The Best Rookie Quarterbacks Ever

2011 was quite a year for rookie quarterbacks, led by Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. How do they compare to other great rookies of years gone by? What follows is my ranking of the best rookie seasons ever by an NFL quarterback. I'll explain the parameters and methodology in the next couple of paragraphs, but if you just want to see the list, by all means skip ahead. If something seems funny, though, please come back and see if there's an explanation.

The most important note is that I've restricted this to seasons 1950 and later. That eliminates some of the greatest rookie quarterback seasons of all time, but when I drew up my initial list, it was dominated by Benny Friedman (1927), Sammy Baugh (1937), Bob Waterfield (1945), Otto Graham (1946), Charlie Conerly (1948), and arguably several others who were just playing in a much different league, and sometimes a substantially different role on the team.

Friedman was immediately the best passer in the NFL, leading all players in passing TDs and winning first-team All-Pro honors. Baugh, Waterfield, and Graham all won league championships as rookies, and all of them are in the Hall of Fame. Conerly's rookie record for passing TDs stood for 25 years. Those are great seasons, but I don't know how you compare Friedman to Dan Marino or Waterfield to Andy Dalton.

The list also is limited to "true" rookies, not players coming over from other major professional leagues. Most notably, this means that Jim Kelly (1986) is not on the list. The other note is a little trickier, so again, feel free to skip ahead ... the salary structure of the NFL has dramatically changed the way rookies, and highly-drafted rookie quarterbacks in particular, are used. In ages past, they would learn behind a veteran, often play sparingly or not at all their first few years. Today, if you draft a guy number one and pay him $100 million, you want to start capitalizing on your investment immediately. You also need to find out whether or not the guy can play by the time his contract is up; in the free agency era, you can't just hold onto him until you're ready.

So more and more high school prospects are choosing pro-style college offenses, more rookie QBs are playing right away (or almost right away), and a lot of rookie records have been broken in the past decade or so. Does that mean our list should lean heavily towards recent drafts? Playing 12 games and playing 16 aren't the same thing, and it's easy for the list to reflect that. On the other hand, if this is supposed to be a list of the best rookie quarterbacks ever, do we really want a top-10 that is mostly guys who are still playing? I've tried to balance that, concentrating on what players do with the opportunities available, but giving weight to extra playing time. On a related note, postseason accomplishments are considered, but not definitive. I don't want to punish anyone for being drafted by the wrong team, or unduly reward those who got to play on teams that were already good.

Thanks for your patience — let's get to the list. Starting with a few honorable mentions, mostly recent guys:

Eddie LeBaron, 1952 — 1,420 yards, 14 TD, 65.7 rating. Fourth in NFL in passing yards, tied for third in TD/INT differential.

Johnny Unitas, 1956 — 1,498 yards, 9 TD, 74.0 rating. Only one other quarterback finished the season with more yards and a better passer rating.

Jim McMahon, 1982 — 1,501 yards, 9 TD, 79.9 rating. Started seven games in a strike-shortened season and ranked 8th in the NFL in passer rating.

Warren Moon, 1984 — 3,338 yards, 12 TD, 76.9 rating. A rookie in name only, Moon was 27 when he moved to the Oilers after winning five Grey Cups in seven seasons with the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos.

Dieter Brock, 1985 — 2,658 yards, 16 TD, 82.0 rating. Even older than Moon (34) and also a veteran of the CFL, Brock ranked 3rd in the NFL in passer rating and led the Rams to the NFC Championship Game.

Peyton Manning, 1998 — 3,739 yards, 26 TD, 71.2 rating. Started all 16 games and broke rookie records for passing yards and TDs, but also led the NFL in interceptions (28).

Marc Bulger, 2002 — 1,826 yards, 14 TD, 101.5 rating. Dan Marino and Bulger are the only rookie QBs in history to throw twice as many touchdowns as interceptions in at least 100 attempts.

Joe Flacco, 2008 — 2,971 yards, 14 TD, 80.3 rating. Ranked 20th in passing yards and 22nd in rating, but led the Ravens to two playoff wins and the AFC Championship Game.

The top 10 rookie quarterbacks of all time:

10. Charlie Batch, 1998 Detroit Lions
2,178 passing yards, 11 TD, 6 INT, 83.5 rating

Peyton Manning got the glory. Manning was the top overall pick in the draft, he started every game, and he threw a ton. Batch, playing with Barry Sanders on a team that had made the playoffs the year before, didn't start in Week 1 and didn't have to air it out on every down, so his gross numbers fell far short of Manning's. As a product of I-AA Eastern Michigan, Batch generated almost no publicity compared to Manning, who was a star at Tennessee and the son of a Pro Bowl quarterback.

But while Manning threw the most interceptions in the league, Batch recorded the highest rookie passer rating in 15 years (Dan Marino) and set a rookie record for interception percentage (1.98%) that still stands. The first touchdown of Batch's career was a 98-yard score to Johnnie Morton in Week 5. The Lions went 5-11 that season, but they were 5-7 with Batch as starter, and 0-4 without him.

9. Jim Plunkett, 1971 New England Patriots
2,158 passing yards, 19 TD, 16 INT, 68.6 rating

Plunkett's tenure in New England was generally a disappointment, but his rookie season showed great promise. Plunkett ranked 12th in the NFL in passer rating, 10th in passing yards, and tied for 2nd in passing TDs. His TD/INT differential (+3) tied for 4th-best in the league, behind only Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, and Roman Gabriel. Plunkett also rushed for 210 yards, with a 4.7 average, and the Patriots improved from 2-12 to 6-10. Plunkett was a consensus choice for AFC Rookie of the Year.

For years, that rookie season looked to be the lone bright point in a disappointing career. It was his best passer rating until 1980, his first Super Bowl year with the Raiders. It was a career-high for passing TDs until 1983, the second Super Bowl. It was his best TD/INT differential until 1986, Plunkett's final season in the NFL. The four-game improvement in the standings also represented the biggest season-to-season turnaround for any team in Plunkett's career (not including the 1982 strike season). Coming out of Stanford as the top overall pick in the draft, Plunkett seemed to feed on confidence. He played well early, realized he wasn't a miracle-worker, and re-surfaced as an effective player with the Raiders, where he didn't have to be a savior. But for one year, Plunkett played like he was going to be a big, big star.

8. Marlin Briscoe, 1968 Denver Broncos
1,589 passing yards, 14 TD, 13 INT, 62.9 rating

The first African-American starting quarterback in NFL or AFL history, Briscoe played valiantly for an awful team. The Broncos had gone 3-11 the year before, and the team's other QBs went 3-6 in 1968. Briscoe's 2-3 record as starter was never going to drive Denver to the playoffs, but he gave the team hope, and brought different options to the table in a way not entirely dissimilar from Tim Tebow almost half a century later.

Briscoe was a natural athlete, nicknamed Marlin the Magician, and his legendary rookie season was the product of a unique skill set. He gained 308 yards and 3 touchdowns rushing, both good for 2nd-best on the team, and led the AFL in yards per completion (17.1). After his rookie season, Briscoe switched to wide receiver, including back-to-back years for the 1972-73 world champion Dolphins. As of 2012, the Broncos' rookie record for TD passes is still held not by John Elway or Jay Cutler, but by Marlin Briscoe.

7. Andy Dalton, 2011 Cincinnati Bengals
3,398 passing yards, 20 TD, 13 INT, 80.4 rating

In 2010, the Bengals went 4-12. In the offseason, they parted ways with Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, and improbably, the team more than doubled its win total, going 9-7 and making the playoffs for only the third time in the last 20 years.

Dalton became one of only seven rookie QBs to pass for 3,000 yards and one of only eight with 20 or more touchdowns. The only players to do both are Dalton, Cam Newton, Peyton Manning, and Jim Kelly (if he counts as a rookie in 1986). Dalton's +7 TD/INT differential is the third-best ever for a rookie, trailing only Dan Marino (+14) and Marc Bulger (+8). But Marino took over a team that had played in the Super Bowl the year before, and Bulger played for the Greatest Show on Turf Rams, with Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulk. Rookie WR A.J. Green had a great season, but Dalton did this without a lot of weapons.

6. Joe Namath, 1965 New York Jets
2,220 passing yards, 18 TD, 15 INT, 68.7 rating

The AFL Rookie of the year in 1965, Namath immediately justified the hype coming out of college. The bidding for Namath by both leagues was so fierce that it is often cited as a driving factor in the common draft that began in 1967. Bear Bryant called Namath the greatest athlete he ever coached, and Broadway Joe was an immediate standout both on and off the field when he came to the pros. The Jets' home attendance increased by more than 12,000 per game when they drafted Namath.

As a rookie, Namath ranked 3rd in the AFL in passer rating, behind only Len Dawson and John Hadl, and he connected immediately with star receiver Don Maynard. In '65, Maynard posted by far his highest reception and yardage totals in the last five years, and set a career high for TD receptions (14), tying a Jets record that still stands. Namath's stats never told the full story of his greatness, though. Even coming off knee surgery as a result of an injury at Alabama, Namath's ability to dominate as a professional was never in question, and his stunningly quick release in particular remains legendary. He was the first rookie quarterback ever selected to the league All-Star game, in the AFL or NFL.

5. Matt Ryan, 2008 Atlanta Falcons
3,440 passing yards, 16 TD, 11 INT, 87.7 rating

Much like Dalton three years later, Ryan was instrumental in turning around a woebegone franchise. As a quick aside, I've been a sportswriter for 10 years, and that's the first time I've ever used the word woebegone. It might be the last. Anyway, Ryan finished his rookie season with the 4th-highest passer rating, 2nd-highest completion percentage, and 2nd-most passing yards ever by a rookie. He's 4th now in yardage, but even with all the great numbers put up by Newton and Dalton in 2011, neither matched Ryan's efficiency. Also, a stat few people notice, Ryan took only 17 sacks all season, which is fantastic.

The 2007 Falcons went 4-12 and were outscored 414-259. In '08, Ryan helped the Falcons to an 11-5 record and their first playoff berth since 2004. The team scored 391 points, a 50% increase over the previous season. The first pass of Ryan's career was a 62-yard touchdown to Michael Jenkins, and he went on to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, beating out another 16-game starter at QB (Joe Flacco), three 1,000-yard rushers (Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, and Steve Slaton), an electrifying receiver and return man (DeSean Jackson), and two Pro Bowl offensive linemen (Jake Long and Ryan Clady).

4. Ben Roethlisberger, 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers
2,621 passing yards, 17 TD, 11 INT, 98.1 rating

The first quarterback in 34 seasons to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, Roethlisberger broke the rookie record for passer rating and went 13-0 as a starter in the regular season, leading Pittsburgh to a 15-1 record and an appearance in the AFC Championship Game. Big Ben doesn't rank at the top of the list because his role in the offense was somewhat limited. The 2004 Steelers had the league's best defense, a good offensive line, and a powerful running game. Roethlisberger didn't have to be the savior, and that's unusual for rookie quarterbacks. Good teams don't usually play rookies — they have an established starter. Rookies play out of desperation.

Roethlisberger made the most of his opportunities. No one will put Ben's rookie highlights on the same reel with Joe Namath's, but the Miami University product played smart, tough, efficient football, and delivered exactly what his team needed. Even in an era where passing records are being broken right and left, Roethlisberger's rookie record for passer rating could last for a very long time. He also holds the rookie record for completion percentage (66.4%).

3. Dan Marino, 1983 Miami Dolphins
2,210 passing yards, 20 TD, 6 INT, 96.0 rating

For years, Marino's 1983 season has been the gold standard for all rookie QBs, and I'm sure some fans will think I'm crazy for not ranking him best of all. Honestly, he might be — sorting out the top three was a nightmare. How do you rank anybody ahead of Dan Marino? This is particularly painful, because Marino was my favorite player in the '80s. You want him number one, you'll get no argument from me.

It seemed like Marino broke every efficiency record for rookie quarterbacks. He set the record for completion percentage, shattered the record for passer rating, and somehow finished with twice as many TD passes (20) as sacks (10). I'm calling it right now: that will never be matched. In 2011, no quarterback had twice as many TDs as sacks, much less a rookie. Cam Newton and Andy Dalton combined for 41 TD passes and 59 sacks. And that's not bad! Marino was just other-worldly, right from the start. He was the first rookie quarterback to make a Pro Bowl.

So why isn't he number one? Because he only started nine games. The Dolphins were AFC Champions in 1982, and rookies play out of desperation. The Dolphins weren't desperate, they were great. Why risk screwing anything up with a rookie quarterback, no matter how promising? But when Marino got to play, he never looked back. This doesn't affect the rankings, but Marino also had by far the greatest sophomore season of any QB in NFL history, obliterating the NFL records for passing yards and passing TDs, with a 108.9 rating that nearly broke that record, as well. He was as good as any passer in the league from the first day he set foot on the field.

2. Cam Newton, 2011 Carolina Panthers
4,051 passing yards, 21 TD, 17 INT, 84.5 rating

Newton's passing statistics in 2011 were good. He was top-10 in passing yardage, breaking Peyton Manning's rookie record by nearly 300 yards. And yet, Newton's passing stats don't nearly communicate his contributions, because he also turned in probably the finest rushing season ever by a rookie quarterback: 706 yards, 5.6 average, 14 touchdowns. Newton's 35 total TDs put him in another stratosphere. No other rookie QB has even approached that.

The 2010 Carolina Panthers had one of the worst offenses of all time. They ranked last in the NFL in yards, yards per play, passer rating, almost everything. In particular, they ranked last by a huge margin in passing yardage (2,289), more than 600 yards behind 31st place — the league-leading Colts actually doubled Carolina's passing yardage. The Panthers scored just 196 points, 75 behind 31st place, and eight NFL teams scored more than twice as many. They are one of only about a dozen teams to score under 200 points in a 16-game season.

The 2011 Panthers, with Newton, ranked 7th in yards and 5th in scoring (406). I'm not aware that any other team has ever doubled its point total from one season to the next (without extending the schedule). The difference was Cam Newton. With both his arm and his legs, he totally turned around the most moribund offense in the league. It's an astonishing accomplishment, and one of the very finest rookie performances ever.

1. Greg Cook, 1969 Cincinnati Bengals
1,854 passing yards, 15 TD, 11 INT, 88.3 rating

Cook's rookie season is the stuff of legend. Dr. Z's 2001 story on Cook, written nearly three decades after an undiagnosed shoulder injury ended the QB's career, is one of the finest pieces of football journalism you're ever likely to read.

Cook lit up the league in '69. The Bengals, just one year removed from expansion, started 3-0. Cook threw six TDs and ran for another, with only three picks. His passer rating was 111.1. But in that third game, Cook tore his rotator cuff. He felt the shoulder pop, and missed a total of three games, but the torn rotator cuff was never diagnosed, and he continued to play. Cook led the AFL in completion percentage, yards per attempt, yards per completion, and passer rating. He and Kurt Warner are the only players in history to lead the league in both completion percentage and yards per completion — and Cook did this as a rookie, with a receiving corps led by the tight ends. Cook, playing only 11 games, beat out O.J. Simpson and Carl Garrett to win AFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Cook's 88.3 passer rating was the record until Marino broke it 14 years later, with a good team and very different passing rules. Cook's rookie record for yards per attempt (9.41) may never be broken.

***

I suspect we'll see more and more great rookie QBs in the future, with more and more rule changes favoring passers, more pro-style college offenses preparing rookies to play right away, and ever-increasing pressure for young players to hit the field early. I just hope Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III don't force me to re-write this project next year. The top 10 rookie quarterbacks in NFL history, 1950-2011:

1. Greg Cook, 1969 Cincinnati Bengals
2. Cam Newton, 2011 Carolina Panthers
3. Dan Marino, 1983 Miami Dolphins
4. Ben Roethlisberger, 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers
5. Matt Ryan, 2008 Atlanta Falcons
6. Joe Namath, 1965 New York Jets
7. Andy Dalton, 2011 Cincinnati Bengals
8. Marlin Briscoe, 1968 Denver Broncos
9. Jim Plunkett, 1971 New England Patriots
10. Charlie Batch, 1998 Detroit Lions

Comments and Conversation

October 2, 2012

Gavin Scott:

You need to re-write your editorial again. RGIII is doing great things this year. Luck is also putting up big yards.

Don’t blink. Geno Smith is a senior in college but check out his yards, TD, Ints and rating. Ridiculous.

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