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Green in the desert: A look back at previous 1st-year coach/rookie starting QB combos (Part 1)

Cardinals fans are excited about the start of the Kingsbury/Murray era in the desert, but starting the season with both a rookie head coach and starting QB is relatively rare. How have previous inexperienced coach/QB combos fared? (Part 1—check back tomorrow for Part 2.)

NFL: Arizona Cardinals-Rookie Minicamp
Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray come to the desert with a lot of potential—but a dearth of experience.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With Kliff Kingsbury on the sideline and Kyler Murray leading the huddle against the Detroit Lions in Week 1, the Arizona Cardinals will enter the 2019 NFL season with a relatively rare combination: a 1st-year head coach and a rookie starting QB.

Now, plenty of teams with 1st-year head coaches have played rookie QBs at some point, whether early in the season when a veteran is injured or falters (like last season’s Cardinals), or later in the season as the team enters development mode. But rarely is that the plan—comparatively few teams enter Week 1 with both a 1st-year coach and a rookie starting QB.

Just how rare is this combination? Since 2000, there have only been nine such instances in the NFL. Again, these are only teams that entered Week 1 with both a 1st-year head coach and a rookie starting QB. So, for example, none of last year’s rookie QBs are included, as the team either had a veteran head coach (Browns, Jets, Bills, Ravens) or the rookie QB did not start in Week 1 (Browns again, Cardinals, Ravens again).

Here are those nine coach/QB pairings:

1st-Year Head Coach/Rookie Starting QB Combos (since 2000)

Year Team Coach QB Previous Record 1st-Year Record Win Differential Playoffs? Draft Position
Year Team Coach QB Previous Record 1st-Year Record Win Differential Playoffs? Draft Position
2008 Atlanta Falcons Mike Smith Matt Ryan 4-12 11-5 7 Yes #2
2008 Baltimore Ravens John Harbaugh Joe Flacco 5-11 11-5 6 Yes #18
2009 Detroit Lions Jim Schwartz Matthew Stafford* 0-16 2-14 2 No #1
2009 New York Jets Rex Ryan Mark Sanchez* 9-7 9-7 0 Yes #5
2011 Carolina Panthers Ron Rivera Cam Newton 2-14 6-10 4 No #1
2012 Miami Dolphins Joe Philbin Ryan Tannehill 6-10 7-9 1 No #8
2012 Indianapolis Colts Chuck Pagano Andrew Luck 2-14 11-5 9 Yes #1
2013 Buffalo Bills Doug Marrone E.J. Manuel* 6-10 6-10 0 No #16
2016 Philadelphia Eagles Doug Pederson Carson Wentz 7-9 7-9 0 No #2
Total 41-103 70-74 3.2 win/yr
* QB started Week 1 but did not play all 16 games.

As you can see—and something that bodes well for the Cardinals—most teams improved from the previous season (and none regressed), with an average of three added wins from the previous season and an average record of right around .500. And four of the nine teams actually made the playoffs with their untested coach/QB combo. But what does this mean for the very green duo of Kingsbury and Murray here in the desert?

In this column, we’ll take a brief look at each of these nine teams and see if there is anything instructive the Cardinals can take away from their situations. What was the offensive talent around the QB like? What kind of offensive system did they run? Did the team have a strong defense? What was the division competition like? We won’t answer all these questions for each team, but these are the things we’ll look for as we try to find any common factors that could help predict whether this experiment in the desert will succeed or fail.

Let’s start in 2008, when not one but two teams with a 1st-year coach and a rookie starting QB made the playoffs.

2008 Atlanta Falcons

If you think the 2018 Cardinals season was a disaster, the Falcons 2007 season was even more of a trainwreck, as the team had to deal with the fallout from Michael Vick’s dogfighting suspension and the midseason resignation of 1st-year head coach Bobby Petrino, who unsuccessfully tried to make the leap from Louisville to the NFL. The team finished 4-12 and landed the #3 pick in the 2008 draft… where top QB prospect Matt Ryan fell into their laps. They also hired Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith to coach and entered 2008 with feelings of optimism, although few if any expected them to contend.

So what did the 2008 Falcons look like? Well, they had a Pro Bowl RB and WR in their primes (Michael Turner and Roddy White), a solid O-line that only gave up 17 sacks, and an underperforming defense that nonetheless featured playmakers like John Abraham and Keith Brooking. They didn’t ask Ryan to do a ton in a run-heavy offense (434 pass attempts compared to 560 rushing attempts), but they nevertheless rode a top-10 offense to an 11-5 record and a surprise wild card berth… where they promptly lost to a certain team from the desert on their way to a Super Bowl appearance. It took Ryan a while, but he would also make a Super Bowl appearance after the 2016 season.

What can the Cardinals learn from this Falcons team?

Probably not much, unless you think our O-line only gives up a sack per game and can pave the way for David Johnson to rush for 1,700 yards like Michael Turner. But it’s interesting to note that these Falcons played in an NFC South that was every bit as tough as the 2019 NFC West is projected to be, as all four teams finished.500 or better that season. If Kliff and Kyler can go .500 within a tough division like Smith and Ryan did in 2008, a surprise season could be in store.

2008 Baltimore Ravens

The 2007 Raven season saw the end of the Brian Billick era, as the team limped to a 5-11 record under Billick and an uninspiring trio of QBs—a washed-up Steve McNair, draft bust Kyle Boller, and 5th-round rookie Troy Smith. That offseason, they took a chance on the well-regarded special teams coordinator for the Eagles, John Harbaugh, and a rookie QB from the well-known college football powerhouse the Delaware *checks notes* Fightin’ Blue Hens. Few saw the duo paying off so well… and so soon.

Like that year’s Falcons team, they also took the ball out of their young QB’s hands whenever they could (433:592 pass:run ratio), but they also had an elite defense (#2 yards, #3 scoring) led by future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Ed Reed. Good work if you can get it. They surged to an 11-5 record and a wild card berth (also like the Falcons), where they toppled the imposing Chad Pennington Dolphins and Kerry Collins Titans before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers in the AFC title game. Four years later, Flacco himself would be holding up the Lombardi trophy.

What can the Cardinals learn from this Ravens team?

Again, probably not much. Kingsbury doesn’t figure to call 100+ more running plays than passing plays, even with Murray’s mobility. And while our defense is talented, it won’t be on nearly the same level as the 2008 Ravens, especially with its best player suspended for the first six games. But this team showed that an unorthodox approach (hiring a head coach with a background in special teams and drafting a small-school QB) can pay big dividends. Perhaps the failed college coach and diminutive QB can work here in the desert?

2009 Detroit Lions

In 2008, the Lions became the first team to go 0-16 in an NFL season, the lowlight of which was the infamous Dan Orlovsky safety. The debacle led to the firing of unpopular team president Matt Millen and head coach Rod Marinelli. (Orlovsky’s illustrious Lions career also came to an end.) The team hired long-time Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to repair one of the worst defenses in NFL history, then drafted big-armed Matthew Stafford out of Georgia with the #1 overall pick that was their “reward” for their winless season.

Schwartz and Stafford improved the Lions… all of two games to 2-14 in 2009 as the defense was again historically bad and a bottom-10 rushing attack stymied the offense. It didn’t help that Stafford missed six games and ascending WR Calvin Johnson also missed a couple games. This was a team that needed much more than a single season to turn things around—although they did eventually make the playoffs two years later with Schwartz still in charge behind a 5,000-yard season from Stafford and a defense that was merely bottom half of the league instead of abjectly terrible.

What can the Cardinals learn from this Lions team?

This might be a better question for last year’s Cardinals team. Overmatched defensive head coach paired with a talented yet raw rookie QB and a season that goes off the rails… sound familiar? The Lions did what most teams would—run it back for another try. In fact, the Lions kept the same core in place after a 6-10 2010 season (although note that Stafford only played three games that year) and were rewarded with that 2011 playoff appearance. But 10 years later, the Lions only have three wild card losses to show for the Stafford era. It’s clear that the Cardinals are aiming higher than that by the swap of Wilks/Rosen for Kingsbury/Murray. Only time will tell if they’re right, but it just shows how much the game has changed in 10 short years.

2009 New York Jets

The 2009 Jets are the lone team on the list to post a winning record the previous season, going 9-7 under head coach Eric Mangini and led by that old gunslinger Brett Favre. However, they just missed out on the playoffs by virtue of a Week 17 loss to the Dolphins—a loss that would seal Mangini’s fate and send Favre into pseudo-retirement. (And all this during the season that Tom Brady missed due to a torn ACL.) With Mangini and Favre out, the team hired outspoken Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan as coach and traded up to draft USC QB Mark Sanchez. That pairing would lead to a much-talked-about, yet short-lived, era of Jets football success.

In 2009, the Jets followed the playbook established the previous season by the Falcons and Ravens and implemented a run-heavy offense to take the pressure of their rookie QB, but they took it to another level—only 393 passing attempts compared to a whopping 607 rushing attempts. That’s just 25 passing attempts per game compared to 38 rushing attempts. Of course, this was during Darrelle Revis’s prime, so the Jets were able to ride a powerful rushing attack led by Thomas Jones and the dominating Revis Island defense all the way to the AFC title game, narrowly beating the Carson Palmer Bengals and Philip Rivers Chargers before falling to Peyton Manning’s Colts. The Sanchize would actually knock off both Manning and Brady the next season before again falling in the AFC title game, this time to the Steelers. However, that was the last time Ryan or Sanchez would appear in the postseason.

What can the Cardinals learn from this Jets team?

Defense is key. So far, we’ve seen three rookie coach/QB combos manage to make the playoffs in their debut seasons. The approach has been almost identical: conservative passing offense, strong rushing attack, and a dominant defense (except for the Falcons). The 2019 Cardinals almost certainly will not feature a conservative passing offense, and while we have DJ, we’re definitely not running the ball 500+ times, much less 600. The key takeaway thus far, then, appears to be defense. Perhaps returning to the 3-4 can get the defense back to the top-10 unit it has been in the past. A tall order with Patrick Peterson suspended for the first six games, but it’s probably a must in order to approach .500 or better.

Check back tomorrow for a look at the five remaining teams: the 2011 Carolina Panthers, 2012 Miami Dolphins, 2012 Indianapolis Colts, 2013 Buffalo Bills, and 2016 Philadelphia Eagles.