Coach Killers, Week 11: Rookie quarterbacks
Cam Newton threw four interceptions, helping the Lions mount a 17-point comeback in Week 11. (MSA/Icon SMI)
Every week, we’ll take a look at a player or team whose bad performance did the most to raise the stress level of their coach.
Before we get to what the NFL's rookie quarterbacks did wrong in Week 11, let's take a minute to look at what they did right.
Cam Newton threw for 280 yards and put up three total touchdowns (two rushing), plus got Carolina out to a 24-7 lead in Detroit and orchestrated a clutch game-tying drive after the Lions rallied back for a 35-27 advantage.
Andy Dalton led all NFL QBs in passing yards for the week, hanging 373 on the Ray Lewis-less Ravens defense. He also put Cincinnati in position to tie Baltimore on the road late, only to fall a few yards short.
Christian Ponder had a day not all that unlike Dalton. He put up more than 280 total yards against Oakland and nearly completed a sensational comeback, pulling the Vikings back from a 27-7 deficit to have a chance at a game-winning score.
Jake Locker came off the bench, in place of an injured Matt Hasselbeck, to spark a lifeless Tennessee team in Atlanta. Locker threw two touchdowns in minimal playing time and might have pulled off a dramatic come-from-behind win if his defense could have come up with one more stop.
And Blaine Gabbert ... uh ... well, at least Blaine Gabbert didn't get hurt.
But the rooks came up with an 0-fer in the win column, with all four first-year signal-callers taking a loss Sunday. Some were more at fault then others.
Locker, for example, did just about all the Titans could have hoped, putting up touchdowns on two of the three possessions for which he was in the game. We can nitpick and say, "Well, if he had gone three-for-three, Tennessee would have won," but that's a pretty tall order for a rookie's debut.
So, Locker is off the hook.
You can forgive Newton, too, if you want, since the Panthers' defense -- after two early interceptions of Matthew Stafford -- basically took the last three quarters off Sunday, in giving up 49 points to Detroit.
Newton, though, had the worst game of his career in terms of taking care of the ball. He tossed four interceptions, with at least the first three looming extremely large.
Mistake No. 1 came on Carolina's first possession and occurred just three plays after Stafford had set the Panthers up deep in Detroit territory with a pick of his own. On 3rd-and-8, Newton was hit as he set to throw, and his pass floated in the air, allowing Eric Wright to grab it.
His second interception came on the Detroit 26, right after the Lions had scored to take their first lead at 28-27. Newton rushed a throw with Ndamukong Suh closing in and tossed one right into the hands of linebacker DeAndre Levy. Midway through the fourth quarter, with Detroit up 42-35, Newton coughed the ball up again, trying to thread the needle down the middle.
His fourth and final INT took place with the Panthers in desperation mode late.
Dalton was similarly mistake prone. The Bengals matched Baltimore blow-for-blow for nearly three quarters Sunday, until a disastrous five-play stretch from Dalton.
With just seconds left in the third quarter and Cincinnati down 17-14, Dalton was victimized by Baltimore's Jimmy Smith, who -- after he fumbled and the Ravens recovered -- set up a 2-yard Ray Rice touchdown to make it 24-14.
The Bengals ran on their next two plays, but then Dalton fumbled on the first play of the fourth quarter (Cincinnati recovered) and threw another interception immediately after that. Baltimore converted that into six points, too, giving the Ravens a 31-14 lead.
Ponder followed a similar storyline in Minnesota. He threw three interceptions -- one each in the second, third and fourth quarters -- but also tossed two fourth-quarter touchdown passes and had Oakland on the ropes after the Raiders led by 20. But like Dalton, his final chance came up short. Minnesota's final drive died near midfield, cementing the Vikings' loss.
Which brings us to Gabbert.
To say that the Jacksonville QB's rookie season has been underwhelming might not take it far enough. While Newton has been electric and Dalton has put his team in the playoff race, Gabbert has lingered near the bottom of the quarterback stat sheets all year.
Sunday in Cleveland, he struggled again, despite throwing for 210 yards. The problem was the same as it's been all year: Jacksonville cannot score. The Jaguars, through 11 weeks, have the least points in the AFC (125) and the second-least in the entire league, with only St. Louis (120) behind them.
They still had a shot to beat the Browns. Down 14-10, Jacksonville put together a 16-play drive to end the game -- but came up short of the end zone, as two Gabbert passes from the Cleveland 1 fell incomplete.
When you're talking about rookie quarterbacks, there always are going to be some days that are better than others. Sunday just happened to be one of those down days, pretty much across the board.
The lack of results continues to be most troubling in Jacksonville, where there has to be growing concern about Gabbert's slow adjustment to the NFL game. It's harder to rake Newton or Dalton over the coals, given what they've meant to their teams this year. Still, a QB's first job is to take care of the ball -- neither did that effectively enough Sunday. It's more or less been a strong year thus far for the 2011 NFL Draft's crop of quarterbacks. But Week 11 probably won't make it in the highlight film.