When Rookie QBs Debut, A Struggle Ensues

Since 1980, there have been 130 NFL quarterbacks who started games as rookies. They won only 32.6 percent of those debut starts, compiling a 42-87-1 record.

Jameis Winston Photo courtesy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jameis Winston Photo courtesy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

(Jameis Winston photo courtesy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

(Marcus Mariota photo courtesy of the Tennessee Titans)

By Rick Gosselin

Talk of Fame Network

Sunday may be the toughest game Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota ever have to win.

You only get one chance at a starting debut -- and that chance rarely comes on opening day of an NFL season.

Not only have Winston and Mariota, who were selected 1-2 at the top of the 2015 NFL draft, drawn that assignment -- they’ve drawn it against each other. Winston’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers host Mariota’s Tennessee Titans Sunday in the season opener and their professional debuts.

Now the numbers. And they are ugly.

Since 1980, there have been 130 NFL quarterbacks who started games as rookies. They won only 32.6 percent of their debut starts, compiling a 42-87-1 record. Only 26 of the 130 drew their debut starts on opening day. They have a winning percentage of 38.4, compiling a 10-16 record. Sixty-four of those 130 were first-round draft picks. They won 31.2 percent of those debut starts (20-44).

And, in Winston’s case, there have been 16 quarterbacks selected No. 1 overall who made their starting debuts as rookies. They won only 18.7 percent of those starts (3-13).

Of the 42 victories, six of the rookie quarterbacks left the game either trailing or with the score tied because of an injury or benching. But their teams rallied to deliver them victories. John Elway was 1-of-8 passing for 14 yards in his debut against Pittsburgh before leaving a 7-7 game at halftime with an elbow injury. The Broncos rallied to win, 14-10.

Of the 130 rookie quarterbacks, 24 completed fewer than 10 passes in their debut starts, 27 passed for fewer than 100 yards and 29 failed to generate a touchdown on offense. Fifty-three failed to throw a TD pass and 93 threw interceptions. Eleven of those 130 of the quarterbacks did not finish the game.

Only one quarterback passed for 400 yards in his NFL starting debut -- Carolina’s Cam Newton, who threw for 422 yards in a 2011 loss to Arizona -- and 10 others threw for 300 yards. Four of those 300-yard games came in 2012 from Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Ryan Lindley and Kirk Cousins in their debuts.

Sam Bradford set rookie highs in both pass attempts (55) and completions (32) in his 2010 debut with the St. Louis Rams, who lost that day to, again, Arizona. No rookie quarterback ever debuted with a four-touchdown day but five threw for three scores, including Dan Marino.

Seven quarterbacks suffered four-interception days in their debuts, including Randall Cunningham. Only 18 of the 130 avoided any sacks in their debuts. Cincinnati’s David Klingler was not one of them. He was sacked a rookie-high 10 times by Pittsburgh in his 1992 debut.

Interestingly, only three of those 130 rookie starters now have busts in the Hall of Fame. Troy Aikman and Dan Marino both lost their debuts and Elway won his -- with that asterisk. Peyton and Eli Manning, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson also lost their debut starts. Jim McMahon, Bernie Kosar, Donovan McNabb, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco all won theirs.

Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Josh Freeman, Rex Grossman, David Carr, Akili Smith, Ryan Leaf and Jim Druckenmiller also won their debut starts, which reinforces the notion that one game does not make a career.

Six rookie quarterbacks made starting debuts in 2014, but only one managed to win -- Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater, who passed for 317 yards in a 41-28 triumph over Atlanta.

There will be at least one rookie winner in 2015 -- and we’ll know who it is by Sunday night.