A tremendous amount of energy has been spent this off-season debating whether or not Tim Tebow should start the 2011 season as the Broncos starting QB and all of the questions surrounding this debate (Orton, QB posturing in the draft, etc.). I decided to finally do some research to answer the question that I posed in the title - what, if anything, do the first three NFL starts for any QB tell us about his future and his ability to play well in the NFL. Were there future HOFer's who had a horrible first three starts? Were there busts who started out well then turned to bums? Make the jump with me and I'll share what I found...
I wanted a good sample set of QBs to compare with TT's first three starts. I chose to focus on those who have been successful and who are still playing or have played very recently. I will openly admit my bias here - I did not look at the first 3 starts for QBs who were first round busts (Harrington, The Hutt, Alex Smith, Leaf) or career journeymen (Leinart, Garcia, Testeverde, Dilfer, etc.) but that could be done if this analysis draws enough attention for a follow-up. The QBs chosen for comparison are good-to-great and all except Warner are still playing:
Roethlisberger (great QB, possible HOFer)
P. Manning (HOFer)
Brees (great QB - borderline HOF)
Rodgers (great QB)
Brady (future HOFer)
Orton (good QB)
Romo (good QB)
Bradford (good QB)
Cassel (average QB)
E. Manning (above average QB)
Rivers (great QB)
Vick (good QB)
Warner (great QB, borderline HOFer)
Of these 13 QBs, 6 did not start the season as their teams starting QB (Brady, Romo, Cassel, E. Manning, Reothlisberger and Vick).
Using NFL.com as my data source, I evaluated all 14 QBs (TT included) on how they performed in their first 3 starts - looking at Comp%, avg Yards. passing, avg Y/Att, total TDs, total INTs, total times sacked, and avg QB rating. I was unable to find data for 3rd down completion % and/or 3rd down conversion % - both of which would have been nice to have. I purposefully did not include rushing data. I am going to list the best and worst performer for each category in their first three starts and then show where TT fell in that spectrum.
Comp% Top - Rivers (68%), Bottom - E. Manning (42%), TT - 12th at 49% only better than Vick and E. Manning
Yards Top - Warner (288), Bottom - Vick (139), TT - 6th at 217
Y/Att Top - Romo (8.7), Bottom - Orton (5.3), TT - 3rd at 8.3
TD Top - Romo (5), Bottom - Orton (1), TT - tied for 2nd with 4
INT Best - Brady and Rodgers with 0, Worst - Orton with 6 - TT tied for 8th with 3
Sacks Best - Rivers was only sacked once, Worst - Cassel was sacked 13 times - TT was sacked 6 times (tied 7th)
QB rating Best - Romo (107), Worst - E. Manning (41) - TT was 7th at 83
I also looked specifically at how TT compared to the 6 guys who did not start the season as their teams starter (getting reps with the first string during training camp can make a huge different in performance). See the data below
Comp Att Pct Yds/G Y/att TD Int Sck Rating
Romo 68 101 67% 287 8.7 5 1 4 107
Roethlis. 45 68 66% 189 8.5 3 2 2 94
Tebow 40 81 49% 217 8.3 4 3 6 83
Cassel 57 86 66% 185 6.5 2 3 13 79
Brady 58 101 57% 206 5.9 2 0 8 77
Vick 31 65 48% 139 5.9 2 1 11 75
E. Manning 35 83 42% 141 5.3 1 4 7 41
Probably the best comparison for TT's situation starting a good way into the season are Romo (first three starts were weeks 8-10) and E. Manning (first 3 were weeks 11-13). Vick was odd in that he made his first start in week 9, his second in week 17 and then his third in week 1 of the following season.
My conclusions from the data - TT did a fairly good job in his first three starts despite his lack of reps with the first team during the first 14 weeks of the season. While his completion % was low, I think his other numbers show he is going to be better than average at least.
The real interesting part for us Bronco fans is going to be how TT fares in the starts after his first 3. Romo (remaining 7 games) and Eli (remaining 4) fared like this after their first 3:
Comp Att Pct Yds/G Y/att TD Int Sck Rating
Romo (next 7 games) 136 209 65% 254 8.6 11 9 15 90
E. Manning (next 4 gms) 57 105 54% 139 5.0 5 5 5 65
Manning completed more passes and threw fewer INTs relative to his first 3 games, but other than that his performances was eerily similar to his first 3 games. Romo regressed to the mean (TD and INT) but the rest of his stats stayed pretty similar. TT is not Tony Romo, nor is he Eli Manning and my sample set is small, but given that these two were in the most similar situation to TT, we might expect similar numbers next year (if TT is the starter) to what we saw in the his first 3 starts.