Because Miami Dolphins legend Dan Marino was immediately elite from the start, and because Justin Herbert (the quarterback drafted immediately after Tua Tagovailoa) has been very good (12 touchdown passes, three interceptions), you might get discouraged if Tagovailoa’s first NFL start on Sunday — or if some of his first few starts — aren’t spectacular.
Some advice: Don’t be! Do not make any grand conclusions from Sunday or, for that matter, if the results are a mix of good and bad in the next month.
History shows a handful of Hall of Fame quarterbacks were mediocre to awful as rookie starters.
To get a sense of how the most prolific quarterbacks of the modern era played in their debut — and their first five NFL starts — I analyzed the top 10 quarterbacks on the NFL’s all-time passing yardage list who started as rookies.
I also looked at six Pro Bowl quarterbacks drafted in the past decade who had at least one start as a rookie (Andrew Luck, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson).
I considered only rookies, not elite quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers) who didn’t start at all as rookies.
Here’s what I determined:
▪ Of these 16 quarterbacks who started at least one game as rookie, only four (Marino, Matt Ryan, Carson Palmer and Newton) had a great first game and one other (Jackson) was pretty good, posting only a 70 passer rating but rushing 26 times for 119 yards in a win over Cincinnati.
Mahomes, in his only start as a rookie, wasn’t bad (22 for 35 for 284 yards, no touchdowns, one pick, 76.4 rating) in a season finale against Denver.
Ben Roethlisberger (12-22-163-1 TD, 1 pick) wasn’t great in his debut as a rookie starter, but Pittsburgh won a defensive struggle against the Dolphins anyway.
The other nine? Pretty underwhelming. Peyton Manning threw three picks (58.6 rating) in his first start as a rookie, a loss to the Dolphins. His brother, Eli, was 17 for 37 with a 45.1 rating in a loss to Atlanta in his first start.
John Elway went 1 for 8 for 14 yards with a 0.00 passer rating in his rookie starting debut and yet his team somehow won. Matt Stafford was dismal in his debut (27.4 passer rating in a loss).
Luck (52.9 passer rating), Watson (60.4), Wilson (62.5), Drew Bledsoe (14 for 30, 148 yards) and Vinnie Testaverde (22 for 47, two TDs, two picks) were underwhelming. All lost except Watson, who won in a defensive struggle.
The quality of the defense that the quarterback is facing obviously is a big factor. Tagovailoa will face a Rams defense that is second in points allowed per game.
Three quick asides: If you wondered why the two-time Pro Bowler Testaverde and the four-time Pro Bowler Bledsoe were included in my 16-player study, it’s because they rank in the top 10 all-time in passing yards among quarterbacks who started as rookies.
Also, as Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith noted, the average NFL passer rating has jumped from 77.3 in 1990 to 78.1 in 2000 to 84.1 in 2010 to 94.1 this year, so I’m not using passer rating as the determinant of “quality” starts.
And one other important note: Rules changes in the past decade have generally benefited NFL passing games, which has translated to more early success for quarterbacks, as we’re seeing with Herbert, whose 308 passing yards per game are most ever by a rookie and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, whose 289 are second most. But other high picks in recent years — such as Josh Allen and Sam Darnold — struggled initially as rookies.
▪ What’s realistic to expect in Tagovailoa’s first five games as a starter?
Among these quarterbacks in our survey, only two (Marino and Roethlisberger) were exceptional in their first five starts as rookies. (Mahomes was, too, but four of those starts were in his second season.)
Marino was 4-1, with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions in his first five rookie starts.
Roethlisberger also was 4-1, with seven touchdowns, two picks and passer ratings that rose every week, to 125 and 126 in starts four and five.
Jackson was 4-1 and very good because of the rushing element.
Ryan, Wilson and Watson were above average, with three very good games and two subpar ones.
Newton, Luck and Bledsoe were 2-3 and pretty average, not awful but far from great.
Here’s who was awful in their first five starts: Peyton Manning (4 TDs, 12 picks) and Eli Manning (3 TDs, 7 picks, 0-5 record, 4 for 18 for 27 yards in one game against Baltimore), Elway (1 TD, 5 picks), Palmer (4 TDs, 8 picks) and Stafford (3 TDs, 7 picks).
Here’s the takeaway: The majority of the quarterbacks of recent vintage who became Pro Bowlers (Jackson, Ryan, Wilson, Watson) had at least three good games in their first five starts as rookies.
WHAT ABOUT THE BUSTS?
I was also curious about this, too: Have any high draft picks who were busts fooled everybody with a great first start as a rookie?
Of the eight biggest disappointments this century among quarterbacks selected in the top 10 (minimum one start as a rookie, which disqualified Jake Locker), only Marcus Mariota was great in his first game, posting a perfect 158.3 passer rating with four TDs in a win against Tampa Bay.
Joey Harrington and Vince Young were dismal in their first rookie starts; Blaine Gabbert and David Carr were below average; Blake Bortles was decent and JaMarcus Russell and Matt Leinart were pretty good in losses.
So what conclusions should we draw from all of this history?
A) If Tagovailoa isn’t very good Sunday, don’t worry. Plenty of great quarterbacks have struggled in their debuts.
B) If Tagovailoa doesn’t show anything during the next five games or struggles in four of them, be concerned, because all of the very good quarterbacks who started as rookies in this past decade had at least one very good game in their first five and most had more than that.
The defenses he will face, after the Rams, are rated 20th (Arizona), 19th (Chargers), ninth (Denver) and 23rd (Jets).
C) If Tagovailoa is extraordinary Sunday, the odds are slim that he will be a big disappointment based on recent history, though Mariota is the outlier.
Regardless of how the next few games go, this much is clear about starting him now:
“It’s the right thing to do because every snap Tua takes for the rest of the season is going to make the Miami Dolphins better in 2021,” NFL Network analyst and former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick said.