NFL legends show why teams shouldn't give up on rookie QBs too soon

·5 min read

We’re three weeks into the NFL season, and if you bet on how many wins the league’s five heralded rookie quarterbacks would have at this point in the season, I sure hope you took the under.

Right now, Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones have combined for one (1) win as starters — and only because Jones’ Patriots beat Wilson’s Jets in Week 2.

Naturally, in the vast expanses of time that sports pundits must fill between 00:00 of the Monday night game and kickoff Thursday night, the panic and second-guessing are setting in. Are these guys all busts? Is drafting a quarterback overrated?

Here’s the problem: In our win-now, zero-attention-span culture, we’ve completely given up on the concept of a quarterback needing to grow into the job. A couple quarterbacks have had success in their first year or two on the job, and bang, we expect every kid right out of college to be able to master the most difficult position in sports, waging physical and intellectual war against opponents who have been doing this for years or decades.

Two seasons ago, Sam Darnold said he was “seeing ghosts out there” while getting dissected by the Patriots in a Monday night game he’d eventually lose 33-0. Everybody got a big, smug laugh out of that line, but it was maybe the most honest thing anyone’s ever said about playing football at the highest level. And that was Darnold's second season.

The apprenticeship model, watching from the sidelines as a vet showed them the way, served Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers well. Just imagine how the numbers on these four random quarterbacks from days gone by would have gone over with 2021’s Twitter geniuses, sports-radio howlers and TV shout-show clowns:

QB A: Threw a league-leading 28 interceptions and won just three of the 16 games he started.

QB B: Started 11 games. Lost 11 games. Threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns, and didn’t throw for many touchdowns.

QB C: Didn’t complete a single one of the four passes he threw. Well, that’s not exactly true: his first pass in the NFL was a pick-six. He also threw another INT. So technically, he did complete half the passes he threw.

QB D: Started eight games, lost six. Threw 13 interceptions, fumbled the ball 13 times, was sacked 46 times.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

You know exactly where I’m going with this. These players were: A. Peyton Manning, B. Troy Aikman, C. Brett Favre and D. Andrew Walter, who briefly played for the Raiders in the mid-2000s. (Gotcha. Not everyone who has a terrible first season turns into a Hall of Famer.)

You can trace our current win-now-or-else mentality right back exactly a decade, to three players: Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. They succeeded out of the gate, destroying every excuse of every rookie quarterback in their wake.

In 2011, Newton arrived in Carolina and tripled the Panthers’ win total (from two to six, but still), managed to throw more touchdowns than interceptions, ran for another 14 TDs, and generally reinvented the quarterback position by sheer force of will. The next year, Luck took a 2-14 Colts team and led them to 11 wins and a playoff berth in his rookie season. And then, in the 2013 season, Wilson topped them both by leading the Seahawks to a Super Bowl championship in just his second season, and that was it for ever showing any patience with a young quarterback ever again.

But dig a little deeper. The Panthers took three years to reach the postseason. The Colts and, especially, the Seahawks already had infrastructures in place to help their young quarterbacks succeed. Jacksonville, Chicago and New York? Yeah, not so much.

In most cases, if you’re drafting in the single digits, you’ve got problems that one player — even the most important player on the roster — won’t solve. (This is why Trey Lance appears to be the best bet for near-term success; he’s walking into a Super Bowl-quality team already. Plus, he's not starting yet.)

There’s a reason why the same teams — Jaguars and Jets, just to pick two totally at random — always seem to be in position to draft that franchise-altering player: because the players they choose can’t save the entire franchise. No one could. Would Patrick Mahomes be PATRICK MAHOMES on the Bears? You know the answer.

The whole process of plodding through a losing season can crush not just a rookie's bones, but also his psyche, particularly since most first-round QBs have little experience with failure.

"The thing I have to keep reminding myself is that it's still a game,” Lawrence said last week, “the same game I've been playing since I was a kid — a game I happen to be good at.”

If someone like Trevor Lawrence, who before this season hadn’t lost a regular-season game at any level, high school or college, has to “remind himself” of the intrinsic nature of football itself, what hope does a less resilient, less mentally tough quarterback have? Throwing even these football savants into the grinder early is like putting all your chips on one number of the roulette wheel — sure, you might win big, but you’ll probably stay at the table a whole lot longer if you show a little more patience.

So as Lawrence flails, as Zach Wilson sputters, as Fields gets beaten into paste, as Jones sinks under the weight of Patriots fans’ expectations, it’s worth remembering this: as history shows, even a quarterback that can do anything can’t do everything.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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