Sports Reference Blog

Does a QB’s Debut Really Tell Us Anything?

Posted by Jonah Gardner on September 15, 2016

We've reached what's perhaps the most fun sports week of the year, at least from a narrative perspective. That's right, it's the week after the start of the NFL season! With a small amount of information to go by, in a sport that can see wide variance in game-to-game performances, football fans, writers, and even coaches across the nation have no choice but to jump to wild conclusions, many of which are doomed to look foolish just weeks later.

After Week 1, the 2015 NFL season looked like the year where the Seattle Seahawks' defense would sink to mediocrity, the Miami Dolphins would finally see their team come together, the Tennessee Titans would soar into contention thanks to their high-octane offense, and the Denver Broncos would have to use a historically great defense to drag a washed-up Peyton Manning to his second Super Bowl win (OK, we were right about that last one).

The point is that, after one game, things in the NFL can get a little weird. This is even more true when you're talking about players, who are largely components a giant machine whose individual performance often depends on a number of factors outside of their control. This is even true of the most important cog of the modern offense: the quarterback.

As we talked about last week, it seems like an unusual number of quarterbacks made their first career start in Week 1. Some, like Trevor Siemian and Jimmy Garoppolo, were starting for teams with playoff aspirations. Others, like Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott, had the hopes of their franchise's entire future resting on their shoulders.

All in all, it was a reasonably successful week for the four QBs making their first NFL start:

Passing Table
Rk Tm Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Lng Y/A AY/A Rate
3 Dak Prescott DAL 25 45 55.6 227 0 0 21 5.0 5.0 69.4
14 Carson Wentz PHI 22 37 59.5 278 2 0 35 7.5 8.6 101.0
22 Jimmy Garoppolo NWE 24 33 72.7 264 1 0 37 8.0 8.6 106.1
31 Trevor Siemian DEN 18 26 69.2 178 1 2 25 6.8 4.2 69.1
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/14/2016.

Garoppolo and Wentz were the picks of the bunch, with the New England Patriots QB and temporary replacement for strawberry hater Tom Brady leading in passer rating and yards per pass attempt. However, everyone except Prescott got the win and all four looked good, at least in spots.

The natural question is what this kind of start means for a quarterback's career. Should we be rushing to buy Carson Wentz's jersey or photoshopping Tom Brady into a All About Eve movie poster? This week, we'll look back at some past quarterback debuts. First, we'll count down the five best debuts by a QB; then we'll try to find comparable games to last week's set of debutantes to see what we can take away from their performances.

The Best QB Debuts Since the AFL-NFL Merger:

Before starting, I want to emphasize that these are debuts (like the games Wentz and Prescott played on Sunday), not first starts (like Garoppolo and Siemian). If a player entered a game at all, even for one snap, that's what the Pro-Football-Reference's Game Finder will pull up as his debut, and thus, that's the game that was eligible for this list. With that, let's get into the list.

1. Marcus Mariota, 2015, Tennessee Titans: 13-15, 209 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT, 158.3 rate, 13.93 Y/A, 19.27 AY/A

(NOTE: Unlike the other highlight videos, we can't embed this one, so here's the link to Mariota's debut on YouTube:

Last season, Mariota became the first person since 1973 to post a perfect passer rating in Week 1 while throwing at least 15 pass attempts. And if that's not enough, he did it as an NFL rookie making his first career start. While the 52-yard bomb to Kendall Wright is what sticks in memory from this masterful performance, it's worth noting that Mariota's three other passing touchdowns were 12, 4, and 1 yard, respectively. He also only threw 15 times, compared to 32 rushing attempts by the Titans, admittedly with many of them coming after the game was well out of reach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Mariota's fellow rookie Jameis Winston.

It was a soaring debut that also helped paper over a more up-and-down 2015 for the Oregon alum. Leaving that game off, Mariota had 15 TDs vs 10 INTs in his remaining 13 starts in 2015. Without the opener, his passer rating drops from 91.5 to 86.0, his adjusted yards per attempt dips from 7.43 to 6.93, and his touchdown percentage falls from 4.9 to 4.2%. In other words, he goes from being Mariota in 2015 to Brock Osweiler in 2015, a much less exciting prospect.

Still, you can't just exclude his best game from the record willy-nilly. Despite the ups and downs of a rookie year, Mariota looks extremely promising as he heads into Year Two.

2. Robert Griffin, 2012, Washington Redskins: 19-26, 320 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 139.9 rate, 12.31 Y/A, 13.85 AY/A

Very few QBs have been asked to carry the burden, physically or emotionally, that Washington demanded from RG3 on Day 1. In addition to carrying the heightened expectations of an impatient, demanding fanbase, Griffin had an offense that was built entirely around him, throwing over 25 times and running with the ball nine more.

RG3 was up to the challenge. He had the second best passer rating in a debut game and the fifth best AY/A. He was the 7th QB to throw for over 300 passing yards in his debut and the only player on that list to do so without also throwing an interception. Sadly, with the news that RG3 is back on Injured Reserve; performances like this merely serve as reminders of what could have been.

3. Cam Newton, 2011, Carolina Panthers: 24-37, 422 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 110.4 rate, 11.41 Y/A, 11.27 AY/A

Newton doesn't have the scoring numbers that Mariota put up, and that INT drags his passer rating and adjusted yards per attempt below Griffin's, but on a sheer production level, it's tough to beat what Cam did in his first NFL game. Facebook, Twitter, sports blogs, and regular old NFL coverage blew up all day as the rookie from Auburn who had thrown just 292 passes in college torched an NFL defense. Like RG3, Cam didn't show off his impressive running on his debut (8 attempts for 18 rushing yards), but he didn't have to. While the Panthers lost that game, it was clear that the NFL had just experienced a seismic shift.

4. Matt Ryan, 2008, Atlanta Falcons: 9-13, 161 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 137.0 rate, 12.38 Y/A, 13.92 AY/A

Like the Titans, the Falcons didn't ask much of their rookie QB in his professional debut. And, like Mariota, Matty Ice overdelivered. Bolstered by a monster 220-yard game from Atlanta running back Michael Turner, Ryan didn't have to do too much to guide the Falcons to win. Still, he averaged over 12 yards per pass attempt and notched a touchdown. Within just a few years, Ryan would be handling a much larger workload as the focal point of an offense that was one game away from the Super Bowl.

5. Case Keenum, 2013, Houston Texans: 15-25, 271 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 110.6 rate, 10.84 Y/A, 11.64

And here's the counter. While the other QBs on this list have shown that an elite start can portend an elite career (or at least, in the case of Griffin, the promise of one were it not for injury), Keenum shows that sometimes a good start means nothing. You could argue for Clint Longley, Marc Bulger, or Jim Everett instead of Keenum, who all had both higher passer ratings and AY/A because they scored more TDs. However, none of the three matched Keenum's yards per attempt, despite throwing fewer passes in their starts.

Regardless, all four of those QBs are in the top 10 for best career debuts by AY/A, while Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, and Joe Montana are not. While Montana and Tom Brady were on mop-up duty for their first actual career games, Montana's first actual start is illustrative of the point here. In his 1979 debut, Montana went 5-12 for 36 yards, numbers that will not get you anywhere near this list.

The learning curve for quarterbacks is a steep one. However, this list also shows that, if you can prove it in the first game, there's a good chance you'll stick around a while. Even if you're just sticking around because Jeff Fisher refuses to start Jared Goff.

Honorable Mention: Billy Joe Hobert, 1995, Oakland Raiders: 5-11, 118 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 124.2 rate, 10.73 Y/A, 14.36 AY/A

While I can't in good conscience put someone who went 5-11 on this list, Hobert at least deserves a mention. He's 3rd in debut AY/A among QBs with 10 or more pass attempts in their first game, despite coming in halfway through and facing the Kansas City Chiefs, who boasted 1995's number one defense.

So, with this in mind, what can we expect going forward from this year's crop of newbies? Let's look for some reasonable comps for each of the four quarterbacks who made their first start in Week 1.

Dak Prescott: Dak had a very promising debut that was mainly notable for the Dallas Cowboys' willingness to put the game in his hands. His 45 pass attempts are tied for the second most by a quarterback in his debut game since 1960:

Query Results Table
Rk Date Lg Tm Result Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Y/A AY/A
1 Sam Bradford 2010-09-12 NFL STL L 13-17 32 55 58.18 253 1 3 53.1 4.60 2.51
2 Andrew Luck 2012-09-09 NFL IND L 21-41 23 45 51.11 309 1 3 52.9 6.87 4.31
3 Dak Prescott 2016-09-11 NFL DAL L 19-20 25 45 55.56 227 0 0 69.4 5.04 5.04
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/14/2016.

This pair of comps is the definition of good news/bad news. However, it's worth noting that Prescott beat Bradford in almost every statistical category besides attempts, and certainly in all the more advanced, holistic ones.

Trevor Siemian: While technically not his debut (Siemian entered a 2015 game to take a knee for his first professional game), Siemian is still fresh enough to consider here. Siemian gave away the ball in a bad position a couple of times, but seemed to settle in. He also generally did a good job of controlling the game, throwing 26 times and completing 69.23% of those passes.

Since 1960, only 4 quarterbacks had 25 pass attempts and a 69% completion rate in their debut. Who are they? Well...

Query Results Table
Rk Date Tm Result Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Y/A AY/A
1 Robert Griffin 2012-09-09 WAS W 40-32 19 26 73.08 320 2 0 139.9 12.31 13.85
2 Colt McCoy 2010-10-17 CLE L 10-28 23 33 69.70 281 1 2 80.5 8.52 6.39
3 Rick Mirer 1993-09-05 SEA L 12-18 20 27 74.07 154 0 1 72.1 5.70 4.04
4 Sam Wyche 1968-11-03 CIN L 17-27 20 25 80.00 228 1 0 118.0 9.12 9.92
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/14/2016.

Hopefully Trevor likes the weather in Ohio since three of those four played there at some point.

Jimmy Garoppolo: The obvious points of comparison for Garoppolo are the two other young quarterbacks who have started under Bill Belichick in New England. Here's how Garoppolo's first start compares with Tom Brady's and Matt Cassel's

Query Results Table
Rk Age Date Tm Opp Result Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Y/A AY/A
1 Jimmy Garoppolo 24-314 2016-09-11 NWE @ ARI W 23-21 24 33 72.73 264 1 0 106.1 8.00 8.61
28 Matt Cassel 26-120 2008-09-14 NWE @ NYJ W 19-10 16 23 69.57 165 0 0 89.9 7.17 7.17
93 Tom Brady 24-058 2001-09-30 NWE IND W 44-13 13 23 56.52 168 0 0 79.6 7.30 7.30
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/15/2016.

Interestingly, Garoppolo is the only one to throw for a TD, however, all three show Belichick's ability as a game-planner to protect an inexperienced quarterback. In all three cases, the QB wasn't picked off and in two cases, he had an above average completion percentage. Plus, most impressively, all three got the win.

Carson Wentz: In many ways, Wentz had the most promising debut of the four and the most room to grow, since he's not slated to be replaced by an all-time great in three weeks. In fact, when you factor in the fact that this was Wentz's first game, and not just his first start like Garoppolo, things get even more promising.

What do I mean? Well, look at the full list of players who averaged 7.5 yards per attempt, threw 35 times, and didn't turn over the ball in their career debut:

Query Results Table
Rk Date Lg Tm Opp Result Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Y/A AY/A
1 Carson Wentz 2016-09-11 NFL PHI CLE W 29-10 22 37 59.46 278 2 0 101.0 7.51 8.59
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/15/2016.

That's the good news, but here's the bad. If you drop it to 7.0 y/a but keep the attempts the same, he's joined by the legendary Shawn Halloran. If you drop the attempts to 30 but keep the y/a the same, he's joined by Jim Kelly, who's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (and, admittedly, had USFL experience before his NFL debut), and Patrick Ramsey, who definitely isn't. If you drop both, he's joined by those three, as well as Gus Frerotte (meh) and Tom Flores (yay!).

The record is mixed, but the potential for greatness is there. It's just going to take a lot more than one game to suss out.

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