Midway through Cleveland’s game against the New York Jets last week, Browns coach Hue Jackson brought rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield on for injured starter Tyrod Taylor—and set himself up for both cheers and boos.
Mayfield rallied the Browns from a 14-0 deficit for a thrilling win, the team’s first since 2016. It also made it clear that Jackson probably should have made Mayfield the Browns starter from the get-go in 2018. They might be 3-0 if he had.
Mayfield isn’t the only member of 2018’s much-touted class of rookie quarterbacks that is getting his shot. This weekend, the four highest-drafted rookie quarterbacks are poised to start. Mayfield will now start for the Browns. Arizona’s Josh Rosen is getting the nod for the first time this week, too. Josh Allen had also previously been handed the gig in Buffalo—but not before beginning the season on the bench. The New York Jets’ Sam Darnold has been starting since the season began.
Their coaches agree that these quarterbacks’ time has come: in Week 4 of their rookie year.
“He can handle it,” Jackson said of Mayfield. “He’s demonstrated that.”
“Josh plays with a lot of confidence,” Cardinals coach Steven Wilks said. “He gives us the opportunity to be successful.”
The only question left: What took so long to realize this?
Last spring’s NFL draft was historic. For the first time, four quarterbacks went in the top-10. But only Darnold started in Week 1.
The other three teams instead went with uninspiring options to start over the young player they had handpicked to be their quarterbacks of the future. The Browns and Cardinals invested valuable resources for their bridge quarterbacks. This is the traditional route: The young quarterback holds a clipboard, learns the offense and avoids being rushed into action.
But what’s confusing about this approach is that the data doesn’t show any benefit to sitting young quarterbacks. Unless the current starter thrives—and in these cases, they certainly didn’t play well—the only thing this method accomplishes is delaying an answer to the one question that matters most for the franchise’s future: Is the quarterback they drafted any good?
This season has already shown how regrettable it can be to follow the traditional path. The Bills were the first team to reverse course. In Week 1, they deemed it prudent to start Nathan Peterman, the guy who once threw five interceptions in a single half last season. The Bills lost 47-3. Since then, with Allen under center, they have lost to the Chargers and beaten the Vikings—only one of the biggest upsets in modern NFL history, one led by Allen’s throwing and running.
The Browns were next. They trailed the Jets 14-0 in the second quarter last week. Taylor, who Cleveland traded a third-round pick for just so it could start him over Mayfield, had completed 4 of 14 passes for 19 yards while absorbing three sacks in the Browns’ game against the Jets. Mayfield entered, completed 17 of 23 passes for 201 yards and Cleveland won 21-17.
Even more frustrating for Cleveland fans: The Browns had tied the Steelers in Week 1 despite forcing five more turnovers, and then barely lost to the Saints in New Orleans. Mayfield could very well have been the difference between the team’s 1-1-1 record and a culture-changing 3-0 start.
The Arizona Cardinals, though, have the ignominy of making the most pointless off-season move. They gave Sam Bradford a deal worth up to $20 million, and in the first three games of the season—all Arizona losses—he led an offense that scored a total of 20 points. Arizona switched to Rosen in the final minutes on Sunday after they blew a 14-0 lead to Chicago and lost 16-14. On Monday, Wilks announced Rosen as the new starter.
The fifth quarterback taken in the first round of this year’s draft—2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, who was taken No. 32 overall by the Ravens—is still riding the pine behind Joe Flacco.
Even though these teams opted to wait, the statistics challenge the conventional wisdom that benching a rookie quarterback helps him play better when he finally gets the call.
From 1998 though 2017, there have been 55 quarterbacks taken in the first round. Of those, 18 started their first possible game. They completed 57.8% of their passes for an average gain per pass of 6.8 yards. They’ve tossed 1.1 touchdowns for every interception. Their combined passer rating: 76.2.
The 37 who waited sat on the sidelines for an average of 8.4 games. When they saw action, they weren’t any more ready to play than the immediate starters. They completed 57.4% of their passes for an average gain of 6.7 yards, according to Stats LLC. And they tossed 1.2 touchdowns for every interception. This adds up to a combined passer rating of 76.6—a set of numbers essentially indistinguishable from the other.
Not that this prevents teams from making this miscalculation again and again. The success of Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City this season is a point to the contrary—but in reality, the team may have effectively wasted last season with a superstar quarterback on the sidelines, one that perhaps could have extended their season beyond a shocking opening-round playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Holding young quarterbacks out also prevents a team from learning if it has found its franchise quarterback. Jared Goff was still a mystery heading into his second season with the Rams in 2017 because he played very little for a No. 1 overall pick—just seven games.
Learning more quickly if a prized prospect is any good has other benefits. If they’re right, the team can save a ton of money at the game’s most expensive position while its new star is on an inexpensive rookie deal. It can then invest those savings in other positions, as the Seahawks did in 2013, the Eagles last year and the Rams are doing in 2018.
And if the rookie turns out to be a bust, it’s better to start the process over again sooner rather than later. And given the muddled history of drafting quarterbacks, it’s a good bet that at least one of Mayfield, Darnold, Allen or Rosen will prove to be a gigantic bust.
Write to Andrew Beaton at firstname.lastname@example.org