For the first time in history, the 2012 NFL season began with five teams starting rookie quarterbacks. That’s right: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Russell Wilson all got the nod at the most important position in the game. This unprecedented event tells us that we are witnessing the evolution of the quarterback and the NFL game.
Years ago, a rookie quarterback held a clipboard and learned on the sidelines for a couple years, unless he was Dan Marino. In more recent years, teams who start rookie quarterbacks have used a shortened, specialized playbook and expect the player to “manage” the game instead of making spectacular plays. We are seeing this a little bit with Wilson and Weeden in Seattle and Cleveland, respectively, but for the most part, all five quarterbacks are going above and beyond the typical rookie expectations.
These players are the future of the NFL quarterbacks, especially Luck, Griffin III and Tannehill. They are all highly athletic players with accurate and strong arms, who also possess high football IQs. They not only read defenses, but can make the plays with their arms, as well as their legs.
Just how athletic are they? Luck ran a 4.67 second 40-yard dash at 6’4’’, 234 pounds and Griffin III was the fastest QB at the combine with a 4.41 second 40-yard dash. Tannehill was an All-Big 12 wide receiver in college his sophomore year when he wasn’t playing QB. Oh, by the way, Wilson and Weeden were both drafted in the Major League Baseball draft as well as the NFL draft. These quarterbacks are not only managing games, they are winning them and proving to be offensive weapons. Now, I’ll discuss them individually.
Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Everyone knows about Luck and his intelligence and Stanford degree, but what goes under the radar is his athletic ability. The 40-yard dash speaks for itself, but if you haven’t seen the clip of a Cal defender trying to tackle him and literally bouncing off him in November of 2010, please treat yourself to watching that on YouTube. There have been hundreds of QBs who win a lot in college and earn A+ grades from scouts, but there are only a handful who actually succeed at the position. Luck is not only handling the pressures of being the No. 1 overall pick and replacing the probable first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning, he is thriving. Luck and the Colts are in second place in the AFC South at 5-3, earning big wins against the Packers and Vikings. Individually, Luck has thrown for 10 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 2,404 yards and is coming off a win against the Dolphins where he set a rookie single-game record with 433 yards passing. I truly believe that if the Colts continue to develop around Luck and on defense, they have a legitimate shot at winning multiple Super Bowls.
Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
If you just watch an interview with Griffin III, you become a believer. When I see him talk, I see an incredibly gifted player who trusts his work ethic and as a result, he just oozes confidence. In college, he made the Baylor football program relevant for the first time in my lifetime just because he made everyone around him better. Griffin III and the Redskins are 3-6, with big wins over the Saints and Buccaneers, but currently sit on a three-game losing streak. However, that record is not completely indicative of Griffin III’s play. So far this season, RGIII has thrown for 1,993 yards, eight touchdowns, three interceptions and ran for another 529 yards and six touchdowns. Some of his opponents have expressed their disbelief and dismay about having to play against him again and again in the future. One of those was Giants All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who looked like he was in slow motion trying to tackle Griffin III in the open field back in Week 7. Just like Luck, I believe the Redskins have a shot at a Super Bowl with RGIII at QB and the proven Mike Shanahan as head coach.
Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
Tannehill is a big, strong player out of Texas A&M. In college, he was a standout at both QB and wide receiver. So far this season, Tannehill and the Dolphins are in second place in the AFC East at 4-4, right behind the 5-3 Patriots. Statistically, Tannehill has thrown for 1,762 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions. What strikes me when I watch him play is his grasp of the offense. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that his college head coach, Mike Sherman, became the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator in the offseason and persuaded upper management to draft Tannehill at No. 8 overall. The Dolphins have not been good in a while and really haven’t had a great player at quarterback since Dan Marino. If the Dolphins add some more players around Tannehill and Reggie Bush, especially at the wide receiver and tight end positions, they could be a playoff team for a long time.
Brandon Weeden, Cleveland Browns
Weeden is probably best known around the country as the 29-year-old rookie who went back to college to play football after signing a professional baseball contract out of high school. I can’t help but root for Weeden because I feel he can succeed in this league; the only problem is he plays for the Browns. If the Browns can add some more talent around Weeden and No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson, the Browns might actually have a chance to win more than six games in the next five years. Currently they sit at 2-7 and in last place in the AFC North. Weeden struggled early, but has improved as of late. So far, he has thrown for 2,088 yards, nine touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
In the offseason, the Seahawks signed QB Matt Flynn to a big money multi-year deal and drafted Wilson in the third round as a developmental project. Not only did Wilson win the job in training camp, he has the Seahawks at 5-4 and in second place in the suddenly ultra-competitive NFC West. While Seattle remains a run-first team with Marshawn Lynch in the backfield, Wilson has made big plays in the passing game. Statistically, he has thrown for 1,639 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Beyond the numbers, Wilson’s leadership remains his best attribute. The Seahawks will be around for the long haul because their style of play will keep them in every game. Running the ball effectively, not making mistakes at the QB position and running a nasty, dominating defense out there every Sunday is a playoff formula. If they get a few more good wins this season, I would expect to see them in close contention in the final weeks of the season.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said in a recent interview that he wants to see his 2004 draft class of QBs to go down as the best ever. His class included Eli Manning, who has won two Super Bowls, Roethlisberger himself, who also has two Super Bowl rings, Phillip Rivers and Matt Schaub, who each have had a lot of success in their careers. To date, the 1983 quarterback draft class has been the gold standard for QB classes. Of the six quarterbacks drafted in the first round, John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly are in the Hall of Fame. However, the 2012 class of quarterbacks has the ability to be compared to these past classes, if not be considered as the best. It’s almost uncanny how similar Luck, Griffin III and Tannehill look and play compared to Elway, Marino and Kelly. Only time will tell, but as football fans, we are lucky to see the evolution of this great game right before our eyes.