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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.

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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.”

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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.

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