Who is your favorite Tiger quarterback? Depending on when your fandom grew up, the answer will be different. If you were following Missouri in the late 70s, it would probably be Phil Bradley, Missouri’s first truly elite passer. Marlon Adler came close to breaking Bradley’s passing yardage record in the 80s, and Kent Kiefer had an (at-the-time) unheard of production of over 4,000 years in 1989 and 1990. Corby Jones was the first quarterback I pledged my 10-year old loyalty to, and Brad Smith brought the Tigers some huge upsets and kick-started the program on the trajectory that landed us where we are today. All of this is to say, quarterback is one of the most influential positions in sports and how your quarterback does in a season means a lot to the overall success of your season.
I was curious, then, to see how 2019’s QB1 stacks up against the quarterbacks of the past. Having five NFL talents precede you can certainly skew expectations, but you might be surprised exactly how the stat sheets align. In this exercise, I went back to Brad Smith* and looked at each of the six previous quarterbacks and their performance over the first four games of their last full year of starting (Smith in ‘05, Daniel in ‘08, etc.**) and compared it to what Kelly Bryant has done so far this year. Let’s take a look!
*I’ve scoured the internet and can’t find any reliable box scores for games that happened before 2000. I really wanted to get some Corby Jones stats to throw in here as well... if anyone can find box scores past the early aughts point me in that direction, please!
**I’m aware that Maty Mauk was the starter for the first quarter of 2015, but since he was removed from the team before the year was over, we’re going with 2014.
Brad Smith - 2005
For all of the transcendent athleticism he brought to the quarterback position, Brad Smith’s senior year seemed to be tainted with the lingering stink of 2004’s “Pocket Passing Brad Smith” debacle, and a team that was clearly talented but flawed in seemingly new ways every week. It doesn’t help that the team opened with a detonation of an overmatched Arkansas State team in a 110-degree Arrowhead Stadium, came home for the “Hell in a Hank Baskett” upset against New Mexico, and then faced a Texas team two weeks later that would go on and win the national championship that year. ‘05 also featured Chase Daniel coming in for the save in multiple instances and a young defense playing the guys that would ultimately become the heroes of the ‘07 and ‘08 campaigns... you can see that up-and-down performance in the ‘05 squad. As far as Smith goes, 929 yards and a 63% completion rate is excellent, but the 5.2 yards per attempt signals the issues that the passing game had that year (this is the lowest ypa of any quarterback featured in today’s examination). 6 passing touchdowns and 4 rushing touchdowns isn’t enough to counteract the 6 sacks and 3 interceptions given up, but totaling over 1,200 yards in production through 4 games is vintage Brad Smith.
KB has more yards, a better completion rate, more touchdowns and a better YPA, but has been sacked one more time, has not been nearly as proficient on the ground, and thrown the same amount of interceptions.
Chase Daniel - 2008
This one isn’t fair, but I’m doing it anyway. I know— at the end of the 2008 season, a good chunk of the fan base was ready for Daniel to move on so that the Gabbert era could start. That’s the issue with 4-year starting quarterbacks: no matter the achievements and successes, we all get tired of them losing and are ready for someone new. Even while playing hurt, Daniel was better in 2008 than he was in 2007, and these first four games might be the best four-game stretch ever of any Missouri quarterback. The shootout against Illinois at the Edward Jones Dome, the most efficient passing line you’ll ever see against SEMO, the most complete, near-perfect game I’ll ever see against Nevada, and then surviving a surprisingly plucky (and turnover-feating) Buffalo squad. One sack, one interception, twelve (12) passing touchdowns, over 1,400 yards. Four games. Like I said, not fair.
Blaine Gabbert - 2010
I was really looking forward to checking this match up out since I’ve been subscribing to the “2019 Tigers are the 2010 Tigers” for awhile now. Gabbert was never much of a consistent threat on the ground so Bryant has him beat there, but it was interesting to see how even the passing stats were. Gabbert had 25 more attempts and 21 more completions, but they both have nearly identical yardage and the same number of interceptions. Bryant is higher in sacks, but also in touchdowns thrown. And while Gabbert is three percentage points higher in completion rate, Bryant is 1.1 yards better per attempt.
James Franklin - 2013
Here’s the comparison I feel like most recent Missouri fans were looking forward to. Again, I think Tanklin gets a bad rap for being injured most of ‘12 and 4 games of ‘13 but he was an excellent quarterback no matter how you slice it. He matched all the promise he gave us in ‘11 and then some, especially in those first four games. Compared to Bryant, Franklin threw more passes, had a better completion percentage, had more yards, more touchdowns, zero sacks, and better yards per attempt. In addition, he ran for more yards and more touchdowns on the ground with better yards per carry. It doesn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of that year, but I will forever maintain that, if James Franklin doesn’t get injured against Georgia, Missouri is undefeated heading into the SEC Championship game.
Maty Mauk - 2014
If you haven’t read Dave Matter’s excellent piece on Maty Mauk, do so. Mauk won a lot of games and put up some great numbers, but was always scatter-shot with his accuracy and forced a lot of passes that ended up being disastrous. Comparing him to Bryant, the characterization really comes to the forefront: similar on the ground, more touchdowns, more interceptions, lower accuracy, lower yards per attempt. That Toledo game, in particular, might have been one of Mauk’s best.
Drew Lock - 2018
Even with a game against #2 Georgia (a distracted Georgia, mind you, but still Georgia), Lock was much better in his first four games of his senior year. He wasn’t utilized in the run game much until the back half of last year, but when he did keep it on those zone reads, it was so effective. And check those passing stats: more completions and attempts, more yards, more touchdowns, fewer sacks, but lower accuracy and the same yards per attempt as Bryant.
Four games is a small sample size, and just looking at quarterback stats ignores quality of opponent and the quality of the Missouri team around him. But we’ll check back in at the next bye week to see how each stacks up over 8 games into their last starting season.