Russell Wilson’s Place in (Rookie) History

With the announcement that Russell Wilson’s game jersey has been added to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s collection after he became “the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to finish a game with at least one touchdown pass, three rushing touchdowns, and 90 yards rushing” in the Seahawks’ 50-17 win over the Bills last Sunday, I thought it might be fun to take a quick look at how Wilson’s rookie season to date compares to some other notable performances by rookie quarterbacks throughout the years.

To keep things manageable, I limited my search to quarterbacks who threw at least 15 touchdown passes in their first pro season.  After eliminating players who sat on the bench for a year or more before seeing their first season of action (Carson Palmer, Charlie Conerly, etc.) and guys who played in other pro football leagues before joining the NFL or one of the two leagues that eventually merged with it, the AAFC and the AFL (Jim Kelly played in the USFL, Butch Songin in the CFL, etc.), I was left with a list of 24 quarterbacks1:

Rank Rookie Year League & Team Name & Passing TDs Rank Rookie Year League & Team Name & Passing TDs
1 1998 NFL – Ind. Colts Peyton Manning (26) 13(t) 1946 AAFC – Cle. Browns Otto Graham (17)
2 1948 AAFC – Buf. Bills George Ratterman (22) 13(t) 2004 NFL – Pit. Steelers Ben Roethlisberger (17)
3(t) 2011 NFL – Car. Panthers Cam Newton (21) 15(t) 1948 AAFC – Bal. Colts Y.A. Tittle (16)
3(t) 2012 NFL – Sea. Seahawks Russell Wilson (21) 15(t) 1990 NFL – Ind. Colts Jeff George (16)
5(t) 1983 NFL – Mia. Dolphins Dan Marion (20) 15(t) 2008 NFL – Atl. Falcons Matt Ryan (16)
5(t) 2011 NFL – Cin. Bengals Andy Dalton (20) 18(t) 1962 AFL – S.D. Chargers John Hadl (15)
5(t) 2012 NFL – Ind. Colts Andrew Luck (20) 18(t) 1967 AFL – Mia. Dolphins Bob Griese (15)
8 1971 NFL – N.E. Patriots Jim Plunkett (19) 18(t) 1969 AFL – Cin. Bengals Greg Cook (15)
9(t) 1961 NFL – Min. Vikings Fran Tarkenton (18) 18(t) 1993 NFL – N.E. Patriots Drew Bledsoe (15)
9(t) 1965 AFL – NY Jets Joe Namath (18) 18(t) 1996 NFL – St.L. Rams Tony Banks (15)
9(t) 2010 NFL – St.L. Rams Sam Bradford (18) 18(t) 1997 NFL – Ari. Cardinals Jake Plummer (15)
9(t) 2012 NFL – Was. Redskins Robert Griffin III (18) 18(t) 1999 NFL – Cle. Browns Tim Couch (15)

Currently, Wilson is tied with Cam Newton for third most passing touchdowns by a rookie QB with 21, and Andrew Luck isn’t far behind him with 20.  Wilson needs five more TDs to tie Peyton Manning, but seeing as how his next two opponents the 49ers and Rams have allowed just 14 passing TDs all season long (tied for fourth fewest in the NFL), his chances of meeting or exceeding Manning’s record are pretty slim.

Next, here’s how Wilson stacks up when we add in rushing touchdowns:

Rank Name Pass TDs Rush TDs Total TDs Rank Name Pass TDs Rush TDs Total TDs
1 Cam Newton 21 14 35 13(t) Otto Graham 17 1 18
2 Peyton Manning 26 0 26 13(t) Joe Namath 18 0 18
3 Andrew Luck 20 5 25 13(t) Ben Roethlisberger 17 1 18
4(t) Russell Wilson 21 3 24 16(t) Jeff George 16 1 17
4(t) Robert Griffin III 18 6 24 16(t) Jake Plummer 15 2 17
6(t) George Ratterman 22 1 23 16(t) Matt Ryan 16 1 17
6(t) Fran Tarkenton 18 5 23 19(t) John Hadl 15 1 16
8 Dan Marino 20 2 22 19(t) Bob Griese 15 1 16
9 Andy Dalton 20 1 21 19(t) Greg Cook 15 1 16
10 Y.A. Tittle 16 4 20 19(t) Tim Couch 15 1 16
11(t) Jim Plunkett 19 0 19 23(t) Drew Bledsoe 15 0 15
11(t) Sam Bradford 18 1 19 23(t) Tony Banks 15 0 15

Unless the Seahawks are going to be starting every drive over the next two weeks at their opponent’s one yard line, Wilson is not likely to rack up the 11 touchdowns it would take to match Newton’s inhuman record of 35.

If nothing else, this table really emphasizes just how special this 2012 rookie QB class really is.  I mean, Luck, Wilson, and Robert Griffin III are all firmly ensconced in the top five, and they still have two games left to play – how many more times do you think we’ll see that happen in our lifetimes?

Still, rookies aren’t perfect, and they’re going to make mistakes.  Here’s how Wilson stacks up in terms of their ratio of passing touchdowns to interceptions:

Rank Name Interceptions TD:Int Rank Name Interceptions TD:Int
1 Robert Griffin III 4 9:2 12(t) Sam Bradford 15 6:5
2 Otto Graham 5 17:5 14 Jim Plunkett 16 19:16
3 Dan Marino 6 10:3 15 Tim Couch 13 15:13
4 Russell Wilson 9 7:3 16 Andrew Luck 18 10:9
5 Y.A. Tittle 9 16:9 17 George Ratterman 20 11:10
6 Ben Roethlisberger 11 17:11 18 Fran Tarkenton 17 18:17
7 Andy Dalton 13 20:13 19(t) Drew Bledsoe 15 1:1
8 Matt Ryan 11 16:11 19(t) Tony Banks 15 1:1
9 Greg Cook 11 15:11 19(t) Jake Plummer 15 1:1
10 Cam Newton 17 21:17 22 Peyton Manning 28 13:14
11 Jeff George 13 16:13 23 Bob Griese 18 5:6
12(t) Joe Namath 15 6:5 24 John Hadl 24 5:8

Finally, here’s how the ratio shakes out when we add in rushing TDs and fumbles:

Rank Name Fumbles All TDs:All Screwups Rank Name Fumbles All TDs:All Screwups
1 Otto Graham 0 18:5 13 Andrew Luck 10 25:28
2 Y.A. Tittle 0 20:9 14(t) Jim Plunkett 6 19:22
3 Dan Marino 5 2:1 14(t) Sam Bradford 7 19:22
4 Russell Wilson 5 12:7 16 Joe Namath 6 6:7
5 Robert Griffin III 11 8:5 17 Peyton Manning 3 26:31
6 Cam Newton 5 35:22 18 Jake Plummer 6 17:21
7 Ben Roethlisberger 2 18:13 19(t) Bob Griese 3 16:21
8 Andy Dalton 5 7:6 19(t) Greg Cook 10 16:21
9 George Ratterman 0 23:20 21 Drew Bledsoe 8 15:23
10(t) Jeff George 4 1:1 22 Tim Couch 14 16:27
10(t) Matt Ryan 6 1:1 23 John Hadl 8 1:2
12 Fran Tarkenton 8 23:25 24 Tony Banks 21 5:12

I don’t have much to add to this one, other than to point out that all three players listed above Wilson and Griffin in this last table are all in the Hall of Fame.  Not a bad start to a career, I’d say.

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1 I found it interesting to see how the names are grouped by time period and league.  It’s no surprise to see multiple rookie QBs managed the feat in the freewheeling offenses of the AFL IV2 in the 1960s, but I didn’t expect to see quite so many names from the AAFC (and before you assume that result was because of a handful of strong teams like the Browns beating up on weaker competition, it bears noting that the Colts teams Tittle played on were pretty awful). 

In the more conservative NFL, it was traditional for QBs to go through an apprenticeship period where they sat on the bench for a few seasons of development before being trusted to start, and even when they did play their rookie year the run-heavy offenses that dominated the league for most of its history didn’t offer much in the way of scoring opportunities for young signal callers.  Either way, it isn’t hard to understand why so few NFL rookies met the 15 TD mark prior to the early 1990s.

2 Yes, there really were three other American Football Leagues.  The first one played for just one year back in 1926 and was only organized in the first place so that C.C. Pyle could strong-arm the NFL into awarding him a franchise (it worked, by the way).  The second one lasted two years, 1936-37, before going bankrupt (apparently the middle of the Great Depression isn’t the best time to organize a new sports league).  The third AFL was successful enough that it began to show a profit by the end of its second season in 1941, but they suspended operations when the United States entered World War II (they fully intended to resume play after the war, but for whatever reason they never did).

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