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Just The Sports: The Mike Shanahan Effect

Just The Sports

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Mike Shanahan Effect

If history is any indication, Donovan McNabb will experience a shot of adrenaline to his statistics while playing for Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan and may actually live up to the reputation the media has bestowed upon him. Ever since controversial public personality Rush Limbaugh made his overtly racist comments regarding his perception that the media overrated McNabb due to his race, the media has gone out of its way to praise McNabb and mention him among the NFL's elite quarterbacks. Unfortunately, McNabb is simply not that player. When compared to the other quarterbacks of this era, McNabb has been overwhelmingly ordinary. His net yards per pass attempt for his career is average for this era and his career completion percentage is actually a little below average; those two statistics are extremely important in gauging the quality of a quarterback. Where McNabb does excel is in throwing touchdown passes and avoiding interceptions; he is above average in both of those categories.

Fortunately for McNabb, Shanahan has a track record for putting his quarterbacks in a position to play the best years of their career. Of the four long-term starting quarterbacks he has coached as a head coach, three of the four accumulated their most impressive passing statistics under Mike Shanahan; only Brian Griese was as inconsistent for his other three teams as he was for Shanahan.

John Elway was Shanahan's first reclamation project after Shanahan was hired by the Denver Broncos in 1995. For all the reverence with which Elway is looked upon now, he looked like anything but a legendary quarterback in the twelve seasons before being coached up by Shanahan. Before Shanahan, Elway had two great seasons (1987 & 1993), but the rest were either simply serviceable or mediocre when compared to the other quarterbacks who were playing at the same time. After Shanahan arrived, the four subsequent seasons in which Elway played were all superb in terms of being far above average in yards per pass attempt, net yards per pass attempt, touchdown rate, and interception rate. The fact is that without Shanahan rejuvenating Elway's career, Elway would certainly not be looked upon so favorably.

Mike Shanahan performed the same magic with Jake Plummer, who was well on his way to becoming a bust before coming under the tutelage of Shanahan. Like Elway, Plummer also played for Mike Shanahan for four seasons and in the first three seasons before being replaced by Jay Cutler, Plummer's play was elevated to elite level status. Most notably, Plummer improved in yards per pass attempt and net yards per pass attempt, which is the statistic most highly correlated with scoring points. In fact, Plummer's yards per pass attempt went up almost a full yard (6.4 to 7.3) between the time he played for the Cardinals and when he played for the Shanahan-led Broncos.

Jay Cutler also greatly benefited from his time with Mike Shanahan. Nothing about Cutler's statistics from his alma mater, Vanderbilt University, indicated that he would perform as competently as he did in his three seasons with Shanahan. At Vanderbilt, Cutler only completed 57.5% of his passes while also passing for 7.0 yards per pass attempt. Since college completion percentages usually translate pretty well to completion percentages on the NFL level, it is surprising that Cutler completed 62.4% of his passes for Shanahan. However, it is not surprising, after noticing a growing trend under Shanahan quarterbacks, that in the two full seasons Cutler played with the Broncos, his yards per pass attempt and net yards per pass attempt were well above NFL averages. Now that Cutler is with the Chicago Bears, it will be interesting to see just how much he struggles. If his 2009 season is any indication, he will struggle mightily without Shanahan and struggle to match most of the numbers he accumulated, except for the fact he will have high interception levels.

Luckily for Donovan McNabb, exactly where he struggles is where Shanahan helps his quarterbacks the most. For however long McNabb plays for Shanahan, we should see a significant improvement in his yards per pass attempt and net yards per pass attempt. Instead of being merely middle of the pack in those categories as he has been for eight of his eleven seasons, McNabb should be near the top of the league and actually play like the elite quarterback most people think he already is. This trade that sent him to the Washington Redskins is the best thing that could have happened to McNabb's career.



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