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Is Matt Ryan The Best Rookie QB Ever?

We see very few successful rookie starting quarterbacks in the National Football League nowadays. The prevailing wisdom is that a year or two of watching and learning from the sideline while holding a clipboard is extremely beneficial to even the most promising young signal-caller. There are exceptions, however, to this conventional wisdom. Some clubs are forced to give the nod to a rookie due to injuries or lack of talent. In the case of Atlanta Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, he had won the right to start in Week 1 because the

Boston

College product clearly outplayed every other quarterback on the new-look Dirty Birds’ roster during the preseason. Ryan became the first rookie quarterback to start a season for

Atlanta since quarterback Steve Bartkowski did so in 1975.

 

As you Falcons fans recall, Ryan’s first NFL regular-season pass was a 62-yard pitch-and-catch for a touchdown to wide receiver Michael Jenkins against the Detroit Lions at the Georgia Dome during the afternoon of September 7. Ryan’s play to date has surpassed even the most optimistic preseason predictions. Through Week 12, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Ryan has gone 186-for-310 for 2,418 yards (60 percent completion percentage) with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions for an 88.3 passer rating. As expected, Ryan’s stellar pro debut has drawn comparisons to the first-year performances of other NFL passers, which has begged the following question: Is Ryan the best rookie quarterback ever?

 

Ryan’s Competition

 

If you dig deep enough through the annals of NFL history, you will find a sparse number of noteworthy performances by rookie starting quarterbacks. Johnny Unitas quickly emerged as a star in 1956, completing 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,498 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions while rushing 28 times for 155 yards and one score. In 1961, Fran Tarkenton exploded onto the scene for the then-expansion Minnesota Vikings, throwing for 1,997 yards and 18 touchdowns with 17 interceptions and rushing for 308 yards and five scores. “Broadway” Joe Namath took over as the Jets starter three games into the 1965 season and threw for 2,220 yards, 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The Miami Dolphins were an expansion team in 1967 when Bob Griese threw for 2,005 yards, 15 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Many tout the 1969 rookie season of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Greg Cook as one of the best ever. Cook threw for 1,854 yards and 15 touchdowns, and his 88.2 passer rating that season still ranks as the third-highest in league history for a rookie quarterback. In 1971, Jim Plunkett started for the New England Patriots, throwing for 2,158 yards, 19 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. The aforementioned Bartkowski passed for 1,662 yards, 13 scores and 15 interceptions in 1975. The “punky QB” known as Jim McMahon, in 1982, passed for 1,501 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions in seven starts.

 

You probably were not impressed with the statistics amassed by Namath, Griese, Cook, Plunkett and the other quarterbacks mentioned. Keep in mind that passing attacks nowadays are vastly superior and more sophisticated. Comparing Ryan’s 2008 statistics to the numbers posted by anyone in that group is the equivalent of comparing apples to oranges. We obviously need to compare Ryan’s numbers to the standout rookie seasons of quarterbacks who have played more recently. The most logical choices are Dan Marino (1983), Rick Mirer (1993), Peyton Manning (1998) and Ben Roethlisberger (2004).

 

TOP NFL ROOKIE QUARTERBACK PERFORMANCES 1980 – PRESENT

PLAYER

YR

TEAM

G/S

ATT

CMP

CMP%

YDS

TD

INT

RT

Dan Marino

1983

Miami

9

173

296

58.4

2,210

20

6

96.0

Rick Mirer

1993

Seattle

16

274

486

56.4

2,833

12

17

67.0

Peyton Manning

1998

Indianapolis

16

326

575

56.7

3,739

26

28

71.2

Ben Roethlisberger

2004

Pittsburgh

13

196

295

66.4

2,621

17

11

98.1

Matt Ryan*

2008

Atlanta

11

186

310

60.0

2,418

11

6

88.3

Matt Ryan**

2008

Atlanta

16

271

451

60.0

3,517

16

9

88.3

Through Week 12

** Projected through a 16-game regular season

 

Marino

(7-2 as a starter) led his team to the playoffs and became the first rookie quarterback to ever start in the Pro Bowl. His 96.0 passer rating is still the second-highest ever for a rookie. Marino’s completion percentage still ranks No. 2 all-time for rookies, and only two rookie signal-callers have thrown more touchdown passes than he has.

 

Mirer

(6-10 as a starter) also rushed 68 times for 344 yards and three touchdowns. His passing attempt, completion and passing yardage numbers each rank No. 3, respectively, all-time for rookie quarterbacks. Unfortunately, Mirer’s first-season numbers were the best of his career, which is why you probably don’t remember him accomplishing much in the league.

 

Manning

(3-13 as a starter) set existing rookie quarterback records for completions, attempts, passing yards and touchdown passes. In 1999, he led the Colts to a 13-3 record and a trip to the playoffs.

 

Roethlisberger

(13-0 as a starter) helped the run-first Steelers make the playoffs. He holds the current rookie quarterback records for passer rating and completion percentage.

 

The Verdict On Ryan

 

Is Ryan the best rookie quarterback to ever take the field in the NFL? My answer: No. Granted, this argument is about a rookie quarterback coming in, playing significantly and contributing significantly during his first year in the league. Ryan has done this – no question. However, based on my projections, Ryan’s numbers will not come close to any of the statistics posted by the other four quarterbacks listed in the table. Granted, Ryan topped the respective regular-season victory totals for Mirer and Manning, and will likely amass more wins than Marino. Ryan also has an outside chance to surpass Manning’s passing yardage record or Roethlisberger’s record for completion percentage, but I am not optimistic about him shattering either mark.

 

Is it correct to declare that Ryan’s historic rookie performance is one of the best ever? My answer: Yes. I respectfully think Ryan deserves respect and admiration for his outstanding play, and his final regular-season numbers will likely be very respectable. The quarterback position in the NFL is arguably the most difficult position to play in football and in the sports world. Ryan is not just managing games; he is making plays to win games for a club that is a bona fide playoff contender (

Atlanta beat the Carolina Panthers last week). Even more impressive, Ryan has helped resurrect a franchise that had been devastated last season (just a 4-12 record) by the Michael Vick dog-fighting ring fiasco and the tumultuous regime of now-former head coach Bobby Petrino, who quit his “dream job” 13 games into the season. Will Ryan improve next season? Barring an injury, he should. Ryan is a student of the game, just like Manning. Will Ryan make the Pro Bowl in the future? He should.

 

From a fantasy perspective, owners have been correctly using Ryan as a backup/spot-starter this season. Will Ryan become a legitimate fantasy stud quarterback in 2009? Right now, I would have to say no. The Falcons seem content to be a run-first team with running back Michael Turner leading the way. Whenever Turner is productive, Ryan usually throws less. However, remember that a lot of things can happen between now and next season.

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