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How often do rookie quarterbacks have great games against good defenses?

Instances of young QBs having great games are not uncommon, but having them against good defenses doesn’t happen often.

AFC Championship - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

For the purposes of this study I have looked at the first sixteen starts for every NFL quarterback this century (with their first start coming in this century). A rookie in this study is a QB who is making his first through his sixteenth start. I defined a great game as a game with a passer rating of 110 or better.

I was surprised to learn that there have been 334 great games from rookie QBs this century. Drew Lock has two of those 334. Those were his game against Houston in 2019 where he posted a passer rating, PR, of 136.0 and his game in 2020 against Carolina where he posted a PR of 149.5.

Denver Broncos v Houston Texans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The highest possible PR that you can get in the NFL is 158.3. This is sometimes referred to as a “perfect game” for a QB (minimum of 10 passing attempts). Seven times this century a rookie QB has had a perfect game. Lamar Jackson is the only guy to have two games in this seven. Here are the seven games:

Player Date Tm Loc Opp Result Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int
Chad Pennington 11/16/2003 NYJ @ IND L 31-38 11 14 78.57 219 3 0
Ben Roethlisberger 9/11/2005 PIT TEN W 34-7 9 11 81.82 218 2 0
Nick Foles 11/3/2013 PHI @ OAK W 49-20 22 28 78.57 406 7 0
Lamar Jackson 9/8/2019 BAL @ MIA W 59-10 17 20 85 324 5 0
Lamar Jackson 11/10/2019 BAL @ CIN W 49-13 15 17 88.24 223 3 0
Marcus Mariota 9/13/2015 TEN @ TAM W 42-14 13 15 86.67 209 4 0
Robert Griffin III 11/18/2012 WAS PHI W 31-6 14 15 93.33 200 4 0

We should note that when “rookie” QBs have had perfect games this century, it has been with minimal throws. Only two of the seven games involved the QB throwing the ball twenty or more times. They average number of passing attempts in these seven games was seventeen.

In the history of the NFL there are only 72 perfect games (I used the ten passing attempts minimum to screen out games where a non-QB threw one pass and it was a TD) and 60 different QBs have had at least one. Seven QBs have multiple perfect games with Ben Roethlisberger leading the way with four. Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady all have three. I was surprised to see Craig Morton and Ken O’Brien on this list with two.

Denver Post Archives Denver Post via Getty Images
Quarterback Perfect Games
Ben Roethlisberger 4
Kurt Warner* 3
Peyton Manning 3
Tom Brady 3
Craig Morton 2
Ken O'Brien 2
Lamar Jackson 2

Let’s get back to the great games from rookies. If we expand the window to all-time in the NFL, there have been 704 great games from “rookie” QBs. I’m going to focus on the ones from this century.

Those 334 games were authored by 141 different QBs, but 62 QBs of those only had one. Tim Tebow is one of them and so is Brock Osweiler. Tebow had his in the overtime win against the Vikings and Osweiler had his in his first ever start which came against the Bears in Chicago. Thirteen “rookie” QBs had five or more great games in their first sixteen starts. They are shown below:

Quarterback Count
Patrick Mahomes 11
Daunte Culpepper 8
Dak Prescott 8
Russell Wilson 7
Nick Foles 6
Chad Pennington 6
Ben Roethlisberger 6
Tony Romo 6
Matt Ryan 6
Justin Herbert 6
Tyrod Taylor 6
Philip Rivers 5
Colin Kaepernick 5

Patrick Mahomes leads this group with an amazing eleven great games in his first sixteen starts. It should also be noted that Justin Herbert has only made fifteen starts so he could join the group with six next season. Everyone else on this list made their sixteenth start already. It is going to be a long decade in the AFC West facing those two young guns twice a year in the regular season.

Back to the original question, how often do “rookie” QBs have great games against good defenses. I have defined a good defense as one that is in the top quartile in points allowed. Points allowed is the bottom line for a defense. The top quartile means a ranking of eighth or better.

I looked at the defenses faced by the thirteen QBs on the list above. They had 86 total great games. I looked to see how many of the 86 were against good defenses. Below is a list of the games from the 86 that were against good defenses (scroll to the right to see the rank of the D that was faced).

Player Date Tm Loc Opp Result Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Sk AY/A Opp D Rank
Ben Roethlisberger 10/31/2004 PIT NWE W 34-20 18 24 75.0 196 2 0 126.4 0 9.8 2
Russell Wilson 12/23/2012 SEA SFO W 42-13 15 21 71.4 171 4 1 115.3 1 9.8 2
Colin Kaepernick 11/19/2012 SFO CHI W 32-7 16 23 69.6 243 2 0 133.1 1 12.3 3
Justin Herbert 10/12/2020 LAC @ NOR L 27-30 20 34 58.8 264 4 0 122.7 3 10.1 5
Ben Roethlisberger 12/26/2004 PIT BAL W 20-7 14 19 73.7 221 2 1 125.1 0 11.4 6
Ben Roethlisberger 12/5/2004 PIT @ JAX W 17-16 14 17 82.4 221 2 0 158.0 3 15.4 7
Daunte Culpepper 10/9/2000 MIN TAM W 30-23 15 19 79.0 231 2 1 130.5 6 11.9 7
Nick Foles 12/1/2013 PHI ARI W 24-21 21 34 61.8 237 3 0 112.0 5 8.7 7
Patrick Mahomes 10/14/2018 KAN @ NWE L 40-43 23 36 63.9 352 4 2 110.0 0 9.5 7
Russell Wilson 11/25/2012 SEA @ MIA L 21-24 21 27 77.8 224 2 0 125.9 2 9.8 7
Tyrod Taylor 12/6/2015 BUF HOU W 30-21 11 21 52.4 211 3 0 127.2 1 12.9 7
Dak Prescott 10/9/2016 DAL CIN W 28-14 18 24 75.0 227 1 0 117.9 1 10.3 8
Justin Herbert 10/4/2020 LAC @ TAM L 31-38 20 25 80.0 290 3 1 137.9 2 12.2 8
Patrick Mahomes 9/9/2018 KAN @ LAC W 38-28 15 27 55.6 256 4 0 127.5 1 12.4 8
Patrick Mahomes 12/13/2018 KAN LAC L 28-29 24 34 70.6 243 2 0 110.3 2 8.3 8
Philip Rivers 12/10/2006 SDG DEN W 48-20 15 23 65.2 279 2 0 136.0 1 13.9 8

So only sixteen of these 86 were against “good” defenses. If we expand it to top ten scoring defenses, that adds two more games: Dak Prescott in 2015 at Pittsburgh and Justin Herbert in January of 2021 against the Chiefs JV (so this really shouldn’t count. In this game, only one of the players who started in the AFCC - LB Damien Wilson - started for the KC defense.)

Denver Broncos v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The average rank in points allowed for the defenses that these rookie QBs faced in these 86 games was 21. This also makes what Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and, arguably, Justin Herbert did against truly elite defenses so much more impressive. See below.

Denver Broncos v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

The 2004 Patriots were second in the league in points allowed. They finished the regular season 14-2 and won the Super Bowl. Five assistant coaches from that team have gone on to become NFL head coaches (Romeo Crennel, Brian Flores, Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, and Matt Patricia) and many were on the defensive side. The 34 points that Roethlisberger and the Steelers scored was the most allowed by the Patriots that season and it would the only game where that defense would allow more than 29 points. Big Ben was a true rookie in 2004. This was his seventh career start. I remember this game, because the Steelers relied heavily on the run game and Ben was deadly on play-action. The Steelers would run the ball 49 times for 221 yards in this game (while the Pats were held to 5) and both of Ben’s passing TDs would come on play-action.

Seattle Seahawks v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The 2012 49ers were second only to the Seahawks in points allowed. The 49ers would ride their defense all the way to the Super Bowl where they would lose to Joe Flacco and the officials, I mean, the Ravens. The forty-two points that Wilson and the Seahawks would score against the 49ers would be the most that they gave up that season and only the second time that they would allow 30 or more in the 2012 regular season. Admittedly one of the touchdowns that the Seahawks would score in that game was on special teams (90-yard TD return of a blocked FG), but that does not lessen how well Wilson played as a true rookie against an elite defense. The defensive coordinator for the 2012 49ers was Vic Fangio.

Staying with the 2012 49ers, we get to our next amazing “rookie” QB performance against an elite defense. Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers to 32 points against the 2012 Bears defense that would only allow 30 or more points once that season. The Bears allowed 17.3 points per game that season (277 points) while the 49ers allowed 17.2 (273 points). Both where a far cry from the “Legion of Boom” that allowed 15.3 (245).

The final game that we are going to look at in detail come in the 2020 season when Justin Herbert led the Chargers to 27 points in their overtime loss the Saints. The Saints defense finished the season 5th in points allowed at 21.1 ppg (337 points) in a year where scoring was crazy. The Saints defense would allow four teams to score 30 or more on them and would be added by an NFL-gifted “three-points-allowed” game when our Broncos had to start a practice squad WR, Kendall Hinton, at QB. 337 points allowed in 2012 would have ranked 12th. However, I don’t think that this cheapens Herbert’s accomplishment in his fourth career start.

Herberts 313 passing yards was the second most allowed by the Saints D in 2020 and his four passing touchdowns is the most allowed in a game by the Saints in 2020.

I’d love to have the time to look at the rank of the opposing defense in the rest of these 334 games, but I don’t. The takeaway should be that it is fairly rare for a “rookie” QB to have a great game against an elite defense. Sixteen out of 86 is 19 percent. If I were to guess I would wager that there would probably be fewer in the remaining 248 games that I did not look at in depth. My guess is based on some of the far-from-elite QBs who show up in the list of the 141 who had a great game as “rookies.”