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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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).Skip to next paragraph
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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.