NFL Quarterbacks Who Made Major Improvements in Year Two

ByBryan Armetta

Published on Tue Feb 16 2021


5 min read

NFL Quarterbacks Who Made Major Improvements in Year Two

The 'second year leap' has become a familiar mantra amongst hopeful fanbases banking on improvement from their rookie quarterbacks. While there isn't any exact science behind this phenomenon, it has certainly gained momentum in recent years. Both Patrick Mahomes (2018) and Lamar Jackson (2019) are sophomore signal callers who ended up becoming league MVP.

This poses the question: what are the greatest jumps in improvement from year one to two in NFL history, and what did these quarterbacks do to elevate their game? Here are four of the greatest second year QB seasons in NFL history.

*Note: To qualify for this list, players must have started more than five games in their rookie year (Sorry Pat). Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

Peyton Manning (1999)

Perhaps the greatest to ever play the position, Peyton Manning's career didn't look Hall of Fame-worthy after one season. The Tennessee alum tossed 26 touchdowns and threw for 3,739 yards, the latter breaking a rookie record. However, he was also responsible for 28 interceptions, a dismal number that led the league and played a major role in giving the Indianapolis Colts a 3-13 record in 1998.

The next season, everything changed. The Colts reversed their record, going 13-3 and beginning a decade-long run of AFC contention with number twelve at the helm. Peyton threw for 26 touchdowns yet again, along with over 4,000 yards. However, he managed to drop his interception total all the way down to just 15 while standing tall against some of the NFL's best.

Like any legend, Manning made adjustments and assessed where his game needed improvement. While arm strength was never in doubt, his accuracy and decision-making skills clearly needed work. While part of his second-year success can be attributed to additional NFL experience, Manning boosted his completion percentage by over six points, and engineered a then-NFL record seven game-winning drives. Composure, leadership, and smart decision making were what allowed Peyton to succeed, more than any athletic talent he possessed.

Lamar Jackson (2019)

Going from a surefire HOF member to a third year starter may feel drastic, but Lamar Jackson changed football last year.

In 2018, Jackson was tasked with taking over a stagnant Ravens offense over longtime starter Joe Flacco. While Baltimore did make the playoffs, the Heisman winner didn't set the world on fire. Over seven starts, he threw for just 1,201 yards (around 171 yards per game) with a completion percentage under 60%. To be fair, Jackson did rush for nearly 700 yards, but the perception that he would never be a franchise quarterback was still alive in year one.

Given the reigns to the offense and an entire offseason to game plan around his unique skillset, the Ravens and Jackson set the league on fire in 2019. He threw for over 3,000 yards and 36 touchdowns, compared to just six interceptions, while the Ravens managed to take the AFC North crown for the second consecutive year. It was Lamar's ability on the ground that truly stood out; he rushed for 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns, the first mark breaking the record for quarterbacks.

As opposed to a traditional offense, which uses the run to set up the pass, the threat of Jackson's legs kept defenses close to the line of scrimmage. In drawing them closer to the field, the Ravens were able to set up easier passes down the field, which explains Jackson's high touchdown total. It also helped that Jackson made major improvements to his throwing motion, creating a tighter spiral and better passes. While he didn't have quite the exceptional year this season, Lamar has shown an entire generation of quarterbacks that running the ball is a powerful weapon to combat defensive schemes.

Jared Goff (2017)

Jared Goff, like near-selection Carson Wentz, is an interesting pick on our list, mainly because with each passing season it feels as if 2017 was an outlier rather than a normal year for the former top pick.

After a dubious start to his NFL career in 2016 (1,089 passing yards, 5:7 TD:INT ratio), Goff's game was transformed under new Rams head coach Sean McVay. From 2016 to '17, the Rams offense went from worst in the league to first. While the coaching staff deserves much of the credit for revitalizing L.A.'s scoring attack, it's only fair to give Goff his due. Throwing for 3,804 yards, 28 touchdowns, and just 7 interceptions over 15 games, Goff earned his way to a spot in the Pro Bowl, all while bringing the Rams to the playoffs for the first time since the days of Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk.

Despite a Super Bowl disappointment in 2018, Goff was even better than before, and expectations were sky-high about the team's future. Sadly, the two-time Pro Bowler's statistics have been lacking over the last two seasons, with a TD:INT ration of nearly 4:3 and a team-wide offensive rating that has declined to 22nd in the league this season, with Goff tossing just 20 touchdowns to 13 interceptions in 2020. It comes as no coincidence that as Goff's pass attempts have gone up, his yards per completion and overall efficiency have declined since 2018.  

As a quarterback, sometimes less is more. While this isn't to advocate being a 'game manager', it does mean that decision making and knowing when to push it down the field are keys to long-term success at quarterback. Attempting to dink-and-dunk down the field seems to be what the Rams have gone for in recent years, which makes sense given that their best receivers like to play in the slot. While there is still time for Goff to turn it around, as well as an elite defense to keep games within reach, it is fair to wonder if the Rams are concerned about their future given his recent struggles.

Dan Marino (1984)

Of all the players on the list, let alone in NFL history, none improved more in the span of just one year than Dan Marino. However, it is important to note that Marino was still really good in his rookie season. In just nine games as a starter, he tossed 20 touchdowns to just six interceptions on a twelve-win Miami Dolphins team led by legendary head coach Don Shula.

After a successful rookie year, expectations for the ex-Pittsburgh Panther were sky-high. It's safe to say that he didn't meet them; instead, he exceeded what most NFL fans thought possible from a QB. In 1984, which many analysts still consider the standard for excellence at quarterback, Marino threw for over 5,000 yards and a league-leading 48 touchdowns, then NFL records, to accompany an outstanding 108.9 quarterback rating. He would lead Miami to a 14-2 record, and a league MVP win, only to come up short against the San Francisco 49ers in Marino's lone Super Bowl appearance.

Marino changed what it meant to be a quarterback in the NFL, and the game itself. His quick release and superior pocket awareness were key in dissecting defenses, even in an era designed to stop the vertical pass. Marino, who was passed over by five other QB-needy teams in the 1983 NFL Draft, is an enduring reminder of the importance of hard work and landing in the right situation when it comes to quarterback development.

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