Rookies: To start or not to start?

BY VICTOR HENSLEY, News + Record Staff
Posted 9/23/21

There isn’t a more beloved player in all of sports than a freshly drafted rookie quarterback.

When a team spends draft capital on a top quarterback — namely a first-round selection — in the …

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Rookies: To start or not to start?

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There isn’t a more beloved player in all of sports than a freshly drafted rookie quarterback.

When a team spends draft capital on a top quarterback — namely a first-round selection — in the NFL Draft, the pick is, more often than not, met with extreme optimism and, to an extent, a certain level of deranged excitement.

If your team selects a quarterback anywhere in the first round, whether it’s the first pick or the 32nd pick, you immediately begin to give your team’s current starting quarterback the side-eye.

With every mistake made by the veteran starter, the rapacious rookie standing behind him — patiently waiting for his opportunity — begins to look sweeter and sweeter.

It happened with Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs’ 15th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, who sat behind veteran Alex Smith — Kansas City’s starter for five seasons — until Week 17 of his rookie year. But fans loved him, even on the bench. And rightfully so.

With the Chiefs having clinched a playoff spot that season, Head Coach Andy Reid decided to rest Smith, giving Mahomes his first-ever start. But after the season, despite Smith helping lead them to the postseason, Kansas City traded Smith, elevated Mahomes to the starting spot and the rest was history.

Clearly, the Chiefs’ situation worked out.

But that’s not always the case.

For every Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs), Lamar Jackson (Ravens) and Baker Mayfield (Browns), who usurped veteran starters Alex Smith, Joe Flacco and Tyrod Taylor, respectively, there’s a Josh Rosen (Cardinals, took over for Sam Bradford in Week 4 of his rookie season) or Mitchell Trubisky (Bears, who took over for Mike Glennon in Week 5 of his rookie year). Rookies with seemingly massive upsides who turned out to be just … meh.

Some rookie quarterbacks live up to the hype.

Others don’t.

But one thing is common in just about all of their situations: When things go south, even for a moment, fans clamor for them to start.

It’s hard to avoid. If you see your team lose a game or the quarterback throw an interception, your eyes immediately dart to the shiny, new, baby-faced rookie who you believe has untapped potential.

“Maybe they’ll be the next Tom Brady,” you tell yourself, tricking your brain into thinking your 6th-round QB selection might turn out as well as Brady did. “Maybe they’re the one piece we need to dominate the next 10 Super Bowls.”

In all likelihood, probably not.

There aren’t very many Tom Bradys out there.

But that brings me to the question I’ve wondered lately, with all of the rookie quarterbacks invading — and attempting to invade — NFL starting lineups this season: When should you give the reins to the rookie?

In many situations, especially recently, rookies have been kept out of the starting spots in favor of middle-of-the-road journeymen. Those who may not take you to the playoffs, but they’ll ensure anywhere from five to eight wins, which is considered a win for some teams.

Take the Chicago Bears this season as an example.

In March, the Bears signed 10-year NFL veteran Andy Dalton to a 1-year, $10 million contract and promised him the starting job.

Then, just a month later, they selected 22-year-old quarterback Justin Fields out of Ohio State with the 11th pick in the draft, creating their very own dilemma.

And despite Fields, who oozes with potential, creating a plethora of starry-eyed Bears fans from the moment they drafted him in April, Chicago’s Head Coach Matt Nagy named Dalton — who’s best suited as a competent backup at this point in his career — the Week 1 starter.

Should Fields have gotten the starting nod over Dalton? Many Bears fans, I’m sure, would say yes. I mean, what’s there to lose if you don’t think Dalton is good enough to take you to the Super Bowl — or even the playoffs — anyway?

(It should be noted that in Chicago’s Week 2 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Dalton exited in the second quarter with a minor knee injury, paving the way for Fields to play the rest of the game. However, Nagy and the Bears put out a statement that Dalton is still the team’s starter, when healthy, though maybe that could change if Fields lights it up in his absence.)

This season, there were three rookie quarterbacks that earned the chance to start Week 1: the Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence (2021’s No. 1 overall pick), the Jets’ Zach Wilson (No. 2 overall) and the Patriots’ Mac Jones (No. 15 overall).

And thus far, Jones is the only one who looks NFL ready, while not doing anything particularly spectacular, he’s managed the team’s two games well and led them to a 1-1 start. That’s something.

Lawrence (0-2 as a starter) has looked rough, though most of that may be credited to the poor team around him and his not-so-great head coach, Urban Meyer, who’s already proven to be a distraction two weeks into the season.

Wilson (0-2 as a starter), who’s also on a less-than-stellar team, threw four interceptions in his Week 2 matchup against Jones’ Patriots, a game that saw fans at Met Life Stadium booing the team, especially Wilson, for a dreadful performance.

Given their rocky starts, should Lawrence and Wilson have been thrown into the fire as early as they were?

Does putting them in bad situations with subpar teams around them increase their chances of damaging their confidence — or, even worse, getting them hurt like the Bengals’ Joe Burrow was last season?

The short answer is: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

Personally, I’m in the camp that if your team already doesn’t have a chance to compete (like the Jaguars, Bears or Jets), start the veteran for the first few games of the season.

Let the rookies experience an NFL Sunday without the pressures of having to go out and perform.

Let them learn under those journeymen with leagues of experience.

And then, once things go south and the veteran starter can no longer keep things afloat, bring in the rookie to jump-start the offense and their careers without being thrown into the fire so early.

It worked for Lamar Jackson, for Patrick Mahomes, for Baker Mayfield, for Justin Herbert and for plenty of other quarterbacks.

For me, that’s all the evidence I need.

Your rookie quarterback isn’t going anywhere, so no need to rush him.

It rarely works out when you do.

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.

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