N.F.L. Rookie Quarterbacks Have Been Bad. Can That Change?

N.F.L. Rookie Quarterbacks Have Been Bad. Can That Change?

September 29, 2021

Good rookie quarterbacks are all alike. Terrible rookie quarterbacks are all terrible in their own way. And this year’s rookie quarterbacks? They look far more terrible than usual.

Three N.F.L. rookies have started all three of their teams’ games at quarterback so far this season: Mac Jones of the New England Patriots, Trevor Lawrence of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Zach Wilson of the Jets. They have combined to throw 17 interceptions and just nine touchdowns while leading their teams to a collective 1-8 record. The only victory was when Jones’s Patriots defeated Wilson’s Jets.

Justin Fields made his much-anticipated first start for the Chicago Bears on Sunday in Week 3, after Andy Dalton started the first two games. Fields completed 6 of 20 passes for 68 yards while enduring nine sacks for 67 lost yards, meaning the Bears netted precisely 1 yard of passing offense in a 26-6 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

Add emergency appearances by the middle-round draft picks Davis Mills of the Houston Texans and Jacob Eason of the Indianapolis Colts, plus gadget-specialist cameos by Trey Lance of the San Francisco 49ers, and rookie quarterbacks so far this season have combined to throw 20 interceptions, absorb 42 sacks and complete just 57.7 percent of their passes.

Rookie quarterbacks are typically mediocre to dreadful. Fans tend to remember exceptional cases, like Justin Herbert’s offensive-rookie-of-the-year-winning performance in 2020, while the struggles of top prospects like Dwayne Haskins, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, Jared Goff and many others are either forgotten or politely retconned when they later achieve success.

It is rare, however, for so many rookies to be so punishingly awful in so many early appearances. Sam Darnold had a tragicomic rookie season for the 2018 Jets (a bout of mononucleosis, “seeing ghosts” against the Patriots’ defense), but he threw two touchdowns and led the Jets to victory in his very first start. Joe Burrow, Carson Wentz, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and many others also enjoyed early success before tailing off or getting injured, or both. A rookie season is usually a roller-coaster ride. So far in 2021, they have all been haunted houses.

Reasons for the miserable starts vary from team to team. Wilson’s Jets are embarking on their second foundation-to-rafters rebuilding project of the last three years. Their roster looks like it was assembled using a newsstand draft guide with the first 50 pages torn out. Injuries have sidelined a handful of the team’s remaining recognizable veterans, including left tackle Mekhi Becton, who was Wilson’s top pass protector, and wide receiver Jamison Crowder, who was Wilson’s short-pass safety valve. Nearly every Jets rookie quarterback of the past half-century has been in for an ordeal, but Wilson faces an especially dire situation.

Lawrence is coached by Urban Meyer, the latest in a long line of collegiate potentates (Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Bobby Petrino and Chip Kelly among them) who learned the hard way that they could not operate as deities in the N.F.L. Meyer’s tenure thus far has been marred by fines from the N.F.L. Players Association for violating practice protocols, a vainglorious comeback attempt by Tim Tebow and a public denial that he is interested in the University of Southern California coaching vacancy. (Like Julius Caesar, Meyer is obligated to reject the crown three times before seizing it.) The Jaguars perform each Sunday as if they are the third or fourth thing on their coach’s mind.

Meyer also forced Lawrence to split first-string practice reps with a lame-duck incumbent, Gardner Minshew, for much of training camp, before Minshew was traded to the Eagles, perhaps still believing that he could redshirt his prized freshmen. Lawrence’s relative lack of practice time with the starters may be contributing to his woes.

Jones was relegated to mostly second-string reps until Cam Newton missed a portion of training camp after a breach of Covid-19 protocols. Patriots Coach Bill Belichick unexpectedly released the creaky, eccentric and probably unvaccinated Newton in late August, allowing the team to focus its attention on a Hitchcockian attempt to transform Jones into Tom Brady. (Wear these rings for us, Mac. Now eat this avocado ice cream.) Playing behind a sturdy offensive line, supported by an outstanding defense and getting the Pygmalion treatment from Belichick, Jones has been the best of the rookie bunch so far.

Fields, by contrast, looked utterly unprepared for his first start. Bears Coach Matt Nagy insisted Dalton was the team’s unchallenged starter from the moment the 11-year veteran arrived in March, denying Fields any chance to compete for the role in the preseason. Whether Fields is now unready because of a lack of starter’s reps or he didn’t earn starter’s reps because he wasn’t ready for them is the sort of chicken or egg question N.F.L. franchises typically answer by firing the coach.

There’s a cottage industry of Dalton-like “mentors” who roam the league, serving as combination stunt doubles and therapy pets for coaches panic-stricken by the thought of starting a rookie. It is debatable whether these caretakers help rookies or hinder them: Whatever Fields learned from watching Dalton sure looked like the wrong lessons on Sunday. Jimmy Garoppolo is holding off Lance in San Francisco by executing the screen passes and misdirection plays coaches typically use to hide the deficiencies of their rookies. Still, one look at Fields, Jones, Lawrence or Wilson is all the justification the 49ers need for sticking with Garoppolo for now.

There’s no reason to worry about the futures of these rookie quarterbacks just yet. Peyton Manning threw 11 interceptions in his first four N.F.L. starts. Troy Aikman led the Dallas Cowboys to an 0-11 record in his first season. John Elway was benched multiple times as a rookie. A lack of early success might actually help the 2021 rookies in the long run by tempering expectations and dimming the national spotlight.

Fans need to be patient. So do coaches, especially the ones accustomed to working with Hall of Famers or trouncing Bowling Green State this time of year. At least some of this year’s rookies will come around soon enough, though Jets and Jaguars fans can assure you that there are no guarantees.

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