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Why are this year’s NFL rookie QBs struggling so much?

Top pick Trevor Lawrence (left) is one of several rookie quarterbacks that has struggled to adjust to life in the NFL.Andy Lyons/Getty

Have you seen the crop of rookie quarterbacks this year? Boy, do they stink.

OK, that’s obviously too harsh. It is only three weeks and one game into the NFL season, and the stats don’t always tell the full story.

But it hasn’t been a pretty start to the season for the rookies. Between Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, and Davis Mills, the rookies have a 1-11 record as starters (Jones has the lone win), with 11 touchdowns against 19 interceptions.

And statistically, they have been among the worst quarterbacks this season. Out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks, Mills, Jones, Lawrence, and Wilson rank 28th, 29th, 32nd, and 33rd in passer rating. Fields doesn’t qualify yet, but he would rank 34th.


Lawrence and Wilson also are the bottom two in the league in completion percentage, and share the league lead with seven interceptions.

The only rookie quarterback not taking any heat is the 49ers’ Trey Lance, the No. 3 overall pick who is sitting behind Jimmy Garoppolo.

“These quarterbacks aren’t going to burn up the league when they come in,” said former Colts coach Tony Dungy, now with NBC. “We just have to understand that. I coached against John Elway in his first game he ever played, and he completed two passes. I coached against Alex Smith in his first game, I think he threw more interceptions than completions. But those guys that are good quarterbacks grow from it, and they’re mentally tough and strong, and they’ll be OK.”

Dungy’s exact recollection is a bit off, but his sentiment is correct. In 1983, Elway actually completed just one pass in his first career start, finishing 1 for 8 for 14 yards and an interception in a win over the Steelers. In 2005, Smith completed nine passes and threw four interceptions in his first career start, a 28-3 loss to the Colts.


Patriots quarterback Mac Jones is the only rookie to win a game this season, which he accomplished against a fellow rookie in Zach Wilson.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

They’re not the only ones who struggled as rookies. Peyton Manning started his career 0-4 with three touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Troy Aikman went 0-11 as a rookie with nine touchdowns and 18 picks.

Perhaps in the preseason we spent so much time discussing the rookie quarterbacks who succeeded right away — Matt Ryan, Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott — that we forgot about the many rookie quarterbacks who struggle in their first few years.

“Everyone wants to get all these rookies out there early, learn from doing it. Uh, no,” said ESPN’s Matt Hasselbeck, a 17-year NFL quarterback who didn’t start a game until his third season. “The one guy not playing right now is Trey Lance. He in my opinion has a chance to be the best of all of them, in part because he’s not having to be the punching bag right now.”

The struggles of the rookies is starting to ignite the age-old debate: Is it better to sit a rookie to let him learn or play him right away?

There is no right answer, of course. Manning went 3-13 with a rookie-record 28 interceptions, and turned out just fine. Aikman and Elway also turned into Hall of Famers despite their early struggles. Then there are players such as David Carr and Ryan Leaf, who were terrible as rookies and never recovered.

Tom Brady (left) and Patrick Mahomes (right) are two quarterbacks that benefitted from a year learning on the sidelines.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

On the other end are players such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes, who sat for a year or more before getting their first starts. But also examples in Paxton Lynch, Jake Locker, and JaMarcus Russell that sat as rookies but never developed.


NBC’s Cris Collinsworth believes in sitting young quarterbacks.

“To see the presnap looks these guys get, and expect somebody who’s in his second or third NFL game to be able to decipher all that like Drew [Brees] can is just literally impossible,” he said. “I’m not saying that Patrick Mahomes wouldn’t have been Patrick Mahomes, but remember, he didn’t play in his first year until the final week of the season. You can’t tell me that Alex Smith, going to press conferences and watching him handle the media and watching him stand up in front of the team and present, didn’t help him become the player that he is.”

Dungy believes that young players can only get better by playing.

“The first-string quarterback gets 90 percent of the reps in practice in the regular season. The backup quarterback gets very little,” he said. “I can promise you this, I wasn’t there when Peyton Manning was there, but if I told him as a rookie you’re just going to sit and watch Kelly Holcomb and you’re not going to practice and you’re not going to play, but you’ll get better by watching, there’s no way that would have happened … When you get these kinds of guys and don’t let them practice, I don’t know how that really benefits them.”


Jones has probably been the best of the bunch, starting the season with two solid if unspectacular games against the Dolphins and Jets. But he took a step back with three interceptions against the Saints last week, and now Jones is looking at a 1-3 record if he can’t outduel Brady on Sunday night.

Many observers (hand raised) predicted the Patriots to be a playoff team even with a rookie quarterback because of the pieces they put around Jones. But perhaps our expectations were a bit too rosy.

“Mac Jones is, I think, going to be fine, but if we’re talking about trying to be a wild-card team this year, it’s tough with a rookie quarterback,” Hasselbeck said. “Probably the hope was, ‘We’ll just have to pick him up on special teams and defense,’ and they’re just not getting that. He’s going to just have to learn on the fly and somehow have a better record than the Raiders, Chiefs, Chargers, Broncos, one of those teams that they’re going to be fighting with.”


Patriots should lean on Jones

The Patriots haven't always let Mac Jones air it out this season, but Tedy Bruschi thinks they should put the ball in the rookie's hands on Sunday.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Speaking of Mac Jones, he’s kind of the forgotten man in Sunday’s showdown between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. You might think that the Patriots’ best chance of winning is to slow down the game and run the ball effectively, without putting too much on Jones’s shoulders. But former Patriot Tedy Bruschi thinks the Patriots need to let Jones air it out.

“The simple football equation is, [the Buccaneers] are weaker in the back end than the front seven,” Bruschi said. “I look at that defense and it’s like, ‘Just throw it, Mac.’ ”


Bruschi makes a good point. The Buccaneers’ defensive front, with Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, Devin White, and Lavonte David, is one of the best in the NFL. The Buccaneers finished No. 1 in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and rushing average in 2019 and 2020, and this year rank fourth and third in those categories. The Patriots could try to establish their offense by pounding Damien Harris, but he might just be running up against a brick wall.

But the Buccaneers have real issues in pass coverage (though it must be noted that they have faced three solid quarterbacks in Dak Prescott, Matt Ryan, and Matthew Stafford).

The Buccaneers have allowed the most passing yards in the league (338 per game), they have the fewest sacks in the NFL (three), and they will be without cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean this Sunday. They are so thin in the secondary that Richard Sherman, signed this past week, will be active on Sunday.

With injuries in the secondary, the Buccaneers signed former Seahawk Richard Sherman this week.Chris Urso/Associated Press

“I think you tell your quarterback in a Tuesday meeting, ‘We’ve got to air it out, because that’s the way it is, so get ready,’ ” Bruschi said.

Meanwhile, Jones still has a lot of believers, even after a shaky performance last Sunday against the Saints.

“I felt like Mac Jones showed a level of poise and maturity that is beyond his years,” Drew Brees said. “What I see is a guy who’s got pretty good command of that offense. He doesn’t look like he’s ever rattled. He looks like he is in a position where he’s playing with confidence. I think he’s only going to get better as the season goes along and he continues to develop a rapport with the skill position players, and obviously as they continue to come together as a team.”

Former Patriot Rob Ninkovich, who was at last Sunday’s game for ESPN Radio, is also impressed with Jones.

“I still think he plays very freaking tough,” Ninkovich said last Sunday after the game. “He’s getting hit a lot, he doesn’t have time, supporting cast is fumbling the ball — but yet, drive down the field, knee brace gets messed off, throw it off on the sideline, throw a nice TD pass.

“Those are building plays that can start to give some confidence to the guys that are dropping the ball or not blocking great. Because you give the kid time, he evaluates the field and puts the ball where it needs to be.”


Harrison says end the debate

Many enjoy debating Brady v. Belichick — Rodney Harrison is not one of those people.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

A debate you may have heard, oh, about 1,000 times in the past week: Who is more responsible for the Patriots’ dynasty, Bill Belichick or Tom Brady?

Don’t ask Rodney Harrison to weigh in.

“I think it’s stupid, OK? I think it’s disrespectful,” Harrison said on an NBC conference call this past week. “Not only is it disrespectful to Tom and Bill, but it’s disrespectful to all those great players that came along that were part of those championship teams because, at the end of the day, it wasn’t Bill and Tom versus everybody else. It was an entire team.”

“Tom’s a tremendous player, and Bill’s a tremendous coach, but none of that stuff happens without the other players. So that’s where I stand. It’s not about Bill. It’s not about Tom. Tom wouldn’t be the player that he is if he didn’t have Bill and vice versa. Do you think Bill would be the coach that he is if he didn’t have Tom challenging him, questioning him, pushing him? They’re made for each other, and that’s the beauty of it.

“Everyone wants, ‘Well, it’s Tom that deserves credit. It’s Bill that deserves credit.’ No, it’s a team game. It’s the ultimate team game. So, no, you can give them props and call them the greatest of all time, and nobody would probably argue with that, but at the end of the day, it’s not, ‘Tom’s more responsible or Bill’s more responsible.’ I just think it’s dumb.”

For all the talk of Brady vs. Belichick, Brady’s company, Religion of Sports, on Friday released a snippet of a documentary that is coming out in November in which Brady praises Belichick for being a great teacher early in his career.

“Every Tuesday we would meet and go through the entire defensive starting lineup and their strengths and weaknesses, what we could attack, what he was watching, and how I could see the things that he saw so I could gain confidence and anticipate,” Brady says. “I look at some of these young players and they’re like, ‘What do you think of this guy?’ In my mind I’m thinking, ‘OK, he’s talented, but who’s going to teach him how to evolve and grow?’ ”

A softer side

All of the Brady-Belichick talk had Boomer Esiason wandering down memory lane this past week. Esiason recalled an experience he had with Belichick in 1999 while Belichick was defensive coordinator of the Jets and Esiason a recently retired quarterback working for ABC.

“During the season my father passed away, and it was on Long Island. I was living there, and the Jets were practicing at Hofstra,” Esiason said. “We had the funeral and the wake, and in the back of the room, I saw walking toward me Bill Belichick. I knew Bill from covering him as a broadcaster and playing against him, had seen him at a couple of Pro Bowls and things of that nature. But I didn’t play for him. He just knew me as a player and a broadcaster. And he showed up at my dad’s funeral, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ I don’t think anybody ever knows that story. But this is who he is, the person that I know. I’ll always remember that and appreciate that.”

Extra points

Peyton Manning is one of only three quarterbacks to beat every NFL team, a list Tom Brady can join on Sunday.Ed Andrieski

Brady can join Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Drew Brees as the only quarterbacks to defeat all 32 teams, but Joe Montana and Fran Tarkenton each defeated all 28 teams that existed when they played. And six quarterbacks defeated every team but their own: Aaron Rodgers (Packers), Alex Smith (Chiefs), John Elway (Broncos), Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers), Terry Bradshaw (Steelers), and Ken Stabler (Raiders). Kerry Collins beat 31 NFL teams — everyone but the Dolphins … When the 49ers traded up for the No. 3 pick this year, the early buzz had them taking Mac Jones. They eventually took Trey Lance, but Cris Collinsworth said the 49ers “came very close” to taking Jones, “and it was a very difficult decision. They studied it all the way down to the final week before the draft.” … The return of fans in stadiums this year has meant a significant uptick in false start penalties. Last year the NFL had 518 false start penalties in 269 regular-season and postseason games, per NFLPenalties.com. This year the NFL would be on pace for 675 false start penalties were the schedule the same. Last year saw 277 false starts at home and 241 on the road, and this year is on pace for 324 at home and 351 on the road … Patrick Mahomes, whose record is 39-10 as a starter, can join Stabler (40-9-1) as the only QBs to win 40 of their first 50 NFL starts. Brady went 38-12 … Four teams that missed the playoffs last year are 3-0: Arizona, Carolina, Denver, and Las Vegas … Call Sunday’s Ravens-Broncos game the Derby City Bowl. Both starting quarterbacks, Teddy Bridgewater and Lamar Jackson, went to Louisville … After nailing a 66-yarder to win last week, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker is 20 for 20 all time on field goals in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime … Andy Reid, with a 99-45 record with the Chiefs, can become the first coach in history with 100 wins for two teams. And he can do it on Sunday in Philadelphia, where he compiled a 140-102-1 record … The Brady-Belichick game is bringing families together. Matt Hasselbeck, who grew up in Norfolk and moved back to the area after retiring from the NFL in 2016, will be sitting in the stands on Sunday night with his son, who is a sophomore in high school. “I’ve never gone to an NFL football game in the stands with my son, ever, but this is a pretty good one to do it,” Hasselbeck said. “Seriously, Steve Grogan was probably the quarterback the last time I went to a game as a fan.”

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.