Recent NFL history says it is possible for a team to win, and make the playoffs, with a prized rookie starting at quarterback. The Pittsburgh Steelers did it with Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. The Baltimore Ravens, with Joe Flacco, and the Atlanta Falcons, with Matt Ryan, did so in 2008. The New York Jets did it with Mark Sanchez in 2009 and the Cincinnati Bengals did it with Andy Dalton last season.
But the lesson of those teams is that the clubs that reach the playoffs with rookies at the sport’s most important position generally do so because the team is strong in other areas, usually on defense and in the running game, and the rookie quarterback isn’t asked to do too much of the heavy lifting.
The results usually aren’t as good when that isn’t the formula. Cam Newton set an NFL record for passing yards by a rookie last season. But his Carolina Panthers had a modest record of 6-10.
“The biggest thing was those guys [who won as rookies] going into situations with veteran teams that relied heavily on their defense and relied heavily on their running game,” former NFL quarterback Trent Green said. “They were asked to manage the game, not win the game. Cam Newton was asked to do so much. Peyton Manning was asked to do so much as a rookie. With those other guys, they didn’t have to do quite as much to win games.”
The Redskins have studied the history of rookie quarterbacks.
“It’s the people around them,” Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said during training camp. “Everyone puts the pressure on that guy. But . . . if you look at the history of the NFL, they’re rarely successful. It puts pressure on all the other players — the receivers, the running backs, the offensive line. Those guys are the ones who have to step up.”
Roethlisberger’s Steelers, Flacco’s Ravens and Sanchez’s Jets reached AFC title games in the quarterbacks’ rookie seasons. Each of those teams ranked in the top four in the league in both rushing offense and total defense. The Jets ranked first in the NFL in both categories, enabling them to overcome Sanchez’s sometimes wobbly rookie season, when he threw 20 interceptions and only 12 touchdown passes.
Roethlisberger, Flacco and Sanchez each threw for fewer than 3,000 yards as rookies. Ryan and Dalton topped 3,300 passing yards. Their teams didn’t completely follow the prescribed recipe. Ryan’s Falcons ranked second in the NFL in rushing but only 24th in total defense (although they fared better in scoring defense, ranking 11th in the league). Last season’s Bengals ranked seventh in the league in total defense but only 19th in rushing offense.
That may have caught up with them in the playoffs, when both lost in the first round.