If Week 1 of the NFL season has taught us anything, it’s this: The days when rookie quarterbacks got to ride the bench for a few years and gradually learn offenses behind seasoned veterans are numbered, if not gone completely.
The five true rookies who made their National Football League (NFL) debuts as starters Sunday did so carrying the expectation that they would be able to lead their teams like professionals straight away – expectations born from the increasing sophistication of the college game and the growing necessity for NFL teams to have marquee gunslingers.
It’s a lot of pressure, and while some thrive under the increased scrutiny and attention, others buckle. Last season, four true rookies made their NFL debuts as starters, and their performances ranged from Cam Newton’s historic highs to Blaine Gabbert’s Jaguars-worthy depths. How did this year’s crop fare in their first week?
Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck, widely described as the most NFL-ready college quarterback in 20 years – and perhaps ever – looked like something during his rookie start that nobody expected: a rookie. The first overall draft pick had a rocky start in the Colts’ 41-21 loss to the Chicago Bears, throwing three interceptions and fumbling once in an outing where he was given the bulk of the offensive workload (throwing the ball 45 times for 309 total yards and one touchdown).
His offensive line was dreadful, though, meaning he often didn't get a chance to set his feet and throw. And he didn’t get a ton of help from the Colts defense, either: The unit gave up 41 points and 428 yards in total offense to Jay Cutler and a rotating cast of effective Bears running backs.
A bit of perspective, however: Luck’s debut numbers were eerily similar to that of his predecessor, Peyton Manning. Back in 1998, Manning went 21 of 37, for 302 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions.
What’s more, it would be premature to take Luck’s dire-seeming box score as an indication that he isn’t going to be a force in the NFL for years to come. “Just watching film, you can’t tell he’s a rookie,” Chicago defensive back Kelvin Hayden told the Indianapolis Star Tribune. “He’s going to learn from his mistakes and he’s going to be one of the good ones.”
Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
Being an über-athletic rushing threat with a winning smile, RG3 has been compared ad nauseam to second-year Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. But Griffin is three inches shorter and 35 pounds lighter than the hulking Newton, and plays a lighter, more improvisatory game. You won’t see him powering through a line for short yardage the way Newton does.
But like Newton, he’s a blast to watch and he had a lights out NFL debut. The second overall pick threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns and scrambled for 42 yards in the Redskins’ 40-32 win over New Orleans, upsetting Drew Brees and the scandal-beleaguered Saints in the Superdome. He was the only rookie quarterback of the five to start things off with a win and boasted the fourth-most yards in a rookie start ever, behind Cam Newton, Otto Graham, and Ed Rubbert.
What’s more, like Newton did in Carolina last year, Griffin is making football for Washington fans fun again for the first time in years after a long stretch of journeymen quarterbacks and mediocre seasons. Even if the Redskins don’t keep winning, at least Redskin fans have a player they can get excited about.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
In the most unexpected rookie starting nod of the season, third rounder Russell Wilson won the Seattle starting job over Matt Flynn, even after the Seahawks gave the former backup to Aaron Rogers in Green Bay a monster three-year contract worth $19.5 million (with $10 million guaranteed). But Wilson’s preseason performance impressed Pete Carroll and company to give him the job and left the Seahawks with one very expensive benchwarmer.
But Wilson didn’t play a huge role in Seattle’s 20-16 loss to the Cardinals Sunday, completing 18 of 34 passes for 153 yards, one touchdown, and an interception. The Seahawks brass mostly ran the ball and used Wilson fairly sparingly, so it will be interesting to see if the loss prompts them to rein him in further, or give him more room to work.
He did lead the Seahawks the length of the field at the end of the game for a potential game-winning score but was unable to score from the 4 yard line.
Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
No one, not even the Dolphins, expected Ryan Tanehill to start Week 1. But veteran and initial starter David Garrard got injured, and last year’s starter, Matt Moore, was lousy in the preseason. That left Tannehill, who the Dolphins fell in love with during the draft and took eighth overall.
A debut against the Texans is no easy task, and it showed: Tannehill completed 20 of 36 passes for 219 yards, no touchdowns, and three interceptions (all within six minutes) as the Dolphins fell, 30-10.
Tannehill, in fairness, didn’t expect the starting job, and coming out of the draft no one pegged him as a guy ready to lead a franchise right away. But funny story: last season, a totally different team was unexpectedly forced to start their first round rookie quarterback after David Garrard got hurt and the backup underperformed. That team was the Jacksonville Jaguars, and that rookie was Blaine Gabbert, who finished up as the worst starting quarterback in the league (though he looked much better in the Jaguars season opener against the Vikings, suggesting that the disappearing longer learning curve for NFL quarterbacks might still be necessary for some).
If Tannehill follows in Gabbert’s footsteps and crumbles, it’s going to be a very, very long season for Dolphins fans.
Brandon Weeden, Cleveland Browns
During the National Anthem before his first NFL game, Brandon Weeden got trapped under the huge American flag unfurled onto the field and couldn’t find his way out for what seemed like several minutes. His day got worse from there.
The 28-year-old rookie starter for the ever-woeful Browns had the worst outing of the rookie bunch Sunday, and one of the worst in history: Cleveland lost, 17-16, in an ugly game against the Philadelphia Eagles, and Weeden’s four picks and 5.1 quarterback rating (out of a max score of 158.3) made for the worst debut of an NFL quarterback since 1960 and accomplished something perhaps even more unlikely – had some fans longing for the days of unheralded backup Colt McCoy.