Every season NFL football players join new teams. In week 1, the most exciting rookies step out onto the pro field for the first time. There are also the established veterans who have joined a new franchise and look to make an impact elsewhere. But over the years, many potential stars tanked in their debuts.
Today we’re going to look at 30 rookie and established stars who didn’t play well during their NFL debuts. Many rookies struggle to get to grips with the pace and power of the NFL when they start. Furthermore, older players sometimes can’t adapt to a new playbook after joining another franchise. Check out our list below via The Sportster.
30. Jadeveon Clowney (2014)
The Houston Texans used the first overall pick before the 2014 season on Clowney to the excitement of their fans. But they barely saw him throughout his rookie season, as he only made four appearances. After starring for South Carolina, there were high hopes for the defensive end. But he had a miserable start to life in the NFL after he tore his meniscus in his first appearance.
Fans were already ready to write him off as a bust and believe he tanked. However, he slowly sparked into life. Clowney improved every season and produced his best season statistically in 2017 (via Sports Illustrated). After five seasons in Houston, he escaped for pastures anew and joined the Seahawks before a season with the Titans.
When Welker stepped onto an NFL field for the first time, there was nothing to suggest that he was going to become one of New England’s most important centerpieces. San Diego cut him after a single game and it appeared as though he tanked his chance to be an NFL starter. The Miami Dolphins picked him up after the Chargers released him. But he only appeared on special teams in his rookie season.
Over the next couple of seasons, Welker stepped up and showed what he could do as a receiver. He generated great interest as a kick and punt specialist too (via Fansided). This prompted the Patriots to snap him up and team him with Tom Brady. We all know what happened next as he became one of New England’s top performers for several years.
Goff’s rookie season was infamously poor. Fortunately, he picked things up in his second year or we wouldn’t be talking about him. He went 0-7 as a starter in 2016 and left fans shaking their heads in despair. The former Cal Golden Bears star made his first appearance against the Dolphins in Week 11 but it wasn’t the best advertisement of his skills.
First, the conditions were very poor. But he only completed 38.5 passes under pressure against Miami. Goff completed 17 of 31 pass attempts as he consistently overthrew his receivers (via PFF). It was frustrating to watch as he tanked on his professional debut. Goff’s time in the NFL has been a mixed bag and the Rams traded him to Detroit in 2021.
Flacco enjoyed 10 seasons as the starter for the Baltimore Ravens before Lamar Jackson took the reigns in 2018. He played a big role in their Super Bowl success and was the MVP in 2012. But Flacco’s first game was difficult. Jim Harbaugh didn’t plan on starting the rookie in Week One in but injuries and illness forced his hand.
The quarterback found himself in the deep end and struggled to get to grips with the game. The Ravens won 17-10 but Flacco didn’t throw a single touchdown pass. He threw 15 of 29 for 129 yards as Baltimore tried to minimize his impact on the game (via SBNation). The former Delaware college star grew into the role and eventually became an NFL starter.
It’s safe to say that Winston didn’t enjoy his debut against Tennessee. The Titans hammered the Bucs 42-14 as they offered little resistance. To make matters worse for Winston, Marcus Mariota threw four touchdown passes. This prompted immediate comparisons between the pair because of their mutual draft statuses. Mariota had a day to remember, unlike the No.1 overall pick Winston.
Winston threw an interception on his first pass attempt. He finished 16 of 33 for 210 yards (via ESPN). The Titans also sacked him four times to compound his misery. To be fair, the entire Bucs team tanked and they turned things around a week later against the Saints. But Winston’s penchant for interceptions never went away during his time with the Bucs.
Many American football players see the CFL as the back entrance into the NFL. Horn took a similar road. He spent a season with the Memphis Mad Dogs before the Chiefs drafted him. However, there were no signs that he was going to become one of the most exciting wideouts in the league.
He spent his early days on special teams before making the move to New Orleans. USA Today called the Chiefs’ decision to release him as one of the worst in franchise history. He made the Pro Bowl four times as he posted multiple 1,000-yard seasons. It may be harsh to say that Horn tanked his first season in Kansas City but he failed to convince the franchise that he was a future star.
There are mixed opinions about Manning’s legacy as an NFL quarterback. Some believe that he wasn’t elite but a lot of New York fans dispute this. However, there’s no arguing with two Super Bowl rings. He had a complicated route into the league because the Chargers wanted to draft him. Manning and his father Archie said that he’d rather play another season of college football instead of joining San Diego.
That’s how he ended up in the Big Apple. But things didn’t start well for Manning in blue. Jerome McDougle flatlined him on his debut against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Manning relieved the injured Kurt Warner but took some heavy hits (via AP News). Of course, he developed into the most successful quarterback of the Giants’ modern era. It was probably character-building.
One of the NFL’s most consistent quarterbacks for a decade, Wilson is a future Hall of Famer. But his first start against the Cardinals wasn’t easy for him. The signal-caller completed just 18 of 34 passes with interceptions and fumbles along the way (via NBC Sports). The 75th overall pick already had his doubters because of his short stature. That’s why many people said he tanked.
Of course, Wilson made his doubters look incredibly foolish. The QB became one of the best players in his position and won a Super Bowl with Seattle. He’s also an eight-time Pro Bowler and led the league in passing touchdowns in 2017. Wilson sometimes flies under the radar compared to his peers like Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers but he’s a brilliant talent.
It’s easy to forget that Brees ever played for the Chargers because of the length of his tenure in New Orleans. However, he spent the first three seasons of his career in San Diego before emerging as an all-time great. Initially, he sat behind Doug Flutie and only made a single appearance in his rookie year. It was almost a magnificent display but tanked at the last moment.
The Chiefs led 19-0 before Brees replaced Flutie. The rookie almost inspired an amazing comeback but choked in the dying moments of the game. After dragging the game back to 25-20, Brees took several hits and threw an illegal forward pass as the clock ticked down (via Sporting News). He didn’t play any more reps that season.
Gannon eventually became one of the Raiders’ best quarterbacks but it was a long road to the top. When the Patriots drafted him in 1987, they wanted to turn him into a running back. Gannon flatly rejected this and they engineered a trade to the Vikings (via Sports Illustrated). He didn’t have the easiest start to his NFL career as he spent most of his time as a backup.
In his first game, he went just 2-for-6 against the Atlanta Falcons. He finally became the Vikings starter in 1992. But he didn’t establish himself until he was 34 with the Raiders. Gannon became a four-time Pro Bowl selection and helped them to an AFC West Championship victory. They also lost a Super Bowl appearance against the Bucs.
After 10 years with the Cincinnati Bengals, Ochocinco joined the Patriots. Bill Belichick thought that it could be a good move because of the wideout’s wily, veteran nuance. Fans looked at Randy Moss’s twilight years and hoped that Ochocinco could produce the same influence. But he couldn’t. In fact, he tanked his debut and lasted for just a season in Foxborough.
New England defeated Miami on the opening day of the season but Ochocinco was nowhere to be seen. He was on the field but he did almost nothing noteworthy as he tanked his debut. The receiver had just a single catch for 14 yards in the game. Furthermore, he only started three games all season with one touchdown (via SBNation). He was an exciting acquisition but it didn’t work out.
Harrison enjoyed a stellar career with the Pittsburgh Steelers But he endured a tough start to life in the NFL. The linebacker spent time with the Steelers practice squad and featured for their special teams once in 2002. However, he simply wasn’t able to cut it. His teammates called him a knucklehead because he couldn’t learn plays (via L.A. Times).
He joined the Ravens but they shipped him off to NFL Europe before cutting him. Finally, the Steelers offered him a second chance, and this time he took it. He became a two-time Super Bowl champion with the franchise and is their all-time sack leader. Nobody thought that he would even be a regular starter after the early days of his career.
Foster is a true Houston Texans legend. The running back had an excellent career in Houston before a single season in Miami. A four-time Pro Bowler, he holds multiple franchise records including rushing yards and touchdowns. But things didn’t start well for Foster as he tanked on his debut. He had no offensive output at all in his first game against the Titans.
The rookie tanked in his debut and failed to do anything offensively useful. That was the story of his first year in the league. But he exploded into life in his sophomore year. After this, he improved every season and established himself as one of the best running backs in the NFL. However, Foster claimed that he wouldn’t do it again because of the toll it took on his body (via Sportscasting).
Brady’s 2020 season seems like a fairytale. But it should be remembered that he didn’t have an easy start to life in Tampa Bay. The legendary quarterback had a nightmare debut against the New Orleans Saints. It left fans and analysts questioning whether he was washed and too old for the league. Of course, he did go and win the Super Bowl, so he had the last laugh.
But the doubts were reasonable after Week One. Brady threw two pick-sixes in the loss to the Saints. This was his third successive game to throw a pair of interceptions (via Sky Sports). Janoris Jenkins returned the second interception for a 36-yard touchdown. There’s no denying that he tanked his debut as he struggled to get to grips with his new playbook.
Stafford endured 11 years as the Detroit Lions starting quarterback before he finally went to the Los Angeles Rams in 2021. Over the course of these reasons, it became clear that he was an excellent signal-caller playing for a miserable franchise. The Lions only featured three times in the postseason during his tenure but he holds numerous NFL passing records.
But it didn’t begin well for Stafford in Detroit. After beating out a washed-up Daunte Culpepper, he became their first rookie starter since 1968 (via Sports Illustrated). But his stat line against the Saints was terrible. He completed just 16-of-37 passes for 205 yards with no touchdowns. There were also three interceptions on a rough day for Stafford and his team.
Holmes spent three years as a backup with the Ravens after he went undrafted. While he won a Super Bowl, he struggled to become a starter. He started off as Baltimore’s fourth-string running back before a breakout 1,000-yard season in his sophomore year. But he suffered an injury the following year and ultimately ended up as Jamal Lewis’s backup in his final season with the Ravens.
It looked like he was destined to be yet another one-hit wonder and a forgotten name. But the Chiefs believed in him and snapped him up for cheap in 2001. That’s when he broke out and became one of the most exciting runners in the league. He led the league in rushing yards that season before going on to become the NFL Offensive Player of the Year (via CBS Sports).
Ngakoue had a strange 2020 season. Firstly, he demanded to leave the Jaguars. Nobody could blame him for wanting to leave a sinking ship. After holding out, he successfully engineered a trade to the Vikings. But he didn’t start well for Minnesota. His determination to get out of Florida cost him valuable time on the practice field. Fans saw this when he tanked on his debut against the Packers.
The Pro Bowler failed to complete a single tackle, never mind sack Aaron Rodgers. Meanwhile, the Vikings failed to sack the MVP quarterback for the first time in a decade (via Star Tribune). To be fair, Minnesota’s star defensive end Danielle Hunter was injured before the game. This meant that they had to throw Ngakoue into the mix before he was ready. He got traded to Baltimore after just five games.
It’s crazy to remember that Young went down as a bust in Tampa before his switch to San Francisco. He only spent two seasons with the Buccaneers before they replaced him with Vinny Testaverde. It’s true that Young was a late-bloomer and spent a significant chunk of time as Jon Montana’s backup. He had the attributes to make it at the top but Tampa didn’t want to wait.
The Bucs posted consecutive 2-14 seasons with Young at the helm. Meanwhile, he was garbage in his debut and completed just 16 of 27 passes with zero touchdowns. The Lions sacked the young rookie six times on a rough day. However, even though he tanked, this was one of Tampa’s rare wins. He threw 21 interceptions in Florida with just 10 touchdown passes overall (via Fansided).
A decent quarterback and a bit of experience can turn a career around. That’s what Atlanta fans discovered in White’s sophomore season. The Falcons drafted him in 2004 and he proceeded to play in all 16 games of the regular season. But his impact was minimal and it looked as though he tanked his chance in the NFL. After rushing for less than 450 yards with three touchdowns, bust status was inevitable.
But that’s not what happened. White blossomed into one of the Falcons’ most important players for a decade. He set franchise records in career receptions as well as receiving touchdowns and yards (via Bleacher Report). It was a sad day when he finally departed in 2016 after many years of service. The franchise installed him on their Ring of Honor.
Culpepper was a member of one of the best Vikings’ teams in recent memory. The QB never won a Super Bowl and some fans hold this against him. But the three-time Pro Bowler suffered a gruesome knee injury after the best season of his career. This effectively brought his Minnesota tenure to an early end. However, Miami offered him a second chance in 2006.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. He only started four games for the franchise as he tanked miserably. It was brutal but mercifully short. Culpepper took 21 sacks in those games as opposition teams exposed his lack of mobility (via ESPN). He played for Oakland before a couple of seasons with the Lions but his time as a starter was finished.
Rivers departed the Chargers after 16 seasons with the franchise. His form deteriorated in his final couple of seasons but the Colts snapped him up as a free agent. They offered him $25 million as a single-season stop-gap solution to their quarterback problem. Overall, his time in Indiana was a mixed bag. But his Colts tenure definitely didn’t start well.
To be fair, he wasn’t all bad throughout his debut against the Jaguars. But he tanked in the final quarter as he literally threw the game away. Rivers picked the worst moment to throw a second interception and the Jaguars claimed their only win of the season. CBS Sports revealed that the latter part was the worst detail of this horrible start to his Colts tenure.
The Indianapolis Colts were desperate to draft Manning in 1998 because they knew he had a high ceiling. However, every rookie endures teething problems and the future Hall of Famer was no different. A single quarterback can’t revitalize a team’s fortunes on their own. Manning’s Colts went 3-13 in his first season because it took another summer to put a team together.
Furthermore, he tanked in his debut against the Dolphins. The future icon completed just 21 of 37 passes and threw three interceptions (via CBS Sports). Meanwhile, Miami sacked him four times in a rough start to life as a professional. Hilariously, some fans believed that Indianapolis should have taken Ryan Leaf instead of Manning.
By the end of his career, Smith won a lot of love and respect because he overcame grueling odds. But the quarterback didn’t have a good start to his career. In fact, his rookie season is the stuff of notoriety because it was horrendous. The opposition sacked him 29 times and he threw 11 picks throughout the year. Meanwhile, he only achieved a single touchdown pass in the 11 games he started (via KSL Sports).
That touchdown came in the final game of the season against the Texans. It’s safe to say that he tanked as a rookie. But Smith grew into the role of starting quarterback and blossomed under Jim Harbaugh in 2011. Furthermore, he was part of one of the greatest comeback stories in NFL history. It looked like his career was over after he broke his leg in 2018 but he rebounded.
Elway is arguably the most iconic personality in Denver history. But the legendary Broncos quarterback tanked completely in his debut for the franchise. Fans eagerly anticipated his first appearance against the Pittsburgh Steelers but it didn’t go the way that they expected. Elway only made it to halftime as he bruised his right elbow. This forced Denver to pull him from the game.
In all honesty, it was a relief because he played terribly. He completed just one of eight passes for 14 yards in the first half (via The Washington Post). Meanwhile, the Steelers sacked him four times and intercepted him once. He also fumbled the ball for good measure. It was the worst possible start to his career but luckily things improved drastically over the years.
Foles’ tenure as Jags quarterback ended after just 119 throws. They signed him to an $88 million four-year contract after he won the Super Bowl with Philadelphia. But this deal was a disaster from start to finish. Things started badly as he broke his clavicle on his debut. The team actually stabilized when they brought Gardner Minshew in as his replacement.
But Foles returned in Week 11 and tanked miserably. The Jaguars lost to the Colts and the Titans before the end finally came. Tampa was smashing Jacksonville 25-0 when the Jags finally benched him for Minshew. They had no choice but it was a move that hurt the franchise in many ways. It impacted his trade value and also cost numerous coaches and administrators their jobs (via SBNation).
An all-time great for Pittsburgh, Bradshaw is a name synonymous with success. But to say that he tanked his rookie season is an understatement. He was lucky that social media didn’t exist in the 1970s because fans would have crucified him online. Bradshaw established the worst single-season passer rating in NFL history at just 30.4 (via Fansided).
This came about after he completed just 83 passes for 1410 yards. He threw 24 interceptions with just six touchdowns all year. Meanwhile, some cruel critics insulted his intelligence because of his rural roots. Nobody thought that he was going to become a four-time Super Bowl champion but he proved the doubters wrong. What a turnaround it was.
McNabb had a great career in Philadelphia but things didn’t go so well in Minnesota. He proved why it’s not always a good idea to bring in a veteran quarterback on a short-term contract. It was a painful season for the NFL veteran because he ended his time in the league as Christian Ponder’s backup. But the writing was on the wall after several poor performances.
It didn’t help that he tanked on his debut against the Chargers. He threw an interception on his first attempt and completed less than half of his passes. Things became worse when he went one for two in the second half for just two yards (via Twin Cities.com). In the end, he finished the game with a grand total of just 37 yards against a mediocre San Diego defense. That’s why he started only six games for the franchise.
Allen deserves a lot of respect because things were tough for him in his first year. The Bills’ quarterback set records in passing and running but that doesn’t tell the full story of his season (via The Ringer). His coach dropped him in the deep end when they brought him on against the Baltimore Ravens. The Bills were down 40-0 and he had no chance of making an impact on that game.
Meanwhile, his first start against the Chargers was also a loss. Allen showed flashes of talent but ultimately he tanked. The Chargers sacked him five times and picked him off once. He showed improvements year after year in the NFL before becoming one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league in 2021.
Luck’s overall rookie season wasn’t bad but he definitely tanked his debut. The Colts star faced off against the Chicago Bears on the first day of the new semester. He received a baptism of fire because the Bears rattled him with their ferocity. He completed just 23 of 45 pass attempts for 309 yards. Meanwhile, the opposition sacked and intercepted him three times respectively (via ESPN).
Fortunately, things improved for Luck and the Colts. They ended up posting an 11-5 season and made it into the postseason. Luck’s debut didn’t inspire confidence but he rebounded and became one of the team’s most important players. He also instigated seven game-winning drives as a rookie. This goes to show how he developed and learned from his mistakes.
One of Dallas’s best-ever quarterbacks, Aikman spent 12 seasons with the franchise. The three-time Super Bowl champion played during one of the Cowboys’ most successful eras. But things didn’t start well for the future Hall of Famer. In fact, his rookie season debut was horrendous. The team tanked and Aikman was winless in his 11 starts (via Sportscasting).
The Saints hammered Dallas 28-0 on his season debut as Aikman discovered the reality of life in the NFL. Things didn’t get easier over the course of the season as the Cowboys only won a single game. Nobody expected him to become the longest-tenured QB in franchise history, but Aikman turned it around. In the end, the hapless rookie became a franchise legend.