The 11 Worst Rookie Performances in NFL History

Rocco Constantino@@br_jets_reportContributor IApril 16, 2012

The 11 Worst Rookie Performances in NFL History

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    With the high turnover rate seen on NFL rosters, there are dozens and dozens of rookies who take the field every year.

    Some are high draft picks with huge expectations, while others are just happy to be strapping on gear in the NFL and realizing their wildest dreams.

    Needless to say, every year some immediately rise to the top of the sport while others find out that the game in the NFL moves a lot faster than expected.

    This particular list takes a look at some of the worst performances by rookies in NFL history.  

    To be considered for this list, some ground rules had to be established.

    First, the player had to play a considerable amount of time as a rookie.  For example, JaMarcus Russell's four-game stint as a rookie fails to qualify him for this list of awfulness.

    Second, there had to be some kind of expectations surrounding the rookie.  Sure, Chansi Stuckey did nothing for the Jets as a rookie in 2007, but he was the 235th player taken in the draft, so he wasn't expected to.

    Due to the nature of the sport, there are probably hundreds upon hundreds of choices to be considered here.  However, when taken into account the expectations and responsibilities of these players, here are the worst of the worst when it comes to the poorest rookie seasons in NFL history.

Terry Bradshaw 1970

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    As the top overall pick in the 1970 NFL draft, Terry Bradshaw came to Pittsburgh with high expectations.  To say it took a few seasons to meet those expectations would be an understatement.

    Bradshaw is known as a winner and a quarterback who thrived under the pressure of the big game, but during his rookie year he was  practically the exact opposite.

    The two statistics that stand out most about Bradshaw's rookie year were his 24 interceptions and his abysmal 30.4 quarterback rating.

    Bradshaw's 24 interceptions were the second-most thrown by a rookie at the time and what made that feat even more impressive was that Bradshaw split time behind center with Terry Hanratty.

    Bradshaw started just eight games and played in 13.  If Bradshaw was the full-time quarterback in 1970, he most likely would have obliterated the rookie interception record.

    Bradshaw had four games in which he threw three interceptions and two other games in which he threw four.  He also had just six touchdown passes all year and completed just 38 percent of his passes.

    On the positive side, the Steelers had a record of 5-9 after going 1-13 the year before, so at least he had that.

Jim Zorn 1976

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    Jim Zorn might be a controversial choice for this list as he actually was awarded the NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year award by the NFL Players Association in 1976.

    It must have been a thin year for offensive rookies in the NFC.

    There's no question that Zorn became an incredibly popular and exciting player in Seattle, playing with a style compared to that of a lefty Fran Tarkenton.  However, as a rookie he did more negative than positive.

    Zorn was an undrafted free agent quarterback from Cal Poly Pomona, but was able to beat out veteran backup Bill Munson for the quarterback job during the Seahawks inaugural season in 1976.

    Zorn actually fared well in his first game, throwing for 292 yards and two touchdowns while running for another touchdown in a 30-24 loss against the Cardinals.  

    There weren't many more highlights from there though.

    Zorn's Seahawks ended the season with a record of 2-12, which was expected for an expansion franchise of that era.  He threw just 12 touchdowns in 14 games and completed just 45 percent of his passes.

    However, what lands Zorn on this list is the fact that he threw a then-NFL record 27 interceptions.  Zorn threw an interception in every game except one as he matched Bud Schwenk's record for interceptions in a season by a rookie.

    Making that feat more impressive was that Schwenk's record stood unmatched for 34 years and wasn't surpassed until 1998 when another  quarterback on this list managed to top it.

    By no means did Zorn have as bad an overall rookie season as some on this list.  The fact that he was an undrafted free agent on an expansion team gives him somewhat of a pass. 

    However, 27 interceptions just can't be ignored.

Ricky Bell 1977

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    After the historically bad inaugural season of 1976 in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went winless, they were awarded the top pick in the 1977 NFL draft.

    The Bucs needed to find a star skill player to build their team around and the top running back in the draft was projected to be Tony Dorsett.

    However, head coach John McKay chose USC running back Ricky Bell, his former player, instead.

    With the weight of a franchise on his shoulders and questions about whether the Bucs should have gone with Dorsett always lingering, Bell struggled mightily during his rookie year.

    The fact that the Bucs' roster was littered with incapable players didn't help Bell much, but for someone who harbored so many expectations, he failed to deliver right away.

    The statistic that stands out when looking at Bell's rookie season is his 2.9 yards per carry average.  Bell carried the ball 148 times, but accumulated just 436 yards.  He also only scored on touchdown.

    Without any threat at quarterback or wide receiver, defenses keyed on Bell and the out-manned Bucs could do nothing to compensate.

    Bell only topped the 50-yard mark in a game four times, with a season-high of 94 yards on 25 carries coming in a week 12 loss to the Bears.

    Bell and the Bucs would have their redemption just two seasons later when he rushed for 1263 yards and a 4.5 yard per carry average in leading the Bucs to the NFC Championship game.

    However, Bell began to break down after that and was diagnosed with dermatomyositis during the players' strike of 1982.  

    Sadly, Bell died from the disease in 1984 at the age of 29.

Steve DeBerg 1978

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    Steve DeBerg might not have come with the hype of a highly-drafted prospect, but his rookie year was awful whether there were high expectations or not.

    DeBerg was drafted in the 10th round of the 1977 NFL draft by the Cowboys but wasn't on a roster until 1978 when he won the starting quarterback job with the 49ers.

    DeBerg had a poor season from start to finish and ended with one of the highest total number of interceptions ever thrown by a rookie with 22.

    His 1-10 record, 45.4 completion percentage, 40.0 quarterback rating and nine fumbles also contributed to the atrocity.

    The very next season DeBerg bounced back though and led the NFL in completions and attempts.  He went on to an incredible 21-year career despite his poor start.

Troy Aikman 1989

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    After three straight losing seasons at the end of the 1980's, the Cowboys were a team in need of a transition.  

    To say they wiped the slate clean and started over would be a severe understatement.

    On February 25, 1989 Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys and two weeks later fired the immortal Tom Landry.

    He started his reclamation project by hiring Jimmy Johnson, Landry's polar opposite, as head coach.

    One of the first moves Johnson made was to jettison veteran quarterbacks Steve Pelluer and Danny White while drafting Troy Aikman and Steve Walsh in the traditional and supplemental drafts, respectively.

    Aikman won the job over Walsh and was inserted into the starting lineup immediately. 

    While Aikman obviously grew into the role and became a Hall of Fame quarterback, few could have seen that coming while watching his rookie season. 

    The 22-year-old Aikman was under center on opening day against the Saints as the Cowboys laid an egg in a 28-0 loss.  Aikman completed 17 passes in 35 attempts for 180 yards and threw two interceptions in the game.

    Aikman's awful debut season culminated with an 0-11 record in games he started as he finished with a quarterback rating of 55.7.  He threw just nine touchdowns against 18 interceptions and threw for just 1749 yards.

    Aikman's season as a whole was dreadful and some of his individual games were even worse.  Some of the more embarrassing ones were a 6-21-83 effort in a 30-7 loss to the Redskins and a 7-21-54 clunker in a 27-0 loss to the Eagles.

    Aikman obviously got on track quickly and by 1992 was a Super Bowl champion. 

Derek Brown 1992

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    When the Jets and Giants drafted tight ends Johnny Mitchell and Derek Brown back to back in the 1992 NFL draft, Chris Berman exclaimed, "New York, New York has become tight end, tight end!"

    In retrospect, New York football fans probably have a long list of other quotes that could have been used at the time.

    While Mitchell had some marginal success as a Jet, Brown never quite got it going with the Giants to say the least.

    At 6'6", 260 Brown was expected to be a huge target in the passing game and capable blocker after a stellar career at Notre Dame.

    Brown managed to play in all 16 games as a rookie, starting seven of them, so getting on the field was not a problem.

    Making any kind of contribution while he was out there was.

    Brown caught a grand total of four passes for 31 yards in his rookie season.  

    To be that big, see a decent amount of playing time and contribute so little is downright unacceptable, especially for someone as highly-touted as Brown.

    To be fair, Howard Cross was the Giants' primary pass-catching tight end in 1992, but you'd have to think the Giants planned on Brown catching more than four passes when they drafted him 14th overall.

    Brown never materialized as a player, yet somehow stuck around for seven seasons (on four different teams) and 105 games.  He caught just 45 passes over that time.

Luther Ellis 1995

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    Luther Ellis was a serviceable defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions who even made it to two Pro Bowls.

    His rookie season however was another story.

    Ellis was viewed as a good value pick by the Lions when they selected the consensus All-American at No. 20 in the 1995 draft.  "Lethal Luther" was coming off a tremendous career at the University of Utah where he was the WAC Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.

    He was expected to make an immediate impact for the Lions, who had a tremendous offense behind Barry Sanders, Herman Moore and Scott Mitchell, but needed to shore up their defense.

    Ellis was inserted into the starting lineup immediately and bombed out just as fast.

    Ellis started every game of the season and somehow managed just nine tackles, none of which went for a sack.

    You'd have to figure someone as talented as Ellis would do better than a half a tackle per game, even by accident.

    Ellis made a nice leap during his second season when he registered 6.5 sacks and was in the Pro Bowl by 1999.

    Ellis ended his career with a respectable 29 sacks over eight full seasons (and two part-time seasons) to help erase the memory of his invisible rookie year.

Peyton Manning 1998

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    Like Jim Zorn, Peyton Manning's rookie season wasn't a total washout.  However, the number of interceptions thrown cannot be ignored.

    Manning threw 28 picks as a rookie, topping the mark of 27 that stood unsurpassed for 56 years.

    It should also be said that Manning threw for 3739 yards and 26 touchdowns and had a respectable quarterback rating of 71.2.

    Manning's positive stats came close to keeping him off this list, but there was one other statistic that landed him here: his win-loss record.

    The Colts went 3-13 during Manning's rookie season and in 10 of those losses, Manning threw multiple interceptions.

    Manning (and head coach Jim Mora) got things straightened out quickly in 1999 as they reversed their record and finished 13-3, marking the biggest turnaround in NFL history.  

    There may have been quarterbacks who had worse rookie seasons than Manning who aren't on this list, but none came with his expectations and none threw 28 interceptions during their first season.

Ryan Leaf 1998

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    The all-time disastrous rookie season may just belong to popular NFL-punching bag Ryan Leaf.

    Not only was Leaf atrocious on the field, but he also was a disruptive force in the locker room and had multiple public, physical confrontations with his detractors.

    To think that people legitimately debated Leaf's potential versus Peyton Manning's is now laughable.

    After being selected second overall behind Manning, Leaf actually led the Chargers to wins in their first two games, before quickly bottoming out.

    In his third game, Leaf was impossibly atrocious, completing just one of 15 passes for four yards.  Leaf then threw eight interceptions over his next three games, sending his career and the Chargers season into a downward spiral.

    Leaf ended his rookie season with just two touchdown passes and 15 interceptions.  He had a brutal completion percentage of 45.3 and an equally dismal 39 quarterback rating.

    After missing the 1999 season, Leaf was given one more chance with the Chargers during the 2000 season.  After another season of epic implosions, Leaf was mercifully let go.  After a brief, four-game stint in Dallas, Leaf was gone from the NFL for good.

    It's been 14 years since Leaf's dreadful rookie season and not many have approached rock bottom the way Leaf did in 1998.

Alex Smith 2005

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    Alex Smith may have finally begun to reach his potential in 2011 when he had the 49ers within one muffed punt of a Super Bowl, but it was a long journey to get there.

    Smith was the first choice overall at the 2005 NFL draft and new coach Mike Nolan pledged to build the franchise around the cerebral quarterback.

    Smith saw his first extensive action in week four of the 2005 season when he split time with incumbent quarterback Tim Rattay.  He completed six of 10 passes for just 34 yards in a 31-14 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

    Smith got his first career start the following week and didn't fare much better.  He was just 9-23 for 74 yards and four interceptions as the Niners fell to the Colts 28-3.

    After another sub-par outing the following week, Smith was on the shelf until Nolan went back to him for the final five games of the season.

    Smith played a little better, even leading the 49ers to two straight wins to end the season.  However, his final statistics were a nightmare.

    Smith played in nine games altogether and threw just one touchdown pass.  His completion percentage was just 50 percent and his quarterback rating was a disastrous 40.8.

    It's tough to project what Smith would have done over a full season, considering that he did show some improvement towards the end of the season.  But at final tally, throwing just one touchdown over 165 pass attempts qualifies as one of the worst rookie seasons of all time. 

Vernon Gholston 2008

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    While most players on this list bounced back to have some semblance of success during their NFL careers, Vernon Gholston actually got worse after an awful rookie year.

    After a terrific combine and a great career at Ohio State, Gholston was projected as a sure-fire, top-ten choice at the 2008 NFL draft.

    The Jets nabbed Gholston with the sixth pick and the team thought they had the vicious pass-rushing linebacker their franchise lacked.

    What they got was an unmitigated disaster.

    at 6'3", 260 pounds, Gholston had the physical tools to be dominant, but he couldn't be more invisible during his rookie year unless he had the help of Harry Potter's invisibility cloak.

    Gholston played in 15 games and according to, had one solo tackle.


    While he didn't start any games, he was absolutely on the field enough to make some kind of contribution.

    Gholston was so bad that by week 15, he was a healthy scratch against the Buffalo Bills.

    During his three-year reign of awfulness in New York, Gholston managed just 16 tackles in 45 games and was held without a sack.

    After his release from the Jets, he badmouthed Rex Ryan, saying he never got a "fair chance" and the Bears may have actually bought that line of nonsense.

    Chicago signed him in July of 2011, but he lasted just one month of the preseason and was released by the Bears, never to see the NFL again.

Dishonorable Mentions

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    Bud Schwenk 1942: If it wasn't so hard to judge what football was like 70 years ago, Schwenk would be in the top 11 for sure.  What we do know is that he threw six touchdowns, 27 interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 25.5 during a rookie season that happened during the peak of World War II.

    John Hadl 1962: Threw 24 interceptions while starting just 10 games.  Sported a quarterback rating of 43.3 while completing just 41 percent of his passes.

    Bob Timberlake 1965: Who?  Timberlake played just one season in the NFL as a kicker with the Giants.  He missed 14 of the 15 field goals he attempted.  No further explanation needed.

    Lynn Swann 1974: Picked 21st overall in the 1974 draft, Swann was expected to make an immediate impact in the Steelers' offense.  Instead, he caught 11 total passes in 11 games and fumbled five times.

    Renaldo Nehemiah 1982: The gold-medal Olympic sprinter didn't' come with the hype of a high draft pick, but as an experiment to see how an Olympic sprinter could do in the NFL.  The answer was "not so good."  Nehemiah played in eight games and registered just eight catches.

    Herman Moore 1991: As the 10th pick overall in the 1991 NFL draft, Moore was expected to be a devastating weapon with Barry Sanders in the Lions' offense.  He eventually was, but not during his rookie year.  Moore caught 11 passes in 13 games as a rookie and didn't catch a single touchdown pass. 

    Vance Joseph 1995:  In their infinite wisdom, the Jets signed University of Colorado backup quarterback Vance Joseph, turned him into a defensive back and played him in 13 games as a rookie.  Any guess how that turned out?  In his first start, which came against the Raiders on national television, Joseph was abused by Tim Brown and Jeff Hostetler.  Joseph was mercifully cut after just one season on the Jets.

    Cedric Jones 1996: Jones was the No. 5 pick in the 1996 NFL draft, played in 16 games as a rookie and had just six tackles.  Unconfirmed rumors say that those six tackles came when he was pancaked and a running back tripped over him while he was on the ground.

    Freddie Mitchell 2001: As the new millennium started, the Eagles had a void at the wide receiver position.  When they chose Mitchell in the first round of the 2001, that was supposed to solve things.  Instead, Mitchell had just 21 catches in 15 games as a rookie with one touchdown. 

    Eli Manning 2004: Played in eight games, the first seven of which were losses.  Threw just six touchdowns, three coming in the season finale.  Completed 48 percent of his passes and had a 55.4 quarterback rating.

    Matt Dodge 2010: Inconsistent all year, drawing the ire of Giants fans.  Topped off his season with a week 15 incident in which he was ordered to punt the ball out of bounds late against the Eagles.  Instead, he punted the ball to DeSean Jackson, who returned it for the game winning touchdown.  The Giants lost out to Eagles on a tiebreaker for a playoff berth based on that loss.  Dodge was released in 2011 and has not surfaced again in the NFL.