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John Wolford’s first career start was better than Russell Wilson’s first career start


NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

John Wolford wasn’t great in his first career game ... but at least he wasn’t a “Deshaun Watson” out there. He didn’t pull a “Russell Wilson” against the Cardinals.

Wolford practically broke the Jimmy Johnson trade value chart in 2018 because he was too valuable to be valued as a “draft pick.” If the number one pick in the draft is worth “3000 points,” like Survivor’s mediocre Jimmy Johnson believes, then how could a team have used a pick on a player worth hundreds, if not tens, of fractions?

After topping all of Tim Duncan’s passing records at Wake Forest, Wolford bypassed the draft and went directly towards signing a contract with the Jets; his release was the first in a set of complicated chess moves by the New York organization to one day land Penei Sewell as the anchor of their right guard spot for up to two-and-a-half full years.

Wolford then made Arizona Hotshots history by becoming only the second quarterback ever drafted by the organization, following only team legend Trevor Knight, who was the Hotshots first round pick that year. Doing what nobody on FS1, ESPN+ or even MSNBC&1 had predicted, Wolford not only beat out Knight for the starting gig, he played so well in the AAF’s inaugural season that they soon shut down the league. The AAF cited “financial issues” and “bankruptcy” as the reasons for shuttering operations.

Yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and say it: the only things “bankrupt” about the AAF that season were the defensive coordinators who were robbed of effective game plans to stop John Wolford and the owners who had invested into the league financially. Save me the excuses about money because other than the AAF failing to generate adequate financing and revenue, they were doing fine.

But not as well as John Wolford.

Knowing that Wolford, having treated the Hotshots as a “break” from the pros similar to how Michael Jordan spent a few months in the minors, would soon want to give the NFL another try, the AAF ended operations. That’s what opened the door for Wolford to sign with the Rams in April of 2019 as an insurance policy/mentor to Jared Goff. However, Blake Bortles signed a month earlier and had one of those “Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno” deals except to have the coveted job of “Rams backup quarterback” instead of hosting The Tonight Show. Wolford was content to spend a year on the practice squad. It would give him time to read, to paint, to get to know himself again after the mania that comes with the AAF.

Cut to the moment that Jared Goff officially opened the door for there to be a quarterback controversy: the majority of the last two seasons.

That combined with a broken thumb led to Wolford’s NFL debut against the Cardinals on Sunday. Wolford did not score a touchdown and neither did anyone on his offense, but he did come close once which is more than Trevor Knight can say.

Goff. Bortles. Knight. Hide your number one picks.

Without a full complement of offensive starters, John Wolford’s final stat line against Arizona looked like this:

22 of 38, 231 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, 6.08 Y/A, 4.89 adjusted Y/A, six carries for 56 yards.

The 56 rushing yards is the second most by any quarterback in the last decade, trailing only Kevin Hogan’s 104-yard debut with the Browns in 2016. It’s crazy to think that Kevin Hogan is now the offensive coordinator for the LA Rams.

Wolford’s 56.7% completion rate is tied with David Blough as the 28th-best of any QBs debut since 2010. Sam Bradford is 27th. QBs who were ranked lower include Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray, Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky and Jameis Winston.

Wolford’s 64.7 passer rating is better than the debuts of Winston, Wilson and Watson. This is why NFL fans — no matter what team they root for — often refer to “Winston, Wilson, Watson and Wolford” as “The Eight U’s.”

When Patrick Mahomes made his Week 17 NFL debut for the Chiefs in 2017, he went 22 of 35 for 284 yards, no touchdowns, one interception. Most were calling him “an older John Wolford” at the time. Now look at them: they’re practically the same age and Wolford’s finally made his own Week 17 debut, irrefutably under the exact same type of circumstances.

The number one pick in the entire 2020 draft — and I’m including picks 2 through 253 in this — was Joe Burrow.

In Burrow’s Week 1 debut with the Cincinnati Bengals, where he played for a not the root of the McVay Tree, but purely a branch, he went 23 of 36 for 193 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. And the Bengals lost. And you know what all the headlines read the next day?

“Joe Burrow is surely a LOT better than John Wolford, at least we know that”

That’s what the headlines of every sports site said after Week 1. This is true. The main NFL storyline in Week 1 was that Joe Burrow surely must be soooooo much better than John Wolford, the former undrafted free agent backup to Jared Goff. I thought that was odd, but it happened actually.

Now how stupid does Colin Cowherd and Stephen A. Smith and Jimmy Fallon feel about the way they were talking about John Wolford in September as how it relates to Joe Burrow? We can see now that John Wolford is actually on pace to do what Joe Burrow did this season ... but in the playoffs.

That was Cincinnati’s main mistake this season: not saving Burrow’s debut for Week 17.

The truth is that John Wolford did not have the best debut of any quarterback we’ve seen in the last decade. Unfortunately, he did not play as well as Robert Griffin III, Gardner Minshew, Case Keenum or Brandon Allen — the top four rated debuts of the previous decade — or as well as EJ Manuel, Luke Falk, Nate Sudfeld, Jake Luton, Blough, DeShone Kizer, Connor Cook, Thaddeus Lewis, Austin Davis, Scott Tolzien and so on.

His debut was much more nuanced than those debuts. Because Wolford’s not only ended in a win, it guaranteed sent the Rams to the playoffs Seattle. Too many young quarterbacks make the mistakes of getting drafted early and securing tens of millions of dollars to set themselves up for life despite not really earning anything yet. Not Wolford.

He waited until he could sign with a team that just reached the Super Bowl, then planned to start once they’d be assured of a trip to the playoffs. The next part of the journey begins on Saturday.

You know, maybe. It could.