How Historic Was Marcus Mariota's NFL Debut?

Marcus Mariota had a perfect passer rating on Sunday afternoon. Just how good was his first NFL start?

Perfection is a hard thing to expect from anyone, considering that by nature none of us are perfect. We all make mistakes, we all have off days, and that’s just a part of the human experience. Those of us who have done a certain thing for a long time may find it easier to be good at something, but "perfect" is still a tall order.

Marcus Mariota was perfect on Sunday.

I don’t mean that the Tennessee Titans’ rookie quarterback was metaphorically the right man for the task of defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or that he literally completed every pass and walked on water. I mean that he scientifically, in his first start ever in the National Football League, was perfect, throwing for a 158.3 passer rating -- the football equivalent of baseball’s perfect game.

All of this comes after an offseason of speculation and over-analysis saw him fall behind fellow rookie Jameis Winston in the NFL Draft, despite besting him in the NCAA last year. Many speculated that coming from a college spread offense would ruin his growth in the NFL, but instead of flopping, he was perfect.

How historic of a day did Mariota have?

Practice Makes Perfect

Let’s first start with the facts.

In his first NFL game, rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota absolutely dismantled the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by completing 13-of-16 passes for 209 yards and 4 touchdowns, also adding 6 yards on 2 rushes. His passer rating for this performance, as we stated before, was an incredible 158.3. As for ESPN's Total QBR metric, Mariota’s was 95.7 out of a possible 100.

Just how good was he in our own Net Expected Points (NEP) metric? NEP, by the way, helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

When the dust settled on Week 1, Mariota wound up with the third-best Total NEP score among all quarterbacks (18.83 points above expectation). His Passing NEP (19.87) was second only to Tom Brady's 19.92. On a per-drop back basis, Mariota added 1.10 points.

For some context, Brady's Passing NEP per drop back was 0.59. The second-best Passing NEP per drop back among quarterbacks in Week 1 was Tyrod Taylor's 0.63. 

We see, very clearly, that Mariota was exceptional this weekend. Yet without context, this performance isn’t historical. When we compare him to his peers, how does Mariota stack up?

To Err Is Human

We now know that by itself Mariota’s performance was fantastic. How does his debut stack up in context?

First of all, let’s look at the historical nature of a perfect game for an NFL player. Since 2000, there have been 42 perfect Passer Rating games in NFL history, but just 19 for quarterbacks who had 15 or more attempts in those games. The most recent occurrence before Sunday was Geno Smith's December 28th performance against the Miami Dolphins in the 2014 season. Of those 19 occurrences, just 12 have had four or more touchdowns, and just eight of those have had at least an 80.0% completion percentage.

What’s perhaps more incredible than this is the number of rookies who have had a perfect Passer Rating game since 2000. That number is a grand total of five, and the only two to do it with more than two passing attempts are Mariota and Robert Griffin III. Even more impressive: Griffin took until Week 10 for his perfect Passer Rating; no one besides Mariota has had a perfect Passer Rating in their first NFL start since the new millennium.

Do you need more convincing? Since 2000, only 10 rookie quarterbacks have had more passing yards in a Week 1 start. Those eleven players -- including Mariota -- and their performances are shown below.

Player Comp% Yds TD INT Pass Rating Yds/Att
Cam Newton 64.9% 422 2 1 110.4 11.4
Robert Griffin III 73.1% 320 2 0 139.9 12.3
Andrew Luck 51.1% 309 1 3 52.9 6.9
Mark Sanchez 58.1% 272 1 1 84.3 8.7
Geno Smith 63.2% 256 1 1 80.6 6.7
Sam Bradford 58.2% 253 1 3 53.1 4.6
Carson Palmer 66.7% 248 2 1 105.2 9.2
Chris Weinke 59.1% 223 1 1 89.8 10.1
Ryan Tannehill 55.6% 219 0 3 39.0 6.1
Jameis Winston 48.5% 210 2 2 64.0 6.4
Marcus Mariota 81.2% 209 4 0 158.3 13.1

No other rookie has had as much touchdown production, nor as high a Passer Rating or yards-per-attempt mark as Mariota in his first NFL start. He was exceptionally efficient in the air, averaging 13.1 yards per attempt, on his 16 attempts. He was also on pace for a total of 279 yards passing and 5 touchdowns, had the Titans not pulled him with the game out of reach at the end of the third quarter.

All things considered, Mariota’s debut game was historic to say the least and sublime to say the most. When a passer can be that efficient, that effective, and that prolific all in one, that is a day to be remembered.


Considering all of these factors, it’s fair to say that Mariota has had one of the most historic NFL debut games in recent memory, if not of all time. His 24 standard scoring fantasy points were also tied for the highest rookie quarterback debut in the last 15 years, tied with – of course – Robert Griffin III.

Mariota looks to have the kind of poise we’d hoped he would when drafted by the Titans back in May, and now he had an incredible start to his NFL career to go along with. By every measure possible, this Sunday’s clinic put on by Mariota, head coach Ken Whisenhunt, and the Titans offense, was one of the best schoolings we’ve seen in a while.

We should all revel in the historic nature of his performance and be appreciative of what’s to come next, whether it’s superstar-level or mediocre.