The inevitable bench-or-keep-it-going debate with Justin Herbert is now evitable. Two years ago, Tyrod Taylor was in a similar situation with the Browns and Baker Mayfield. Cleveland kept on with Mayfield and following a rookie campaign glittered with optimism, the team and fans are back to a wait and see approach with the quarterback. Now the Chargers are starting Herbert for the second game in a row following a medical mishap on Taylor that hurts to even think about.
Anthony Lynn likes what he’s seen from Herbert and as he said on Hard Knocks, that’s why the team drafted him. But he believes it’s too soon and the team and rookie would be better suited with a veteran starting at quarterback and the more talented and less experienced option behind him.
Prior to the last 15 years, the “no brainer” move would be to start the veteran. Then Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco happened in 2008 and while I realize rookies had started before that and rookies have sat since then, the Falcons and Ravens both making the playoffs that season is a fair cut off point to consider as to when teams were comfortable playing first year quarterbacks.
Has playing or not playing in a quarterback’s first season had a noticeable impact on future performance lately?
Sat on the bench
Jared Goff - 7 games, 112 of 205, 5 TD, 7 INT, 5.3 Y/A
The Rams may have just wanted to protect Goff from Jeff Fisher by sitting him for the first 10 weeks, but Fisher finally made him the starter in their ninth game of the season and the results were about as bad as any rookie has had lately. So perhaps LA truly did know he wasn’t ready.
In spite of his poor rookie season, Goff was sixth in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) in 2017 and 2018 and after a disappointing 2019, is playing well through two games this year. Playing before he was ready may have hurt the Rams’ chances (Fisher was fired after four starts by Goff) but didn’t seem to stunt his growth.
Jake Locker - 34 of 66, 542 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT
The Titans picked Locker eighth overall in 2011 and his competition was 36-year-old Matt Hasselbeck, which was enough to keep him on the bench for the whole season as Tennessee went 9-7. But Hasselbeck wasn’t thrilling and better play at quarterback obviously could have helped the Titans make the playoffs.
Better play at quarterback turned out to never be coming from Locker, who made 23 starts over the next three years and then retired.
Patrick Mahomes - 22 of 35, 284 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
In a different light, the Chiefs traded up for Mahomes when they had the luxury of a Pro Bowl quarterback starting for them that season. Alex Smith was plenty good but the franchise knew what Mahomes would give them in the future. This is an example of how sitting a quarterback is also totally fine, but it helps when you’ve got a good team already.
Christian Ponder - 10 starts, 158 of 291, 13 TD, 13 INT, 6.4 Y/A
A perfect example that if you compared Ponder and Goff, you’d assume both were heading for similar careers. Maybe Ponder was even better after sitting for the first five weeks for Minnesota in 2011. But in his final game that year, he went 4-of-10 for 28 yards and an interception against the Bears.
The Vikings actually went 10-6 with Ponder as the full season starter in 2012 but he’d start just one more game after 2013.
Deshaun Watson - 6 starts, 126 of 204, 19 TD, 8 INT, 8.3 Y/A
Now here’s an example of how sitting a rookie quarterback can hurt you. Bill O’Brien chose to start — this is real — Tom Savage in Week 1. He started Watson in Week 2, but I can’t express how serious I am when I say that O’Brien is a head coach going into his seventh season. Obviously this is a quarterback who would have started 15 games if he hadn’t gotten hurt (and the Texans might have made the playoffs because they went 1-9 with Savage and TJ Yates, two players who never played after 2017) but I wanted to remind people that Bill O’Brien started Savage over Watson after a training camp competition.
That may not be the case with Justin Herbert, that’s not what I’m saying, but also don’t be Bill O’Brien.
Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow
Sometimes you draft a quarterback and you go through training camp and practices and you just know, this is not an NFL quarterback. I imagine that might have been the case here for both teams. Herbert sitting is not the same as Tebow sitting. Similar story for Paxton Lynch, drafted with almost the exact same pick by Denver six years later.
Lamar Jackson - 7 starts, 99 of 170, 6 TD, 3 INT, 7 Y/A, rushing is good
The Ravens waited and waited to start Jackson and then went 6-1 until John Harbaugh was finished waiting. They’re 21-3 since Harbaugh stopped waiting. They were 4-5 in 2018 under Flacco. Starting as a rookie didn’t hurt Jackson’s development.
Started 13 or more games
This is a longer list, so I’ll break it into how their careers went. Starting in 2008, drafted first or second round.
Generally poor or undesirable even if because of injuries: Sam Bradford, Jameis Winston, Robert Griffin III, Brandon Weeden, Geno Smith, DeShone Kizer, Blaine Gabbert, Mark Sanchez, Josh Rosen (?), Sam Darnold (?), Blake Bortles
At 12 starts, you’ve got Daniel Jones, Mitchell Trubisky and Marcus Mariota. Mayfield started 13 games as a rookie. Matthew Stafford started Week 1 but then finished the season with only 10 games because of injury. He’d fall into the “generally good” category.
It can also be difficult to predict which players will go on to have success based on their rookie statistics.
Watson did shine and Griffin did get injured, which led to his downfall, but Mayfield, Mariota and Winston would qualify as having three of the other best rookie campaigns in the last decade. In fact, Mariota may have had the best first start in history (perfect 158.3 passer rating with four touchdowns) and he had a few more eye-opening performances that year but there was no development after that season.
Conversely, some of the worst numbers by quarterbacks who were tasked to play more than a few games included Stafford, Goff, Josh Allen and Tannehill. And Luck may have helped the Colts make the playoffs and thrown for over 4,000 yards with 23 touchdowns, but his 54-percent completions and 7 yards per attempt were well below average. He’d get better after that season.
Most passing yards by a rookie quarterback making their first start:— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) September 22, 2020
1. Cam Newton (422)
2. RG3 (320)
3. Justin Herbert (311)
4. Andrew Luck (309)
5. Kyler Murray (308)
Did starting rookie first and second rounders do harm to the playoff chances of those teams? I’d argue that there’s an excellent chance that the answer to that question is actually No.
Rookies who started for teams with winning records were likely on high quality teams that didn’t have better veteran options. In the case of Kansas City in 2017, they did. In the case of Houston that year, they did not. Sitting Mahomes was wise in hindsight because Smith left no concerns in Andy Reid’s head about starting him but perhaps starting Mahomes would have also been fine. We saw what he did at 23, so why not at 22? But that is a rare case.
Ryan, Flacco and Luck all went 11-5 during their rookie seasons. RGIII went 9-6, Dalton went 9-7 and Geno Smith went 8-8. Sanchez went 8-7 and the Jets almost made the Super Bowl. Outside of the first two rounds, Russell Wilson went 11-5 as a rookie.
There are many more losing records for these players than winning records but the answer to that is obvious. The opposite being true would be illogical and require further study — it is typically bad teams that turn to rookie quarterbacks. When good teams turn to rookies, they are able to elevate play around his inexperience.
Teams that start high profile rookie quarterbacks are typically bad teams — they had high draft picks usually. They had bad records the year before and that is often indicative of poor coaching and/or lacking the necessary personnel to win. Example: They are the Cincinnati Bengals and they’re starting Joe Burrow because they have no reason to start anybody else.
Joe Burrow was 37-61 with 316 yards and 3 pass TD on Thursday night.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 18, 2020
According to @EliasSports Burrow's 37 completions are the most in a game by a rookie in NFL history.
His 61 pass attempts are the 2nd most all-time by a rookie quarterback. pic.twitter.com/HAio5K5UM1
If Dalton had continued to improve after his rookie season, maybe won some playoff games, then maybe he could be an “Alex Smith” for Burrow. But the Bengals aren’t afraid to admit to themselves that the best experience for a rookie quarterback is starting experience.
I’m not saying this is always the case. I am saying this is the case with the Bengals and Burrow.
On the other hand, the Miami Dolphins are also unlikely to make the postseason this year. Their reason for starting Ryan Fitzpatrick over Tua Tagovailoa at this stage is that Tagovailoa is coming off of an injury and Fitzpatrick doesn’t have to learn anything else. He’s ready now. He played well against the Bills in Week 2 and the Dolphins almost won but eventually when Miami has given up on the AFC East, I imagine we will see Tagovailoa.
As we saw on Sunday against the Chiefs, the Chargers do have an opportunity to make the playoffs this season with the personnel and coaching they’ve brought to this season. The defense has pitched two deluxe starts and the offense has weapons orbiting an improved offensive line. Lynn’s team is in an entirely different position than Zac Taylor’s team in Cincinnati and Brian Flores’ team in Miami. For LA, they do need the starter who gives them the best chance to win.
Through one start for each, it is not entirely evident yet which quarterback that is. But if Herbert starts or sits after next week, it’s not necessarily going to hurt his development either way. If he starts, we know now that it could be the best thing for the team and the player. If he doesn’t, that’s not concerning.