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Monday, August 16, 2004
Updated: August 20, 1:22 PM ET
The best rookie quarterbacks

By Jeff Merron
Page 2

Rookie starting QBs are a rare breed, because the conventional wisdom is that a year or two of waiting and watching on the sidelines will be a huge benefit to even the greatest potential pro quarterbacks. But some teams are forced, by lack of talent or injury, to give their rook the helm from the get-go.

Only two play-callers are likely to be thrown right into the action this season: the Giants' Eli Manning and the Chargers' Philip Rivers. Will they be among the best rookie QBs of all time? It won't be easy.

10. Bob Griese (Dolphins, 1967)
The Dolphins were a second-year expansion team when Grise arrived, and stunk throughout the rest of the 1960s. But Griese demonstrated right away that he could be the cornerstone of the teams that dominated in the early 1970s. He made the Pro Bowl as a rookie (Joe Namath was the other AFL QB), completing 50 percent of his passes for 2,005 yards and 15 TDs.

Joe Namath
Joe Namath delivered very quickly for the New York Jets.
9. Joe Namath (Jets, 1965)
Broadway Joe lived up to all the hype, winning AFL rookie of the year honors from both the Sporting News and the United Press and being named to the AFL All-Star team. He took over as starter in the third game of the season and threw for 2,220 yards; it would be the one of just two seasons in his career when he tossed more TD passes (18) than INTs (15).

8. Johnny Unitas (Colts, 1956)
Unitas was cut by the Steelers in training camp in 1955, and when the Colts gave him a chance in 1956 he didn't waste any time in becoming a star. In 12 games he completed 110 of 198 passes (55.6 percent), averaging a solid 7.6 yards per attempt. Unitas also ran 28 times for 155 yards and a TD.

7. Rick Mirer (1993, Seattle)
Jerome Bettis was named offensive rookie of the year by the AP, but many (including Football Digest) thought Mirer should have gotten the nod. Why? Because in 1992 the Seahawks' offense was the worst in the NFL, by far; the team averaged less than one TD a game. With Mirer at the helm the next year, the Seahawks' offense improved immediately, and the team picked up four more wins, improving from 2-14 to 6-10. Mirer started every game, and set rookie records in completions (274), attempts (486), and yards (2,833). He also carried the ball 68 times for 344 yards and 3 TDs.

It turned out to be the greatest year of Mirer's career.

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6. Peyton Manning (Colts, 1998)
Manning took every snap for the Colts in 1998, and set all kinds of rookie QB records in the process: most completions (326), attempts (575), and yards (3,739). He also threw for 26 TDs, breaking Charlie Conerly's 50-year-old mark. Manning was one of the top QBs in the NFL, leading the AFC in passing yards and attempts.

Manning did all this despite getting off to a terrible start; in his first four games, he threw 11 interceptions. He turned things around in the middle of the season. "The improvement is phenomenal," said Colts president Bill Polian in mid-December. "I've never seen improvement like this from a rookie in all my years."

5. Charlie Conerly (Giants, 1948)
The 1948 Giants weren't very good, but their 4-8 record was an improvement over 1947 (2-8-2), and started the uptrend that would take them to the playoffs in 1950. Conerly, who compiled the third-highest rookie passer rating ever (84.0), completed 162 of 199 passes for 2,175 yards. He also threw 22 TD passes, which stood as the rookie record for 50 years before Manning.

4. Fran Tarkenton (Vikings, 1961)
Tarkenton exploded out of the gates, leading the expansion Vikings to a 37-13 blowout upset of the Bears in their first game. Tarkenton threw for four TDs and ran for another in that contest. He was just getting started. The Vikings finished the season 3-11, but Tarkenton had a great year. He completed 56 percent of his passes and was third in the NFL with 18 TD passes. And he did what he later became famous for: he scrambled and ran like crazy, rushing for 308 yards and 5 TDs.

Dan Marino
From the very beginning, Dan Marino was a smash hit in Miami.
3. Dan Marino (Dolphins, 1983)
Marino, the sixth QB picked in the 1983 draft, didn't start for the Dolphins until the sixth game of the season. His debut, against the Bills, was a harbinger: he threw for 322 yards and 3 TDs in a close OT loss. He then led the Dolphins to the playoffs, in the process becoming the first rookie QB to lead a conference in passing. He also set a rookie record with a 96 passer rating, and became the first rookie QB to start in the Pro Bowl.

2. Bob Waterfield (Rams, 1945)
Waterfield was a runaway selection for NFL MVP and led Cleveland to the NFL Championship, throwing the long ball: he averaged 9.4 yards per pass attempt, and completed 52 percent of his passes. He also tossed 37- and 44-yard TD passes in the Rams' 15-14 championship game win over the Redskins.

1. Greg Cook (Bengals, 1969)
Cook had the potential to be one of the greatest QBs in NFL history. The Bengals drafted him out of the University of Cincinnati, fifth overall, and he stepped right into the young Bill Walsh's offense and threw deep often, connecting with tight end Bob Trumpy and wide receiver Eric Crabtree.

Cook started right away and led the Bengals to a 3-0 record before injuring his shoulder. He missed the next three games (the Bengals lost all three), then came back, still injured, and continued his great season. By the end of his rookie year, he'd thrown for 1,854 yards and 15 TDs. He also averaged 17.5 yards per completion and holds the rookie record for average yards per attempt, 9.41. And his QB rating of 88 remains the second-highest ever for a rookie QB, behind Marino. Cook was named AFL rookie of the year by the United Press.

Sadly, Cook was unable to overcome his shoulder injury and played only one more game (in 1973) in his NFL career.

Also receiving votes:

Dennis Shaw (Bills, 1970)
Steve Bartkowski (Falcons, 1975)
Jim McMahon (Bears, 1982)
Jim Plunkett (Patriots,1971)