Posted November 23, 2013

Eight in the Box: The best performances from first-time starting quarterbacks

Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, Eight in the Box, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Matt McGloin had a great first start, but he didn't quite crack our top eight. (MCT via Getty Images)

Matt McGloin had a great first start, but he didn’t quite crack our top eight. (MCT via Getty Images)

Each Friday, Eight in the Box will highlight a list of eight players, teams or moments and their impact on the NFL.

Last Sunday, Matt McGloin made an interesting bit of history. In the Oakland Raiders’ 28-23 win over the Houston Texans, McGloin became the first undrafted rookie quarterback since at least 1967 (the start of the common draft era) to throw for three touchdowns and no interceptions in his first NFL start. That got us thinking — what are the most impressive performances by quarterbacks in their first pro starts?

Thanks to Chase Stuart of Pro Football Reference and Football Perspective, we have an answer. Chase was kind enough to run data for the best first-game starts for NFL quarterbacks since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978. Our qualifiers: The quarterbacks in question had to throw at least 20 passes, and the metrics for the top eight performances were drawn from single-game passer rating and average yards per attempt. Non-rookies qualified, but not if there was significant playing time before that first start.

McGloin finished 10th on the list (Passer rating: 105.9, A/YA: 8.03), and Buffalo’s EJ Manuel ranked 12th with his two-touchdown performance against the New England Patriots on Sept. 8 (Passer rating: 105.5, A/YA: 7.04). The top guy on the historical list probably won’t surprise you, but there are some interesting names below that — proving that first success can be an indicator of sorts, but some guys seem to burn quickly and rarely shine again.

1. Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins, Sept. 9, 2012 (Passer rating: 139.9, A/YA: 13.85)

Griffin’s second season has been a disappointment, but he certainly looked every bit the player worth the draft picks the Redskins spent to move up in the 2012 draft to acquire him.  He completed 19 of 26 passes for 320 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions at the Superdome, outdueling Drew Brees and showing his acumen as a pocket passer as Washington beat the Saints, 40-32. Griffin also rushed for 42 yards on nine carries, but it was the way he dealt the ball with his arm that the Saints found so difficult to contend with.

Griffin’s first NFL pass was an 88-yard touchdown to Pierre Garcon, and he stood in the pocket to make the connection even as New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins was bearing down from a blitz.

“It’s great for any quarterback to get a couple of easy passes at the beginning of a game so you can get into a rhythm,” Griffin said after the game. “They were giving us those looks and I took advantage of them.”

2. Charlie Frye, Cleveland Browns, Dec. 4, 2005 (Passer rating: 136.7, A/YA: 13.3)

The Browns lost Frye’s first start, 20-14, but it wasn’t the fault of the man from Akron. Selected in the third round of the 2005 draft, Frye made his first start in place of the injured Trent Dilfer and threw two touchdown passes in the first half before Jacksonville’s defense started to pressure him ceaselessly — perhaps inspired by head coach Jack Del Rio’s impassioned halftime tirade. Frye finished his day with 13 completions in 20 attempts for 226 yards and those two scores. Ruben Droughns eventually became the first Browns back to rush for 1,000 yards since Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner both did so in 1985, but in losing the game, Cleveland also lost receiver Braylon Edwards for the season. In other words, Cleveland found little solace in Frye’s performance.

Nor was Frye able to capitalize on his debut. He started five games for Cleveland in 2005 and 13 more in 2006, but finished his time in Cleveland with 14 touchdowns and 23 interceptions, often getting his brains beaten in behind porous offensive lines. He last played in the NFL during the 2009 season, starting three games for the Oakland Raiders.

3. Todd Bouman, Minnesota Vikings, Dec. 9, 2001 (Passer rating: 131.5, A/YA: 12.35)

Bouman, an undrafted free agent out of St. Cloud State, got his first NFL start because Daunte Culpepper was dealing with a sprained knee. He was actually signed by the Vikings in 1997, but we’ll waive the rookie restriction in this case because Bouman never threw a regular-season  pass before the 2001 season, and he’d attempted just 17 passes before his Dec. 9 start against the Tennessee Titans. In that game, Bouman took advantage of his time on the bench by running head coach Dennis Green’s system to an impressive level of efficiency, He completed 21 of 31 passes for 348 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in Minnesota’s 42-24 win.

Green said after the game that he told Bouman he’d be the starter the previous Friday, but Bouman remembered it differently — he got the nod on gameday morning.

“Friday? I just found out today. I don’t know who told you that,” Bouman said. “Friday, Saturday, Sunday, one of those days.”

Whenever he found out, Bouman made the most of his opportunity. But he was never able to turn that one great game into a starting opportunity. He was traded to the Saints in 2003 and was released in 2006, about the same time New Orleans picked up a free agent quarterback by the name of Drew Brees. He’s been on the rosters of the Jaguars, Packers, Rams and Ravens, and last started a regular-season game for the Jags in 2010.

4. Marc Bulger, St. Louis Rams, Oct. 13, 2002 (Passer rating: 134.1, A/YA: 11.71)

Just one season after St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner led the league in every relevant statistical category and won the NFL Most Valuable Player award as a result, he found himself on the sideline, watching a little-known backup move the Greatest Show on Turf as he once had. Bulger was a sixth-round pick in 2000, but didn’t throw a regular-season pass in his first two years and only got a shot after Warner went down with a broken finger and second-stringer Jamie Martin joined him on the injury list. Bulger’s first 21 passing attempts came in this game, and he completed 14 of them for 186 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. He ran for another score, making him directly responsible for all of the Rams’ points in their 28-13 win against a Raiders defense that was definitely for real back then.

Warner was out of St. Louis after the 2003 season, and Bulger started 95 games for the Rams through 2009. Bulger made two Pro Bowls, but his teams went 41-54 in his starts, as St. Louis’ personnel declined on both sides of the ball.

5. Jim Kelly, Buffalo Bills, Sept. 7, 1986 (Passer rating: 119.8, A/YA: 10.67)

The Bills drafted Kelly in 1983, but they had to wait two years and watch him put up silly numbers in Mouse Davis’ offense for the Houston Gamblers of the USFL. Kelly joined the Bills in 1986 after the league folded, and it didn’t take long for him to show why he was worth the wait. In the season opener against the Jets, Kelly completed 20 of 32 passes for 292 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a team that had nine total passing touchdowns in 1985. He did so despite the fact that New York’s defense beat him up so badly, he was too “shaken up” (i.e., how the NFL termed concussions in the 1980s) to call out the plays at one point.

Kelly finished that first season with 22 passing touchdowns, and went on to help author the greatest run of sustained success in Buffalo’s long history. He became a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in 2002.

6. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, Sept. 11, 2011 (Passer rating: 110.4, A/YA: 11.27)

Newton is the only first-overall draft pick on our list, and one of only four first-round picks. The formerly destitute Panthers knew right away that they made the right call by taking the Auburn star that high, though. In a 28-21 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Newton torched Arizona’s defense for 422 passing yards, a record for any rookie at any point in an NFL season. He completed 24 passes in 37 attempts and racked up two touchdowns and a pick along the way.

Veteran receiver Steve Smith, who caught eight of Newton’s passes for 178 yards and both touchdowns, was thanking his lucky stars for his new quarterback after a 2010 season that has him catching passes from the likes of Jimmy Clausen and Brian St. Pierre.

“He was everything everybody didn’t expect him to be,” Smith said. “He was on point, he made some great runs, he made some great reads, made some fantastic throws. He made some throws out there that honestly as a receiver it made it easy to catch them.”

Newton was less happy about the numbers because his team lost, and it would take time for both Newton and the Panthers to grow up. The franchise’s current 7-3 record and status as one of the league’s most dangerous teams indicate that Newton and his team have passed through the rough spots.

Dan Marino impressed everybody in his rookie campaign. (Andy Hayt/Sports Illustrated)

Dan Marino impressed everybody in his rookie campaign. (Andy Hayt/Sports Illustrated)

7. Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins, Oct. 9, 1983 (Passer rating: 108.7, A/YA: 10.07)

Marino is one of the NFL’s all-time prolific passers, so his place on this list should come as no surprise. What might be surprising is that the first-round draft pick had to wait through the first five games of the 1983 season for his first start. When Marino got his shot against the Buffalo Bills, he went all-out, completing 19 of 29 passes for 322 yards, three touchdowns and two picks. Miami lost the game 38-35 in overtime, but a legend was born.

The great Paul Zimmerman wrote about Marino’s immediate effect on Miami’s offense in the Nov. 14, 1983 issue of Sports Illustrated, and we’ll let Dr. Z take it from here:

Midway through the second quarter he had thrown two interceptions and been sacked once, and the Bills had a 14-0 lead. But there he was, marching down the sidelines, grabbing his running backs’ shoulder pads, patting his linemen’s helmets, nodding to his receivers and telling each one to relax, he wasn’t going to fold. He didn’t … and he hasn’t since. Miami lost that game in overtime, but Marino finished with 322 yards passing. Since the Buffalo game the Dolphins have gone 4-0. Under Marino they’ve upgraded their scoring from 16.2 points a game to 21.9 and moved eight notches up in the pass rankings.

Marino, who completed 15 of 29 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns in Miami’s 20-17 win over San Francisco Sunday, now leads the AFC’s passers with a 102.7 rating. He has thrown only one interception in his last 139 passes. The last rookie to lead a conference in passing was Greg Cook, when he was with the Bengals in 1969. The highest completion percentage for a rookie passer in NFL history is Jim McMahon’s 57.1 last year with the Chicago Bears. Marino is currently at 60.1%.

“I’m throwing the way I’ve always thrown,” he says, low-keying his success. “I’m reading coverages better because it’s a full-time job now, an all-day thing instead of just a few hours in the afternoon. Plus I’ve got Coach [Don] Shula working with me.”

Marino’s two-pick game was an aberration, by the way — he threw just three more interceptions in 1983′s eight remaining games, and he had only 65 games with two or more picks in his 240 starts and 8,358 career passing attempts.

8. Bruce Gradkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oct. 8, 2006 (Passer rating: 107.6, A/YA: 8.55)

The Bucs took Gradkowski in the sixth round of the 2006 draft, and gave him a shot after projected starter Chris Simms was lost with a ruptured spleen. Unfortunately for the Toledo alum, he had to make his first start in the Superdome, when the Sean Payton/Drew Brees-era Saints really started to hit on all cylinders. New Orleans won the game, 24-21, but Gradkowski impressed by completing 20 of 31 passes for 235 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.

“There is a lot of promise in that young guy. He played his brains out,” then-Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said, foreshadowing his effusive moments calling games for ESPN. “I like everything about him.”

Gradkowski started 11 games in his first NFL season, but gave way to Jeff Garcia in 2007. He was released by the Bucs in May, 2008 after throwing nine touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in 17 games. He’s currently hanging out with Landry Jones, behind Ben Roethlisberger on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ depth chart.

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