Does QB Age Play a Role in Roughing the Passer Calls?

Photo by Robert Robinson

Written by : Kristen Mori

In 2015, Panthers QB Cam Newton claimed that a league official told him that he “wasn’t old enough” to receive a roughing the passer penalty on a previous play. Was Cam being a sore loser? (Or winner, since the Panthers did, in fact, win that game despite controversial no-calls). It’s possible; however, many fans at the time adopted a similar mindset: that the NFL would go to great lengths to protect their aging “golden boys,” Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, at the expense of their younger counterparts.

I wanted to dive into this claim to see if there is any truth behind Newton’s statement. As with most questions, it is not so black-and-white that it can be answered with only data. We can — and will — look at the number of roughing the passer penalties drawn per quarterback since 2009, but that tells us nothing of the quality of the quarterback’s offensive line nor the quality of the defensive lines they faced that season. Therefore, the discoveries made in this article must be taken with a grain of salt.

I used penalty data from NFL Penalties as well as age and various passing statistics from Pro Football Reference. At first, I decided to look at the question in the most simplified way possible: how many roughing the passer penalties do quarterbacks of certain ages receive per game? I filtered out only those quarterbacks who received playing time in at least four games that season, so small sample sizes should not skew our perception. For instance, if a quarterback played in one game in 2010, and yielded one roughing the passer penalty, that would indicate that his rate would be one penalty per game, or 16 per season — a remarkable, and unrealistic, amount.

This left us with 275 quarterbacks. Of course, we still have a few sample size issues, because very few players got significant playing time at age 21 or age 40. Regardless, let’s look at the resulting graph:

That is about as random as it gets. It would be extraordinarily difficult to discern any pattern out of this — the line of best fit is about as flat as it gets, which indicates no relationship between age and roughing the passer penalties per game.

However, this is the most simplified view of the problem, and we can probably improve it a bit. Some teams are more pass-heavy than others, which gives the quarterback more chances to be hit. Some may have only played in 3.5 games, but would still be included in our sample. Whatever the reason, it might be more indicative to look at roughing the passer penalties per pass attempt.

This doesn’t tell us much, due to the significant outliers (data points that are far different than the majority of the data) at ages 24, 25, and 33. Two of these outliers are Brian Hoyer at age 24 and 25; at this age, he was serving as a backup to Tom Brady and received very little playing time, so these can be thrown out due to small sample size. A similar story can be said for 33-year-old Matt Schaub in 2014. The other 24-year-old was RGIII, who had over 200 pass attempts in his 9 games played in 2014 but still accumulated a whopping seven roughing the passer penalties. Let’s look at the graph again, only including players who had more than 50 pass attempts:

It’s much more readable but no more indicative of any trend in favor of older quarterbacks. However, as NFL Penalties notes in their blog, this still isn’t the most accurate way of assessing the question at hand. If we want to factor in line quality, we should look at the number of penalties per sack (as the author notes, per pressure or per hit would be better, but the information is not readily available). This way, we at least have an idea of how many times the offensive line let the opponents get to the quarterback. Hoyer again is a sample size issue, so we will only look at quarterbacks who were sacked at least three times in the season.

We can see that the line of best fit is trending upwards slightly but by a pretty insignificant margin. If we want a clearer picture, we can take the median or middle value for each age group. That way, we only have one value to pay attention to per age.

This graph is certainly the most interesting of the ones we have seen so far. It shows a clear general upward trend, though not a very strong one. For the statisticians reading this, the R-squared value of the graph above is 0.3531 — for those that aren’t statisticians, this number indicates that if there is a linear trend that favors the older quarterbacks, it is not strong; for example, the roughing the passer per sack values for 34, 36, and 37-year-olds are approximately the same as the quarterbacks ten years younger. It becomes even weaker when we remove the 21, 39, and 40 year-olds because each of those groups only has 2 or 3 quarterbacks that played significantly at that age.

While we can’t definitively draw any conclusions from this analysis due to the limitations outlined above, we can say that there doesn’t appear to be a compelling argument in favor of Cam Newton circa 2015. What if he’s right, though? Well, according to the line of best fit above (which includes the small 21-year-old and the 40-year-old samples), turning one year older will earn a quarterback 0.0031 more roughing the passer penalties per sack. If he is sacked 30 times in the season, then that amounts to 0.093 more roughing the passer penalties — essentially, nothing. In fact, it would take almost 11 years difference between the two ages to earn even one more roughing the passer call.

There is undoubtedly more analysis that can be done regarding this question, but from scratching the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much behind the claim that older quarterbacks are favored in general.

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