The book on rookie quarterbacks in the NFL was a pretty simple one. They were always expected to struggle, especially in the opening games of their careers. Great ones like John Elway and Troy Aikman have talked about how unprepared they were for their first start. Boomer Esiason has described seeing “ghosts” on the field – defenders he never saw who just suddenly appear.
And then last season Cam Newton exploded onto the scene starting as a rookie on opening day and completing 24 of 37 passes for 422 yards and two touchdowns while running for another touchdown. That figured to be the most impressive rookie quarterback debut we’d ever see.
Then on Sunday, Robert Griffin III had a debut that might have been even better – or at least just as good. In the Superdome in New Orleans, one of the toughest places in the league to play, against a good Saints team motivated by the fallout from the Bounty scandal, Griffin completed 19 of 26 passes for 320 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, out-dueling Drew Brees in a 40-32 win.
It was an amazing debut and the best of the record five rookie quarterbacks that started on opening day. It also could be a sign of greatness to come.
Or not. Because one game isn’t a good barometer for anything. There’s a long way to go in the 2012 season and a long way to go in these rookie quarterbacks’ careers. Some of them are off to a good start. But what matters is what lies ahead.
Here’s a look at the future expectations of the new Fab Five:
Robert Griffin III (Redskins):There weren’t many people that rated him ahead of Andrew Luck in the 2012 draft, but there were definitely a few personnel people that did. That’s how good Griffin’s skill is. Plus, he’s the prototypical “new” quarterback – although that prototype is getting old – a man who can make plays out of the pocket just as well as he can in them.
Griffin figures to be a long-term star as long as he can stay healthy and he just might turn the Washington Redskins around. In the short term, though, don’t expect the Redskins’ game in St. Louis to be the same shootout he had in New Orleans. Jeff Fisher’s Rams are going to run the ball to keep it out of Griffin’s hands. Also, now that they’ve seen Griffin in action, it’s a little easier to devise a plan.
Also, keep in mind that Griffin’s biggest play was a short pass to Pierre Garcon that ended up as an 88-yard touchdown. He can’t count on his average receivers making plays like that every game.
Andrew Luck (Colts): He’s been pretty universally called the most complete and NFL-ready prospect since John Elway and his opening day numbers (23 of 45, 309 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions) were eerily similar to those of Peyton Manning back in 1998. There is no doubt that Luck will end up as a great one and eventually have the Colts in the hunt every season, just like Manning once did.
For Week 2 against the Vikings – and for the rest of the season – what you saw out of Luck on Sunday is likely what you’ll get. He’s got a lot of young talent around him, but it’s hardly a polished team. They will be behind a lot and they will throw often, and that will lead to mistakes. The Vikings can also rush the passer as well as the Bears, which will keep Luck on the run and force him to make his decisions quickly.
Russell Wilson (Seahawks): Wilson was probably the biggest surprise starter out of this five, having beaten out Matt Flynn in training camp. But the Seahawks spent a lot of money on Flynn and they think they’ve built a decent team, so there’s only so long Pete Carroll figures to be patient with a rookie quarterback’s struggles.
On opening day, against a Cardinals team he should’ve beaten, Wilson didn’t struggles as much as he was very average – 18 of 34 for just 153 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Unfortunately for him, now comes the hard part. He gets two home games, but they’re against the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers. If he wants to keep up with either Tony Romo or Aaron Rodgers the next two weeks he’s going to have to start throwing more downfield, which it remains to be seen if he can do consistently and effectively.
Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins): It should be exactly the opposite for Tannehill, who had a very rough opening day assignment against the AFC power Texans in Houston. He wasn’t good, getting picked off three times and completing 20 of 36 passes for 219 yards. He threw almost exclusively short passes, which is a combination of him not quite being ready and the Dolphins barely having an adequate receiving corps. That won’t do against a high-scoring team like Houston.
This week, though, Tannehill goes home and gets a Raiders team that has to fly cross country and has some problems of their own. They do have Carson Palmer, though, so they can score, which means that Joe Philbin may have to take the reins off. That could make for a painful start for Tannehill, but the Dolphins need to know if he can handle more on his plate. Because after the Raiders, they get the Jets and one of the best secondaries in the league.
Brandon Weeden (Cleveland): Weeden was so bad in his debut, it’s unfathomable that he nearly beat the Philadelphia Eagles anyway. The 28-year-old rookie completed just 12 of 35 passes for 118 yards and was picked off four times. One scout, when asked about his performance said, “Colt McCoy would’ve won that game, easily.”
We all may find out if that’s true soon enough because it’s hard to see the Browns giving Weeden more than one more game, unless they’re already prepared to surrender and play for the No. 1 overall pick. Next up for the Browns are the Buffalo Bills at home – a team he should fare much better against given how good Mark Sanchez looked against the Bills last week.
If he doesn’t improve quickly, it’s hard to imagine him getting the start at Baltimore and at the New York Giants in the following two weeks. These aren’t the old days for rookie quarterbacks. Teams don’t have time to let them be disasters at the start of their careers anymore.
—By RALPH VACCHIANO