Never start the rookie if you don’t have to. Experience trumps potential every time.
I have never been a fan of rookie quarterbacks taking the reins unless there really are no other options. Too few of them are mentally tough enough and self-assured enough to handle a rough showing and survive. Not to mention, equipped with enough playbook knowledge to escape the throes of NFL defenses without either getting mauled or completely shut down – or both.
John Elway – the GOAT himself – was heralded as a rookie in Denver but suffered great growing pains as he was benched midway through the first two games in favor of veteran Steve DeBerg, who both times saved the game for a win. If not for an injury to the then named starter, Elway might have ridden that bench the rest of the year.
Peyton Manning – another GOAT Denver has been fortunate enough to call its quarterback – is one of the few rookies to start Week 1 and go on to unmatched greatness despite a very bumpy entrance.
A handful of rookie quarterbacks have been thrust into the starting role midway through their first season – Ben Roethlisberger, Dan Marino, Eli Manning – and weathered the storms of rookie life in the NFL just fine.
A few super lucky ones have even had magnificent rookie debuts – Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, RGIII and Vince Young – but most are not as lucky as Newton and Wilson to continue having good seasons.
For all of the above reasons, starting your rookie – no matter how talented an arm he may have – is ill-advised.
Unless, of course, your rookie is something special. Unless, of course, experience actually doesn’t trump "it."
Elway alluded to the "it" factor recently when he talked about trusting who Kubiak would name as starting quarterback – a competition very much still in play in Dove Valley. And even more so after Saturday night.
If anyone knows that phenomenon when he sees it, it’s got to be Elway – one of the few NFL quarterbacks to have both the pedigree and the grit to get the job done when the game was on the line.
This – the "it" factor – is why the rookie Paxton Lynch has earned my attention as a potential starter this year.
I’m not ready to put him at the top of the depth chart for Week 1 or the rest of the season. Maybe not even this season at all.
But I am more than ready to consider it after watching him play against the 49ers.
I am ready to consider it because of exactly what Elway said:
NumberFire did an interesting story last fall about the increase in rookie quarterbacks in the league now compared to other decades. In the past five years, the average starts a quarterback drafted in the top-40 made in their rookie year was 8.25, compared to an average of six between 2000-09 and between 4.3 and 4.9 games for each of the three previous decades. In other words, the average number of starts for top rookie quarterbacks has almost doubled now compared to the early years of the NFL.
So NumberFire decided to calculate based on their Net Expected Production metric whether throwing rookies into the fire versus letting them wait behind a veteran starter made much difference overall. You can read the entire breakdown, but the upshot is that the rookie quarterbacks who played four or more games their first year hit their peak sooner than those who played less, and that "peak" was also much higher.
"It seems that developmental speed is mainly a preference of the team these players find themselves on. The real crime is when teams force players into starting roles when they’re clearly not ready for the burden and the kind of physical and intellectual maturation coming into the NFL takes."
While you can certainly use this breakdown to support either side of the argument for or against rookie QBs, I think it distinguishes the deciding factor in choosing whether to put the rookie out there or not. And it isn’t necessarily that he knows the playbook really well or that he has the perfect mechanics right now.
Also Paxton Lynch may have had the throw of the preseason last night. Can't walk out and place this one better pic.twitter.com/ujvUcC3RFO— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) August 21, 2016
It’s if he – and the team – are ready for the burden that will inevitably come with the growing pains. And more importantly, if they believe the gamble will pay off with a bigger dividend sooner.
This is no small question to answer, and it’s why Kubiak keeps pushing back to reporters – and fans – who want to know the starter now. How much the defense can keep the team’s playoff hopes – and defending championship hopes – alive will help determine that gamble.
"I’m going to play the guy that I think is best for our team. We have three guys out there battling," Kubiak said, adding that Lynch has always been in the mix. "Obviously [Lynch] is a young kid. He did some really good stuff tonight. He made some mistakes, too … we need to keep coming, keep bringing him along. We’re going to keep working here, find the guy that we think is best for our football team and go from there.
I’m not abandoning Mark Sanchez (and I suppose even Trevor Siemian) as the Week 1 starter. That is going to be a big stage on a big night, and it may remain the right move to pick the established player over the exciting one – especially with our defense. I’m no fan of quarterback controversies, and I don’t want to start one. I just want to see what we’ve really got here and then trust Kubiak to make the right decision when the time comes.
So I’m not advocating "Simichez" definitely cannot be the starter all season. But for the first time, I’m also arguing that Lynch can.
All three quarterbacks had very similar stats Saturday night – decent number of completions, some very good throws in traffic, some good decisions and some not-so-good ones plus very unfortunate turnovers. The difference was less in their production and more in their demeanor.
Lynch came into the game down one score and produced nothing his first couple of drives. But he remained patient and near the end of third quarter, engineered a beautiful 13-play, 80-yard drive featuring stunning passes and culminating with a classic Kubiak bootleg to the end zone. And Lynch did all that with less protection than my 9-year-old blocking in flag football.
With a minute left in the game, down 31-24 and no timeouts, Lynch came in, ala Elway, ready to win it. He threw an interception on 2nd and 15 and the game was over.
But the fire was there.
"I knew that I was going to get my shot at the end of the game no matter what happened, whether we were up by 22 points like we were against Chicago or if we were down like we were when we came in," Lynch said after the game, adding that he is always trying to make a play. "When I'm out there on the field, I'm trying to score every single time that I touch the ball. Every time that I have an opportunity to make a play, I try to."
The first two quarterbacks were effective. The third was electrifying.
The first two will be good. The third will be great.
The question for Kubiak then will be, "At what point can Lynch be great with this team?" Because that’s when the Broncos need to start him.
And knowing that that is more than likely coming this season, giving Lynch some starter reps in practice and in this weekend’s third preseason game seems not so much a bold move as the only move.
Start the rook. Potential actually might trump everything.