"A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true" ~ Sir Isaac Newton
I am fresh off the heels of my first article for SportingCharts.com. In fact, that was the first article I have written, period. I am a rookie. Or should I say, I was a rookie.
Now that my freshman effort was in the bag, it was time to focus on what to write next: My so-to-speak second season. I started to receive positive feedback and naturally began to feel pressure. I questioned my ability to live up to your expectations. I considered one concept after another until realizing they didn't live up to my expectations. Had I already succumbed to early symptoms of the Sophomore Slump?
"I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on a seashore"
On September 11, 2011, Cam Newton appeared from the tunnel at University of Phoenix Stadium for his first NFL regular season game. On his shoulders were the expectations of his Panthers teammates and management, their fans, and the expectations placed annually on the first overall draft pick. On the opposing sideline, the Arizona Cardinals had expectations of their own that afternoon? There was video of Newton at Auburn, but the pro game is different. Also, the labour strife that summer hurt every team's ability to prepare.
Despite everybody's expectations, Newton could play like a young man with nothing to lose. Worst case, he would be labeled a work in progress and hope for Carolina's future. Best case, he would defy history, shatter rookie records and instantly mature before our eyes.
What nobody, even Cam himself, could have expected is that he would pulverize the mark for Week 1 passing yards by a rookie QB. He finished Week 1 with 422 yards passing and then topped this mark in Week 2 versus Green Bay with an improbable 432 yards. Detractors would point to the consecutive losses and to the interceptions. Believers would point to the touchdowns, the promise and the excitement. By the end of the 2011 season, Newton had accumulated an astonishing 4,051 yards passing (an NFL rookie record), 14 rushing touchdowns (an NFL record for QB's) and by season's end became the undisputed winner of the Associated Press (AP) Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
But now, what are our expectations for Newton in 2012? What does he expect from himself in his second season? Can he live up to the promise? Can he continue to deliver the excitement?
There is a proverb long associated with Sir Isaac Newton that suggests "What goes up must come down." I doubt Sir Isaac would have been contemplating the Sophomore Slump, but he would have relished the analysis that such a phenomenon exists.
"No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess"
I could only guess that the Sophomore Slump does exist. For the pundits have all spoken and if you have heard the words enough, they must be true. If a sample size of one were significant, one could immediately point to the 2010 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year (Sam Bradford). Between 2010 and 2011, Bradford suffered through an injury plagued season, threw for 1,348 less yards, 12 less touchdowns and the St. Louis Rams fell victim 5 times more than the season before.
I used SportingCharts.com's ChartBuilder to analyze the first and second year statistics for each AP Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year since 1990. For comparison purposes, I segregated the results by position. Based on my analysis the Sophomore Slump does exist. It is overwhelming how the average results decreased in each of the significant statistical categories. But, is it true that the backsliding is attributed to a slump?
The tables below summarize the average season over season differential in selected statistics for the positions played by each rookie of the year. For example, for all four quarterbacks who won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year since 1990, their teams won 2.3 less games between their first and second seasons and individually they passed for 440.3 fewer yards, 2.3 less touchdowns and their average quarterback rating dipped 2.0 points.
|Number||Victory Differential||Passing Yards Differential||Passing TDs Differential||QB Rating Differential|
|Number||Victory Differential||Rushing Yards Differential||Rushing TD Differential|
|Number||Victory Differential||Reception Differential||Receiving Yard Differential||Receiving TDs Differential|
Success is measured in victories, and wins are most often earned through scoring offensive touchdowns. The results above clearly demonstrate that the Sophomore Slump not only has a direct impact on the player's performance, but on the team's chances as well. For every Adrian Peterson and Edgerrin James that shone during their second season, there are twice as many transitions such as the one Bradford encountered between 2010 and 2011 (e.g., Carnell Williams, Anquan Boldin, Mike Anderson, Curtis Martin). The results lead you to believe in the Sophomore Slump. But, the results do not explain why so many budding stars falter.
Similar to tables summarizing the average performance of the AP Offensive Rookies of the Year, the table below summarizes the average season over season differential in selected statistics for the winners of the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year since 1990.
|Position||Number||Victory Differential||Tackle Differential||Sack Differential||INT Differential|
The defensive group actually saw an improvement in their team's win total - the most important result to measure. However, it wasn't a substantial upgrade. The entire sample saw only a slight increase of 0.3 in average team wins.
The individual statistics were all convincingly down from their rookie season. For example, defensive linemen averaged 10.4 sacks as rookies compared to only 6.6 as sophomores. The previous three linemen to win rookie of the year (Ndamukong Suh, Julius Peppers, Jevon Kearse) respectively encountered 6, 5 and 3 fewer sacks than in the prior year. There may have only been three defensive backs from this sample; however, the reduction in interceptions from an average of 7.3 to 1.3 is worth investigating further.
"To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction"
Certainly expectations had risen after Bradford unpredictably took the Rams to the brink of a playoff appearance in 2010, but fans and media often point too quick to increased pressure, questioned ability and second guessing oneself as the reasons for the Sophomore Slump. These factors are all true. They happen to any professional. Athletes like Newton, Bradford and all the other rookies of the year dealt with immense pressure in college; they were stars in high school and dealt with expectations there too. They have been physically and mentally trained to handle these situations.
Could other factors then define the Sophomore Slump? It is indefensible that production decreases in year two for the majority of rookies of the year. However, could it be that the second-year player didn't suffer a drop in ability despite seeing a drop in results? I contend that their competition became wiser, more prepared and less susceptible to the element of surprise. Receivers became double covered. Defensive backs were avoided. Linemen were double-teamed.
From 1993 to 1995, the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year was awarded in turn to Jerome Bettis, Marshall Faulk and Curtis Martin. All were running backs with illustrious careers. The graph below depicts a recurring pattern for each player: A sensational rookie campaign, a set-back over the next couple of seasons, a rise back to prominence, and a lengthy, distinguished career that ebbed and flowed but maintained results at the highest of levels until retirement.
Sir Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, after the Sophomore Slump, the young stars bury their nose in the books. They study the video. They learn and practice new, dynamic ways to beat their opponent. And a career long battle of tug-of-war begins with their opponents. It wouldn't be surprising to see improvements in year three, further success in year four and, if healthy, many seasons consisting of peaks and valleys until the point when time catches up and the former rookie sensation calls it a career.