The rookie quarterback conundrum

AUSTIN HAMM Sports Editor

Comparing the NFL debuts of this year’s top draft picks

Much has been made of the professional debuts of the top two picks in this years NFL draft, who faced each other in week one for the first time in recorded history. Marcus Mariota put on an admittedly incredible display of efficiency for the Tennessee Titans, going 13-16 passing for 209 yards with four touchdowns. Clearly an outstanding start, but with just 16 attempts, the Titans weren’t interested in putting too heavy of a load on their star rookie’s shoulders. Across the field though, Jameis Winston had a much rougher day with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Winston was 16-33 for 210 yards for two scores and two interceptions, including a pick six on his first regular season pass as a professional. While Mariota clearly shined brighter as he led his team to a 42-14 win, I take issue with those proclaiming that the two had polar opposite debuts, that Mariota is ready to take the league by storm while Winston seems like a lost puppy on the field.

Winston’s first start was not without its lowlights, but as with many things, a good dose of perspective might make the situation seem just a bit better. First off, that pick six on his first throw.

Want to know someone else who did that on his first career pass? Brett Favre. And Favre didn’t even have the pressure of being the starter when he threw his. Unless his second, third and fourth passes also went for interceptions, I’m going to call it just some bad luck to start of the career.

The second interception and the completion rate below 50 percent has also caused some concern, but there are several quarterbacks who went number one overall in the last decade who had debuts as bad, or worse, than Winston’s, and only one of them is no longer in the NFL.

Andrew Luck was the top pick by the Indianapolis Colts in 2012, and everyone knew he was their man of the future from day one. Day one left a little to be desired though, as Luck went 23-45 for 309 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. The picks raised some eyebrows there too, but Luck had the talent to eventually become one of the better signal callers in the league and now, in year four, looks poised to have a long, illustrious career. With more yards, but one less score and an extra pick, I’m willing to say Luck’s first start was about on par with Winston’s.  

Matt Stafford was taken with the number one pick in 2009 by the Detroit Lions and has been their man under center since he set foot in town. What has become a solid overall career got off to a bit of an inauspicious start. Stafford kicked his time as a pro off with 205 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions on 16-37 passing. By my measure, this guy who has become a legitimate NFL starter clearly had a worse first start than Jameis did.

The final comparison in the Jameis portion of this is against the one and only Jamarcus Russell, who proved that being able to throw a ball 60 yards while backpedaling on your knees isn’t the only thing you need to be successful in the NFL. Russell’s first game with extended time, he played in relief of starter Josh McCown (who is still in the league) and went 7-23 for 83 yards, one score and three interceptions. His first true start saw much better results, as he went 23-31 for 224 yards, one touchdown and one pick. Of the three former top picks and Winston, I would say that Russell has the best debut, yet he is the one who finds himself on his couch on Sundays, as he last played in the NFL in 2009.

Winston may not have had the most amazing first start in the history of the NFL, but the evidence clearly states that there is always room to grow from a bad first and a good first start doesn’t guarantee stardom.

And in speaking of good first starts, let us now turn our attention back to Mariota’s first Sunday game. Again, he played very well, but is on a better overall team than Winston and did not have near the pressure on him. He was in a much better situation. But don’t be so quick to christen him as the next big thing. Cam Newton had a first start for the ages in 2011, throwing for 422 yards, two touchdowns and one interception while running for another score. Since then, Newton has been a very solid starter for Carolina, but questions are starting to come in about just how far he really can take the Panthers.

 In the end, we have to acknowledge both good and bad performances as they come, but when we are talking about two very talented rookie quarterbacks, it is necessary that we make sure not to pass a judgment on their whole career on one tiny sample.