It’s all about the quarterback this week at SB Nation. We’re talking past, present, future at the league’s most important position. If you’d like to check out the entire series, we’ve got everything related to our NFL quarterbacks week all in one place.
Rookie quarterbacks don’t always play right away in the NFL. When they do, the results can often be a mixed bag. They quickly learn the NFL isn’t like college. Defenses are much faster, windows close quicker, and blitzes get way more creative.
There are still those select few who show poise and precision immediately in the pros. Sometimes it’s for an entire season, and sometimes it’s just for one standout game.
Using Pro Football Reference’s database, we assembled the best games by a rookie quarterback in each season since 2010. First we narrowed it down to every game in the past nine years when a rookie quarterback attempted more than 10 passes. Then the query was sorted by passer rating and adjusted yards per average (AY/A) to find who came out on top, based on those factors.
In doing so, the results didn’t always produce the quarterback who had the best overall rookie season that year, which led to some interesting names popping up.
Now, let’s take a look at the rookie quarterbacks who shined in their inaugural seasons — even if it was just for one game.
Passer rating: 132.6
The 2010 Cleveland Browns got off to a 1-5 start and then thrusted third-round draft pick Colt McCoy into the fray. Although he did lead them to wins over the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots in back-to-back weeks, McCoy’s season didn’t spark any new life into the Browns. They finished the year at 5-11, third in the AFC North.
One of those losses came late in the season against the rival Bengals, after McCoy had missed the previous three games due to an ankle injury — and it was also McCoy’s best game all year. He was efficient with the ball, completing 19 of 25 passes (76 percent) and two touchdowns. That included a 46-yard strike to Brian Robiskie in the fourth quarter. However, the late score wasn’t enough as the Bengals got the 19-17 win.
McCoy had a passer rating of 132.6, highest of any rookie who threw more than 10 attempts in a game that year. His 11.32 adjusted yards per attempt also topped a rookie class that included No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford.
McCoy ended up being traded three years later to the San Francisco 49ers. He’s now playing in Washington and is battling for the starting job with Case Keenum and rookie Dwayne Haskins.
Passer rating: 142.4
Cam Newton was drafted first overall by the Carolina Panthers following his Heisman Trophy-winning season at Auburn. He started all 16 games and although the Panthers went just 6-10, Newton made the Pro Bowl and won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.
His signature game that year came when he diced up the Tampa Bay defense late in the season. Newton accounted for half of Carolina’s 48 total points in a blowout victory against their division rivals. He threw for three touchdowns, including a 91-yard strike to Brandon LaFell, and added 49-yard score on the ground.
Newton completed 12 of 17 passes, finishing the game with a 142.4 passer rating and an adjusted yards per attempt rate of 13.59. He topped himself in the process — Newton also had the second- and third-best games that year.
Newton hasn’t slowed down since. He won the 2015 NFL MVP Award, led the Panthers to an appearance in Super Bowl 50, and remains one of the biggest dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL.
Passer rating: 158.3
Robert Griffin lll enjoyed a successful career at Baylor, winning the Heisman Trophy the year after Newton did. Washington moved up to the second pick to select RG3 in 2012, sending a massive haul to the St. Louis Rams to get there.
Griffin was electric in his rookie season, leading Washington to the playoffs with a 10-6 record. He made the Pro Bowl and won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.
Washington didn’t get off to a great start in the 2012 season, though, taking a 4-6 record into a divisional matchup against the Eagles. That’s when things turned around, thanks in no small part to Griffin. He was near flawless in this game, connecting on all but one of his 15 attempts for 200 yards and four touchdowns. His 61-yarder to Santana Moss broke the game open.
Griffin’s perfect passer rating of 158.3 and adjusted yards per attempt of 18.67 were not only the best of any rookie that year, but those stats finished tied for first and second, respectively, among all quarterbacks on this list.
Washington’s 31-6 win sparked a run which saw them reel off seven straight victories and earn an NFC East title. However, the season would take a dark turn in the playoffs when Griffin tore his ACL and LCL against the Seattle Seahawks. He never fully bounced back, though Griffin is now playing with Baltimore Ravens in a backup role to Lamar Jackson.
Passer rating: 147.7
The New York Jets moved on from the Mark Sanchez era when they took Geno Smith in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft. That season was a rough one for the Jets’ offense, which finished 29th in scoring and 25th in total yards. Smith started all 16 games and despite going 8-8, he struggled. His rookie year ended with him recording 21 interceptions to only 12 touchdowns.
But Geno did have his moment in the sun in Week 5 against the Falcons.
Smith put together his most accurate game of the season, completing 16 of his 20 passes for 199 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. He also led a game-winning drive with under two minutes left. Smith went 4-for-4 on his pass attempts to set up a 43-yard kick by Nick Folk, which gave New York a 30-28 win.
Even though Smith’s adjusted yards per average were second in 2013 behind Mike Glennon (13.67 to 12.95), Smith had the better overall game. His passer rating was higher (147.7 to 138.4), he threw more touchdowns, and he came up clutch late in the game.
Smith ended up playing three more seasons with the Jets but failed to live up to the promise of this game. He’s now a backup with the Seattle Seahawks.
Passer rating: 140.2
The Oakland Raiders were one of the worst teams in the NFL in 2014. But there was some reason to be optimistic thanks to rookie quarterback Derek Carr, who started all 16 games. While he had accuracy issues with a 58.1 completion percentage, he still totaled more than 3,000 yards and 21 touchdowns in his first NFL season.
His low point came when he threw two interceptions in a 52-0 blowout to the St. Louis Rams. But Carr bounced back the next week with his best performance of the season.
Carr was 22-of-28 passing for 254 yards and three touchdowns in a victory over the 49ers. One of the scores was even a goal-line pass play to offensive lineman Donald Penn. Carr threw the other two touchdowns in the second half as Oakland came back to win 24-13.
His adjusted yards per average mark wasn’t very high at 11.21, and it ranked second behind Teddy Bridgewater’s 11.26 mark for 2014 rookies. However, Carr’s passer rating of 140.2 was almost 20 points better than second place, so he gets the edge.
Nowadays, Carr is still Oakland’s starting quarterback and is hoping to bounce back from last season, when he failed to toss 20 touchdowns in a season for the first time in his career.
2015: Marcus Mariota vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Week 1
Passer rating: 158.3
There was a lot of hype for Marcus Mariota coming into the NFL. He was a Heisman winner and was drafted second overall by the Tennessee Titans, one spot after Jameis Winston.
The two rookies faced off in the first week of the season when the Titans traveled to Florida to play the Buccaneers. In a matchup between the top two picks, Mariota won easily. He missed on only two pass attempts (13 of 15), and recorded 209 yards and four touchdowns through the air. Mariota got things started with a 52-yard touchdown to Kendall Wright and Tennessee never looked back. The Titans scored 35 points in the first half in a 42-14 blowout win. Mariota’s four touchdown passes set an NFL record for most in the first half of a debut game.
Mariota’s perfect 158.3 passer rating and 19.27 adjusted yards per passing attempt are impressive numbers. They topped the charts for any rookie quarterback in game since 2010.
Since then, the Titans have had mixed results with Mariota as their quarterback. Staying healthy has been the biggest issue. Both Mariota and Winston are set to be free agents next offseason.
Passer rating: 148.3
Dak Prescott had an amazing rookie season for the Dallas Cowboys. After taking over for longtime starter Tony Romo, Prescott guided the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and an NFC East title. Prescott threw 23 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He also showed up in crunch time, leading five game-winning drives.
One game in particular that stood out was a Monday Night Football contest against the Lions. Prescott went 15 of 20, throwing for 212 yards and three scores. Prescott helped the Cowboys tie the game heading into the half with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant. He then hooked up with Jason Witten for another touchdown in the third quarter as Dallas scored 28 straight points to beat the Lions 42-21.
Prescott’s performance accounted for a 148.3 passer rating and an adjusted yards per attempt average of 13.6. Both of those totals beat out … well, other Prescott games.
While Prescott hasn’t been quite as efficient since his rookie year, he’s still kept the Cowboys in playoff contention. Next up? A raise.
Passer rating: 119.8
Deshaun Watson’s rookie year was sadly cut short due to an ACL tear halfway through the season. Before then, he was lighting it up for the Houston Texans. He threw three or more touchdowns in four straight games to finish the season with 19 passing touchdowns in just seven games.
Watson had one of his best games in a wild loss to the Chiefs. Despite completing just over 50 percent of his passes, Watson put up five touchdowns, three of which came in a fourth quarter where the two teams combined for 40 points. Houston’s comeback fell short in the 42-34 loss, though.
Watson’s passer rating of 119.8 ranks fourth among the 2017 rookie quarterbacks. He had a better rating the week before against the Titans, and in another game so did … Nathan Peterman?! But Watson’s 11.65 AY/A came in first. Accounting for both stats, Watson’s effort against the Chiefs was the top rookie game that year.
Watson recovered from his ACL tear and played in all 16 games for the Texans in 2018, leading them to a division title. If he can stay healthy, then who knows? Maybe Watson can break some records in the future.
2018: Baker Mayfield vs. Atlanta Falcons, Week 10
Passer rating: 151.2
Expectations were massive for Baker Mayfield, a Heisman winner and No. 1 draft pick, as a rookie. But the Browns didn’t give Mayfield any regular season action until Week 3, when he led them to their first win in over a year.
While Cleveland didn’t make the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record, Mayfield gave the team new life. The Browns were at least a competitive team in 2018, and it was a step in the right direction.
Mayfield’s best statistical game came again Falcons. Facing a depleted defense, he went to work. Mayfield completed 17 of his 20 attempts for 216 yards and three touchdowns, and the Browns walked away with a 28-16 victory.
Have a day, Baker Mayfield.
The threw as many touchdowns as incompletions in leading the Browns to a win over the Falcons.
— Sooner Gridiron (@soonergridiron) November 11, 2018
While Nick Mullens owns the highest passer rating and AY/A for a 2018 first-year quarterback with his performance against the Raiders, he technically wasn’t a rookie. He spent 2017 on the 49ers’ practice squad before playing in his first game a year later.
So Mayfield, who came in just below Mullens in both passer rating (151.9 vs. 151.2) and AY/A (14.64 vs. 13.8), takes the top spot as a true rookie.
Mayfield has proven to be a game-changer for Cleveland, giving the fans real hope for the first time in years. The sky is the limit for him, including being possibly one of the NFL’s highest-paid players in the future — and maybe a Super Bowl winner one day.