Photo Credit: Erik Drost via Flickr Creative Commons
Blog update: New full-length articles will be developed in the coming months. I am on deadline for a research project that puts food on my table, so that has taken precedence. But I couldn’t resist a quick research post after the Browns’ quarterback update on Monday.
The Cleveland Browns have announced that Brock Osweiler will start the preseason opener on Thursday against the New Orleans Saints. While Hue Jackson has acknowledged that the quarterback situation remains fluid, Monday’s news would suggest that Osweiler is, at minimum, the current favorite to start the regular-season opener on September 10th.
So what can one expect from Brock Osweiler? Who are his closest historical comparables?
To answer these questions, this post will reexamine Osweiler through the lens of the empirical methodology that I developed on this site in the spring. This approach aims to generate a ranked list of player comparisons based on each quarterback’s single-season, year-normed passing statistics (TD%, INT%, Sack%, Comp%, Yards/Comp) and playing style (height, rush yards/game); see a full description here. For those familiar with Baseball Reference, this approach attempts to mimic the site’s “similarity score” to provide a list of single-season (rather than career) comparisons between players throughout modern NFL history (1970-2016).
In an article posted in May, I applied this formula to generate a list of 10 quarterbacks whose age-26 season, adjusting for era, was most similar to Osweiler’s 2016 campaign with the Houston Texans. While there were reasons for optimism—as the list featured Vinny Testaverde (#1) and Joe Flacco (#4)—the rest of the list was predictably populated with quarterbacks who had nondescript careers after similar subpar performances at age 26.
But given Osweiler’s well-documented difficulties in Houston with coach Bill O’Brien, it would be reasonable to question whether a player comparison list based solely on his time with the Texans would be most appropriate. Instead, perhaps his relatively more impressive age-25 season with the Denver Broncos in 2015–which netted him $36 million guaranteed in the subsequent offseason—is a better gauge of his talent. At this point, Osweiler’s true talent level is somewhat unclear.
Because of this uncertainty, I replicated my analysis and generated a similarity score for Brock Osweiler against the other 100 quarterbacks in modern NFL history who had 150+ pass attempts in their age-25 and age-26 season. While I might usually weight the most recent season more heavily, I’m instead providing equal weight to each season by simply adding the age-25 and age-26 similarity scores together given suspicions that Osweiler’s performance in Houston may be an anomaly.
The results are presented in Table 1 (below). To read this table, consider that an annual distance score of less than 2.0 indicates a rather strong historical match. For simplicity’s sake, it can thus be deduced that a two-year distance score of less than 4.0 would reflect a strong match. As a result, there is only one solid historical match for Brock Osweiler at age 25 and 26: Joe Flacco.
This outcome shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, as teammates and analysts have been making Osweiler-Flacco comparisons for years. On the surface, it makes sense. Both are exceptionally tall, somewhat mobile quarterbacks who experienced a considerable dip in performance in their age-26 seasons. Both also have struggled with deep ball accuracy despite reputations of having strong arms. Certainly there are differences that are not accounted for in this model that should mute this comparison—such as playoff success and experience prior to age 25—but a comparison of Osweiler to Flacco should provide Browns fans a reason for optimism.
That said, the rest of the list—outside of Philip Rivers—should offer reasons to be concerned, even if the similarity scores indicate a lesser match. This is not terribly surprising, as the inclusion of Osweiler’s miserable 2016 season into the equation drags down the list of comparables. The inclusion of Bernie Kosar on the list may at first seem like a positive, but it should be reminded that Kosar’s play fell off in his age-27 season in 1990 (10 TD, 15 INT, 65.7 QB Rating). Other, less accomplished quarterbacks—Byron Leftwich, Scott Brunner, Marty Domres, etc.—lost their stating position after similarly poor age-26 seasons and were never a team’s regular starter over the remainders of their careers.
The Browns are not even 10 days into training camp. They have not had a single preseason game at this point. Hue Jackson has admitted that the quarterback competition remains open, so Brock Osweiler may not be the starter—or even on the roster—when the regular-season starts. In other words, I openly acknowledge that it’s too soon to know with any certainty how Brock Osweiler will perform in a Browns uniform. The historical comparisons offered in this short study are merely designed to provide some perspective on the potential range of outcomes. Unfortunately, most of the names provided in Table 1 suggest that Osweiler may only be a temporary stopgap in Cleveland.
However, the top comparison—Joe Flacco—should provide a reason for optimism. The rest of the top 10 also feature some success stories. But there is another source of positivity deep in the comparables list: Vinny Testaverde (#23, score=5.69). I have been surprised that more Browns fans have not made comparisons between Osweiler and Testaverde, another tall and somewhat mobile quarterback who struggled badly in his mid-20s (including a ghastly 47.6 comp%, 13/35 TD/INT season at age 25 in 1988) only to find new life in Cleveland. After floundering with Tampa Bay, Testaverde arrived in Cleveland with low expectations and relatively little fanfare in 1993. After a surprise ascension to the starting QB role in his first season with the Browns, Testaverde led Cleveland to the playoffs the following year… and still represents the last Browns QB to start and win a playoff game, a 20-13 defeat of New England in the 1994 AFC Wild Card Game.
Let’s reconsider Osweiler. Arrived in Cleveland with low expectations and relatively little fanfare? Check. A surprising ascent to the starting quarterback role? Quite possibly. A playoff victory next season? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.