Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys will become the 21st rookie quarterback to start an NFL playoff game.
Nobody knows what to expect, especially since the fourth-round pick experienced unprecedented success during his rookie season despite the fact he was only the eighth quarterback selected in his draft class. His 104.9 passer rating was the highest qualified mark for a rookie in league history, but he's faced with having to make even more history by becoming the first-ever rookie signal-caller to lead his team to a Super Bowl.
To get a feel for the kinds of precedents Prescott is looking to establish with the top-seeded Cowboys over the next few weeks, let's consult the history books regarding rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs.
The real deals and the replacements
There are two groups of quarterbacks who have started playoff games as rookies.
The first group contains mainly blue-chip, mainly 21st-century players who were generally handed starting roles early on. Let's call those guys the "real deals."
|Rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs|
|Robert Griffin III||Redskins||2012||0-1||77.5|
|Pro Football Reference|
Dieter Brock is included despite the fact that the longtime CFL quarterback was 34 when he signed on to quarterback the Los Angeles Rams in 1985. Suffice to say, his circumstances were quite different than everyone else listed.
The second group contains players who probably or definitely only started playoff games as rookies because veteran starters suffered injuries. They were in the right place at the right time, and their teams were in trouble. Connor Cook of the Oakland Raiders—who struggled in an AFC Wild Card Round loss to the Houston Texans last weekend—is a great example. We'll call these guys "the replacements."
|Rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs (injury replacements)|
|Pro Football Reference|
Technically, Prescott started his rookie season as a replacement. He never would have played early on if not for regular starter Tony Romo's back injury. But his rookie campaign was such a success that he kept his starting role even when Romo was healthy again. While he didn't enter the NFL entitled to as much as most of the "real deals," he belongs in that group.
What the history books say...
The majority are one-and-done
- Nine of the 20 rookie quarterbacks who have started in the playoffs won at least one postseason game (45 percent). But only two (Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco) won more than one playoff game.
- The eight "real deals" from this generation went 6-8 (.429) in their 14 playoff games as rookies. Everyone else—including the replacements—went 5-12 (.294).
- Altogether, rookie quarterbacks have a .355 winning percentage in playoff games.
- Only six (Sanchez, Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Shaun King, Brock and Pat Haden) made the conference championship. Roethlisberger, King and Brock had first-round byes, and Haden did so before the wild card was adopted, so those four needed to win just one game to get there. (That's an advantage Prescott has this year as well.)
The majority are first-round picks
- Nine of the 12 real deals were first-round draft picks. Andy Dalton was a second-rounder, Russell Wilson was a third-rounder and Brock was a 34-year-old CFL veteran. Prescott will become the first quarterback drafted beyond the third round to start a playoff game for non-injury reasons in his first year out of college.
- All in all, 18 fresh-out-of-college rookies have started NFL playoff games, but only two—AJ McCarron and T.J. Yates—were drafted lower than Prescott.
Playing for a good team helps
- Roethlisberger, King and Brock all won divisional playoff games after their respective teams earned first-round byes, but Doug Flutie, Bernie Kosar and Dan Marino all lost under those circumstances. All six fell short of the Super Bowl, even though Big Ben quarterbacked a top seed.
- Prescott is the second rookie quarterback to represent a top seed.
Best- and worst-case scenarios
Considering the expectations in Dallas, anything short of a Super Bowl appearance would be viewed as a disappointment for Prescott and Co.
Prescott has put together a rookie season that, on paper, was better than every rookie quarterback listed above. He has a heck of a lot of support from NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott as well as first-team All-Pro offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick, and the Cowboys had the best record in the NFC during the regular season.
It's clear there are some rookie quarterback playoff success stories he can hope to trump—and many failures he'll do his best to avoid replicating.
- Wilson's Seahawks beat Robert Griffin's Washington Redskins on the road in his first playoff game in 2012. The third-round pick had a turnover-free performance in a double-digit wild-card win, and one week later he led the Seahawks back from a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit in Atlanta, only for the Falcons to win on a late field goal. Wilson finished that game with 385 passing yards and a 109.1 passer rating, and his playoff passer rating of 102.4 is by far the best for a rookie in NFL history. He also had 127 rushing yards in those two games, but the Seahawks fell short of making the NFC title game.
- Sanchez completed just 12 passes in each of his first two playoff games in 2009, but the Jets won them both on the road. Like Wilson, he was well supported by a strong running game and a great defense, but he turned the ball over just twice in three playoff games and had a 92.7 rating. At the very least, the No. 5 overall pick was a good game manager.
- Aaron Brooks had a four-touchdown performance in a thrilling 31-28 wild-card victory over the Rams before completing 30 of 48 passes in a road loss to the Vikings in 2000. He, Wilson and Sanchez are the only quarterbacks who posted 90-plus passer ratings in the playoffs as rookies.
- Andrew Luck made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2012, but he committed two turnovers and failed to lead the Colts on a touchdown drive in a one-sided wild-card loss to the Ravens.
- After winning all 13 of his regular-season starts for the first-place Steelers (and posting a 98.1 rating in the process), Roethlisberger threw nearly twice as many interceptions as touchdowns (five to three) in two poor playoff performances in 2004. Pittsburgh needed overtime to beat a far worse Jets team at home and then got crushed by the Patriots.
- Marino was 7-2 with a 96.0 passer rating in his 1983 rookie season, but he threw two interceptions in a 27-20 divisional-round home loss to an inferior Seahawks team.
The sample we're working with when assessing rookie quarterback performances in the playoffs remains small, so by no means does Prescott face overwhelming odds based on precedent. While pessimists can state that rookie quarterbacks rarely win playoff games, let alone championship games, optimists might note that recent trends are promising.
Rookie quarterbacks rarely saw the field in previous eras, but now they're being groomed to start and succeed from the get-go. Wilson, Sanchez, Flacco and Roethlisberger came close, so it's possible the time has arrived for a first-year signal-caller to break through.
It has often felt this year that the stars are aligned for Prescott and the Cowboys. If that's the case, history will be made in more ways than one this month.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.