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Growing pains: Rookie QBs have particularly difficult Sunday

Mitch Stringer / US Presswire
Andy Dalton struggled in a loss to the Ravens, but he wasn't the only rookie QB to have a tough Sunday.


 

This might end up being one of the best rookie quarterback classes we have seen in a long time. And I have no doubt that at least two of these kid passers will be playing in the Pro Bowl at some point down the line.

But on Sunday, for long stretches of some games, and at critical moments in others, the rookie quarterbacks in this league looked every bit like rookies. Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton combined to throw 10 picks Sunday, some of them coming in the red zone or even the end zone. In fact, the only one from this group not to throw an interception, Gabbert, is clearly struggling more than his rookie brethren and his lack of accuracy has dogged him all season.

We'll start at the macro level.

Collectively, these four combined to go 87 of 157 Sunday, for 1,074 yards, four touchdowns and 10 interceptions. That's a cumulative passer rating of 58.7, folks. As my old pal Joe Gibbs might say, "You're not gonna win too many games up here turning the ball over like that." None of the four completed more than 58 percent of his passes. Their turnovers put their teams down early and even when some, like Dalton, shined, they could not dig out of the holes they helped create.

Oh, and lest I forget to mention, all of them suffered a loss. The most significant stat of all.

» ANDY DALTON (24 of 45, 373 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTS): He was the best of the bunch, despite his occasional novice errors. He nearly pulled off a massive comeback in a hostile environment in Baltimore, against a top defense and without his top target, injured receiver A.J. Green. But a stretch of consecutive drives where he was intercepted had as much to do with the Ravens taking a 31-14 lead and the Bengals coming up short than anything else.

The first pick wasn't so crushing -- he will learn soon enough not to lob a ball in the end zone with Ed Reed in shouting distance -- but it came on third-and-6 from the 42 and Baltimore took a knee to end the half up 14-7. Baltimore's lead was trimmed to 17-14 early in the third quarter when Dalton failed to see rookie corner Jimmy Smith gain inside position, pick him off easily and Baltimore took over at the Bengals' 2-yard line and scored. On the Bengals' next possession, Dalton misfired badly, corner Lardarius Webb dove to catch the errant pass, and Joe Flacco connected on a 38-yard touchdown pass on the next play.

Dalton was remarkable after that, but against the Ravens on the road it was too late. He went on to complete eight of his next 11 passes, including a 49-yard touchdown strike, for 166 yards. He threw perfect deep balls and had a pass to Jermaine Greshman come as close to being a touchdown as possible without counting (Calvin Johnson rule). He rallied Cincy to 31-24, and drove to the Baltimore 7 with 50 seconds left (he had two huge scrambles on the drive as well and is an underrated athlete) before the pass rush mounted and he had to throw balls away.

This kid is legit. I believe he will surpass what Carson Palmer did there, and he was not shaken by all Baltimore threw his way. But those two picks in succession undid him in the end.

» CHRISTIAN PONDER (19 of 33, 211 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs): At about the exact moment Dalton was throwing his third pick, Ponder was trying to lead the Vikings back from a big deficit, in part of his own creation, and ended up being picked off in the end zone. It was a haunting play on a day in which stud running back Adrian Peterson went down.

Ponder's first interception came on the opening drive of the second quarter and was converted into a touchdown by the Raiders for their first lead. Oakland stretched that lead to 24-7 at the half, and Ponder threw his second pick at his own 25, which was converted into a field goal. It was 27-14, with 8 minutes to play, when Ponder put the ball in Stanford Routt's hands, on a third-and-goal from the 5, a mistake that doomed them. He couldn't hit Percy Harvin on fourth down, late, and ended up a 27-21 loser.

» BLAINE GABBERT (22 of 41, 210 yards, 0 TDs or INTs): He has been by far the least ready of the rookies. Jacksonville's offense has been brutal and he can be maddeningly inconsistent. Gabbert saved his worst for the red zone and was absolutely cringe-worthy in the second half of this ugly game with the Browns (11 of 24 for 113 yards). Frankly, I was stunned the Jaguars threw the ball this much given how close the game was, how good their run game can be, and how bad Gabbert was.

He got worse as the game went on. Right around when Ponder was throwing his end-zone pick, Gabbert made the bizarre decision to throw the ball backwards -- a lateral -- while getting wrapped up for a potential sack on third-and-8 from the Cleveland 9, which could have been scooped up and changed the game. Instead, the Jaguars were able to kick a field goal cutting Cleveland's lead to 14-10, and when Jacksonville reached the Cleveland 1 with eight seconds to play, Gabbert missed both attempts, completing one of his final six passes.

» CAM NEWTON (22 of 38, 280 yards 1 TD, 3 INTs): And even Newton looked like a neophyte. His first half was plenty good enough, completing 13 of 20 passes for 145 yards, throwing a touchdown, running for another, tossing one pick and staking Carolina to a 27-14 lead over Detroit. Then it fell apart.

Matthew Stafford opened the second half on fire, with two touchdown passes giving the Lions a 28-27 lead. Newton then threw a pick at the Detroit 14. Newton ran for a touchdown and converted a two-point conversion to tie it at 35 in the fourth quarter, but like his peers, suffered late. Detroit went back ahead and Newton's next pass was intercepted in Carolina territory, and he ended the game with a pick as well.

It's that fourth quarter that defines careers and sets quarterbacks apart, and this bunch, predictably, is having a heck of a time in those situations, where there is no substitute for experience. Dalton has been particularly bad. He has a 57.6 rating in the fourth quarter and is tied with Philip Rivers with a league-high six fourth-quarter interceptions. Gabbert has a 71.5 rating in that quarter, Newton has a 73.7 rating (and is tied for third-most in the NFL with five fourth-quarter interceptions), and Ponder is at 75.3, ranking 27th in the NFL in that category, best among this group. (Tim Tebow, by comparison, has a 107 rating in the fourth quarter, seventh best in the NFL, with five touchdowns and one interception).

I have no doubt that many of these teams will relish the decision to draft a quarterback for years to come. Newton has slumped some lately, but is still having a rookie year for the ages. Dalton impresses every week. We'll see if Jake Locker gets a start for Tennessee down the line after his impressive relief stint against the Falcons. But for at least one Sunday, this class was anything but special.

Mile-high fever

More and more each week, I find myself believing in Denver's ability to win games. And take Tebow out of it. The Broncos play physical football, and the defense is so much improved from a year ago. Team officials believe they can be balanced enough that Tebow could attempt 20 passes in the average week, but they know they can sit on a lead with the defense and run game.

The Chargers are beat up. The Raiders still need to prove they won't undermine themselves in the big spots -- their issues with penalties being one prime example. I don't think this is a template Denver will be able to replicate with success in the long-term, but especially against AFC West teams, the option could be effective enough to secure a division title. And they have additional rest coming off the Thursday night game before they get San Diego on Sunday.

If Denver beats San Diego, that might put a fork in the Chargers, and I'd figure the Broncos will be favorites in at least three of their final five games. They're catching the Bears without Jay Cutler next month. And they play three of their final four games at home, with the only road game against the free-falling Bills.

Odds and ends

» The Eagles won't make the playoffs, but why do I get the feeling they're going to relish being a spoiler for other NFC East teams? Bet they go 5-1 in this division, but miss a wild-card spot.

» Rough stretch for the ball throwers. In the past two weeks we've had Matt Cassel, Matt Schaub and Cutler go down indefinitely, Ben Roethlisberger fracture his thumb (minor injury, but worth noting), Matthew Stafford has played through a finger injury, and Matt Hasselbeck hurt his elbow as well.

» This answer would have changed at various points this season, but right now, the only in-season coaching change I could see occurring is in Jacksonville. Things are getting a little tight there, and ownership has debated firing Jack Del Rio numerous times in the past. Next four games are against Houston, San Diego, Tampa and Atlanta. If I was a betting man, I'd bet against a firing anywhere until after the season. However, with two difficult prime-time games looming, you never know.

» If the Titans do have to go without Hasselbeck for any spell, watch them in the red zone, especially if the run game still sags. Hasselbeck has 11 red-zone TDs to just one pick, and an NFL-best 125.2 rating there. No way Jake Locker plays to that level, and frankly without that kind of production in that area of the field the Titans wouldn't be in the AFC South race -- if you think two games out is in the race.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora

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