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Tyrod Taylor at 25 starts: How does he compare to the best in the NFL?

A user comment spawned a comprehensive look at Tyrod’s game compared to the beginnings of some other noteworthy careers.

Tyrod Taylor takes a lot of flack for his lack of high-volume passing output.

His low yardage totals have become something of a running joke, especially when you consider that the Bills are 12-2 when he throws for fewer than 200 yards and only 3-9 when he goes over that mark.

I’ll admit that I’m a critic of his passing, but I could care less about yardage totals. Still, it’s something that’s worth taking a look at, especially when you consider a comment from user BuffaloMook in the most recent post-game recap:

Ben Roethlisberger threw for less than 200 yards in 15 of his first 25 starts. Russell Wilson threw for less than 200 yards in 12 of his first 25 starts. Drew Brees threw for less than 200 yards in 13 of his first 25 starts. Tom Brady threw for less than 200 yards in 9 of his first 25 starts. Taylor has 12 games below the 200 yard mark in his first 25 starts.”

Now, I wouldn’t say it’s fair to compare Taylor to the best quarterbacks of this generation (as well as a couple top-five passers in NFL history), but the point here is that Taylor is still developing as an NFL quarterback, and even the best of the best didn’t start out at the level they’re playing at now.

I’m curious, does Tyrod really compare to that group? Let’s take a dive into the numbers to see if anything comes out as particularly striking.

Before I begin, let me say this: I don’t know what any of these results are going to be as I’m typing this paragraph. I have my preconceived notion that Taylor is a below-average passer based on top-level observation, but if anything I find out today clashes with that notion I’ll gladly change my viewpoint.

Anyways, let’s begin with a look at the per-game averages of each quarterback through their first 25 starts. I’ll keep it simple by only including the five quarterbacks listed above.

At first glance, Taylor compares quite favorably to the rest of that group. He has a higher yards-per-game total than any of them besides Brady, a better quarterback rating than everyone except Big Ben, and his rushing totals edge out Wilson’s by a decent margin when you consider this is on a per-game basis.

Of course, the important thing to remember here is that the league has changed quite a bit since the first three players were starting out. Changes in rules, coaching, and basic strategy mean that 200 yards through the air today isn’t as hard to pull off as it was 10 or 15 years ago. With that in mind, I want to look at some normalized statistics, with the help of Pro Football Reference.

If you’re interested, you can read their explanation here, but the basic idea behind normalized stats (which are usually noted with a plus sign in the label) is that they serve to compare a player’s output to the rest of the league in a given season. A normalized total of 100 means that a player performed exactly at the league average, and the number rises or falls in accordance with their performance.

PFR keeps a few of these stats, but I want to focus on five: yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, and sack rate. Since the numbers can’t be broken down on a per-game basis, I’m recording the average of each player’s first two seasons as a starter.

I’ll also include another disclaimer: PFR’s normalized stats use a three-year average (ex. 2001 normalized stats are based off of league averages from 2000-2002). As a result, Taylor’s stats are going to be clipped a bit, because his true 2016 normalized stats won’t be finalized until the end of 2017. That said, I feel confident enough in their stability to stand behind the results here.

A few things stand out to me here. The first is that Tyrod’s passing numbers fall back to Earth a little bit, although they’re still better than I expected. His completion percentage is a bit lower than I might’ve suspected compared to the rest of the league, but he makes up for it in yards per attempt. He also throws an average amount of touchdowns, although the others (aside from Brees, who was a substantially worse quarterback in San Diego) were a bit better than the league average.

His low interception total is the biggest factor in his favor. One of his best qualities as a passer is his penchant for avoiding turnovers, to the extent that this year’s Bills have the fewest turnovers through 11 games in NFL history. Keep in mind that this is a normalized interception rate, so it’s not so good entirely because he throws a relatively small amount of passes. The ones he does throw rarely end up in the hands of defenders.

Finally, there’s his sack rate. Simply put, it’s not very good compared to the rest of the league. So far this season, among quarterbacks with at least 40 passing attempts and 40 rushing attempts. Tyrod’s Sack%+ of 77 ranks ninth out of nine, not only behind Wilson (95) but also behind rookie Dak Prescott (110) and sophomore Marcus Mariota (112). I will concede that those two have two of the three best offensive lines in front of them, whereas Taylor is in a constant struggle to run away from the slew of pass rushers that Jordan Mills can’t handle, but 77 is far too low. He needs to gain a better understanding of when he can make a play with his legs and when he needs to just throw it away.

Finally, I want to touch on the metric the commenter brought up, 300-yard passing games. It’s an arbitrary yet psychologically-important metric; the difference between Tyrod’s 297-yard outing against the Jets in Week 2 is about the same as the difference between $9.99 and $10.00, yet retailers knock that penny off the price for a reason.

With that in mind, take this next chart with a grain of salt.

There’s a number in statistics known as the z-score; strictly speaking, it’s the number of standard deviations from the mean a given result would be. It’s a great number to use if you’re wondering how past performance might predict future results.

This last chart includes each quarterback’s average yards per game and standard deviation over their first 25 starts. Those are followed by the resultant z-score for a 300-yard passing game, and the corresponding probability that their next game would equal or surpass that mark (think of the probability as a percentage; 0.19 would equate to a 19% chance):

It’s pretty surprising how little Tyrod’s numbers stand out among the rest. His standard deviation is much lower than Brees or Brady, indicating that he’s more consistent with his yardage totals. The z-score sounds about right; in statistics, any z-score above 2 would be considered an unusual result, and anything over 3 would be considered very unusual. A 300-yard day from Tyrod would be unexpected, but not terribly surprising. However, a 381-yard day would be downright shocking.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, I couldn’t care less about Tyrod’s yardage totals. As it stands, the Bills tend to win when he doesn’t throw for a lot of yards, and that’s fine by me.

That said, he does compare fairly well with some of the all-time great passers, and his running numbers stack up with one of the pre-eminent mobile quarterbacks of today’s game quite well.

It’s also noteworthy that, even though Taylor spent several years on the bench in Baltimore, he’s not a whole lot older than most of these guys were in their second seasons. With the exception of Big Ben, who was 23 when the Steelers won the Super Bowl in his second year in the league, the group finished up their sophomore seasons around 25 years old. Tyrod turned 27 in August.

I have to admit, doing this gives me a lot more confidence in Tyrod’s ability as a passer. I’d like to see the rest of the team stay healthy around him, and his decision-making and mechanics definitely need work, but at this point he’s on a track with which I’m happy.