FRISCO, Texas — An NFL-record 10 rookies have started at quarterback this season.
The Cowboys are scheduled to face one of those rookies on Sunday in Bryce Young, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers. It’s the second time the Cowboys face a rookie quarterback this season. Last week, New York Giants rookie Tommy DeVito made his first career start against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, a game Dallas won easily.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy is one of many people who say playing quarterback is the hardest position in sports. If it’s hard for seasoned veterans, what’s it like for a rookie? The success varies based on the skill of the quarterback and the type of coaching and team that’s around the individual.
“I think it’s just like anything, they have so much to do, so the connection they get with their particular players in the passing game, the protection unit, that takes some time,” McCarthy said. “I think any time you see a rookie that’s productive, you really got to take your hat off to him. That’s impressive.”
Of the rookie quarterbacks to start this season, Houston’s C.J. Stroud, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, is having the most success. He already has three 300-yard games and one 400-yard game and is not only the favorite to win the AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but is getting consideration for NFL MVP.
Yes, NFL MVP.
At some point, Stroud will hit a stretch where he’ll struggle and his inexperience will show.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott had a similar successful rookie season in 2016 when he took over for Tony Romo.
Prescott led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record while completing 67.8% of his passes with a quarterback rating of 104.9. He threw 23 touchdowns with just four interceptions.
And while he was successful, the following year was vastly different.
The Cowboys finished 2017 with a 9-7 record as Prescott completed 62.9% of his throws with an 86.6 quarterback rating. He also threw 22 touchdowns with 13 interceptions.
“It’s tough. It is,” Prescott said. “I mean, obviously, I had a lot of success and in the sense of being a rookie, I felt like I was almost maybe a rookie my second year and not my first year. First year, a lot of things were great. Had obviously an amazing O-line, playmakers everywhere, made my job easy for me just to be able to get the ball Point A to Point B and guys did the rest. Year 2, I had some injuries, had different things that occurred that made it a lot tougher but it’s tough as a young QB.”
If anyone knows the difficulty rookie quarterbacks face, it’s Cowboys offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
“The Sanchize,” a smiling Schottenheimer says upon reflection.
Schottenheimer has worked with rookie quarterbacks throughout his coaching career, most recently with Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence in the 2021 season. In 2009, Schottenheimer was the offensive coordinator for the New York Jets when they drafted Mark Sanchez with the fifth overall pick from USC.
Sanchez, nicknamed “The Sanchize,” received plenty of media and fan hype.
Schottenheimer said the Jets were keeping things easy for Sanchez by sticking to a running game and using their defense to win games. The Jets started the 2009 season 3-0 before a three-game losing streak brought Sanchez and the Jets to a standstill.
A major turning point occurred on Oct. 18, 2009. Sanchez threw five interceptions in a 16-13 home loss to the Bills. His quarterback rating was 8.3.
Then-Jets coach Rex Ryan, with a defensive background rooted from learning the game from his father, Buddy Ryan, devised a plan to help his rookie quarterback for the next contest.
“Rex, adding what he wanted to aid the offense, wanted to come up with a color system for Mark,” Schottenheimer said. “And depending on the situation of the game it was a stop light. Green means do whatever you want, yellow means proceed with caution and red, ‘Hey, dude, don’t f— this up, hand it off, check it down, run, whatever. It was a silly thing but it helped Mark.”
The next week, Sanchez led the Jets to a 38-0 victory during which he completed nine of 16 passes for 143 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Sanchez’s quarterback rating was a season-high 107.0.
The color system worked for Sanchez, who eventually led the Jets to a pair of AFC Championship Game appearances, because when he was pressed in certain situations he knew what to do. Keeping the game plan basic for some young quarterbacks works because they’re not processing as much information.
All of this can take a mental and physical toll on a young quarterback.
“It’s the emotion of being the guy,” McCarthy said. “The mental capacity [to] have a clear understanding not only of what the plays are but the whole operation, the cadence. You can’t go out there and play with one or two cadences in this league. It’s usually different like some of these quarterbacks coming out of college. But, yeah, definitely the mental, the physical, because the physical part, too. It’s a long year. It’s more than they’ve ever gone through from start to finish.”
Before the season, the Cowboys acquired Trey Lance from the 49ers. Lance was the third overall pick in 2021, but injuries and the emergence of Brock Purdy, the last pick of the 2022 draft, made Lance expendable.
In fact, another high draft pick, Sam Darnold, replaced Lance as the backup. Being looked at as the future in San Francisco to now being the Cowboys’ No. 3 quarterback isn’t lost on Lance.
The business side of the NFL slapped him into reality. He was no longer playing at North Dakota State where the game, compared to the NFL, is slower. Lance’s inexperience at the position goes back to college. He played in only 19 games over three seasons, including one game in 2020 due to the restrictions of COVID-19. That limited number of games hampered his development. In comparison, Lawrence played in 40 college games before his rookie NFL season.
NFL teams play 17 regular-season and three preseason games. Lawrence played all 20 games his rookie season in 2021. It’s something Lance has never done.
In comparison to Lawrence, Lance most likely would go in the middle rounds of a re-draft because of his limited experience. But San Francisco drafted him for his potential, with a willingness to be patient with his development.
The business side of the NFL, with the 49ers becoming title contenders, affected the patience the organization once had with Lance.
It was gone.
“It’s a different transition,” Lance said. “That time from college to rookie year. Everything is new, you’re in a new place, it’s just different. You see the business side of things versus you’re going to practice and not hanging out with your boys. Guys got families and things like that. That was a big adjustment for me and the football side of things. We played most schools, play one or three guys on the field at the time going to the league, versus now. This is the best of the best, the best in the world. It’s definitely adjustments football and on the life side of things.”
The ‘it’ factor
The Panthers’ Young, who had 36 starts over three seasons at Alabama, has endured a difficult rookie campaign.
He started the season with coach Frank Reich as the play caller, but the Panthers switched to Thomas Brown for the previous two games. Reich announced this week he’ll take back play-calling duties.
There are concerns about Young’s size — he’s a wiry 5-10, 204 pounds — and the lack of playmakers around him has the Panthers among the worst offenses in the NFL.
The Panthers average 4.2 yards per game, next to last in the NFL, and average 1.38 points per offensive drive, which is 29th in the league.
Much like the Cowboys and Lance, the Panthers see the potential in their young quarterbacks.
“He has the it factor,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said of Young. “Coming out, one of the [scouts] said he may not look prototypical. In the basketball narrative, he’s Steph Curry. He knows where to go [with the ball] he’s got eyes in the back of his head. He can see things. He feels the rush.”
The Cowboys expect to defeat the Panthers, not because they are facing a rookie quarterback but the overall talent around Young doesn’t compare. Of course, the Cowboys lost a playoff game to a rookie quarterback [Purdy] last season. The talent around Purdy helped make that possible.
But rookie quarterbacks, with their potential, are under scrutiny or they’ll be replaced regardless of where they’re picked in the draft.
“When you’re a highly drafted player there’s so much pressure and some guys are better at handling it than others and I’ve been around a couple of them,” Schottenheimer said. “I won’t use any names but there was one or two that they felt it. They felt the pressure, not first overall pick, [but I] had to call a lot of plays and take a lot bullets in this league. The pressure is real and some guys are wired to handle it better than others.”
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