When first-time starting quarterbacks win their games, and do so with impressive numbers, there is the usual optimism that comes with it. Then it is followed by a major question: Is it sustainable?
We’ve seen a lot of quarterbacks show well in a handful of starts, maybe even their first, and then fade into oblivion. Hell, even Ryan Leaf won his first NFL start.
So when New England’s Jimmy Garoppolo and Philadelphia rookie Carson Wentz both won their first starts last Sunday, it naturally set off the excitement in those cities. Garoppolo is a stopgap quarterback for four games as Tom Brady sits out his league-imposed, four-game suspension. Wentz was the second-overall pick by Philadelphia in this year’s NFL Draft, with the Philadelphia Eagles trading up to land him. He is their future.
So their circumstances are entirely different, but a first start is a first start. And both came through with good games, surprising some.
Numbers are one thing. The tape is another. So I wanted to take a closer look at both passers to see just how they were able to have success in their first NFL starts.
The common thread: The teams made it easy on them.
Neither passer was asked to throw it around or take shots into the middle of the field much. That’s the danger zone for young passers. They both made a handful of throws into the middle, yet most of the throws on the day were simple ones.
That doesn’t mean they can’t make the tough throws. It’s just smart coaching by both Josh McDaniels, the offensive coordinator in New England, and Doug Pederson, the head coach of the Eagles.
They let their quarterbacks play to their strengths, which meant getting the ball out on time and in a rhythm. Garoppolo, who did have some playing experience coming into Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals , did a lot of the same stuff the New England Patriots use with Brady. The signature pick plays were in the offenses, as were many of the other elements in play when Brady is under center.
Garoppolo finished the game hitting 24 of his 33 attempts for 264 yards, one touchdown and a lost fumble. He did not throw a pick. He was 8-of-10 for 107 yards on third down. That’s an impressive job as the Patriots upset the Cardinals in Arizona.
The numbers are really good considering he faced an Arizona defense that loves to throw exotic looks at quarterbacks. Yet Garoppolo never flinched. Even when he lost his fumble, he never got flustered.
He just did his job — like Bill Belichick always implores his players to do.
Garoppolo’s arm and ability to drive the ball isn’t close to being that of Brady. But he gets by with an arm that is good enough. He was also cool in the pocket with bodies around him, something I noticed in a previous tape study of his game. His eye level didn’t come down with pressure, which is big for a young passer.
He also spun his head. That’s important for any quarterback, but it’s tough for some young ones.
Here’s an example of that against the Cardinals:
Play: First-and-10 at the New England 39 with 13:02 left in the third quarter
Offense: 20 personnel (3WR, 2RB, 0TE)
Defense: Base defense, Cover-3, five-man rush
On the play, Garoppolo opened to his left and clearly wanted to go to rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell .
But Mitchell must have missed the call since he didn’t run a route, but instead blocked slot corner Tyrann Mathieu .
So with the play solidly blocked up front against Arizona’s five-man rush, Garoppolo calmly took a look to his right and hit Julian Edelman for a 9-yard gain.
It was a simple throw, yet it was an example of his being able to get off his first read. As he matures, he might hit Chris Hogan (15) in the middle of the field for a bigger play in the same situation. It was available. But that’s the chance throw that comes with experience.
Here’s a play that shows how Garoppolo can be cool under pressure. It came at a key time in the fourth quarter and it converted a big third down.
Play: Third-and-15 at the New England 20 with 9:04 left in the fourth quarter
Offense: Posse (3WR, 1TE, 1RB) — Shotgun, trips to the right
Defense: Dime, three-man rush, Cover-3
On this play, the Patriots wanted to fake a quick screen outside and then throw the deep ball over it. The problem was that’s a play designed for man coverage. The Cardinals were in zone.
Garoppolo wisely saw the coverage, and pulled the ball down. Most young passers would take off and run in that situation — even with a three-man rush. But Garoppolo stayed calm. He didn’t panic. He did start to move out, but while doing so he kept his head up. That’s big for a young passer in that down-and-distance situation.
With his head up, he saw Danny Amendola running free through the zone — thanks to a poor play by the safety in the middle — and he hit him for a 32-yard completion and a first down. That led to the game-winning field goal.
Garoppolo was far from perfect. He seemed to aim some throws and he didn’t have great zip on all his passes. But he had a good feel in the pocket and didn’t seem to get rattled at all.
Wentz had much the same type of day for the Eagles. For a player from small-school North Dakota State, making his first start in a town that eats quarterbacks for dinner (with Cheez Wiz), Wentz looked like a savvy veteran against the Cleveland Browns , leading his team to a 29-10 home victory.
He finished his first start 22-of-37 for 278 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. His passer rating was 101.0.
In studying his game, Wentz wasn’t asked to make a lot of complex reads or throws. But what he was asked to do, he did well. He was much better seeing the field than I expected after watching his North Dakota State tape, which featured a lot of easy throws based on the design and competition he faced.
When Wentz was asked to make a presnap read, recognizing the blitz and pointing things out, he did a nice job with it.
Here’s a play where he clearly understood that the Browns were bringing a double A-gap — or Mug — blitz from the inside. Wentz knew that he had enough people and the right protection to handle it. There was no panic at all. Take a look:
Play: First-and-10 at the Cleveland 35 with 14:44 left in the second quarter
Offense: (2WR, 2TE, 1RB) — QB under center, audibles to shotgun
Defense: Base, Double-A-gap blitz, single-high safety, man under
Wentz initially came to the line under center. But he saw the single-high safety and understood the Browns would blitz.
So he went to a shotgun snap, changed the play, and fired a rope to Jordan Matthews for 28 yards. Matthews beat Jamar Taylor with a corner route for the big play.
Earlier in the game, on a touchdown throw to Matthews in the first quarter, Wentz used his eyes to help make the play a success. Here’s a look:
Play: Second-and-2 at the Cleveland 19 with 9:56 left in the first quarter.
Offense: (4WR, 1TE, 0RB) — Shotgun, spread, empty.
Defense: Nickel, man-under free, four-man rush.
It was clear at the snap that Wentz knew he had man-under coverage. So the key there is always to manipulate the safety in the middle, that being No. 24 Ibraheim Campbell .
You can see after the snap that Wentz was able to get Campbell to move to Campbell’s left with a quick look inside.
That gave Wentz the ability to attack cornerback Tramon Williams with Matthews from his inside slot route. Matthews ran right by Williams and Wentz dropped a perfect pass into his arms for the score.
Wentz still has a tendency to stay on — and throw — to his first read. But that’s natural for a rookie quarterback. There was a play in the game where he hit Nelson Agholor for an 11-yard gain. It was his first read and a nice play. But if he truly understood the coverage, he had Zach Ertz crossing the middle wide open — he even had his hand up — for what could have been a huge play.
That’s the next step for Wentz, going further through his progressions. Everything else looked good. His arm is strong and he is willing to stand in the pocket.
The Eagles have their long-term quarterback of the future, and it’s clear playing him was the right thing to do.
In New England, Garappolo is keeping the seat warm, and auditioning for a starter’s job somewhere — maybe even in New England down the road. He’s off to a nice start, with three more to go before Brady is back.
These two winners in their first starts showed well. Now comes the next test: Doing it again.
Source: CBS Sports / After Further Review: Here’s how Garoppolo and Wentz aced their first tests