptions, but did he have just 10 turnovers? His six fumbles lost were tied for the league lead, making his aggregate of 16 turnovers tied for #18 amongst qualified quarterbacks as opposed to his interceptions tied for #9.
The reason 1994 was used as the cutoff for this analysis is due to turnovers-per-touch. Fumbles lost were not tracked until 1994, resulting in incomplete data prior to that point. Since then, just 57.1% of quarterbacks have reduced their turnover rate within their first three seasons while 42.9% have seen it increase. Just as volatile as touchdowns-per-touch, 14.3% saw their turnovers reduced by -40%, and 28.6% saw an increase of +40%. The big swingers were Jason Campbell, who reduced his rate by -70.57%, and Nick Foles who increased by +287%. Josh Allen saw his least improvement here reducing his turnovers-per-touch by just -28.75%, good for #16 out of 70.
Josh Allen’s growth from year one to year three was massive, but in totality, not unheard of. Three quarterbacks’ growth ranked top-10 in completion percentage, top-10 in yards-per-touch, top-15 in touchdowns-per-touch, and Top-20 in turnovers-per-touch. Josh Allen (#1/#7/#11/#19), Matthew Stafford (#2/#4/#9/#4), and Jared Goff (#3/#1/#2/#15). In totality, these three have stood out historically in growth as quarterbacks, but Allen’s growth as a passer specifically is something worth noting.
Let’s close this out by removing rushing statistics from the above four metrics and focusing solely on passing. As a pure passer, Allen’s growth from rookie season to third season was +36.37% completion percentage, +37.01% yards-per-touch, +115.68% touchdowns-per-touch, and -51.59% turnovers-per-touch. These totals rank #1, #3, #4, and #5, respectively, among fellow quarterbacks. No other quarterbacks in the past 30 years are even remotely close to that level of all-around growth as a thrower of the football.
So going back to the original premise, the rarity of such a third-year jump: yes it does happen. Does it happen all that often? Absolutely not. Has it ever happened, purely as a thrower of the football, to the level Josh Allen has achieved? Seemingly only in fairy tales. So to all the fan bases holding on to hope that their quarterback is the “Next Josh Allen”, maybe they are, but they would need to be the second in a generation to do so. And for Bills Fans, the myth of Josh Allen can fully be expected to evolve as his impressive career continues to progress.