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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.

By Staff writer / January 6, 2013

Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III greets fans after an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday in Landover, Md.

Evan Vucci/AP

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We thought this would be a good rookie quarterback crop in the NFL. But this good? This soon?

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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

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."

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