Conventional wisdom in the NFL used to be that a quarterback was drafted and was destined to serve as an understudy for anywhere from three to five years before he was deemed ready to start.
This wasn’t always the case, even back in the rough and tumble old days of the NFL. Sometimes out of necessity or desperation, a kid was thrown into the fire as a raw rookie, often to results ranging somewhere from “not good” to “God awful.”
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, 74 rookie quarterbacks have gotten enough playing time to qualify for the passing title.
The results are less than spectacular—of those 74, only 13 had seasons that would be considered even slightly above average when compared with the rest of the quarterbacks in the league.
It’s not shocking that the worst performance ever turned in by a rookie quarterback belongs to a name associated with being one of the biggest busts in NFL history, Ryan Leaf of the San Diego Chargers. In terms of NFL rankings, he’s at the bottom in most rookie categories.
Leaf, the No. 2 overall pick out of Washington State that season, had been in the conversation for the top overall pick before the Indianapolis Colts opted to take Tennessee’s Peyton Manning.
Manning did not have a great rookie year. But he was light years better than Leaf, who started nine games and put up a passer rating of 39.0. Considering that if a quarterback were to simply spike the ball on every single play, he would have a 39.6 rating … yeah.
Ryan Leaf, as a rookie QB, was worse than having a quarterback intentionally throw incompletions on every down.
He threw two touchdown passes, completed 45.3 percent of his attempts and was intercepted 15 times.
In spite of that, the Chargers managed to win three of his nine starts.
So that’s the bottom of the barrel. What about the top?
Wins and losses are typically how quarterbacks are measured, but so many independent variables besides quarterback play affect a team’s record—defense, special teams or the running game, to name just a few.
Straight passer rating is a poor measure, because what would be considered a terrible rating today might have been an above-average rating around the time of the merger.
Passer rating was used for this, but it was normalized—the passer stats for every quarterback in the league for a particular season were mashed together and a collective rating for each season was established.
The qualifying rookies then had their rating for their rookie year compared to the aggregate rating to determine a normalized rating, a percentage better than or worse than that established collective.
It’s not a perfect way to assemble a list like this, but the beauty of the exercise is that there is no perfect way to assemble a list like this—everything will be, in some way, subjective.
With that, here are NFL rankings for the top 10 seasons since the merger by rookie starting quarterbacks: