The top three quarterback prospects of the 2020 NFL Draft class — Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert — are already churning out impressive displays and historic statistics because of the pandemic, not despite it.
After leading the Cincinnati Bengals to their second win of the season over the Tennessee Titans in week eight, Burrow is now third in the NFL in total passing yards, with 2,272 this season as of week eight. He could feasibly surpass Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck’s 2012 rookie passing yard record of 4,183 yards by the end of this season.
Similarly, Los Angeles Chargers QB Herbert ranks within this season’s top ten for passing touchdowns (15) and total QB ranking (76.4) as of week eight, and he is on pace to break Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield’s rookie passing TD record (27). Tagovailoa, on the other hand, was unremarkable in his first start for the Miami Dolphins in week eight, but Miami still came out with a convincing victory.
The conditions under which the NFL must operate as a result of the pandemic have created a stressful, high-stakes environment that would overwhelm even the most seasoned players. The headline rookies, however, seem to be competently navigating their strange first season, and that is due to three factors — reduced preseason media attention, near absence of fans in stadiums and the built-in excuse that this season presents.
Rookie quarterbacks this season were largely spared the spotlight that usually shines so brightly on top prospects. For previous first-round quarterbacks like Mayfield in 2018, media attention was hard to escape from the moment they finished their final college game. Their every move and word was pored over and scrutinized.
This season, since interviews and press conferences were virtual for months and the world was preoccupied with more pressing issues, quarterbacks like Burrow were not subjected to the usual ubiquitous media coverage. As the publicity of the quarterbacks diminished, so too did expectations — the first unlikely benefit of the pandemic.
Transitioning to the professional game can be a difficult, painstaking process for some players. Leaping from being an unpaid student-athlete playing in front of student sections to a professional being paid millions to entertain thousands of fans can be intimidating. Playing away games in certain arenas — CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., Mile High Stadium in Denver, among others — is a daunting task for any player, let alone a rookie quarterback.
In 2020, however, since many stadiums are empty and no stadium can seat more than 25% of its capacity, rookies can play football without worrying about all the outside noise — literally.
For example, Herbert nearly led Los Angeles to victory against the New Orleans Saints before narrowly losing in overtime, but that was in front of an nearly empty Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which is often considered one of the toughest stadiums to play in for opponents. In a similar fashion, Burrow led the Cincinnati Bengals to a tie against the Philadelphia Eagles, but he benefited from an empty Lincoln Financial Field — a stadium renowned for its rowdy fans when full.
Without the distraction of 70,000 paying fans, first-year quarterbacks have been able to better focus on their craft, which has evidently aided their play — a second added benefit.
Rookies are held to lower standards than veteran players because they are, well, rookies. Any subpar or inconsistent play in their first season is usually chalked up to first-year jitters in an unfamiliar situation. A season with so much uncertainty — from players with COVID-19 to postponed games — is just another reason for pundits and fans to slacken their criticisms.
Think about it: Few people realistically expect a fresh-out-of-college, 22- or 23-year-old rookie to maneuver through the interminable chaos of 2020 and lead their team to the playoffs, which is exactly why the pressure is off players like Burrow, Herbert and, more recently, Tagovailoa.
With the weight of expectations lifted from their shoulders, rookie quarterbacks have a legitimate excuse for a poor season. By contrast, rookies are in a situation in which they will be showered in praise for any success — precisely why Burrow and Herbert’s numbers have been genuinely exceptional. This season allows rookies to gain their bearings in a way that rookie signal-callers of old could have never even imagined — a third benefit that has paved the way to their all-time great numbers.
Burrow, Herbert and Tagovailoa are each gifted players. Their abilities are the reason they were chosen in the top ten, and they are still the primary factor propelling these quarterbacks’ notable performances. Notwithstanding, the conditions imposed on this season by the pandemic offer an added boost to their prodigious talent.
Christian Baldari is a freshman in the College. Bringing the Heat appears online every other week.