CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was the first week of the Indianapolis Colts‘ 2012 offseason workouts and Bruce Arians was dressed in all black, from his socks to his signature Kangol hat. That didn’t go unnoticed by the defensive backs as the offensive coordinator purposely took a detour through the middle of them on his way to the field.
“They said, ‘Coach, what’s up with all the black? Whose funeral you going to?'” Arians recalled with a chuckle. “I said, ‘Y’all’s. Andrew Luck killed your ass yesterday.’
“They all fell down laughing, but they knew they had something then.”
As a rookie quarterback, Luck, the No. 1 overall draft pick that year, led the Colts to an 11-5 record and the playoffs.
That’s notable because among the 29 quarterbacks selected with the No. 1 pick since 1967, Luck is the only one to win more than half of his games as a rookie. Quarterbacks taken No. 1 in the past 45 drafts are a combined 94-206-2 in games they started in Year 1.
That’s the outlook Bryce Young, who was selected No. 1 overall by the Carolina Panthers in April, faces as he prepares for Monday night’s game against the New Orleans Saints at Bank of America Stadium (7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN2).
“The No. 1 pick in the draft usually goes to one of the s—tiest teams in the league,” reminded Arians, who also coached Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
YOUNG HAS TALKED to enough former quarterbacks, including Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick by the Panthers in 2011, to realize the past is littered with stories of failure — at least in terms of wins.
“The final product and awards and big-picture goals, there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Young, the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner out of Alabama. “Kind of the one universal thing that they’ve said is just focus on the process and take things one day at a time.”
Young also knows his career won’t be defined by what happens this season.
History supports that. Seven of the top picks who had losing records as rookies went on to win a combined 16 Super Bowls and eight Super Bowl MVPs.
Newton and Joe Burrow, the top pick of the 2020 draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, each went on to start in a Super Bowl. Newton was 6-10 as a rookie but was named NFL MVP in 2015. Burrow’s rookie season ended after 10 games (2-7-1) due to torn knee ligaments, but he returned to lead the Bengals to Super Bowl LVI the next season.
“Really, it was just hearing what he had to say about being focused, making sure you live your life and have things outside of football,” Young said of his conversation with Newton, Carolina’s winningest quarterback. “He said just to focus and just to lock in and do all you can for the team, which is something that is very applicable to me.”
What Newton and many of the other top picks had was confidence. That doesn’t mean they didn’t struggle with failure. It just means they didn’t give up on themselves when times were tough.
Arians saw it in Luck; he saw it in Manning as his quarterback coach during his 3-13 rookie season in Indianapolis; and he already sees it in Young.
“There’s an inner confidence that ‘I know I can do this and I’m going to do this,'” Arians said. “There’s a will to win that they push on everybody else.
“They never get shaken. They’re getting better and better every day in practice, and then you start putting pieces around him. That’s key.”
DESPITE STARTING 0-2, Newton passed for more than 400 yards in each of his first two NFL games and gave the Panthers a chance to win.
That was big for a quarterback known more for his running than passing in college.
“I don’t think Cam ever had doubts, especially after that first game,” said Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera, who coached Newton with the Panthers. “He played so well that it gave him confidence that in spite of how tough it was going to be for us, he could do this.
“Now, if he hadn’t played well at the beginning and we were getting the crap kicked out of us, it would have been hard for him. And he might have doubted himself.”
Young struggled in his first start, completing 52.6% of his passes for 146 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
“It’s not always easy,” said Eli Manning, the top pick of the 2004 draft, who bounced back from a 1-6 rookie season to win two Super Bowls and two Super Bowl MVPs. “But are you tough mentally, tough physically, are you the same after a win as a loss?”
Carolina coach Frank Reich saw that toughness in Young after the opening loss.
“Mental toughness, resilience,” he said. “Bryce has those qualities. He’s wired that way.”
ELI MANNING DIDN’T start for the Giants until midway through his rookie season. Having posted a 0.0 passer rating in what was his fourth straight loss, he met with offensive coordinator John Hufnagel and told him something had to change.
“I said here are my eight favorite plays that I ran the most during training camp that were similar to plays I ran in college,” Eli recalled.
“I said I feel good about them, I know I can get through my progressions, I can find completions and just get my confidence back.”
The Giants lost the next week to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Eli showed improvement and finished with a passer rating of 103.9.
“All of a sudden you’ve got that feel of what it’s supposed to look like,” he said. “The goal is to always win the game, that never changes. But it’s about getting that experience.”
Eli doesn’t see Young getting to that point because the Carolina offense has been catered to him from the start. He also likes that Young came from an Alabama program that ran a pro-style offense.
“The difference in the college scheme and NFL scheme isn’t as big of a gap as it was 20 years ago when I was coming out,” he said. “It’s still hard to say what’s going to be a success for him. It’s just a matter of playing every game, getting reps, making some great plays, making some mistakes and learning from those mistakes.”
ELI’S BROTHER PEYTON, the top pick in 1998, had his defining rookie moment during a Week 2 loss to the New England Patriots. He had three interceptions and a lost fumble that had him begging Arians to pull him out of the game.
Arians’ response: “No way! Get back in there.”
He then told Peyton they were going no-huddle. That put the former Tennessee star in a comfort zone, and he immediately led the Colts to a touchdown.
“So we got some positives out of it,” Arians recalled.
Peyton’s ability to process, particularly out of the shotgun, showed Arians success would come. He sees that in Young, too.
Peyton led the Colts to a 13-3 record his second season. He finished his career with a 186-79 record, two Super Bowl victories and a Super Bowl MVP.
His story is much like that of 1989 top pick Aikman, who went 0-11 his rookie season for the Dallas Cowboys before winning three Super Bowls and a Super Bowl MVP.
“Peyton, he changed the whole franchise,” Arians said. “It was a remarkable turnaround, but even he’ll admit there were some big-time lows in that first year. You’ve just got to hang with them.”
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THE PAST FIVE quarterbacks to go No. 1 before Young were a combined 22-48 as rookies.
Trevor Lawrence was 3-14 for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2021, Burrow 2-7-1 for the Bengals in 2020, Kyler Murray 5-11-1 for the Arizona Cardinals in 2019, Baker Mayfield 6-7 for the Cleveland Browns in 2018, and Jameis Winston 6-10 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2015.
Lawrence and Burrow bounced back, but Murray is 25-31 as a starter; Mayfield is with his fourth team and is 32-38 as a starter; and Winston, who will be on the opposite sideline Monday as the backup for the Saints, has a 34-46 record between Tampa and New Orleans.
Each understands what Young faces this season.
“Quarterback is one of the hardest positions to play in sports, especially for him coming out as a No. 1 pick,” Mayfield said. “He’s trying to translate what he knows he’s best at, but at the same time, command a locker room full of grown-ass men.
“It’s a challenge. Bryce has a great head on his shoulders. I have no doubt that he’s going to have a long career.”
Lawrence overcame his rookie season struggles (12 TDs, 17 INTs) to go 9-8 last season (25 TDs, 8 INTs).
Asked what success looks like for a No. 1 pick who plays quarterback, he laughed and said, “Oh, man, might be asking the wrong guy.”
That’s because Lawrence’s rookie coach, Urban Meyer, was fired after 13 games. Lawrence is now surrounded by a more stable staff led by coach Doug Pederson, a former NFL quarterback — just like Young, who is coached by former NFL quarterback Reich.
Lawrence said Young needs to manage expectations.
“It doesn’t really matter what other people think you should do or you’re going to do,” Lawrence said. “At the end of the day, as long as the guys in the locker room trust you and have faith in you, and you keep getting better every day, that’s what success looks like.
“I know Bryce a little bit. He’s going to do just fine. But definitely a learning experience.”
Few know that better than Matthew Stafford, the top pick in 2009 by the Detroit Lions. He was 74-90-1 in 12 seasons with an organization many saw as dysfunctional, before being traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 2021.
He went 12-5 and won the Super Bowl his first season there.
“This is the opportunity to learn what throws you can make, what throws you can’t make, learn about your teammates, what it’s like to play in the NFL,” Stafford said. “Who knows what it’s going to be for some of these guys, but I know it’s an awesome start to a cool journey. I hope they embrace it, love every minute of it.
“It’s not going to be easy. Never is. But that’s the fun part of it.”
FUN IS RELATIVE. Young didn’t look like he had much fun in the opener, but he never showed frustration or got down on himself.
Arians said that will pay off.
“Look at what Trevor Lawrence is going to be now in Jacksonville,” he said. “The first year, you throw that away. A disaster. Now with Doug Pederson and everybody that is there, he’s going to blossom.
“What you’re looking for is improvement. It’s not like you’re just going to walk out here and turn the whole thing around in a day.”
Reich agreed, noting success for Young, on a team with five straight losing seasons, will be measured in progress, leadership and taking ownership of the offense.
“A lot of people say he’s been in these winning programs his whole life [and had it easy],” Reich said. “Still, within those seasons, he’s been through ups and downs.
“He’s wired and prepared to handle the ups and downs of a rookie season in the NFL.”
ESPN NFL Nation reporters Sarah Barshop, Michael DiRocco and Jenna Laine contributed to this story.