Rough Road Ahead for Rookie QBs

Jordan Raanan, Xfinity Sports, NFL Columnist
Fri Sep 7, 4:14 PM UTC

Bill Romanowski recalls watching a young, scraggy rookie by the name of Peyton Manning on tape. It was clear there was something special in those pitter-patter steps in the quickly collapsing pocket, in that arm that exploded and finished with the flip-the-booger-off-the-finger follow-through. It was evident that Manning was destined for greatness, even early in his uneven rookie season.

Romanowski should know. The former All-Pro linebacker, who spent 16 seasons in the NFL and is now an analyst for CSN Bay Area, won four Super Bowl rings with Joe Montana and John Elway as teammates. He played with MVP's Steve Young and Rich Gannon. Recognizing a star quarterback was as innate for Romanowski as snuffing out a backside screen.

There's no denying that Manning has enjoyed a fine career. Problem is that despite being groomed from the womb to be a star quarterback, even Peyton struggled to attain initial success. Manning's rookie season was predictably rocky, filled with constant lessons and reminders that the well-aged men on the other side of the line were being paid too. The University of Tennessee product lost his first four pro games after being selected No. 1 overall by the Colts in 1998. He threw three touchdown passes and 11 interceptions in those four losses. Think about that for a second. Three TD passes, 11 INTs. Welcome to the NFL, kiddo.

Yes, even the now-four-time NFL MVP struggled as a rookie, proof that being a first-year NFL quarterback is a tough gig no matter the exorbitant years of procurement, skill or pedigree of the individual tasked with playing the most complex position on the field.

Which brings us to the difficult—some may say impossible—task at hand for five quarterbacks this season.

Indy's Andrew Luck, Washington's Robert Griffin III, Miami's Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland's Brandon Weeden and Seattle's Russell Wilson will all start Week 1 for their respective teams, the most rookie quarterbacks to start opening week since at least 1950. The previous high was three in 1968 and '69.

Only 13 of the 53 quarterbacks to start two or more games over the past 18 years had a winning record their rookie season. That's 25 percent. Not the kind of odds I want to take on the field. And of those 13, eight relied on top 10 defenses, with six of those being top three defenses.

Winning as a rookie quarterback in the NFL is clearly a difficult proposition, one that even Cam Newton with all those gaudy numbers couldn't conquer. Newton, who threw for over 4,000 yards and accounted for an astonishing 35 touchdowns (running and passing combined), has a 6-10 rookie record attached to his name despite his first-year brilliance.

It's a problem many highly drafted QBs face, and one that will likely hamstring most of this year's Rookie 5. Most join teams bereft of talent, and are asked to learn the nuances of the professional game and all the ancillary responsibilities that come with being the face of the franchise in the span of a few months. Then they have to take the field often with inferior supporting casts, dissect unfamiliar defenses and handle unrelenting pressure on and off the field. Last year's rookie class (Newton, Andy Dalton, Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, T.J. Yates) combined to win just 23 of their 61 starts.

Good luck, rookie class of 2012. That's what lies ahead in the upcoming 2012 season. Physical talent only takes you so far at the highest level.

"The physical part, the gap has closed a lot. These guys are all really good," said former NFL quarterback Shaun King, one of the rare rookie signal-callers to post a winning record (4-1) in 1999 with the Bucs. "They can throw and most of them are really good athletes. It's the little things: being in front of 18, 19-year-olds (in college) and all of a sudden being in front of men (in the NFL) and having to lead men.

"Some of the things that may have been overlooked in college are being scrutinized now. How do you handle success? How you handle when it's someone else's fault when things go wrong and you're talking to the media about it? How you interact with the media? All those things are what makes or breaks these young quarterbacks."

Understandably, some of this year's five rookie quarterbacks will fracture more grotesquely than Joe Theismann's leg. It happened last season to Gabbert, to Jimmy Clausen the year prior, and to Matthew Stafford the campaign before that. For many rookie QBs, it turns ugly fast.

No shame though. They are not alone. Peyton Manning went 3-13 his rookie year and threw more interceptions (28) than touchdowns (26). Eli Manning went 1-6 as a starter his maiden year, with three TD passes and six INTs. Both have since won Super Bowls and made Pro Bowls, proving even the great ones need time to reach a significant comfort level in the NFL.

"You don't get to that level until you've been in a system for a couple years," King said. "That first year you're just making sure you call the plays right. I mean, some of those plays…'Brass wide bunch right. F-counter motion 72 crisscross Y-slant, X-out.'

"You feel like you accomplished something when you get in the huddle and say that."

Even some quarterbacks who experienced immediate team success rode over rookie craters. Joe Flacco, who led the Ravens to an 11-5 mark in 2008, threw just one touchdown and seven interceptions in his first five starts. Matt Ryan, who led the Falcons to an 11-5 mark as well in 2008, threw just two touchdown passes in his first four starts.

Luck, RG3, Tannehill and Weeden are likely to hit the most disturbing first-year turbulence. They are quarterbacking rebuilding franchises that lack the necessary talent to make an immediate impact.

Wilson's the only one of this year's Rookie 5 not drafted in the first round—he's a third-round selection out of Wisconsin—and is in a slightly different situation. The Seahawks have a burgeoning defense that finished in the top 10 last season. They have a running game that was one of the league's best the final weeks of last year. Wilson at least has a chance.

Still, it's likely Wilson runs into similar trouble as his fellow rookie quarterbacks, who will all face pressure like never before. Teams alter their defensive mindset when they see a yellow signal-caller across the line of scrimmage.

"Starting out playing for San Francisco, we were not an aggressive blitzing team," Romanowski said. "But if we were playing a young rookie quarterback, we would dial up the blitzes and bring the heat just to force that young QB to make quick decisions.

"Usually (when we played against rookies) it meant we were going to bring a lot more heat that game. We were going to force the young quarterback into making quick decisions, which usually is something that comes in time. It doesn't come right away to them."

Neither does success. Not often at least. Dalton was the only one of the five rookie quarterbacks last season to finish with a winning record. It helped that the Bengals (9-7) had the league's seventh-ranked defense and one of the league's best special teams units.

The odds are stacked against this year's rookie crop too, even though they may be more advanced mentally than their predecessors.

"These young guys are a lot more prepared for what it takes to succeed at that level because they have been exposed to a lot more. My rookie year was 1999, we didn't have social media. I didn't turn on the TV and wasn't mic'ed up every day of the week. We didn't have high school games on national TV. Football was still kind of regional," King said. "Guys now are more prepared, they've been coached by better teachers. They get exposed to a lot of different stuff, so I think they're more prepared."

More prepared? Maybe. Luck is the most advanced quarterback entering the league since Peyton Manning. More successful his rookie year with the Colts? Probably, if ever so slightly. Enough to immediately perform as one of the league's best or carry your team far into the playoffs? History says it's still highly unlikely.

Jordan Raanan has covered the NFL since 2005. Follow him on Twitter @JordanRaanan, Facebook or email him at jraanan@hotmail.com.



The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.