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Who was the Best Rookie QB to Start a Playoff Game (Since 1970)?

Here is a copy of my most recent post at Checking the Numbers, my blog. Thanks again to Michael (aka Blitzburgh) for giving me a forum for my analyses.

Matt_ryan_08222008_mediumNote: When I started this post, I used this article from to find the names of the rookies QBs that I didn't already know. However, in researching Shaun King's rookie season (see here, under 1999), I discovered that Pat Haden also started in the playoffs as a rookie QB in 1976. But, after a little more research, I discovered that Haden had played in 1975 in an earlier league called the USFL (not the USFL of Herschel Walker). I know, it's a bulletin board post, but it does explain why an article on would leave him out. So, I will leave him out.

Joe-flacco_mediumLast weekend, I was watching the NFL Replay of the Falcons-Cardinals playoff game from this past year, and I saw a statistic flash on the screen that there have been 8 rookie quarterbacks to start a playoff game since 1970. So, I decided to find out who they were and compare their rookie seasons and playoff performances. We all know about Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco from this past year, as well as Big Ben's 2004 rookie campaign. And, most of us could probably guess on Dan Marino as one of the other rookie QBs to start a playoff game. After that, the other names may surprise you. The other four rookie quarterbacks to start a playoff game since 1970 were...

Bernie Kosar, Jim Everett, Todd Marinovich???, and Shaun King.

Before we get too into the statistics, I wanted to review each of these players rookie seasons and highlight one or two accomplishments of note for each one. These are in chronological order.

Dan Marino: Marino is the only QB to unseat an incumbent QB from a defending conference champion. He took over as the Dolphins' starter in Week 6, replacing the struggling David Woodley. In two previous games, he had replaced and outplayed Woodley. When he finally got his first start against the Bills, the Dolphins lost in OT 35-38, but Marino had put on quite a show, passing for over 300 yards and 3 TDs.

Bernie-kosar-bankruptcy_mediumBernie Kosar: From what I could find, the most interesting thing about Bernie's rookie year was that he apparently didn't file his paper work for the 1985 draft in time, so the Vikings , who were picking 2nd overall were not able to draft him. He had publicly stated his desire to play in Cleveland, so the Browns traded their 1985 and 1986 first round picks (plus the '85 3rd and '86 6th rounder) to the Bills (who had taken Bruce Smith first overall) for the Bills' first round pick in 1986. They used that pick to draft Kosar first in the supplemental draft. See his Wikipedia page for the rest of the details. Kosar's play wasn't anything spectacular, but his publicly stated desire to play in Cleveland endeared him to the fans. He became the starter due to injury, and they snuck into the playoffs with an 8-8 record.

Jim Everett: In Jim's rookie season with the then LA Rams, he led the team in every statistical passing category. Although I was not able to find any defining moments from his first year, looking at the 1986 Rams' statistics page seems to indicate that Head Coach John Robinson relied on Eric Dickerson all year, and used the regular season to determine who his starting QB should be.

Todd Marinovich: Todd only started a single game his rookie year, the final game of the 1991 season. The Raiders lost to the Chiefs, but Marinovich was impressive, throwing for nearly 250 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs. Based on that one game, he was named the starter the following week against the same Chiefs. Only, this time, he had 0 TDs and 4 INTs.

Shaun King: According to Shaun King's official website, it looks like the highlight of his rookie season was a Dec. 12 victory over the Detroit Lion where he threw for nearly 300 yards and 2 TDs. Although, I'm sure he was more satisfied in becoming the first rookie QB since the Rams Pat Haden (1976) to win a playoff game.


Ben Roethlisberger: Ben's rookie year was magical ride (for us Steeler fans, anyway;)) where he won 13 starts and did not lose a regular season game. His defining moments, to me, were the two games against the Pats* and the Eagles. Both teams were undefeated coming in. The cheaters were defending SB champions and riding a 21 game winning streak. Ben passed for nearly 200 yards, 2 TDs, and 0 INTs to help defeat the hated Patriots. Then, the following week, facing the last undefeated team, Ben had another solid performance, with 183 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT.

Joe Flacco: For those Ravens fans out there, last year gave them hopes that Flacco might be Big Ben 2.0. After being forced into the starting lineup from the start of the season, Flacco never gave it up. While it took Flacco until week 4 to score his first passing TD, by the end of the season, he was performing much better. According to his Wikipedia page, Joe Flacco's best game was week 17, vs. the Jaguars. He threw for nearly 300 yards and posted a passer rating of 115.8.

Matt Ryan: Matt Ryan exceeded all expectations on what many were calling the worst team in the league coming into 2008. Since I live in Atlanta, I saw a few of his games, and I would have to that his defining moments for this past season were his first TD pass and the end of the game agains the Bears. In his first game, he threw 62 yard TD strike to Michael Jenkins on his first NFL pass. Yes, it was against the lowly Lions, but we didn't know they'd go 0-16 then. Then, against the Chicago Bears, the Falcons were down by one with 6 seconds left at their own 44 yard line. Ryan hit Jenkins on the sideline for a 26 yard pass leaving one second on the clock. This allowed Jason Elam to hit a 48 yard FG to win the game.

Ok, so let's get started looking at the numbers. As we can see from the statistics shown below, before Big Ben, only Marino had a winning record and started more than 5 games.

Player Year QBRec Cmp % Yds TD INT Y/A Y/G Rate Sk Playoff Record
Dan Marino 1983 7-2-0 58.4 2210 20 6 7.5 200.9 96 10 0-1
Bernie Kosar 1985 4-6-0 50 1578 8 7 6.4 131.5 69.3 19 0-1
Jim Everett 1986 3-2-0 49.7 1018 8 8 6.9 169.7 67.8 8 0-1
Todd Marinovich 1991 0-1-0 57.5 243 3 0 6.1 243 100.3 0 0-1
Shaun King 1999 4-1-0 61 875 7 4 6 145.8 82.4 11 1-1
Ben Roethlisberger 2004 13-0-0 66.4 2621 17 11 8.9 187.2 98.1 30 1-1
Joe Flacco 2008 11-5-0 60 2971 14 12 6.9 185.7 80.3 32 2-1
Matt Ryan 2008 11-5-0 61.1 3440 16 11 7.9 215 87.7 17 0-1

The first thing that strikes me is that no rookie QB started a playoff game for 13 years after 1970, until Dan Marino in 1983. I think this gives us a great understanding as to why the league was so enamored with Marino in the '80's. Not only was he the first rookie QB to start a playoff game since the merger, he had a very solid winning record and very respectable statistics, particularly considering how early in the "passing era" that he began his career. By passing era, I am referring to the rules changes beginning in 1978, that have since continued, in efforts to open up the passing game in the NFL. My second initial thought is that we can should probably dismiss Marinovich due to the small sample size, not to mention that he was out of the league after just two seasons. 

In looking at the rest of them, it appears that we could divide the remaining QBs into 3 groups: mid 80's (Kosar and Everett), late 90's (King), and the 00's (Roethlisberger, Flacco and Ryan). Kosar and Everett have similar statistics for their rookie season. King could have been included with their group, but he had a better record, completion percentage, and passer rating than them. Then, Big Ben, Ryan and Flacco were the only ones to start more than 10 games and have an overall playoff worthy record. Based the raw season stats, it would seem that only half of these players are serious contenders for best rookie season: Marino, Ben, Flacco, and Ryan. King may also get a look, though, as he was the first of these to actually win a playoff game.

There are a few more items of note before considering the next set of data. Ben has the highest passer rating and a significantly higher yards/attempt than anyone else. He also has the best win and completion percentage. Flacco has twice as many playoff wins as any of the others. And Ryan is the only one with over 3000 yards passing, with nearly 3500 yards. Marino, though, only started 9 games and played in 11. His numbers projected out to a 16 game season would give him somewhere in the range of 3300-3500 yards. He also had the best TD to INT ratio, by a good margin.

Let's take a look at each player's playoff performances to get an idea of how they performed in crunch time.

Playoff Performance Cmp Att Yds TD Int Lng Y/A Cmp% Rate
Dan Marino 15 25 193 2 2 32 7.7 60 77.6
Bernie Kosar 10 19 66 1 1 16 3.5 52.6 56
Jim Everett 9 18 136 1 2 45 7.6 50 54.2
Todd Marinovich 12 23 140 0 4 28 6.1 52.2 31.3
Shaun King - Gm1 15 32 157 1 1 30 4.9 46.9 59
Shaun King - Gm2 13 29 163 0 2 32 5.6 44.8 34.1
Shaun King - Tot 28 61 320 1 3 32 5.25 45.9 47.2
Ben Roethlisberger - Gm1 17 30 181 1 2 21 6 56.7 57.8
Ben Roethlisberger - Gm2 14 24 226 2 3 34 9.4 58.3 78.1
Ben Roethlisberger - Tot 31 54 407 3 5 34 7.54 57.4 61.3
Joe Flacco - Gm1 9 23 135 0 0 31 5.9 39.1 59.1
Joe Flacco - Gm2 11 22 161 1 0 48 7.3 50 89.4
Joe Flacco - Gm3 13 30 141 0 3 22 4.7 43.3 18.2
Joe Flacco - Tot 33 75 437 1 3 48 5.8 44 50.8
Matt Ryan 26 40 199 2 2 28 5 65 72.8

At first glance, these numbers seem to re-inforce the idea that Marino, Ben, Flacco, and Ryan are only ones really in contention. Each had at least one game with a passer rating above 70. None of the other four had a passer rating above 60, nor did any of them reach 170 yards passing in any of their games. Flacco had the game with the highest passer rating at 89.4. Ben was only one with a game where he surpassed 200 yards passing. Ryan was the only one that appeared to be asked to carry his team. His 40 attempts were 8 more than the next closest player. Ryan also had 9 more completions than the next closest competitor, Ben. So far, I really can't say that one of the players has significantly set himself above the others.

Because of that, I thought it would be interesting to look at one more set of data for each player. I decided pull the Team Rushing Rank (Tm Rush Rk), Team Defense Rank-Points (TM D Rk-Pt), Team Defense Rank-Yards (Tm D Rk-Yd), and Strength of Schedule (SOS) for each QB's team.

Other Factors Tm D Rk-Pt  Tm D Rk-Yd Tm Rush Rk SOS
Dan Marino 1 7 13 0.473
Bernie Kosar 7 9 8 0.488
Jim Everett 4 5 4 0.468
Todd Marinovich 12 21 15 0.500
Shaun King 3 3 15 0.453
Ben Roethlisberger 1 1 2 0.484
Joe Flacco 3 2 4 0.522
Matt Ryan 11 24 2 0.459

Based on this data, again there seems to be a mixed bag. Kosar and Everett were both clearly on traditional run first and play good defense teams. Had Marinovich played more than one game, it would appear that he overcame the biggest obstacles in terms of his team supporting run offense and team defense. If you compare Ben and Flacco, it would really appear that they were about the same. Both had top notch defenses and rushing attacks supporting them. Flacco's level opponent may have been enough above Ben's to account for Ben's better passing numbers (completion percentage, rating, etc.). And, while Ryan had to overcome the worst defense of the lot, he also played a weak schedule (only King's was weaker, and he only started 5 games).

Pulling all three data sets together, I think that I'd say that Dan Marino was still the top rookie QB to start a playoff game. His statistics projected to a 16 game season would, overall, surpass the other pretty significantly. He was the only one on this list to reach 20 TD passes. Had started every game, he may have surpassed 30. He likely would have had more than 3300 yards. He probably would have had fewer INTs than Big Ben, Ryan and Flacco. Or, maybe he would have had 11 or 12. He had a higher SOS than Ryan, and Ben and Flacco had much more rushing offense supporting them. If Marino's SOS had been higher, I would be willing to unequivically say he was the best rookie QB of all time.

So, what do you guys think?