Give the Kid the Keys – How Rookie QBs Impact NFL Betting Strategy
The 2021 NFL season is an extreme example of the impact of rookie quarterbacks on the modern game of football. That year, five freshly drafted QBs were expected to start from day one, including Trevor Lawrence of the Jaguars and Mac Jones of the Patriots.
This is a sign of the impact that first year quarterbacks now have on the NFL. Just as the NBA grew younger and younger over the past twenty years, the NFL is following suit, starting younger and younger players with less and less experience, not to mention chin hair.
When rookie QBs get involved in a game, the handicapping and analysis used for typical matchups goes out the window. If you’re looking to use rookie QBs as part of your football betting strategy, you need to understand their historical performance and impact on betting in years past, as well as something about their changing role in the game’s present.
Rookie Quarterback Performance Trends
Let’s start with a look at how some high-profile rookie QBs fared in their first performance.
Kyler Murray (No. 1 draft pick in 2019)
Kyler Murray’s 2019 debut was memorable – 308 yards in the air, 2 TDs, 1 INT. Murray led his Cardinals in a 16-point fourth quarter rally that ended, unsatisfactorily, in a tie. Murray was immediately taken into the hearts of Arizona fans, joining Jake Plummer as the only Cardinals rookie QB to ever throw for 300 yards and 2 TDs.
Sam Darnold (No. 3 draft pick in 2018)
Debuting as a rookie on Monday Night Football is no joke. I can’t even imagine the pressure on Darnold. Not only did he pick up a W, it was a big one, with his Jets beating the Lions 48-17. Memorably, Darnold’s very first pass, in front of millions of viewers, was a pick-6 for the Lions, and you could almost hear all of Long Island groaning. Darnold finished with 2 TDs and just that one (embarrassing) INT.
Deshaun Watson (No. 12 draft pick in 2017)
This one was … a struggle. Watson is now recognized as a top QB, but his first showing was not great. He threw for 102 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT, and the Texans lost on opening day to Jacksonville. Some fans argue that this doesn’t count as his first game, since he took over at halftime from Tom Savage. Watson made up for his performance in his first full game, beating the Bengals 13-9 with 125 yards in the air, 67 on the ground, and 1 rushing TD.
Carson Wentz (No. 2 draft pick in 2016)
In a win, Wentz threw for 278 yards and 2 TDs, beating the Browns 29-10 in his first outing on the big stage. Wentz had a lot to prove, being the first FCS QB drafted in the first round since Joe Flacco in 2008. After winning his second game in spectacular fashion, he became the only rookie QB to ever win his first two games without throwing an INT.
Okay, so that breakdown makes it look like rookies handle themselves pretty well, right? Historically, this is not the case.
Rookie QB Starter Performance since 2004
Going back to 2004, there have been 46 players who were rookies, quarterbacks, and started at least 7 games for the same NFL team. Here’s how they did:
They got better … at first …
Only 14 of the teams had a worse winning percentage than in their previous season. 4 teams had the exact same winning percentage, which we can’t count as a win but certainly isn’t a loss. That means 28 teams in this situation actually did better than in the previous year under a veteran shot-caller.
.. but not good enough that you could win easy money on them …
The combined success rates of all of these 46 teams with rookie QB starters was 307-284-15 against the spread and 255-349-2 straight up. Neither one of those offers a can’t-lose win percentage – even a win-rate of 51.9% against the spread isn’t worth writing down or committing to memory.
… and rookie QBs seem to be getting worse.
If you only look at the performance of rookie QB starters since 2013, their win-rates are worse than the one mentioned above. They’re 156-171-4 against the spread – that’s just 47.7%. They’re 117-213-2 straight up, which is a lousy 35.5%. We’re talking about 27 rookie QBs who started at least 7 games since 2013 – and only three of them notched a winning record. Even worse, only two made the playoffs: Dak Prescott’s Cowboys in 2016 and Lamar Jackson’s Ravens in 2018. I’d like to remind you that both teams lost in the first round.
How to Bet on Teams with Rookie Quarterbacks
The three tips below are just the start of a sports betting strategy that incorporates an understanding of the dynamics of first-year quarterbacks.
Midseason is a Dangerous Time to Back Rookie QBs
Let’s look at the numbers. Going back to 2012, rookie shot-callers are just 85-160 straight up, a 34.7% win-rate, during weeks 4-15. Why focus on this middle chunk of the season? This is about the time that opposing defenses have really zeroed in on a QB’s methods and playing style, and you often see first time players hitting what’s called the “rookie wall.”
I’d like to point out that in recent seasons this trend has reversed a good deal. It’s possibly that coaches are beginning to trust their first-year quarterbacks a bit more these days, but for whatever reason, teams in this situation went 14-10-1 against the spread in the 2020 season. Watch to see how a given year’s slate of rookie QBs responds to coaching, and how much their coaching staff trusts them to make adjustments.
Beware Rookie Quarterbacks in Away Situations
Rookie QBs are historically bad on the road, even worse than they are overall. Since 2013, teams led by first timers are 73-84-5 against the spread – that’s 46.5%, not a number you can build a sound strategy around. It seems to get worse late in the season – after Week 9, these teams drop to a 39.3% win-rate ATS, for a record of 33-52-5. Honestly, at 39.3%, you can probably find value betting against teams that find themselves led by a first year QB in a road game during Weeks 10-17.
Fade First-Year QBs against Big Spreads
A big point spread is a comfort. Sometimes, it feels like a balm against all defects. Even a team led by a first year QB can beat an 8-point spread, right? The bigger the point spread, the more insured we feel against the fact that a rookie hasn’t quite learned the system and doesn’t really know how to move in the pocket.
Unfortunately, the numbers don’t back up this commonly held belief. Going back to 2012, backing rookie QBs when they face an underdog line of 7 or more points would give you a 17-98 record, or a 14.8% win-rate. Part of the problem is plain old points scored. Teams in the situation described above scored just over 17 points per game, as much as 14 points below the best-scoring teams in the league.
Consider Backing Rookie QB Starters in Weeks 1-3
Let’s start with the numbers – teams starting first year quarterbacks have gone 27-14 against the spread since 2013. They’re beating the spread, not the other team – the straight-up win-loss record over that same span was 14-26-1. That is a clear indication that books undervalue teams in this situation. That means in Weeks 1-3, you can focus your attention and your money a little more wisely on teams with rookie QB starters.
It’s clear that the NFL is undergoing some seismic changes. Whether you like the new rules, the new social justice orientation, or the new styles of coaching and playing, you have to understand that a pro sports league is an ever-changing organism. You don’t have to like the fact that we have more starting rookies than ever before to be able to build a betting strategy around that face.
It’s hard to know what you’re looking for when handicapping a newcomer. Does playoff experience as a college freshman or sophomore equate to high-pressure experience in a pro game? If the player is particularly young, how much physical development does he have left to do? Are you looking just at passing accuracy, or does he need to be able to move on his feet? It’s a handicapping nightmare.
Use the tips in this post to help you make smarter bets on teams and on games where a first-year player straps on the helmet to throw the ball.