NFL playoffs: Are rookie QBs outliers or start of a new era?

Rookie quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson will each start in the NFL playoffs Sunday. They point to changes in the game – but also to unique talents.

By , Staff writer

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    Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III greets fans after an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday in Landover, Md.
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We thought this would be a good rookie quarterback crop in the NFL. But this good? This soon?

Forget the New Orleans Saints' Bountygate, the replacement referees, and the rest. The best story in the NFL this season has been a 2012 quarterback draft class that has come into the league with an unprecedented amount of responsibility and expectation heaped upon it – and outperformed.

In Sunday's Wild Card playoffs, three of the four quarterbacks will be rookies: Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts faces the Baltimore Ravens, while Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins will face off against Seattle Seahawks and Russell Wilson

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The debut seasons of this Big 3 – with Luck and Griffin drafted No. 1 and 2 overall, and Wilson much later in the third round – haven't merely been good. They’ve been historic. 

Having a winning campaign as a rookie is a rare surprise, particularly for the first-rounders who generally go to struggling teams. (Only nine first-round rookie QBs have had winning records during the past 40 years). The last time three spearheaded winning teams in the same season and made the playoffs? Try never.

But is this year’s potent crop a fluke? Or a sign of some greater change that allows rookies to more readily succeed at the professional level?  The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Luck, Griffin, and Wilson are all special, no question – all three would be a near lock for Rookie of the Year had they not been in the same draft class. But the way quarterbacks are groomed at the lower levels, as well as the increasing flexibility with which they are coached once they reach the pros, is allowing rookies to be much better, much faster.

Five first-year play-callers started Week 1 in the NFL. Their performances have ranged from promising to veteran-like poise and efficiency (examples above). But even beyond the current group, the expected time for rookies to adjust has been slowly shrinking during the past decade. In the 40 years between 1960 and 2000, five rookie quarterbacks led their teams to the playoffs in the first try. In the past decade, nine have done it.

And higher expectations have followed. Until pretty recently, “everyone would expect a miserable first season with a rookie and expect to see signs of viability in the second year,” says Mike Tanier, a football writer for Sports on Earth.

He points to New York Giant Eli Manning, a two-time Super Bowl MVP who had a losing record his first season with the Giants (and one dismal game with a 0.0 quarterback rating) but showed flashes of brilliance. Or there was John Elway, who was “pathetic” as a rookie but could “still throw the ball quickly and was a decent runner."

Eventual Hall of Famer Troy Aikman went 0-11 in his first season with the Dallas Cowboys, throwing twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. “And he looked bad doing it,” Tanier says. "There were questions then, but that quarterback would definitely be on the hot seat now.”

Better earlier

Today’s rookies have the potential to fare better earlier for two reasons.

One, the game’s sophistication has been trickling downward at a steady rate for many years. “Playbooks have expanded significantly at lower levels, and there’s an increasing level of professionalism at the high school level,” Tanier says. Head coach of a good high school football team is a full-time job, not done by someone who also teaches classes. 

“You have to go to the countryside to see them running a T-formation,” he says. “In high school, they’re already running no-huddle offenses and progression of reads.” 

High school offenses have evolved to the point where many “have the same playbooks that the NFL may have had 15 years ago,” says Chris Brown, who writes and edits smartfootball.com and is a contributor to espn.com's Grantland. There are more elements in the pro game, he adds, but “the fundamentals are the same. And more kids are exposed to it,” through widely available game film and the emergence of offseason leagues that emphasize passing.

In college, too, it’s more common to see three- and four-year starters making key decisions on offense. Luck, for instance, called his own plays his final year at Stanford.

Second, once these highly trained prospects go pro, NFL coaches are more willing to tailor offenses to suit their talents, rather than plugging them into a highly sophisticated, preexisting models and letting them run it badly for a few years.

"Before, guys had to spend years mastering a West Coast offense,” Tanier says. “It was, ‘Here’s the keys to the Maserati.’ Now we’re going to introduce the system in stages, not have a guy run the Tom Brady system horribly.”

“The old conventional wisdom was that it would take you three years to learn the offense,” Brown says. Now, “on offense, there’s a move to something that resembles more what is used in college.”  

Exhibit A is the read option, which Griffin and Wilson have used to devastating effect. It is a relatively simple formation, Brown says, but it works because it adjusts on the fly to what the defense does. That’s “part of a confluence of things that allows [these QBs] to be successful earlier.”

The Tebow effect

Before this season, perhaps the most notable beneficiary of this flexible-fit coaching method was Tim Tebow, who had a world of athleticism, heart, and leadership abilities but no throwing arm. But last season the Denver Broncos blew up their offense, rebuilt a new one around his skill set, and rode his unique abilities to a playoff win. 

“This guy can barely throw a football down the field, but they worked with him,” Tanier says. “Tebow was part of that process where coaches are a little more willing to work with the read option.”

This year's Big 3 rookies have proven that there’s no need to choose between quarterbacking ability and athleticism, a debate that raged last year with Tebow’s emergence. But they run very different offenses, and grew into them at their own paces.

Griffin mans a college-style "pistol" offense customized to his strengths and which relies heavily on the read option. Wilson and the Seahawks run plenty of read option plays as well, but it was a gradual evolution from a run-heavy scheme that gradually gave him more responsibility from week to week.

Luck, meanwhile, was immediately thrown into the deep end by Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who runs an offense predicated on the deep pass, which is different from what he ran at Stanford. (Then again, Luck is reportedly a precocious learner with a sponge-like mind).

In truth, each of the Big 3 is an exceptional combination of athletic ability and intelligence. And that intelligence is key: With the hours put in and the level of mastery involved, being a pro quarterback is akin to being a professional musician with an Olympian's physical skills. (Griffin, coincidentally, is an Olympic-level hurdler.)

For that reason, their combined success, is “more a happy accident,” Tanier says. "We knew going in that we had two guys that were once-every-30-year prospects. Wilson couldn’t be anticipated. He’s someone scouting will miss. ”

The Big 3

The manner of their success in the NFL has been different.

Luck broke the rookie record for passing yards this year while leading the Colts to a series of improbable come-from-behind victories. His seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime is also a rookie record. And Sunday, he becomes the quarterback picked No. 1 in the draft to start a playoff game in his rookie season. He has a quarterbacking pedigree – his father played several seasons in the NFL.

Griffin, Brown points out, was basically unrecruited at quarterback in high school and wound up at Baylor University, where he developed his pinpoint accuracy and decision-making abilities before coming into the NFL as a ruthlessly efficient offensive threat. His mastery of the read option, his sprinter's speed, and his fantastic arm have made him a Pro Bowler and arguably the most exciting player in the game.

“To an extent that I don't think people realize, Robert Griffin's numbers as a quarterback – of any vintage – are ridiculous,” Bill Barnwell wrote in Grantland last month. He has the best rookie passer rating in history, at 102.4, and only threw five interceptions this season. Under pressure, “Griffin almost always makes the right decision,” Brown says.

And then there’s Wilson, the undersized third rounder who has the most passing touchdowns of the three (he tied Peyton Manning's rookie record of 26). “Wilson is an odd case,” Tanier says. “What makes him different from the others is the fiery leadership. He’s the guy who comes across as a 1972 quarterback. Athletically he does a lot of things well, but I don’t think he’s off the charts.”

When Griffin and Wilson play Sunday, it will be only the second time in history that two rookie quarterbacks have faced each other in the playoffs. (The other time was last year's Houston Texans vs. Cincinnati Bengals matchup, and it was a bit of fluke, given that one of the rookies, T.J. Yates, was only playing because the Texans' first- and second-string quarterbacks were injured.)

But this year's Big 3 all have the accuracy and mechanics to be consistent long-term, and the draft classes before and after them don’t have even one quarterback prospect with comparable potential. So while they are in part products of a friendlier environment for rookie quarterbacks, they have the talents and work ethic to capitalize, which is just as crucial.

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