That’s usually why I avoid QBs coming off career years. It’s generally counter-intuitive to believe a player coming off a career year will be undesirable, like Gary Barnidge this year. But career years are called such for a reason: They’re almost never duplicated. These are cases of something unusual happening, which usually means the opposite will occur in the near future.

-- 2016's Lessons Learned

Perhaps not coincidentally, I started thinking about QB "career years" two weeks ago. A lot of the data for this article was put together last week; John's comment in the Lessons Learned article spurred me to write up some of the results.

Because I think there are two questions to be asked. First, what happens to a QB's fantasy numbers the year after a career year? Second, how do we know what just happened WAS a career year?

The second question is much harder to answer and I'm going to put that off for a week. But before leaving it, let's look at Matt Ryan, who is probably the player who brings these questions up at this time.

Ryan just had the best season of his career, with 4944 passing yards and 38 TD passes for 22.6 fantasy points (25 pass yards = 1 FP, Pass TD = 4 FP, 10 rush yards = 1 FP, Rush TD =6, no turnover penalty). At age 31, he's not going to get much better, is he? In fact, since the 1970 merger, 22 of 99 QBs had their career years after age 31.

I need to stop to define what I mean by "career year" in this context.

First, if it was a QB's best season in BOTH total FP and FP/G, I considered that to be his career year. If he posted those marks in different seasons, I picked the one where he had more attempts per game and more games played. In the few cases where that still left some doubt, I looked for a combination of over 200 attempts and 25 attempts per game, throwing out seasons where he played fewer than 7 games. I was trying to limit "career years" to those seasons where QBs had substantial playing time, not a great year in only a few performances, although one did sneak through when he met the total and per game criteria.

Second, I only included QBs who concluded their careers before 2016. We can't be sure that any active QB has had his career year.

Third, I eliminated strike-shortened seasons (1982 and 1987).

Next, the career year had to be ranked in the Top 12 in FP/G for that season's QBs. I'm not really interested in in a QB whose best season was as a backup or waiver wire guy.

Finally, given the Top-12 requirement, I limited the study to post-merger seasons. It's a lot different being a Top 12 QB in a 26- (or 32-) team league than in a 16-team circuit.

There have been 99 QBs to have "career years" under those criteria. And 22 of those seasons occurred when the player was older than Matt Ryan in 2016. And while this was his 9th year in the league, 19 of the QBs in my study had their career year in their 10th season or later. So Ryan's age and experience are not the only things we need to look, which is what makes this complicated. Come back next week for more analysis on how we can spot a career year.

An easier question to answer is the first one: what happens to a QB's fantasy numbers the year after a career year?

Note that by definition a QB will decline after a career year, but I'm trying to quantify how much that decline has been.

Here I have the advantage of knowing when a career year occurred. And my career year QBs lost an average of 4.4 FP/G from their career year number to the next season. They also saw an average drop in FP/G rank of 12.9 places, so their average rank the following year was 19th. These averages exclude:

  • Roger Staubach, retired after his career year in 1979 at age 37.
  • Bobby Hebert, did the same after a career year at age 36.
  • David Garrard, who lasted one more year but didn't play.
  • Jeff Rutledge, his "career year" was just 4 games.
  • Randall Cunningham, who lasted less than a game into his post-career-year season.

I felt those five were not fair comparisons to the other 94 QBs in the sample. But I didn't want to eliminate players like Ray Lucas or Shaun King just because they were never any good again.

How many rank positions a QB fell in his next season (Year + 1) was in part determined by how good he was in his career year, relative to his peers:

As the trendline shows, QBs who ranked lower in their career year did much worse in the subsequent season than did those at the very top. Here's another slice of the data, showing the same thing:

Career Year Rank

Change in FP/G in Year+1

Change in Rank in Year+1

Average Rank in Year+1

Median Rank in Year+1

Top 4

-4.7

-8.8

11

8

#5-8

-3.6

-13.3

20

14

#9-12

-5.2

-19.6

30

25

All Top 12

-4.4

-12.9

19

15

Career year QBs who ranked 9th through 12th had a larger decrease in FP/G and much larger decline in rank in the next year. Top 4 QBs had a bigger drop in FP/G than those who finished 5th through 8th, but not as big a fall in rank. On average QBs who had career years in the Top 4 for fantasy that season stayed in the Top 12 the next year: you might not get a full return on your investment in drafting them, but you probably are getting a starting QB. And as you can probably figure out from the graph, the averages in each category are pulled down by the really bad outlier performances – so I included the median rank in the table. It's probably a better estimate that the expected performance from a Top 4 QB coming off a career year is to rank 8th the next season – and all Top 12s will come out around 15th after their career year.

Although that is pretty discouraging.

One last table:

Source of FP

Change in FP/G in Year+1

Change in Rank in Year+1

Average Rank in Year+1

Median Rank in Year+1

<20% Rushing

-4.0

-11.8

17

15

>20% Rushing

-5.8

-17.7

24

20

All Top 12

-4.4

-12.9

19

15

Career year QBs who got over 20% of their fantasy points from running the ball tended to fall further the next season than those who ran sparingly if at all (there was no real difference between QBs who scored less than 10% of their points running and those with 10-20% of their FP on the ground).

All of the above is good reason to avoid career year QBs, unless you're drafting them around their median Year +1 rank. Which you probably aren't – usually, someone in your league will over-pay for last year's numbers. Or not believe that it WAS a career year. Of course, this comes back to the second question: how do we spot those players? Stay tuned.