Figurative bars for success or failure are the worst. They can be raised arbitrarily, but they can’t be lowered, and thus they’re poorly designed. Their most fatal flaw? The fact that they’re imaginary, and are therefore often the product of myth making.

They’re also incredibly annoying due to their awesome power over the human mind. The concept is simple, really, yet awful because of the narratives that are created. When Player X plays below expectations during a given season (thus setting the bar in a low position), it’s assumed that his play will elevate.

“It can’t get any worse,” is what we often say about Player X while we’re also buying RIM stock.

The opposite is true of our imaginary bars that aren’t really bars at all. They’re tools to create pre-conceived notions and unnecessary pressure, and when a young player has had a particularly amazing year, it’s said that he needs to avoid the sophomore slump. Cam Newton is aware of that plague right now and he’s doing extra offseason prep through workouts and film study to avoid a second-year decline. The Panthers quarterback set rookie records in his first season, most notably scoring the most touchdowns of any rookie ever and recording the most passing yards. He was also the first rookie to pass for 400 or more yards in his first two games.

While it’s fantastic and very Jon Gruden-ish that he may be working 87 hours a week this offseason out of sheer fear, Newton shouldn’t be worried about a sophomore slump. Not even a little bit.

The birth of the rookie quarterback who didn’t routinely leave games with a brown stain in his pants that isn’t dirt arguably began with Ben Roethlisberger. However, the true surge in rookie QBs who can at the very least be confident, efficient, and reliable has taken place over about the past five seasons.

Over that stretch, a quarterback who was effective during his first season either generally hovered around the same numbers statistically during his second year, or developed and progressed. The sample size is clearly small, but the examples we can look back on during the height of a passing era show little regression. Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford were excluded due to injuries sustained in their second seasons.

Matt Ryan is the exception. After he battled through the mess left my Michael Vick during his rookie season and led Atlanta to the playoffs, Ryan’s accuracy wavered in his second year…

Passer rating Comp % Passing yards Y/A TD INT
2008 87.7 61.1 3,440 7.9 16 11
2009 80.9 58.3 2,916 6.5 22 14

There was a significant drop in yards per attempt, passer rating, and total passing yards, although the latter number is the least important. Ryan’s tumble in 2009 didn’t have the crippling effect that we often associate with the sophomore slump, as his passer rating has since recovered and has been over 90.0 in the two years since, and he flirted with 30 touchdown passes in 2010 and 2011.

But among the recent rookie arms who have started right away and stayed healthy to have a true sophomore season, Ryan is the outlier. Take Joe Flacco, who was a good game manager in his first year, and a good game manager in his second year. Flacco has regressed now, but that didn’t come until his fourth year…

Joe Flacco

Passer rating Comp % Passing yards Y/A TD INT
2008 80.3 60.0 2,971 6.9 14 12
2009 88.9 63.1 2,613 7.2 21 12

Unlike Ryan, there’s a substantial jump between Year 1 and Year 2 for Flacco, with a sizable increase in passer rating and touchdown passes, along with a moderate moves forward in completion percentage and yards per attempt.

Then there’s Mark Sanchez, who’s been average throughout his three-year career, and that was still true between his first and second years. But he improved considerably in one important area for a young quarterback…

Mark Sanchez

Passer rating Comp % Passing yards Y/A TD INT
2009 63.0 53.8 2,444 6.7 12 20
2010 75.3 54.8 3,291 6.5 17 13

Sanchez has faced some serious ripping for his failure to take a leap forward and separate himself from the middle tier, mediocre quarterbacks despite his status as a first-round pick. But there wasn’t a step backwards in his sophomore year, and instead he showed better vision and a greater understanding of the Jets’ offense by significantly decreasing his interceptions, and finishing with a far better TD/INT ratio.

No one should be expecting Newton to duplicate his record-shattering totals during his first year. That’s how imaginary, unattainable bars are raised. But while he could fall back to earth a bit as Ryan did, he has far more arm strength and raw athleticism than Flacco and Sanchez, meaning recent examples are in Newton’s favor, and he should be able to do some narrative crushing.

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