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Does a hot start lead to a good season, or is it just a fluke?

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What does history tell us is likely to happen?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sep 16, 2018; Tampa, FL, USA;Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) runs off the field as they beat the Philadelphia Eagles at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Fitzmagic has taken the league by storm. Ryan Fitzpatrick followed up his insane week one performance versus the New Orleans Saints with another tremendous performance against the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. But he’s not the only quarterback who is off to a hot start. Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes is also lighting up the league.

But in Tampa Bay Fitzpatrick’s stunning play has raised debates and important questions alike. Should Fitzpatrick keep the starting quarterback job? For how long? How long can he keep up this play? Is there any historical precedent for this? If so, can that tell us anything about how Fitzpatrick might play going forward? Can a hot start lead to a good season, or is it just a fluke?

It’s a question Football Outsiders and Justis Mosqueda of Optimum Scouting both asked, and they both approached the problem in a similar manner and came out with similar results - by taking defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) (Fitz has 478) and adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) (Fitz is at 15.3).

Football Outsiders (FBO) states that only Tom Brady in 2011 has ever gotten off to a hotter start. Of the 18 players that made the list that started somewhat similarly, most are in the Hall of Fame, or will be. It includes Brady, Peyton Manning, John Elway, Jim Kelly, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and guys like Drew Bledsoe and Donovan McNabb. But it’s important to note that most of these seasons by these guys don’t even come close to what Fitzpatrick has done.

Mosqueda had this to say:

When you look at AY/A by the year, it is very apparent that these are the three significant splits in passing efficiency over the last five-ish decades, all of which are defined by rule changes. Even in this 2004-Present era in which the modern passing boom has exploded both efficiency numbers and volume numbers, we have never seen anything like what both Fitzpatrick and Mahomes have done. At the moment, Fitzpatrick’s AY/A sits at 15.3 with Mahomes at 14.2. Among passers with at least 40 passes through the second week of the season, Fitzpatrick’s AY/A ranks second all-time behind 1971 Joe Namath.

But what do these numbers tell us about how Fitzpatrick might play the rest of season? FBO says:

Of the 18 passers prior to Fitzpatrick and Mahomes who have been this good this early, three finished first in DYAR, ten made the top five, and 14 made the top ten.

So there doesn’t seem to be a great analog for Fitzpatrick, as the only real journeyman to ever do anything similar to what he’s doing is...Brad Johnson, who did it with Washington in 1999.

This goes to show you can with a Super Bowl with a quarterback like this so long as you have an all-time great defense loaded with Hall of Fame-caliber players on the other side of the ball.

This Bucs defense is not that. Despite that, Mosqueda writes:

For the most part, healthy passers coming off of a hot start continue to win football games, even if their numbers start to slip. The average quarterback on this list went 8.2-3.7 after Week 2, notable in a league where a 10-6 record usually gets you in the playoffs.

[snip]

Despite their records, not one of these 18 quarterbacks was able to sustain his Week 1-2 pace for the remainder of the regular season, but that did not mean that they fell off the face of the Earth either.

[snip]

On average, quarterbacks with fast starts finished the season with 23.7 touchdowns, 9.6 interceptions and an AY/A of 7.9 after Week 2. To put that into perspective, an AY/A of 7.9 would have ranked in the top quarter of passers in 2017. The numbers would suggest that Mahomes and Fitzpatrick are likely to be top-10ish quarterbacks from this point forward.

Fitzpatrick’s career average AY/A is 6.16, and has only one other season above 7 AY/A, with Houston in 2014. Despite his averages, Fitzpatrick has placed himself well in continuing to be one of the better quarterbacks in the league this season.

It’s also important to remember that it’s not just Fitzpatrick and Mahomes lighting it up. The whole league is having success passing, though of course to a smaller degree:

As Chase Stuart has pointed out, this Sunday was far and away the best passing day in league history. The average quarterback in the NFL in Week 2 had a higher passer rating than Aaron Rodgers’ career numbers, which means the average quarterback in 2018 has been more efficient than the most efficient passer in league history. Is this the effect of new rules that make it much more difficult to rush the passer or cover receivers? Is it a fluke of small sample size? The answer is probably a little bit of both, but it’s important to remember that we’re going through some serious stat inflation when looking at numbers this year.

So what can we take away from all this? First, that Fitzpatrick is doing something truly unprecedented for the type of player he is, and is standing out even in a bonkers passing environment. Even if it’s impossible for him to sustain this level of play, he is still more likely to play better than he ever has before, and that bodes extremely well for Tampa Bay’s playoff chances.

Three [of the 18] went on to win the Super Bowl, 15 made the playoffs, and only two finished with losing records.

The NFC is loaded though, so the Bucs will probably have to win 9 of their remaining 14 games to finish 11-5 to feel comfortable making the playoffs.