QB Play: Maybe We Can Be Average


14 completions on 25 attempts, 175 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT



There has been a lot written in recent weeks concerning the guy who will be behind center for Penn State next year.  Most of these write-ups have a similar line of reasoning: Penn State is inexperienced at quarterback.  This inexperience will lead to relatively bad quarterback play, which coupled with a challenging schedule will lead to a gloom-and-doom mediocre season for Penn State.

This line of reasoning may be true, but it seems too easy.  I wanted to craft a quick study to see how Penn State can expect their season to fare with inexperience behind center.  Specifically:

  • How can PSU avoid having a bad quarterback, particularly a bad underclassman quarterback?
  • How has PSU fared in the past in similar situations, and what can we guess will happen this time?
  • Do we need a great quarterback to win 11 games next season?

19-29, 230 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INT


I like keeping things simple for qualitative assessments.  If you try to overwhelm people with mountains of intricately counterbalanced data, you sometimes end up trying to convince people on how accurate your methods are rather than just exploring something for fun and recognize its imperfections.  This is why I’m going to look at a single, accessible statistic.

As in a previous post, I’m going to use Passer Efficiency Rating to measure quarterback play.  I’m not a staunch advocate for Passer Efficiency Rating.  It’s not the best gauge of what makes a good or a bad quarterback.  It doesn’t consider offensive schemes, quality of opposition, rushing, leadership, untimely fumbles, heart (Tebow skewed that statistical model off the charts), or many of the other things that make a good quarterback.

It is, however, easy to understand—the more passes you complete, the more touchdowns you throw and interceptions you don’t throw, the higher your number.  By and large, if you create more offensive yardage and throw more touchdowns than interceptions, your win-loss record will be better.  Quick and dirty.  When you mash together the Passer Efficiency Rating of hundreds of games and dozens of quarterbacks over time, some patterns do appear.


17-30, 219 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT

So how can PSU avoid having a quarterback that tanks our season?

It’s too much to ask for Bolden or Newsome or any of the QB corps to step up and be a great quarterback.  Sure, if we have the next Sam Bradford under center throwing 36 TDs to 8 INTs as a freshman then we shouldn’t have a problem putting together a Big Ten championship run.  It’s unreasonable to assume or expect greatness, particularly with the little evidence we have before us. 

One of the ways the Nittany Lions can avoid having a bad QB is if PSU simply has an average quarterback. Is it too much to ask for an inexperienced underclassman quarterback to just be average?  What is average?

We can answer both of these questions by looking at the passer efficiency ratings of quarterbacks last year and break them down into seniors, juniors, sophomores, and freshmen.  Here are the results:



There is no real improvement in passer efficiency rating between an average sophomore quarterback and an average senior quarterback.  There is a notable difference when you start a freshman.  This does not mean that Paul Jones shouldn’t start, but that there’s a fairly noticeable equality amongst average QBs once they have burned a year of eligibility.  Senior leadership does not necessarily equate into better performance on the field.

So, if you cross off the freshman, it stands to assume that an "average quarterback" will be one with a passer efficiency rating around 130-138 over the season.  Here’s a list of some of last year’s quarterbacks that had ratings in that range:

There’s a mix of successful, semi-successful, and bad teams there.  One way of interpreting this data is that a good team with an average quarterback will be good, and a bad team with an average quarterback will be bad.  If PSU has just an average quarterback, it might be enough for a good season.


9-18, 139 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT

Can we back it up with some empirical evidence to indicate that an average QB can lead to a good PSU season?  Has PSU fared well with an average QB in the past?  Can this tell us something about what to expect next season?

I explored Penn State quarterbacks in the past on the basis of Passer Efficiency since 2000.  Here are the results:


The dark blue dots represent the Passer Efficiency Rating of the starting quarterbacks each year.  The light blue line represents what an average Big Ten quarterback fared in that year for comparison purposes, and the green halos represent PSU Big Ten Championships.

What you find is that PSU has had rather unremarkable quarterbacks statistically until Clark came along.  Even Michael Robinson (stats be damned he was a great QB in 2005) was only average as a QB in passer efficiency and below average in the Big Ten that season.

In terms of passer efficiency, PSU has had only two "average" quarterbacks in the past ten years. One (2002) was an underclassman quarterback and PSU won nine games and lost two in overtime.  The other (2005) was an upperclassman and PSU won the Big Ten title and finished #3 in the nation.  What did we have those seasons to complement the QBs?

  • Great returning running backs (Larry Johnson and Tony Hunt)
  • Impact wide receivers (Bryant Johnson, D-Wheels & company)
  • Solid defense (27th and 12th in total defense nationally)  

I think it’s safe to say that PSU has done well with average quarterback.  

Even average might not be necessary.  If you want further evidence, PSU has been successful with bad QBs in recent years.  Not to bag on a guy who’s continuing to chase his dream, but Anthony Morelli had some terrible passer efficiency numbers.  Still, his teams won 18 games over two seasons.  How?  Great running backs, impact wide receivers, and continued excellence in defense which has ranked in the top 15 every year since 2004.


18-32, 224 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs


As some of you might have guessed, the QB stat lines I’ve interspersed in this post are lines that will get you an average passer efficiency rating—between 132 to 134 for the game.

Read into them a bit.  

These aren’t tremendous numbers.  There are a lot of dropped passes, overthrown balls for interceptions, and very few forty yard bombs in these stat lines.  It’s the line of a quarterback who doesn’t have a great day.  He doesn’t need to be great.  Just average will do.

There are no guarantees that average or great QB play will equate to a great season, but at the very least, I think this exercise has shown that the concerns that many experts have about Penn State’s quarterback problem might be a bit overstated.  Other teams have had undergraduate quarterbacks with limited experience and been successful.  PSU has had QB’s with limited experience and been equally successful.  

Few of those teams have had an MVP candidate as a running back, a dynamic wide receiver corps, an improving offensive line, and a defense that has shown it can reload every season.  Plus, we haven't even explored how a running quarterback can effect game play.

If you assume the quarterback can at least be average, then why not dream about a great season?


16-25, 190 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

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