It shouldnt happen to a Rookie…..
As this class of rookie QB’s prepare for their first start, or first shift with the clipboard I thought I would compile a list of the worst rookie seasons by top rated franchise QB’s. Just to give you all some perspective, and hope for your respective teams,
not everyone is Andrew Luck or Matt Ryan. Not everyone can pretty much deliver on their promise from day one. In fact the league is riddled with good QB’s with less than great starts. But what I am really after are truly awful starts by truly great players.
The criteria for this list is that as they are elite franchise QB’s who are currently in the top 100 passers all time, they also need to have played 5 games or more, or thrown 100 passes in their Rookie year, for a decent snapshot of their performance. (so no Favre or Warner on here). Each QB is ranked by the rookie rating, and each is given a better than/worse than comparison versus some of the most spectacular bust rookie seasons of the last 25 years.
8) Peyton Manning: Colts (3-13)
326/575, 56.7%, 3739 yds, 26 tds, 28 ints, Passer Rating: 71.2
Worse than: Tim Couch
Better than: Cade Mcnown.
To be honest it seems unfair to put Manning on the list. While the stats point to some early issues with accuracy, Manning’s yards per completion (11.5) and yards per attempt (6.5) are pretty decent rookie numbers. Also 375 completions and an average of 233 yards and 1.6 tds per game for a full season are above average rookie numbers even today. However the issues with accuracy, and the 3-13 record do whiff just a little, especially in comparison to his last 16 seasons, but it doesn’t suggest bust by any stretch of the imagination. If you drafted a rookie who could boast such.
Now Let’s move on to something stinkier.
7) Drew Bledsoe: Patriots (5-7),
214/429, 49.9%, 2494 yds, 15 tds, 15 ints, Passer Rating: 69.2
Worse than: Christian Ponder.
Better than: Akili Smith.
Before Madden was Madden, I used to play NFL quarterback club 97 on my N64. As a rule the only way to beat every team on super hard difficulty was to trade and have Drew Bledsoe at QB. Now that is indicative of the high regard that he was held in by people at the time.
Bledsoe had a wonderful arm and was very much a raw, spectacular Talent, but considered more of a gamble than fellow first round Pick Rick Mirer. However Parcells and the Pats took a chance on Drew and used the number one overall pick on him in 93. Sure enough Bledsoe brought an exciting gunslinging attitude to the Pats, but like a lot of young gunslingers his accuracy was lacking. Bledsoe was further criticised for not getting the ball out quick enough and taking unnecessary hits. His issues, mostly fixed themselves. Unfortunately Bledsoe would be deposed no less than three times by gifted rookies (Tom Brady at the Pats, Tony Romo at the Cowboys and JP Losman at the Bills) however, he still can be credited as being a very fine franchise QB who made a laughing stock franchise respectable, oh, and let’s not forget he ranks 10th all time in passing yards with 44000, and 250 touchdowns.
6)Steve Young. Buccaneers (1-4)
72/138, 52.2%, 935 yds, 3 tds, 8 ints, Passer Rating: 56.9
Worse than: Brady Quinn
Better than: Danny Wuerffel
We need to keep in mind that among retired players Steve Young has the highest QB rating of all time with a rating of 96.9. We also need to keep in mind that he is the highest scoring running QB in NFL history (43tds) and ranked 3rd among QBs in rushing yards all time. That said, his NFL future didn’t always look so bright and his rookie season is the first on our list that has a stat line that makes you wince.
Steve Young joined Tampa Bay after a spell in the USFL. He was immediately stuck behind one of the worst offensive lines in history ( he was sacked 21 times in five games people!!), Young spent his rookie year running for his life. Mercifully his running ability and natural talent was enough to keep him out of hospital. Nonetheless, after 2 horrific years there he was labelled a bust and as a result Tampa drafted Vinny Testaverde to replace him, with Young traded to the Niners and taken on as an intriguing “project” for Bill Walsh… the rest is history.
Steve Young, was a QB who played a lot of “option” in college so it took a while to get used to the pro game. Young is proof that letting a QB develop over time can reap real dividends. There is no denying how good Young became or how much potential he displayed initially, but there is also no denying that it would have been far easier for him to have disappeared into obscurity, had Bill Walsh and Mike Holmgren not invested the time, and seen a smart, competitive and incredibly athletic young QB where others saw an inexperienced liability, maybe Steve would be selling insurance??
5) Eli Manning: Giants (1-6)
95/197, 48.2%, 1043 yds, 6 tds, 9 ints, Passer Rating: 55.4
Worse than: David Carr.
Better than: Spurgeon Wynn.
Eli Manning has always been a “Streaky” QB. One moment he will make a boneheaded throw that goes for a pick six, the next, especially in the playoffs, he will get so red hot that you ALMOST forget “Bad Eli” completely. Eli has the perfect mental attitude for a QB who is prone to so many errors, he has a short memory and a VERY thick skin, which is just as well really, especially as his rookie year was one of the worst in recent times, falling well under the “Gabbert Zone” his 5.3 yards per attempt. Low completion percentage and high interception percentage betrayed certain traits in Eli’s game that
initially didn’t translate from college to the pro’s, with it taking some time for the kinks in Manning’s accuracy and decision making to be smoothed out in the NFL. One start versus the Ravens stands out where he finished the first half with a disastrous 0.0 QB rating. He was benched at the half but returned the next week and finished the season as starter.
Manning even now, has a tendency to make some bad decisions and at his worst, can look terrible. However, and it is a BIG however. He has developed into a very good Franchise QB who, has proven that he can win the big one and pull sheer magic out of the bag at times, particularly in playoff games, with his career postseason win percentage and QB rating both being better than his brother Peyton’s. Even so, at times , Manning still looks like that shaky rookie, but there is
enough there for New Yorkers to forgive him these lapses and forget 2004 completely, which saw him getting a shiny new contract.
4) Troy Aikman: Cowboys (0-11)
155/293, 52.9%, 1749 yds, 9 tds, 18 ints, Passer Rating: 55.7
Worse than: Vinny Testaverde.
Better than: Johnny Manziel
The Jimmy Johnson Cowboys went 1-15 in 1989. Aikman was the first pick overall in that draft and while much was expected of him, his rookie season just didn’t work out. But as you will see soon enough, you can’t put it all on Troy. Aikman walked into a team that had just fired Tom Landry, who, at the time was the longest serving coach in Nfl history. In addition new head coach Jimmy Johnson decided that one of the first things he would do in the supplemental draft was to select a QB to compete with Troy. One of his old college QB’s, Steve Walsh. Aikman’s rookie campaign was further cursed by a broken index finger which hampered him. The Jimmy Johnson Cowboys had very few positives, no real Running game (Emmitt Smith would be drafted the following year), an Offensive line that had yet to gel properly and no defense to speak of. Also the previous years stud Draft pick , Wide Receiver Michael Irvin continued to battle injuries which meant he only played 6 games that year. All this plus a QB controversy meant that Aikman’s transition to the pros was a sticky and stinky one, riddled with the usual struggles with accuracy and adjusting to the complexities of the Pro game. What is also lost in the usual analysis of his rookie year is that as a rookie he played in a division with two of the greatest defenses of that era the Parcells Giants and the Buddy Ryan Eagles, in that context, it’s no wonder he struggled. Troy lost all 11 games that year but in the mire of that awful season Troy showed, toughness, poise, and leadership, traits he would become legendary for. 10 years later Aikman would set an NFL record that still stands as being the winningest Quarterback in a single decade span (the 90’s). He would go to 6 consecutive Probowls and win 3 Superbowls. All it took was for a few pieces to fall into place around him and he would become a leader, a winner and the most successful Cowboy QB of all time.
3) John Elway: Broncos (4-6)
123/259, 47.5%, 1663 yds, 7 tds, 14 ints, Passer Rating: 54.9
Worse than: Chris Wienke
Better than: Kurt Warner
John Elway created a ton of controversy in his rookie draft, most of which boiled down to the fact that he had been drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, but refused to play there, threatening to leave football entirely to sign with the New York Yankees, if he wasn’t traded. After all kinds of issues, in one of the most famous drafts of all time, he was picked up by the Denver Broncos. Truth be told, the Broncos were not a great team. Also Elway’s rookie year in comparison to other 1st round QB’s in the draft (Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Ken O’Brien and Tony Eason) was very much an anti-climax, in fact initially it reeked of “bust”. His paltry 166 yards a game, sub 50% completion percentage and 7/14 Td to interception ratio certainly left Broncos fans and
indeed the whole league wondering what all the fuss was about, especially when Dan Marino, taken 27 picks later than Elway posted a far superior rookie season by comparison. The great Bill Walsh allegedly considered trading Joe Montana for Elway in the run up to the draft, San Diego nearly gave up Dan Fouts for him, but by December there were a fair few people who wondered if he had been worth the hype in the first place. We know Elway’s Story ends pretty well goes and that he was the first Quarterback to take the same team to six superbowls, winning two and retiring with (at the time) the most career wins in QB history. I can’t help wondering if all the controversy and uncertainty around Elway wasn’t a factor in what really was just a rookie blip in a spectacular Hall of fame career.
2) Dan Fouts: Chargers (0-5-1)
87/194, 44.8%, 1126 yds, 6 tds, 13 ints, Passer Rating: 46.0
Worse than: Quincy Carter
Better than: Alex Smith.
The stat line you see above is about what you would expect from a third round pick, starting for a losing team in the 70’s. To be honest in the context of other later round rookie picks at the time, Fouts performance is not really much of an aberration. The 70’s were a time of brutal physical defense, particularly in the secondaries around the league. As a result rookie QB’s had it much MUCH tougher and DB’s could practically decapitate Receivers. Even beyond his rookie year it would be a real struggle for Fouts to make an impact. In fact Fouts would throw 57 interceptions and take 100 sacks in his first 40 career games. However, Fouts had 2 lucky breaks that saved his career. The first was the year that Bill Walsh spent as offensive coordinator for the Chargers in 1976. Fouts polished some of the finer points of his game (Bill Walsh was obsessive about footwork and mechanics). The second would be the arrival of Don Coryell and Joe Gibbs aggressive vertical passing attack in 1978. Coryell gave Fouts a reconstructed offensive line, a group of dynamic young receivers that included Hall of fame tight end Kellen Winslow, and a license to throw whenever they could. As a result Fouts exploded into life and took the league by Storm.
Basically, Dan Fouts was the Peyton Manning of his era. A prolific, accurate and dynamic passer, with a big arm and confidence to spare. Statistically he was light years ahead of everyone else and in his prime recorded some of the most impressive passing seasons of all time, not least his 1980 and 1981 seasons, which are two of the greatest ever Fouts was the prototype of a kind of Quarterback that wouldn’t exist for another 20 years. Miles ahead of his time and a true great.
1) Terry Bradshaw: Steelers (3-5)
83/216, 38.1%, 1410 yds, 6tds, 24 ints, Passer Rating: 30.4
Worse than: Ryan Leaf.
Better than: Brett Favre.
We have a winner. Look at those stats!. As rookie seasons go Terry Bradshaw’s 1970 is, even in the context of the era he played in, Awful. One very telling statistic from that season is that Bradshaw’s yards per completion were massively inflated (17.3), showing that spent the year throwing bombs, because he thought it was the only thing he could do right. Bradshaw was the first pick in the 1970 draft, he had incredible arm strength and was considered an athletic, NFL ready talent. The pro-game however, was initially far beyond Bradshaw. His powerful arm was too inconsistent and erratic and was considered a spectacular flop by almost everyone. Coach Chuck Knoll, repeatedly benched him almost every other week for much of his early career, leading to a great deal of tension between the two throughout Bradshaw’s career and beyond. The fans and the press also latched on to Bradshaw’s easy going country boy demeanour, labelling him as a “Bayou Bumpkin” who was not intelligent enough for the pro game, a perception that his Knoll did nothing to dispel. As a result Bradshaw suffered real emotional problems, becoming a virtual recluse in the offseason and between practices. Bradshaw’s development was slow and gradual, leading him to seemingly develop in spite of his coaching staff and teammates rather than because of them.
His early career is a prime example of how teams can spectacularly fail QB prospects. Bradshaw was a player with raw talent that needed nurturing and developing, but instead he had to endure years of “tough love” from Chuck Knoll leading to a five year total of 48% completions, where he played only 50 of a possible 70 games and threw a massive 81 interceptions to only 48 touchdowns. Perhaps Bradshaw would have been better served by sitting for a year, and learning the system properly? I cant help but think that while he would still have struggled initially, perhaps he would have been “fixed” more quickly.
It should not be forgotten that Terry Bradshaw has 4 superbowl rings, and 2 Superbowl MVP awards and while it’s argued that he had one of the greatest supporting casts in NFL history, I don’t think that there was another QB in the league who could have done that…..well maybe….Roger Staubach.
Hopefully Bradshaw’s tale will give the RGIII’s, and Geno Smith’s of this world some encouragement and some inspiration to keep learning and growing. Hopefully we can see that kind of turnaround in them too.
So I am 2 short of a top 10, the reason I am short is because a lot of very good QB’s have had good starts to their careers. Other famous QB’s like Phil Simms had relatively “Ponder-like” rookie starts, but still managed to have winning seasons. Others Like John Hadl had poor Stat lines but not in the context of the era they played in, while other QB’s like Steve Deberg and Vinny Testaverde had awful starts, but were never truly elite, so the comparison is not so effective. Ultimately this means you get
six hall of famers and Two Mannings, and that is it, that is your lot.
So the point of this article is this. Ludicrous as it sounds , Johnny Manziel might end up being a pro bowl QB, Zach Mettenberger might end up in Canton. Blake Bortles might end up holding every passing record ever. Heck, Brett Hundley might be the next Packers QB called Brett to hoist the Lombardi Trophy! If you told Steelers fans in 1970 that their Rookie QB would become the first player to win 4 superbowls in NFL history they would have laughed at you. If you had told Tampa Bay fans that Steve young would retire as the highest rated QB of all time, they would have advised that you stop huffing paint thinner and watch his rookie film. It should never be underestimated just how fine the line is between bad and good for QB’s at the NFL level, some of these players simply took a while to fix a few small problems with their game, or grasp the intricacies of a pro system. So for those of you who bought Johnny Manziel or Zach Mettenberger jersey’s, don’t throw them on the bonfire just yet (obviously you should hide them for now though)….you never know.