by Vincent Verhei
Tennessee's 42-14 demolition of Tampa Bay wasn't the most exciting contest of Week 1, but it might have been the most important -- not for what it means in 2015, but because it was the beginning of a new era for each franchise. The Buccaneers and Titans were the NFL's two worst teams in 2014, and each turned to a new passer at the top of the draft last April in hopes of turning things around. If all goes according to plan, Jameis Winston will lead the Bucs to their first Super Bowl since the halcyon days of Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp. It's a similar story in Tennessee, where any Lombardi Trophy won in the next decade will likely come via the hands (and feet) of Marcus Mariota.
Between the two of them, Winston and Mariota have thrown a total of only 49 regular-season NFL passes, so of course it's far too early to draw any meaningful conclusions about the fate of either franchise or they're respective saviors. That said, it's hard to imagine how early returns could have been any more different. Mariota's Titans scored touchdowns on five of their first six possessions, and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner finished with 13 completions in 16 attempts for 209 yards, throwing for four touchdowns with no interceptions. Winston, on the other hand, struggled badly. His very first NFL pass was intercepted, and he finished up 16-of-33 for 210 yards with a pair of touchdowns to go with two picks.
By our numbers, Mariota was not the best passer of the week, nor was Winston the worst. Both quarterbacks, though, made very powerful impressions, for good or ill. Was Mariota's game the best debut in the DVOA era? Was Winston's the worst? It's hard to say for sure, but the answers right now appear to be "quite possibly" and "no, but it sure was awful."
Time constraints stopped us from checking every rookie debut in our database, so I looked at the 55 quarterbacks between 1989 and 2014 who threw at least 200-ish passes in their rookie campaigns (Eli Manning threw 197 passes in 2004, so I went ahead and included him), then looked at how they fared in their first game with at least 15 pass attempts. (Those same time constraints stopped me from checking rushing data.) Not surprisingly, most rookies struggled in their first extended playing time -- 31 of those 55 finished below replacement level. This wasn't always the first game of their careers. In Matt Ryan's case, it wasn't even his first start. Ryan went 9-of-13 for 161 yards and a touchdown against Detroit in Week 1 of 2008, good for 37 DYAR, but for the purposes of this study I'm counting his debut as his 13-of-33, 158-yard, two-interception game against Tampa Bay seven days later. None of those 55 passers, though, matched the 155 passing DYAR Mariota posted against Tampa Bay. (In fact, Mariota's very first game will likely wind up among the top ten rookie games in DVOA history, a list that currently features Russell Wilson in first place.)
As for Winston, though few quarterbacks have gotten off to a worse start, he was a far sight better than the worst debut we have seen.
|Very Good Rookie Debuts, 1989-2015|
|* Though technically an NFL rookie, Garcia had five years of experience with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.|
|Very Bad Rookie Debuts, 1989-2015|
|** Ryan also started in Week 1 of 2008, but threw only 13 passes in that game.|