The 2012 NFL Rookie Quarterbacks Are the Best Rookie Class Ever

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 14, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar

Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

Everyone knew about the potential superstar duo of Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III at the top of the 2012 NFL draft. But they would be joined by a converted wide receiver with 19 college starts at the position, a 28-year-old rookie, and a 5-11 overachiever who fell to the third round to create a five-man rookie class.

With an unprecedented five rookie quarterbacks starting in Week 1, we knew this was going to be a historic season. Now through one game of Week 15, we have seen enough history made by these players to crown them.

The 2012 class of rookie quarterbacks is the best rookie class in NFL history.

No, this does not mean they are anywhere close to the accomplished, Hall of Fame careers of the 1983 class with Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly. They are not even close yet to the 2004 class with Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Matt Schaub.

But when basing it all on how they performed as rookies, then 2012 is clearly the new gold standard in how rookie quarterbacks will be measured in the future.

These players have taken over their teams from the beginning of the season and provided a new hope. More than that, they have produced on the field in record-setting fashion. Not only are they shattering rookie records in volume numbers, but three of them are looking towards the postseason as well thanks to big wins and clutch moments showing poise beyond their years.

It is true that rookie quarterbacks have recently been raising standards and expectations, and we will take a detailed look at the progression of rookie success, and the factors leading to why 2012 is the best ever.

Meet the class

First, let’s recap the historic achievements from this year’s rookie class.

Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck is having the best rookie season ever for a quarterback taken No. 1 overall, already winning nine games for a team that was 2-14 last year. He set a rookie record with 433 yards passing against Miami. He also has rookie records for game-winning drives (6), 300-yard passing games (6), and has been outstanding at converting third downs.

Luck is showing that you can successfully put a veteran-sized workload on a rookie’s shoulders and have him carry your team.

Washington’s Robert Griffin III is on pace to break several rookie records for passing efficiency, as he has a 66.4 completion percentage, 1.14 interception percentage and 104.2 passer rating. He leads the league in yards per attempt (8.28), which is something no rookie has done since Cincinnati’s Greg Cook in 1969 (AFL). 

Griffin also has displayed his dynamic speed, as he already has a rookie quarterback record 748 rushing yards, averaging 6.68 yards per carry. Washington has won four games in a row, and last week he combined with backup rookie Kirk Cousins for the first ever joint fourth-quarter comeback win by rookies over the Ravens.

Seattle’s Russell Wilson has somewhat quietly put together one of the best seasons by a rookie quarterback in league history. Starting slow but warming up, he has a 94.9 passer rating and 20 touchdown passes. With six more touchdowns he could tie Peyton Manning’s rookie record.

Despite being a third-round pick, Wilson has proven naysayers wrong about his 5-11 height being too much of a factor as Seattle is 8-5 with lots of playoff potential ahead of them.

There is a drop in quality from the top three rookies this year, but there has never been another season with three rookies legitimately deserving of winning Rookie of the Year.

Miami’s Ryan Tannehill has not enjoyed the statistical or team success of his peers, but he has shown flashes this year with little help from the skill positions. He passed for 431 yards against Arizona, held his own against Luck in Indianapolis, and led his first comeback win over Wilson’s vaunted Seattle defense.

Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden had just about the most horrible debut you can have in the 21st century of the NFL when he threw four interceptions and had a 5.1 passer rating against the Eagles in Week 1. But he did rebound, and while the numbers have not been great, he has made the passing game more explosive, Cleveland has been very competitive in practically every game, and they have won three in a row. This is looking to be the best Cleveland team since 2007.

At least Weeden is much better than Arizona’s Ryan Lindley, who is one of the eight rookies to throw a pass this season.

The last is Philadelphia’s Nick Foles, who impressed many in the preseason, but only got the starting job in Week 11 after Michael Vick suffered a concussion. He just led an impressive comeback win in Tampa Bay from an 11-point deficit with no help from his running game, and after being sacked six times. He’s one to keep an eye on.

Those top five have started all 13 games for their teams this year, which is unheard of. While the high number of starts helps, they are still producing record-setting numbers as a rookie class.

Six rookie quarterbacks in 2012 have combined for a record 15 games with over 300 yards passing. Consider that from 2000 to 2010, rookies had 15 games with over 300 yards passing in those 11 seasons combined.

Most 300-Yard Passing Games, Rookie QBs

Year

300+ Yard Passing Games

No. of QBs

2012

15

6

2011

7

4

1998

4

1

1989

3

2

1995

3

2

2002

3

3

Luck (6) broke Peyton Manning’s rookie record of having four games with over 300 yards passing in 1998. Griffin and Weeden, who are likely to meet this Sunday, both have three such games.

Since Matt Leinart (405 yards) became the first rookie to have a 400-yard game in 2006, we have seen that benchmark continue to rise.

NFL Rookie Quarterbacks - 400+ Yard Passing Games

QB

Date

Opp.

Result

Cmp

Att.

Pct.

Yds

TD

INT

PR

Andrew Luck

11/4/2012

MIA

W 23-20

30

48

62.5%

433

2

0

105.6

Ryan Tannehill

9/30/2012

at CRD

L 21-24

26

41

63.4%

431

1

2

86.5

Cam Newton

9/18/2011

GB

L 23-30

28

46

60.9%

432

1

3

72.0

Cam Newton

9/11/2011

at CRD

L 21-28

24

37

64.9%

422

2

1

110.4

Matthew Stafford

11/22/2009

CLE

W 38-37

26

43

60.5%

422

5

2

112.7

Matt Leinart

11/26/2006

at MIN

L 26-31

31

51

60.8%

405

1

2

76.0

They are not just all about yards either. Rarely has a rookie quarterback passed for 20 touchdowns, but check out this list of most touchdown passes by a rookie.

Most Touchdown Passes, NFL Rookie

Rk

QB

Team

Year

TD Passes

1

Peyton Manning

Colts

1998

26

2

Charlie Conerly

Giants

1948

22

3

Cam Newton

Panthers

2011

21

4T

Dan Marino

Dolphins

1983

20

4T

Andy Dalton

Bengals

2011

20

4T

Russell Wilson

Seahawks

2012

20

7

Jim Plunkett

Patriots

1971

19

8T

Andrew Luck

Colts

2012

18

8T

Robert Griffin III

Redskins

2012

18

8T

Fran Tarkenton

Vikings

1961

18

8T

Joe Namath

Jets

1965

18

8T

Sam Bradford

Rams

2010

18

How about the chase for the passer rating record? Not many rookie quarterbacks (with a qualified number of attempts) ever break 80.0. We will probably have two go over 90.0 for the first time ever.

Highest Passer Rating (Qualified), Rookie Season

Rk

QB

Year

Team

Cmp.

Att.

Pct.

Yds

TD

INT

PR

1

Robert Griffin III

2012

WAS

233

351

66.4%

2906

18

4

104.2

2

Ben Roethlisberger

2004

PIT

196

295

66.4%

2621

17

11

98.1

3

Dan Marino

1983

MIA

173

296

58.4%

2210

20

6

96.0

4

Russell Wilson

2012

SEA

208

330

63.0%

2492

20

9

94.9

5

Greg Cook

1969

CIN

106

197

53.8%

1854

15

11

88.3

6

Matt Ryan

2008

ATL

265

434

61.1%

3440

16

11

87.7

7

Cam Newton

2011

CAR

310

517

60.0%

4051

21

17

84.5

8

Charlie Conerly

1948

NYG

162

299

54.2%

2175

22

13

84.0

9

Charlie Batch

1998

DET

173

303

57.1%

2178

11

6

83.5

10

Andy Dalton

2011

CIN

300

516

58.1%

3398

20

13

80.4

11

Joe Flacco

2008

BAL

257

428

60.0%

2971

14

12

80.3

More than just the individual stats, this rookie class continues to come away with clutch wins at a record pace. We have looked at them all weekly in Captain Comeback, and the numbers collectively are hard to believe.

Most Game-Winning Drives, Rookie QBs

Most 4th Quarter Comeback Wins, Rookies

Year

Total GWDs

No. of QBs

Year

Total 4QC

No. of QBs

2012

15

7

2012

13

7

2006

9

3

2006

7

3

2011

8

4

2004

7

3

2004

8

3

2011

6

3

1999

7

4

1999

6

4

With three weeks to go, these rookie quarterbacks have combined for a record 15 game-winning drives and 13 fourth-quarter comeback wins this season. Luck leads the way with four comebacks and six game-winning drives, but a record seven different quarterbacks have produced these wins (1987 strike season ignored).

From 1970 to 2011 just two rookies (Tim Couch and Matthew Stafford) threw a game-winning touchdown pass with 0:00 left in the game. This year, we have already seen it three times with Wilson against Green Bay, Luck against Detroit, and Foles against Tampa Bay.

They come through late, and they come through big. Luck and Foles are the only rookies to ever throw 50+ passes in a win. Luck’s done it twice, including an 18-point comeback over Green Bay in Week 5.

Thanks to clutch wins, Luck (9-4), Griffin (7-6) and Wilson (8-5) are looking to become the first trio of rookies to start in the postseason. The list of rookie quarterbacks to make the playoffs has really expanded in recent years.

NFL Playoffs - Rookie Starters (Since 1950)

QB

Team

Year

RS Starts

Result

T.J. Yates

Texans

2011

5

Lost AFC-D

Andy Dalton

Bengals

2011

16

Lost AFC-WC

Mark Sanchez

Jets

2009

15

Lost AFC-C

Joe Flacco

Ravens

2008

16

Lost AFC-C

Matt Ryan

Falcons

2008

16

Lost NFC-WC

Ben Roethlisberger

Steelers

2004

13

Lost AFC-C

Shaun King

Buccaneers

1999

5

Lost NFC-C

Todd Marinovich

Raiders

1991

1

Lost AFC-WC

Jim Everett

Rams

1986

5

Lost NFC-WC

Bernie Kosar

Browns

1985

10

Lost AFC-D

Dan Marino

Dolphins

1983

9

Lost AFC-D

Only Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan started every regular season game for their team. Last season, Dalton and T.J. Yates had the first ever playoff game between two rookie starters.

The game has really changed for rookie quarterbacks.

How much better are rookie quarterbacks today?

We live in an era where passing numbers are higher than ever, so some context is required. Last season was an explosion in passing yards, which definitely helps with 300-yard passing games as we have looked at before.

But what if we compare the stats of rookie quarterbacks relative to non-rookies going back to the 1970 merger? That should help us understand if the gap is closing there, which would mean rookies are getting better and not just taking advantage of the statistical highs of the modern game.

First, we have to mention that it is difficult to define a true rookie quarterback.

You can read our study of the sophomore slump for some finer details of those problems, such as players having prior experience in a professional league (Warren Moon and Kurt Warner, for example) not counting as NFL rookies. Players that remain on the practice squad for a year also apparently never count as having a true rookie season. Always keep that in mind when looking at rookie searches on Pro-Football-Reference.

We did our best to compile a list of 317 true rookies from 1970-2012, though it may not be impeccable. Only regular season data was collected.

Not to discredit rookie greats like Sammy Baugh (1937), Bob Waterfield (1945) or Charlie Conerly (1948), we feel we can eliminate pre-1970 for a better dataset, and would not be missing out on a rookie class better than 2012.

Note: only data on quarterbacks was included. Sure, Bengals’ rookie receiver Mohamed Sanu – who technically did start the Washington game at QB even – threw a pretty pass for a touchdown this year, but these trick plays are not really connected to general quarterback play, so none of them were included into the rookie totals. Not even Sanu, even though that is an interesting case and you could argue he deserves to add to the win total for 2012.

The 1987 season was discarded completely, as those three replacement games during the strike are a mess to sort out. No worry there, as No. 1 pick Vinny Testaverde led the class with just four starts and 165 pass attempts. They were nothing special.

Here are the league-wide passing stats for rookie quarterbacks each year going back to 1970:

NFL Rookie QB Passing Stats, 1970-2012 (Reg. Season; 1987 excluded)

Year

Starts

Record

Win%

Att.

Cmp.

Pct.

Yds

YPA

TD

INT

PR

2012

72

35-37

0.486

2425

1421

58.6

16,936

6.98

84

69

79.7

2011

61

23-38

0.377

1943

1098

56.5

13,060

6.72

73

57

77.5

2010

47

15-32

0.319

1541

868

56.3

9,080

5.89

35

52

67.1

2009

38

13-25

0.342

1210

655

54.1

7,357

6.08

38

69

59.2

2008

32

22-10

0.688

886

536

60.5

6,510

7.35

30

23

83.6

2007

19

8-11

0.421

644

356

55.3

3,845

5.97

15

21

67.2

2006

42

17-25

0.405

1299

712

54.8

7,962

6.13

43

46

69.6

2005

30

14-16

0.467

889

477

53.7

4,834

5.44

20

39

58.7

2004

32

18-14

0.563

897

488

54.4

5,861

6.53

36

45

67.1

2003

27

12-15

0.444

756

414

54.8

4,658

6.16

23

27

68.7

2002

44

11-33

0.250

1460

738

50.5

8,451

5.79

38

55

61.3

2001

28

6-22

0.214

989

514

52.0

5,857

5.92

24

31

65.1

2000

3

0-3

0.000

144

70

48.6

720

5.00

4

4

61.1

1999

35

11-24

0.314

1176

639

54.3

6,703

5.70

41

42

67.9

1998

40

12-28

0.300

1233

664

53.9

7,761

6.29

42

53

66.6

1997

13

4-9

0.308

464

228

49.1

3,011

6.49

20

29

58.4

1996

13

5-8

0.385

448

226

50.4

2,838

6.33

16

17

66.6

1995

20

10-10

0.500

728

365

50.1

4,407

6.05

22

32

60.8

1994

14

2-12

0.143

456

209

45.8

2,736

6.00

16

24

55.0

1993

28

11-17

0.393

915

488

53.3

5,327

5.82

27

32

66.0

1992

12

1-11

0.083

394

191

48.5

2,057

5.22

9

21

49.6

1991

5

1-4

0.200

169

93

55.0

890

5.27

5

13

47.7

1990

20

5-15

0.250

567

306

54.0

3,537

6.24

24

23

70.3

1989

30

6-24

0.200

984

503

51.1

6,319

6.42

29

49

60.5

1988

27

16-11

0.593

654

339

51.8

4,509

6.89

20

25

68.3

1986

21

4-17

0.190

667

322

48.3

3,811

5.71

18

30

56.4

1985

14

5-9

0.357

399

185

46.4

2,455

6.15

11

17

57.8

1984

6

4-2

0.667

271

122

45.0

1,495

5.52

7

13

51.2

1983

24

14-10

0.583

727

384

52.8

5,008

6.89

32

29

72.9

1982

16

3-12-1

0.219

468

248

53.0

2,979

6.37

14

16

68.5

1981

11

5-6

0.455

471

237

50.3

3,017

6.41

5

30

47.7

1980

14

7-7

0.500

482

247

51.2

2,677

5.55

18

27

57.0

1979

40

14-26

0.350

1060

536

50.6

6,264

5.91

33

60

55.6

1978

10

4-6

0.400

279

110

39.4

1,694

6.07

9

17

45.6

1977

31

8-23

0.258

788

338

42.9

4,371

5.55

17

67

32.7

1976

31

14-17

0.452

870

404

46.4

5,225

6.01

21

57

46.6

1975

23

7-16

0.304

754

358

47.5

5,070

6.72

35

51

57.0

1974

25

14-11

0.560

787

375

47.6

4,701

5.97

24

57

46.7

1973

32

12-19-1

0.391

704

301

42.8

3,657

5.19

20

56

35.7

1972

7

0-7

0.000

350

163

46.6

2,312

6.61

11

17

58.7

1971

48

17-27-4

0.396

1138

540

47.5

7,344

6.45

44

77

53.2

1970

23

7-15-1

0.326

743

348

46.8

5,134

6.91

18

59

44.9

The 2012 class leads in starts, wins, attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, and ranks second in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating.

Only 2008 tops 2012 in efficiency stats and that is because Ryan and Flacco were the only rookie quarterbacks to start that season. They also accounted for 97.3 percent of the passes thrown by a rookie quarterback in 2008, so that year is much skewed.

The 35 wins already crush last year’s record total of 23.

In terms of winning percentage, 2012 ranks No. 9 (.486), but none of the seasons ahead of it had more than 32 starts, and again those were both skewed seasons (Ryan/Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger had 13 of the 18 wins in 2004).

Seems hard to believe the 2000 season (Chad Pennington was first off the board to the Jets at No. 18) produced just three rookie starts and 144 pass attempts. That was of course when Tom Brady went 199th in the sixth round.

Here is a rookie breakdown by decade. We are moving on up in terms of record and the stats.

Years

Starts

Rec.

Pct.

Att.

Cmp.

Pct.

Yds

YPA

TD

INT

PR

1970-79

270

97-167-6

0.370

7473

3473

46.5

45,772

6.12

232

518

47.8

1980-89

163

64-98-1

0.396

5123

2587

50.5

32,270

6.30

154

236

61.2

1990-99

200

62-138

0.310

6550

3409

52.0

39,267

5.99

222

286

63.5

2000-09

295

121-174

0.410

9174

4960

54.1

56,055

6.11

271

360

66.1

2010-12

180

73-107

0.406

5909

3387

57.3

39,076

6.61

192

178

75.7

Now let’s see what happens if we plot the rookie stats for each season for yards per attempt (YPA) and passer rating against the veterans. Yes, a second-year player is not really a veteran yet, but it sounds better than “non-rookie” does.

In both cases the veterans stay on a steady climb, while the rookies are on a bit of a roller coaster, sometimes touching or even surpassing the veterans. A lot of this is due to the sample size of certain years when not many rookies played (like the 2000 season).

The group of veterans does not change much from one year to the next, but each season brings in a whole new crop of rookies. That is why they can be so inconsistent from one year to the next in the data.

But overall, the rookies are closing the gap, and they have never been better than in 2012.

 

Why are rookies better now?

The rise in rookie success can be traced back to the evolution of the passing game. The team of the 1980s, the San Francisco 49ers, really changed the league with their success in the West Coast offense under Bill Walsh.

That increased use of the short, quick passing game finally caught on league-wide in the mid 90s. There were also teams (Houston, Atlanta) going to the run-and-shoot offense around this time. Also keep in mind the no-huddle offense that the Cincinnati Bengals started and Buffalo Bills (K-gun) made famous was fresh as well.

The passing game was changing offensive football forever. Do you think Chuck Long was throwing a ton of bubble screens and running the spread every week?

No, the mid 90s are when you started to see more short passes, which meant the average yards per completion went down, completions and completion percentage went up, interceptions went down, and sacks started falling with the quicker releases.

If you were a little kid back then that means by the time you started playing football, coaches were adapting to this change in the game. Then through high school and college, you will have been more prepared for the passing game than quarterbacks of past decades.

Guess what? Those young kids from the mid 90s that spent their whole football career in this passing atmosphere are today’s young men of ages 22-24, or just ripe for the picking in the NFL draft.

Never have quarterbacks come out of college more prepared to run a pro-style offense that focuses on throwing the ball and understanding the various defenses and blitzes you will see each week.

It all comes back to timing, and today’s rookie quarterbacks are the first generation that has played their football career in the pass-happy era.

 

Conclusion: The path to 2012’s new standard

You can argue 2004 was another turning point in football when the NFL made sure to reinforce illegal contact beyond five yards. Numbers went up, and that was the year Ben Roethlisberger set rookie records while going 14-1 as a starter and reaching the AFC Championship game.

Roethlisberger became the first quarterback since Dennis Shaw (1970) to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Quarterbacks have won that award five times now since 2004.

But Roethlisberger really did not start any rookie renaissance. The No. 1 pick that year, Eli Manning, struggled as a rookie. It was still not a given to let a guy start from day one, even when rookies were making outrageous money at this time. Philip Rivers (No. 4 pick) watched Drew Brees breakout in San Diego that season.

The following year, No. 1 pick Alex Smith had a terrible season with the 49ers while Aaron Rodgers and Jason Campbell sat on the bench. Kyle Orton won 10 games as a game manager (and not a very good one at that).

In 2006, there were the big three at the top with Vince Young, Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler. If you want to talk about lowering the standards, some people were actually floored by Young in a season where he threw 12 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, had a 66.7 passer rating, but went 8-5 as a starter thanks to some miraculous wins. He won Rookie of the Year and even went to the Pro Bowl.

A year later, one of the worst quarterback classes ever came together. Guess you could say it was an early warning flag when JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn combined for one start in 2007. Kevin Kolb was the last great hope here, and that says it all.

Now the 2008 season was a bit different with Matt Ryan (No. 3 to Atlanta) and Joe Flacco (No. 18 to Baltimore) taking over teams who had an off year and leading them to an 11-5 record. Still, these were not teams as bad as their record indicated the year before, and both had a considerable amount of help to reach the playoffs.

The 2009 Jets tried a similar model of what the Ravens had with Rex Ryan protecting Mark Sanchez in the ground-and-pound offense matched with the league’s best defense. Like Flacco and John Harbaugh, the Jets came up a game short of the Super Bowl. Meanwhile Matthew Stafford was injured and Josh Freeman just wasn’t good.

Similar to Young, people overrated Sam Bradford’s 2010 season when he threw the ball (short) a lot, and the defense led them to a 7-9 record in a bad division.

Then you have 2011, which really foreshadowed what was to come. Cam Newton and Andy Dalton did a lot of record-breaking things, even though the history of rookie success is obviously not very deep.

But that was really just a teaser of what could happen in 2012. Maybe it was the fact there was no lockout and coaches could have a real offseason, but this year’s rookies have been integrated into their offense as a driving force behind the team’s success.

Despite Chuck Pagano’s defensive background and willingness to run the ball, the Colts have let Luck absorb the playbook from day one and he will likely set a new record for drop backs by a rookie.

The Shanahan’s in Washington have added unusual things by NFL standards that Griffin did well at Baylor. The Redskins run more plays out of the pistol than the rest of the league combined, and they have also adopted the zone-read option play to take advantage of Griffin’s skills.

Wilson in Seattle is also capable of running well at this level, and they have used the running game to set up a lot of deep passing plays. His height has just not been an issue as some predicted.

Even Tannehill was given some rare freedom for a rookie. Miami was leading the league in plays ran out of the no-huddle offense (over 54 percent through Week 9).

The coaches can put more on these rookies, because they have proven they can handle it. They handle it because of their talent, and that has been crafted though years of practice with offensive schemes that are more comparable to the modern passing game than what rookies of yesterday learned.

Since 1970 there have been 22 quarterbacks with at least six wins as a starter. Nine of them are since 2008.

Chris Chandler was 9-4 on the 1988 Colts, and he only threw eight touchdowns. Not quite the way Andrew Luck has gotten this year’s Colts to 9-4, is it?

Remember when Rick Mirer’s rookie season was considered so godly when rookie standards were so poor? Russell Wilson should wipe all those memories away.

Not that they were any good, but consider the 1994 Redskins’ struggles with rookies Heath Shuler and Gus Frerotte compared to this year’s team with Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins.

Rookies have come a long way.

We will still see rookie quarterbacks struggle. Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder did little to earn positive headlines last season (and this season).

The 2013 class may turn out underwhelming, and with so many teams putting resources into a young quarterback, available jobs for starters are becoming very limited. We could be looking at teams like Kansas City and Arizona starting over with a rookie next year.

But when people want to point to a rookie class that set a new standard in excellence, they are going to start with 2012. Will it produce multiple Hall of Famers like a 1983 draft, or probably like 2004 will?

It’s way too early to predict the future, but just in terms of the rookie success we have already seen, the 2012 class is simply unparalleled.

 

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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