In 2011, Cam Newton set a new paradigm for rookie success. (Getty Images)
In 1998, first overall pick Peyton Manning started every single game as a rookie for the Indianapolis Colts. Manning put up big yardage numbers (3,739) while leading the league in attempts (575) and interceptions (29). Manning's adaptation to the NFL was tough for a year, but then, things obviously turned around. In a general sense, Manning's early struggles were used as further ammo by NFL sages who believed that starting a quarterback before his time was a fool's errand.
In 2011, first-overall pick Cam Newton started every single game as a rookie for the Carolina Panthers. Despite just one full season as a Division-I quarterback, Newton took the NFL by storm right away. He shattered Manning's rookie yardage record with 4,051 yards of his own, threw for a total of 854 yards in his first two games, and proved to be a devastating force in Carolina's ground game. Not only did Newton score 14 rushing touchdowns of his own, but the threat that he could take off and score at any given moment made Carolina's play-action and option rushing concepts nearly impossible to stop. Newton's successes were used by those in the know as further evidence that young quarterbacks are practically ready to roll as soon as they hit the stage at Radio City Music Hall, and Roger Goodell gives them their new NFL jerseys.
Clearly, that's the trend in 2012.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no more than three rookie quarterbacks have ever started the first game any NFL season, and that hasn't happened since before the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, in 1968 and 1969. Today, there will be five such quarterbacks -- Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts, Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins, Ryan Tannehill of the Miami Dolphins, Brandon Weeden of the Cleveland Browns, and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks. All but Wilson were first-round picks, and though Luck and Griffin were the prohibitive favorites to start for their new NFL teams right away as the first and second overall picks in the 2012 NFL Draft, the other three rookies had to fight through varying degrees of competition to get those spots.
In a recent media conference call, former NFL coach and ESPN analyst Jon Gruden pointed to the specific reasons that young quarterbacks are more ready to step in and let it fly.
"Coaches are demanding more and more from these quarterbacks at a high tempo," Gruden said of college coaches and what they need from their quarterbacks these days. "They are coming into the league much more accomplished in terms of throwing the football, recognizing defenses, and with this 20‑hour‑a‑week schedule in college football, the quarterbacks have taken charge of their football teams in the off‑season. They are running workouts. They are running passing academies on their own, so they are becoming dynamic readers. I think it's really enhanced the play at quarterback, just the style of college football."
In Newton's case, it was very specifically a case of welding collegiate and professional offenses after the Panthers selected him with the first overall pick. Head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski watched heavy amounts of Newton's Auburn tape and added new tricks to their offensive game plan.
"When he got here they showed him this huge, thick playbook and said, 'This is the style of offense we're gonna run here,' and he said, 'Great,'" Panthers tackle Ryan Kalil recently told Yahoo's Mike Silver. "He was very adamant about making sure they didn't water it down for him. He said, 'Whatever you need me to do, that's what I'll do.' And it was new to all of us. We all kind of had that learning curve. It was tough. As the year went on, he really matured and took control of that offense, which was tremendous. And this year we're moving on again. We call Rob Chudzinski 'the Mad Scientist' because the guy's in the building all day long, every day, and I've never seen a coach that spends more time than him constantly evolving this thing. And Cam is working harder than ever."
For Luck, the adaptation to the system installed by current Colts and former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was a relative breeze to pick up. Arians prefers to use trips and bunch packages, with formations that could indicate power and go pass-happy spread instead. Arians was throwing two and three tight ends on the field with the Steelers as Luck was zinging the ball to multiple tight ends at Stanford. When the Colts selected tight ends with their two picks after Luck, including Luck's favorite target at Stanford in the person of Coby Fleener, it seemed to be proof that Luck's new franchise was smartly filling his new offense with many aspects of the one he'd run before.
"There are a lot of similarities to what we did at Stanford, with the tight ends and having a power running game," Luck told me this week. "That said, it's all different terminology. Coach Harbaugh and Coach Shaw have a lot of the Bill Walsh influence with the West Coast offense stuff, and the Bo Schembechler influence from [Harbaugh's days at] Michigan. [Arians] doesn't come from that family of coaching verbiage, if you will. So it's learning the new lingo. That was a little difficult, but it was a lot of fun as well, and it really opened my eyes to a lot more football."
The Washington Redskins are reportedly looking to merge Mike Shanahan's long-held belief that power zone running and boot-action playfakes can be run effectively in a West Coast offense with the three-digit spread offense Griffin ran at Baylor. Even with pure athletes like John Elway and Jake Plummer at the position in the past, Shanahan has never had anyone like Griffin when it comes to making circus plays out of the backfield. Shanahan kept Griffin on a very low rep count through the preseason, so we'll have to wait and see whether enough has been done in practice to allow the two divergent approached to co-exist.
Tannehill's offensive coordinator at Texas A&M is his offensive coordinator in Miami, so Mike Sherman gives the rookie an advantage that may be taken away in the short term by his relative inexperience at the position -- a former receiver, Tannehill started at quarterback in college for just a season-and-a-half. Wilson played a West Coast offense at North Carolina State and a power zone, two-back system at Wisconsin. As a result, he could not possibly be better set up to run an offense for the Seahawks, who would like to use those two concepts equally.
For Weeden, however, the limitations he was able to hide in college with a quick-passing approach have shown up in the pros. Accustomed to pre-determining many of his targets and throwing to zones and windows at Oklahoma State, Weeden has struggled mightily in an NFL that closes those windows and demanded that its elite quarterbacks function - and frequently improvise -- on the run.
"At Oklahoma State, I thought he was a very good thrower, and when the pocket was clean, I thought he was the best pocket passer coming into the league," Greg Cosell of NFL Films said in Shutdown Corner's Week 1 NFL preview podcast. "But he showed issues with pressure, and in watching his NFL tape, I almost got the impression that he's not ready to be a starter. I always struggle to say that, because you could have said the same thing of Cam Newton last year in the preseason.
"I think Weeden has to do a lot of things to be ready to play in this league. He's very methodical and measured in his movement; there's no quick-twitch to him. He has to speed up his drops, his movement, and his delivery. He's got to do everything faster. He's struggling with reading coverage -- in reads that are fairly basic, he's a beat or two behind. He's not seeing things clearly, and he left a lot of plays on the field in the preseason that were there. The other thing he has to work on, which is really evident -- when he drops back from under center, he has real problems with his footwork."
Learning to play free as an elite quarterback is a process that can take years. Even former young success stories like Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan are evolving in ways that mirror their college days. In the 2012 preseason, Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron asked Flacco to run a no-huddle offense at an extremely high-play volume, which took Flacco back to his days at Delaware. And under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, Ryan has been more mobile and flexible, just as he was at Boston College.
"Sometimes you have a year where four or five outstanding young players come in together, and sometimes you go through it for years before you get a dominant player behind the center," Gruden said. "College football is changing, dramatically. There's a lot of no‑huddle offenses. There's a lot of check‑with‑me‑at‑the‑line‑of‑scrimmage."
Putting that extra burden on the quarterback at the college level is starting to pay serious dividends at the NFL level, and this trend isn't going away anytime soon. At quarterback, the young will rule more and more often.
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