The Chronicles of NFL Rookie Quarterbacks, Past and Present
The Pittsburgh Steelers may have had the most competitive quarterback battle this summer in training camp and during the pre-season. With Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement at the end of last season, Big Ben’s primary backup Mason Rudolph assumed the starting role would be his in 2022. Then the Steelers picked up Mitch Trubisky and Rudolph was once again delegated to the #2 role immediately.
To add insult to injury, Pittsburgh used their overall number on pick in this year’s draft to select the highest-rated quarterback in the draft, Kenny Pickett ironically out of the University of Pittsburgh. Rudolph now found himself thrown down to number three in the quarterback depth chart. Thus far Pickett has lived up to the hype of being a first-round draft choice and he has pushed the veteran Trubisky to a fight for Roethlisberger’s replacement. After Pittsburgh’s final pre-season victory over the Detroit Lions, a game in which both quarterbacks aside from Rudolph, was very impressive. However, it appears momentum is in Trubisky’s favor and that is who I believe will win the starting job…for now.
Believe me, Kenny Pickett is the future for the Pittsburgh Steelers at quarterback. Fans are already chanting his name wanting him to be the starter. He will be just that one day. Joining Pickett in this year’s rookie class for the Black and Gold is wide receiver, George Pickens. Pickens lit it up this summer and in pre-season games and one day, fans will have fun with the Pickett-to-Pickens connection.
Once Kenny Pickett takes over the reins at quarterback, if it is this year, it will be interesting to see how well he performs. Looking back in the history of rookie quarterbacks in the National Football League, some first-year players did very well while there have been players who bombed. When Ben Roethlisberger was a rookie in 2004, he became the starter only because of an injury to incumbent Tommy Maddox. But Big Ben performed so well that he won the job permanently and never looked back. Roethlisberger and the Steelers proceeded to win 14 straight games and steamed into the post-season only to lose in the AFC Championship game to the New England Patriots thwarting Roethlisberger’s effort to become the first rookie quarterback to win a Super Bowl. There still has not been one first-year QB to win the NFL title.
For Roethlisberger, Bill Cowher and his staff tempered his performance by limiting his use of the Steelers’ offensive playbook and it worked for Big Ben and the Steelers as they coasted into the post-season. With a first-round bye, Pittsburgh defeated the Jets 20-17 but then got hammered by Tom Brady and the Patriots 41-27. Roethlisberger showed rookie signs in both games passing for just 181 yards against the Jets while throwing two interceptions. New England took the Steelers' first-year signal caller to school forcing three interceptions and sacking Roethlisberger once.
For his rookie campaign, Big Ben completed 66.4% of his 295 passes thrown, was picked off 11 times but threw for 17 touchdowns. That was a time when Roethlisberger was not afraid to run with the ball and in his rookie season, he did just that 56 times for a total of 144 yards and reached the end zone once on his feet. So with some of the other great quarterbacks of all-time how did they fair exactly? Considered by many to be the GOAT is Tom Brady.
The crazy thing about Tom Brady’s career is that when he was drafted in 2000, he lasted until the sixth round as multiple teams passed him by. Now in the twilight of his career, he has won more Super Bowls than any quarterback in history, and, probably, no other player will ever match that. That draft year of Brady’s, Courtney Brown was picked first overall in the league by the Cleveland Browns. Brown lasted exactly five years in the NFL and started just 61 games. Here’s Tom Brady entering his 23rd season. The Browns look stupid as they have yet to establish a franchise quarterback in Cleveland since coming back into the league in 1999 and in 2000 they could have drafted Tom Brady. So could have every other team in the league. For the Patriots, instead of calling Tom Brady’s number early, they waited and waited. While Brady scratched his head wondering why no teams were drafting him, his future team was drafting Adrian Klemm (guard), M.R. Redmond, Greg Randall, Dave Stachelski, Jeff Marriott, and Antwan Harris before Brady’s name was called. The 199th pick overall and the rest is history.
As for his rookie season, Tom Brady was not given much of a chance to play. He made just one appearance and no starts completing just a single pass for six yards. For Brady’s sophomore season he took the reigns for 14 starts in 15 games and led his team to the promised land for his first of seven Super Bowls. For comparison purposes, also drafted at quarterback in 2000 were Chad Pennington, Chris Redman, Tee Martin, Marc Bulger, and Todd Husak to name a few. While none had the success of Brady during their careers, Bulger had to wait two years to be a starter and in his official rookie season he started seven games but his career lasted just eight seasons. Bulger passed for 1,826 yards and threw for 1,826 yards. Husak never made it out of his rookie season and was out of the league following that first season. It also took Chad Pennington a few years to become a starter and he did play 11 seasons in the NFL. But his rookie season involved being in just one game.
One of Tom Brady’s biggest rivals in the NFL was always Peyton Manning, another one in consideration for GOAT. Drafted two years before Brady by the Colts, Manning was at the top of the heap that year with the choice coming down to him or Ryan Leaf. The Colts took Manning while San Diego used their second pick to take Leaf who turned out to be a major bust. Not Manning. The Hall of Fame quarterback was an instant starter playing behind center for all 16 games despite his team finishing 3-13. Manning led the league in 1998 with 575 passing attempts but connected at a clip of 56.7% completion good for 3,739 yards and 26 passing touchdowns but also led the league with 28 interceptions. Of course, his career was sparkling as he finished after 17 seasons with 71,940 yards passing, 539 touchdowns, and a 186-79 won/loss record.
Going back in history now, Johnny Unitas is one of the greatest quarterbacks in history. Incredibly, the Pittsburgh Steelers originally drafted Unitas in the 9th round of the 1955 draft but later cut him. As all football historians know, he became a Colt and made his debut in 1956 when he started seven of 12 games he appeared in winning three of those seven starts and finishing with 1,498 yards. His career would lead him to induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Then there is another Hall of Fame quarterback, Joe Montana. Inducted the same year as Tom Brady was drafted, Montana rode the bench his rookie season starting in just one game. That one start saw him throw the ball 23 times completing 13 and one touchdown. Montana also benefited from having as a teammate the greatest receiver in football history, Jerry Rice.
A Hall of Fame quarterback who might not get the respect he deserves if Otto Graham. All Graham did was help the Cleveland Browns win a league title in 1946 and 1947 before becoming the starting quarterback and he proceeded to lead his team to three more consecutive titles in the old AAFC and then in 1950 the NFL title. That was five straight league titles followed by three consecutive championship losses which came before two more league titles. In other words, EVERY year of his career with the Browns, Graham was in a league title game. For his very first season, he started nine games and passed for 1,834 yards, and 17 touchdowns to lead the league and threw just five interceptions.
How about the recently retired Drew Brees? A rookie with San Diego in 2001, Brees played in just one game that season and completed 15 of 27 passes for 221 yards. The “Gunslinger” Brett Favre? His first season was 1991 and for some, they may not know it was with the Atlanta Falcons. Appearing in just two games, he threw the ball four times without a completion. Then there is another Hall of Fame QB named Dan Marino. To this day diehard Steelers fans curse the day Marino was drafted because Pittsburgh had a chance to draft their hometown hero and passed on him. Instead, the Steelers selected Gabe Rivera who would tragically have his career cut short after a car accident left him paralyzed. Drafted in the great quarterback draft class of 1983 that included John Elway, Jim Kelly, Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien, and Gary Kubiak, Elway and Marino were the stars of that class. Both are in the Hall of Fame, both are considered two of the best to get behind center.
Marino got nine starts in 11 games his rookie season and hit on an impressive 58.4% of his passes good for 2,210 yards passing. That included 20 touchdowns against just six interceptions. For Elway, he got 10 starts in 11 games and was a little more erratic with 14 picks and only seven touchdowns. But Elway was a runner and in his first season, he carried the ball 28 times for 146 yards and a 5.2 yards-per-carry average.
After Brett Favre established his career and won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers came on board in 2005. Rodgers had to sit behind Favre for three seasons until Favre decided to leave Green Bay and ended up in New York as a Jet. When A-Rod finally got his chance in 2008 he made the most of it. With 16 starts, he threw for 4,038 yards, 28 touchdowns, and a completion percentage of 63.6% while rushing for 207 yards and scoring four times on the ground.
While great quarterbacks have been the discussion so far what about the busts? One of the most highly regarded flops of all time had to be the Oakland Raiders’ drafting of JaMarcus Russell. A monster in size at 6’6”, 265, the LSU product was thought to be a sure thing. But Russell lasted just three NFL seasons…barely. He started in just one game while appearing in four his first season and it didn’t take long to realize he was not a pro quarterback. After three seasons all with Oakland, Russell’s record as the quarterback was a pathetic 7-18, he was picked off 123 times on 680 passing attempts and completed just over 50% of his passes. He was also sacked 70 times, 31 and 33 respectively in his final two seasons.
Then there was Ryan Leaf. Disaster. That describes his career. Not just on the football field but in society too. A temperamental mess, like Russell Leaf, lasted just three years. He started 21 of 125 games but that was because of the Chargers, and then during his final season in Dallas coaches were trying to figure out if he could show any of the shine he did in college at Washington State University. It wasn’t meant to be. His career completion percentage was a pathetic 48.4% and Leaf went down behind the line of scrimmage 65 times while throwing 36 interceptions. Leaf showed a volatile attitude off the field picking fights with reports and such.
Just last season the league’s #1 overall pick, Trevor Lawrence was picked by the Jacksonville Jaguars and he became the starter on opening day and remained there the entire season. After starting in all 17 games, a player that was thought to be the next great quarterback had a lackluster season. Lawrence led the NFL in interceptions with 17, was sacked 32 times, but still managed 3,641 yards passing and 12 touchdown passes.
As of this writing, it appears Mitch Trubisky will be the quarterback that opens the season for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they take on defending AFC champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers. But waiting in the wings will be Kenny Pickett who many believe will not be on a long waiting list to supplant Ben Roethlisberger. I believe it should be Trubisky who in the final pre-season game was impressive and he just seems savvier than does the unpolished rookie. But believe you me, by the end of the season I like many others believe Kenny Pickett will supplant Trubisky as the starter and like Ben Roethlisberger before him…never look back.