The NFL does not consider Jim Kelly’s first season with the Buffalo Bills to be a “rookie” season. Since Kelly had played two years in the USFL for the Houston Gamblers, winning the spring football league’s rookie of the year and most valuable player awards in 1984, he was not considered a rookie upon entering the NFL in 1986.
“If I’m not a rookie because of my stats, then shouldn’t they count in my record?” Kelly said upon learning that he would not be eligible for the 1986 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, which eventually went to New Orleans Saints running back Rueben Mayes.
Since Kelly’s stats from that
rookie first NFL year don’t count as a rookie season, who actually holds the Bills’ official “rookie” passing records? The list contains some familiar names, and others that have faded into obscurity over the years. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?
Youngest to start a game: Dan Darragh, 1968 (21 yrs.)
Youngest to win a game: Darragh, 9/29/68 vs. NYJ
Worst QB Rating, Min. 7 appearances: 33, Darragh (1968)
The 1968 Bills were bad. In fact, Buffalo’s 1-12-1 record was the worst for the team to that time (and was only “better” than the 1971 vintage because of the tie, as the team went 1-13 in ‘71). Buffalo started a rookie quarterback in Week one, thirteenth-round draft choice Dan Darragh from William and Mary. Darragh did not turn 22 years old until the thirteenth game of the season, a 13-10 defeat at the hands of the Oakland Raiders in November 28.
Darragh made 7 starts, and he appeared in 10 games overall. He completed 92 of 215 passes, a 42.8% completion rate, totaling 917 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. In his one start where the Bills won, a 37-35 defeat of the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Jets, Darragh was the beneficiary of some fantastic luck. Although Darragh only completed 8-of-18 passes for 79 yards and an interception, Buffalo’s defense intercepted future Hall of Famer Joe Namath 5 times, returning three of the picks for touchdowns.
Darragh played two more years for the Bills, making 4 more starts, all losses. He threw 4 touchdown passes against 22 interceptions over his 296 NFL passing attempts. He never played again after the 1970 NFL season.
For their troubles, the Bills were awarded the number one selection in the 1969 NFL Draft. They used the pick on USC running back O.J. Simpson, who had a pretty big hand in helping the next record-holder earn his place in Bills’ history.
Most victories: 9, Joe Ferguson (1973)
Most Starts: 14, Ferguson (1973)
The Bills notched their first winning season in 7 years during the 1973 campaign, and they did so while starting a rookie quarterback. Joe Ferguson, who would go on to start more regular season games (163) than any quarterback in Bills’ history (including Kelly, who started 160), started all 14 of the Bills’ games as a rookie. He also holds the franchise record for wins as a rookie quarterback, notching 9, including a 4-game winning streak that nearly sent the Bills to the playoffs.
Of course, it was fairly easy for Ferguson to play quarterback for the Bills in 1973 because every team was focused on stopping one man: O.J. “The Juice” ran for a then-NFL record 2,003 yards in 1973, averaging six yards per rush and scoring 12 touchdowns. Ferguson completed 73 of his 164 passes—that’s an average of 5 completions on 12 attempts per game—for 939 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. That’s good for a 45.8 quarterback rating.
The former Arkansas Razorback was drafted by the Bills in the third round of the 1973 NFL Draft, and with Simpson behind him, it’s hard to imagine a better situation for a rookie quarterback to have had.
Most Completions: 180, EJ Manuel (2013)
Most TDs: 11, Manuel (2013)
Best completion %, Min. 50 attempts: 58.8%, Manuel (2013)
Best QB Rating, Min. 7 appearances: 77.7, Manuel (2013)
When looking at the total body of work, EJ Manuel’s 2013 season is arguably the best rookie season by a Bills’ quarterback in franchise history. Obviously, this is a fairly low bar to have cleared, but Manuel was okay as a rookie. His first start was against the New England Patriots, and he actually gave the Bills a lead that they would hold for the majority of the second half on this beautiful 18-yard touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson.
Manuel started 10 games as a rookie, which is second only to Ferguson. He is the only Bills rookie quarterback whose touchdown to interception ratio is better than 1:1, throwing 9 interceptions against his franchise rookie-record 11 touchdowns. He total 1,972 passing yards, good for second place all-time among Bills’ rookie quarterbacks. He also added 186 rushing yards and two more touchdowns. He was second in pass attempts among all rookies, recording 318 overall.
While fans certainly soured on Manuel, and former head coach Doug Marrone yanked him quickly from the starting lineup in his second year, Manuel showed some promise after the Bills drafted him 16th overall out of Florida State. Manuel is the third of four quarterbacks the Bills have drafted in round one.
Most Attempts: 321, Dennis Shaw (1970)
Most INTs: 20, Shaw (1970)
Most Yards: 2507, Shaw (1970)
The Buffalo Bills have only had one man win the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award, and it was Dennis Shaw in 1970. The second-round pick out of San Diego State completed 55.5% of his passes for Buffalo as a rookie, completing 178 of his rookie-record 321 attempts. He threw 10 touchdowns against his 20 interceptions, and had a quarterback rating of 65.3. In winning Rookie of the Year, he beat out the quarterback drafted number one overall that year out of Louisiana Tech, Terry Bradshaw, who of course went on to win four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers en route to a Hall of Fame career.
Shaw followed up his Rookie of the Year campaign by leading the league in interceptions, throwing a Bills franchise-record 26 in 1971. For his Bills’ career, he threw 68 interceptions on 924 attempts. He was out of the league after the 1975 season, which he played as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals.
.500 Record or better: Daryl Lamonica (2-0, 1963); Joe Ferguson (9-5, 1973), Trent Edwards (5-4, 2007), Nathan Peterman (1-1, 2017), Johnny Green (3-3, 1960)
I included this list mostly because Trent Edwards is one of only two rookie Buffalo quarterbacks to win more games than he lost, which is a crazy thought given how awful Edwards was at the end of his Bills career. Peterman is credited with the victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the snow, which evened his record at 1-1 after his disastrous starting debut against the Los Angeles Chargers. And the “Mad Bomber,” Daryle Lamonica, filled in admirably for franchise quarterback Jack Kemp during the ‘63 season. Lamonica was the first quarterback to wear the number 12 in Bills’ history and win a game, something that would happen quite a few more times in franchise history, but will never occur again. Johnny Green threw 10 touchdowns in Buffalo’s inaugural season, but lost his job the following year to Richie Lucas.