By Kerry J. Byrne (@footballfacts)
Cold, Hard Football Facts 2004 Rookie of the Year

Life used to be tough for rookie quarterbacks in the NFL.

They barely got the chance to step on the field, and even when they did they were rudely mistreated by defenses intent on beating and bloodying even the most grizzled veteran QB.

Not these days. Life is all sunshine and ice cream for the recent crops of rookie quarterbacks – none more so than the Rookie Class of 2012, already breaking through statistical glass ceilings at all levels of the game.

Week 12 was highlighted by another big week from a seemingly all-star cast of rookie quarterbacks.

We're just 11 games into the season, but 2012 is already the greatest year ever for rookie passers.

Here in Week 12 new all-time season-long standards for rookie QBs were set in terms of:

  • Combined wins – 26
  • Combined passing yards – 13,499
  • Combined completions – 1,146

When all is said and done, Indy's Andrew Luck will likely own the rookie record for passing yards (on pace for 4,662) and Washington's Robert Griffin III will hold the record for passing efficiency (104.6 Passer Rating); while Seattle's Russell Wilson (17 TD in 11 games) will challenge Peyton Manning's rookie record for pass TD (26). 

Add in Ryan Tannehill with the 5-6 Dolphins, and you have four teams led by rookie passers legitimately in the playoff hunt with five games to play.  


Rookies won four of six starts in Week 12 alone. The first loss was a rookie-on-rookie crime: Tannehill and the Dolphins edged Wilson and the Seahawks, 24-21, in Miami.

Wilson played quite well, with another hugely efficient performance: he completed 21 of 27 passes for 224 yards 2 TD and 0 INT.

But he came up on the losing end after Tannehill led a drive from his own 10 yard line in the final minutes that ended with a 43-yard game-winning field for the Dolphins.

The other rookie loss took place in Arizona, where the Cardinals were pasted by the Rams, 31-17, behind a poor performance (4 INT) from Ryan Lindley, a sixth-round pick making his first NFL start. Lindley was clearly overwhelmed in the process.

Elsewhere, though, it was cookie dough cones and mint chocolate chip cups for first-year passers:

Griffin III and the Redskins outgunned Tony Romo and the Cowboys, 38-31 on Thanksgiving Day. Griffin III passed 28 times for 311 yards – a gaudy 11.1 YPA – 4 TD and 1 INT. 

Luck made his only touchdown pass count on Sunday: his 8-yard toss to T.Y. Hilton (also a rookie) provided the winning points in a 20-13 Indianapolis Colts victory over the Buffalo Bills.  

Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden did just enough (17 of 26, 158 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) to help the Browns beat the turnover-prone Steelers, 20-13, before being injured late in the game. For Cleveland it was merely the team’s third win against Pittsburgh in 25 meetings, dating back to 2000.

That's some good rookie hooch. 


Most football fans know it’s easier than ever for rookies to step into the NFL and make an immediate impact.

We’ve seen plenty of statistical evidence in recent years, from Cam Newton’s record 4,051 passing yards in 2011 – likely to be shattered this year – to the impact made by the likes of Griffin III, Luck and Wilson already in 2012.

Rookie quarterbacks, as noted above, have now won 26 games this season. The previous record for wins by rookie quarterbacks was 23 in 2011, according to data provided by the NFL.

The 2012 rookie class has also passed for 13,499 yards, breaking the previous combined rookie record of 13,060 yards in 2011.

The previous records for rookie wins, passing yards and completions were all set in 2011. Those marks have already been broken in 2012. The rookie record for touchdown passes set last season (73) will likely fall as early as the week ahead.

Cumulative Records of Rookie QBs







Passing yards



Passing TDs








Clearly, it’s easier than ever for rookies to come into the NFL and make an impact. So what’s up here?

Well, four forces are at work:

ONE – Rookie quarterbacks these days are far more likely to be groomed in college in a pro-style passing attack than they were 10 or 20 years ago.

In fact, innovation in football often comes from the college ranks up through the pros, from the old T-format in the 1930s and 40s to the wide-open, no-huddle, high-tempo and spread offenses we see today at both levels.

Quarterbacks even 20 years ago were not trained in the intracies of modern pro-style passing attacks. These days, kids grow up in high school (in Texas most notably) commanding modern NFL-style passing attacks. 

TWO – Teams simply pass the ball more at the college level today. Look at 1963 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach. He attempted 463 passes in his three-year career as a starter at Navy.

Griffin III attempted 454 passes for Baylor in 2010 alone, plus another 402 attempts in his Heisman-winning season of 2011.

Clearly, those players are just two examples among many. But the examples are meant to highlight the dramatic difference in the game for quarterbacks today compared to the days of Staubach.

Put another way: quarterbacks simply have more in-game reps under the belt now when they enter the NFL. 

THREE – Teams are clearly more willing to hand the ball over to the rookie, often out of impatience or desperation for a quick turnaround.

In past years, rookies were expected to sit at least a year and learn from the old veterans.

Let’s look at some Hall of Famers, the greatest quarterbacks ever:

Staubach played behind Craig Morton for 2½ years before finally being handed the reins of the Dallas offense in 1971 (the two QBs pictured here with coach Tom Landry). 

Joe Montana shared playing time with Steve DeBerg and did not head into camp as San Francisco’s starter until his third year in the NFL (1981).

Len Dawson is the highest-rated passer of the 1960s. He was a back-up for five years before he became the full-time starter for the AFL’s Dallas Texans (later the Kansas City Chiefs) in 1962.

`Terry Bradshaw fought for playing time in Pittsburgh with guys like Joe Gilliam and Terry Hanratty (all three seen here) right up through 1975, his sixth year in the NFL.

Those are just four examples, but certainly evidence of what was the rule and not the exception until very recently in NFL history.

FOUR – Last but not least, it’s simply easier than ever to play quarterback and pass the football.

The NFL has been engaged in a 34-year-old war now to neuter defenses like stray dogs. It largely began with the liberalization of the passing game in 1978, spawning what we now know as the Live Ball Era (1978-present) of NFL history.

It’s accelerated in recent years with the effort to outlaw the hits and defensive plays once accepted as part of the game.

Defenses simply are not equipped to stop the pass like they once were. We see it statistically in every phase of the game, as passing statistics rise in almost every category – from pure volume statistics like passing attempts and yards, to measures of efficiency such as passer rating and even Yards Per Attempt (up around 7.2 YPA the last two years, among the highest in history).

Rookie quarterback are clearly the beneficiaries of all these forces – sitting back in the pocket soaking in the sunshine and lapping at the ice cream while making an immediate impact on the NFL in ways we never would have envisioned just a few short years ago. 


Carry on.