It was bound to happen eventually.
Rookie quarterbacks are playing for enough teams this season that they are bumping into one another at a record pace. When Minnesota’s Christian Ponder and Carolina’s Cam Newton started opposite one another last Sunday it was the third time this season rookie quarterbacks faced off. That matched the NFL high for an entire season, which happened twice previously (1971 and 2002).
Now the Tennessee Titans finally get to see how they do against one of the fresh faces.
The Titans have yet to contribute to the trend because veteran Matt Hasselbeck has kept first-year signal caller Jake Locker firmly planted on the bench. Sunday, though, is the first of two straight contests in which the Titans will face a rookie quarterback.
Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton has started all seven games for the Bengals, who are 5-2 as they come to LP Field (3:05 p.m., CBS). The following week, Tennessee travels to Carolina where it will confront first overall choice Cam Newton, who likewise has started every game for the Panthers and is the leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
“When we picked [Dalton], no, we didn’t immediately say he was going to be our starter but we knew he could be and he would likely be and so we felt good about that,” Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. “I think the reason that we felt the way we did about him is that we thought he had great ability to handle the situation. It wasn’t ever going to get too big for him.”
Dalton has completed nearly 63 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Bengals have scored more than 21 points in all but one game and four of their five victories have been by 10 points or more.
When Titans coaches watched film this week in preparation for the game, it hardly was the first time they took a look at the former TCU quarterback. They met with him and worked him prior to the draft as they evaluated a number of different quarterbacks before they settled on Locker.
“Andy Dalton we liked a lot,” coach Mike Munchak said. “I thought that group of quarterbacks, two or three of them were great kids and he was one of them. I thought he had a lot of pluses for the draft. I don’t think anyone can predict with any young quarterback how well they are going to respond.”
Dalton met the challenge head-on.
Despite a wrist injury that sidelined him for the second half of the season-opener, he matched Hall of Famer Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to have a passer rating of better than 100 in each of his first two starts. In Week 2 against Denver, he set a Bengals rookie record with 332 passing yards.
“I wanted to play right away,” Dalton said. “I have always been playing, even since my time at TCU. I started as a freshman for four years, so I haven’t really sat around for a while. I think it’s been great for me to come in and learn from the experience and the more and more I play, I feel like the better I am getting.”
The next two games likely are not the end of it for the Titans.
They still have one contest remaining with Jacksonville (Dec. 24, LP Field), which turned its offense over to rookie Blaine Gabbert a few weeks ago, after Gabbert was the backup in the Jaguars’ season-opening victory over Tennessee.
“[Dalton] played at a very high level of college football just like [Locker] did at Washington,” Lewis said. “These guys, they come into the NFL and there is not much that they haven’t seen so I don’t know that there is big change that way.
“Now that he is playing his eighth football game he is no longer a rookie so let’s go.”