The “face of the franchise” in the N.F.L. is nearly always the team’s quarterback. In an odd twist, as the playoffs begin this weekend, a few of the teams will find out what happens when that face belongs to someone doing on-the-job training.
To one extreme of experience is Sunday’s matchup between the Giants and the Green Bay Packers. It is a duel between Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers, seasoned quarterbacks who have combined to play 368 games, attempt 12,305 passes and win three Super Bowls.
Contrast that with Saturday’s game between the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders. Brock Osweiler, just a few weeks after being benched, will start for the Texans because the team’s preferred starter, Tom Savage, is out with a concussion. Osweiler’s 21 career starts make him a wily veteran compared with the Raiders’ starter, Connor Cook, who, thanks to injuries to Derek Carr and Matt McGloin, will be the first quarterback to have his first N.F.L. start come in the playoffs.
The Raiders’ head coach, Jack Del Rio, was less than enthusiastic about going with a rookie, who has attempted only 21 passes as a professional, against the top-ranked defense in the N.F.L. in terms of yards allowed.
“It’s obviously not ideal,” Del Rio told reporters. “That’s why it’s never happened where a rookie gets his start in a playoff game.”
Cook displaces Todd Marinovich, Doug Flutie, Gifford Nielsen and Ron Jaworski to become the least experienced starting quarterback in a playoff game. Each of those quarterbacks had one career start before his first playoff start.
If Cook’s rise to starting was unexpected and meteoric, Osweiler’s promotion continued his roller coaster ride. It started last season when he replaced an injured and ineffective Peyton Manning and helped the Denver Broncos get to the playoffs, only to be benched in favor of Manning once the team got there.
In the wake of Manning’s Super Bowl win and subsequent retirement, Osweiler took $37 million in guarantees from Houston to be the Texans’ starter. That lasted 14 games. His mediocre play resulted in the team’s turning to Savage, who had toiled in obscurity since being selected by Houston in the fourth round of the 2014 draft.
Considering Osweiler’s experience with the Broncos, one would expect Houston to have an advantage, but history offers mixed results. While Marinovich and Flutie lost in their playoff starts, Nielsen and Jaworski fared better.
Asked to fill in for Dan Pastorini, Nielsen won a divisional round game for the 1979 Houston Oilers. Jaworski, forced into a starting role for the 1975 Los Angeles Rams because of a late-season injury to James Harris, won a divisional round game before losing to the Dallas Cowboys in the N.F.C. championship.
Now Cook has an opportunity to outdo Nielsen and Jaworski, by helping Oakland stay alive despite his inexperience, and Osweiler can prove Houston did not err when it invested so heavily in an unproven commodity.
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