ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The chew-’em-up, spit-’em-out grind of an NFL season has always reserved a special level of punishment for its newest invitees, a combination of intensity, physicality, endurance, and exhaustion that by the time it is all over can reduce a rookie to dust. From the end of a college career to the start of a professional one, from the first day of training camp to the final game of the regular season, the nonstop hamster wheel can leave a rookie’s body and mind drained in ways he never imagined possible.
And then, if said rookie is lucky, the playoffs begin and ask for more.
But if the debut NFL season is hard on all, it hits one position harder than most. Rookie quarterbacks are among the rarest of playoff breeds. Of 162 playoff teams in the last 10 seasons, only six started a rookie at QB. There were none in the last three playoffs, one (Lamar Jackson) in 2018, none in 2017, one (Dak Prescott) in 2016, and none in 2015, ‘14, or ‘13.
The class of 2012 was exceptional, featuring three (Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson), and there was one (Andy Dalton) in 2011. Of all of them, only Wilson won a game, when his Seahawks bested RGIII’s Washington.
There is one rookie quarterback this season. And he’s playing for a franchise that is accustomed to being in the playoffs.
The Patriots’ Mac Jones might have been the fifth quarterback taken in the first round of the draft, but he’s the last man standing on Wild Card Weekend. That alone marks his debut season as a success.
But even if the odds suggest the end of the road is nigh, there is a precedent for hope. Though no rookie QB has ever reached the Super Bowl, three reached the AFC Championship game — Mark Sanchez with the Jets in 2009, Joe Flacco with the Ravens in 2008, and Ben Roethlisberger with the Steelers in 2004.
Could Jones be the one to surpass them all?
“I think he’s more than capable; what he did this year was amazing,” Sanchez said over the phone this week. “I get that he didn’t have to throw it as many times, didn’t have to carry the team, but I don’t care. That’s the toughest position in all of sports and he played it beautifully.
“Sure he had a couple of stinkers; everybody does. But damn, he is fun. Exciting. Impressive. And what he, Bill Belichick, and Josh McDaniels have been able to do is incredible.”
Now an analyst with Fox Sports, Sanchez opened his NFL career with a Jones-like bang, when he rolled a final season at USC with an MVP performance in the Rose Bowl into two consecutive AFC Championship appearances under Jets coach Rex Ryan.
It was a brief but glorious chapter in the history of the tortured New York franchise, one that was perpetually in the shadow of what Tom Brady and Belichick were doing a few hours north. Sanchez never could take that final step to a Super Bowl, and the Jets, without a Belichickian structure to hold it all together, fizzled.
But from Sanchez’s vantage point, that structure was there in his first season, and it helped him the most when the playoffs rolled around.
“It’s interesting to see some of the new playoff teams who have guys that are not that experienced,” Sanchez said. “You look at the Raiders and the Bengals, that’s a team on both sides where not many guys know what it’s like to play in a wild-card game. Those guys are the guys who walk into the stadium filming everything. It sounds funny, but you think Tom Brady is going to film his entrance this weekend? I doubt it.
“Now look at a guy like Mac Jones. He might want to be that way, because it’s all new, but he’s in a place and a culture that has seen it all before. He has these other guys to watch, to see, to emulate.
“That’s how I was in New York. Guys had been to the playoffs before; [offensive lineman] Alan Faneca had won a Super Bowl. Those are the guys you look at if anything goes sideways.
“If anybody is in the right spot, it’s Mac. He has the benefit of experience he had nothing to do with, but because he has played so well, he has afforded them that opportunity. He’s part of that.”
Sanchez’s point is important; even without his own experience, Jones has teammates like David Andrews, like Brandon Bolden, like Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty, tone-setters who don’t just verbalize what the playoffs are all about, but live it, because they have lived it so many times before.
Being in that bubble is one of the many reasons that one of Sanchez’s old bosses, former Jets general manager and current ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum, said in a phone call, “People don’t really refer to him as a rookie, and that’s one of the best compliments you can give him.”
Tannenbaum recalled covering Jones at the Senior Bowl, calling him unequivocally “the best quarterback there,” speaking of the “poise” Jones maintained while digesting and understanding volumes of information. That Jones translated those qualities pretty seamlessly to the Patriots, and did so under the demanding and watchful Belichick eye, leaves Tannenbaum with the belief that “they have a very good chance of winning this game.”
The formula is obvious, shown across the Patriots season. They need to run the ball, with long possessions that keep the ball away from the opponent. They need to protect the pocket, so Jones doesn’t get pummeled. They need to play from ahead, so Jones doesn’t have to be a savior. They need some help from their defense, with bonus points or possession changes on turnovers. Obviously, it can be done. That it has so rarely been done before just underscores how hard it is.
Still, with a meeting against a familiar division opponent, the time spent on preparation isn’t bogged down by new information, no new player numbers have to be learned, and all focus can go to the game plan.
For Sanchez, his initial wild-card win over the Bengals was a rematch of the final regular-season game, when the Jets won a de facto playoff game to qualify for the tournament. He’s convinced that helped him win again a week later.
“That’s just rote memorization, hours of study, that’s just eliminated from the equation,” Sanchez said.
When you’re a rookie, every little bit helps. For Jones, the key is trusting those around him who know more than he does, and then keeping it simple.
“I definitely think it’s not their first rodeo,” Jones said this week of Belichick and McDaniels. “They’ve been through a lot of really close games and these types of situations. I just try to listen to the advice they have, even the older players that’ve done this before.
“It is another game, but there’s more at stake and you have to realize that there’s not a lot of room for error. That’s kind of what makes it fun. There’s more pressure and, like I said, you prepare well, you feel comfortable, and at that point, you go play the game that you’ve played since you were little.”
A veteran take from a rookie mouth. Now we see if his actions can mirror his words.