StrategyAugust 25, 2008

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Don’t Fall Into the Quarterback Trap

By Pat Hunley

The NFL is entering an era that could make a superstar quarterback much more valuable than a productive running game. The number of passing touchdowns per season has gone up significantly in recent years. Of the last ten seasons, only the 2000 season failed to make the top ten in total passing touchdowns, and 2000 still finished 11th. The single-season touchdown record that stood at 48 TDs for 20 years has now been broken twice in the last four years.

Yes, the NFL is becoming a passing-heavy league, and fantasy drafters are responding by taking quarterbacks in the second and even the first round. Tom Brady is in the argument for the sixth pick in fantasy drafts right behind the big five running backs thanks to his record-breaking 2007 campaign. I’ve seen Brady go as high as top three in some leagues. While the NFL is certainly shifting in favor of the passing game, fantasy football should not be making that switch just yet. Quarterbacks are being grossly overvalued this year thanks to an unusually high number of elite fantasy years from quarterbacks.

Let’s start with the consensus #1 fantasy quarterback: Tom Brady. After becoming the first quarterback to throw 50 touchdown passes in a season, Brady’s fantasy value has reached and even eclipsed that of Peyton Manning after he threw for 49 TDs in 2004. And while Brady’s production is certainly expected to decline, many at the Cafe believe he is still a lock for anywhere from 35 to 40 TD passes, thus making him worthy of a first round pick. However, when comparing Brady to other quarterbacks that have thrown over 40 TDs in a season, Brady’s chances to even break 30 TDs next season seem slim. Here are the five seasons in which a quarterback has thrown for over 40 TDs and their touchdown total in the following season.

Quarterback (year)TDsTDs next season
Tom Brady (2007)50??
Peyton Manning (2004)4928
Dan Marino (1984)4830
Dan Marino (1986)4426
Kurt Warner (1999)4121

Quarterbacks that threw for over 40 TDs had noticeable declines the next season. Only Dan Marino managed to break 30 TDs after a 40+ TD year, and the others threw anywhere from 21-28. This is why expectations for Brady to easily throw for 35 TDs next year are unrealistic. Even though Brady seemed unstoppable at many points last year, his passer rating at the end of the year was lower than Manning’s in 2004 when he broke the record, and Manning threw 21 less TD passes the next year. Although it is certainly possible that Brady will become only the second QB to follow a 40 TD season with a 30+ TD season, history shows that assuming so is foolish. The lack of success for QBs following 40 TD seasons makes taking Brady in the first round a massive risk.

But that’s enough about Tom Brady; he wasn’t the only quarterback that excelled last year. In fact, 2007 was only the second time in history that four quarterbacks broke the 30 touchdown plateau (Brady, Manning, Ben Roethiisberger, and Tony Romo). As a result, the typical strategy of drafting running backs in the first and second rounds has come into question this year even more so than in the past. Although Brady likely won’t repeat his 2007 performance, the difference between the second best and 12th best quarterback was still almost 100 points last year. It seems logical to nab one of those elite starters to get that 5-6 point advantage per week.

However, grabbing that guy that threw over 30 TDs last season doesn’t guarantee another similar performance. Since the turn of the century, quarterbacks have thrown 30 or more touchdown passes 13 times excluding 2007. Of those 13, only 3 managed to throw 30 TDs the next season: Jeff Garcia (31 in 2000, 32 in 2001), Brett Favre (32 in 2003, 30 in 2004), and Peyton Manning (31 in 2006 and 2007). So while Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger, and Romo put up excellent numbers in 2007, most of them will not follow up with 30 TDs again in 2008. Additionally, the difference between the second best and worst starting quarterbacks will also likely go down next year because if history is a good indicator, only one or two quarterbacks will break 30 TD passes next year as opposed to the four that did so last year.

The times are changing in the NFL, and quarterbacks are regularly breaking records and putting up season totals that just 40 years ago seemed laughable. Still, that shift has yet to significantly affect fantasy football despite the spreading belief to the contrary. Simply put, quarterbacks don’t yet have the consistency to justify taking them in the first round. There may come a day when all starting quarterbacks throw over 30 touchdown passes, but for now and the foreseeable future, quarterbacks will be behind running backs and wide receivers on the positional totem pole.

Pat Hunley is a Steelers fanatic and a Cafe addict who one day aspires to be a sports journalist. You can always find Pat in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of steelerfan513.
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