When Robert Griffin III zipped an eight-yard pass to Pierre Garcon in the back of the end zone Monday night, providing the winning points in the Washington Redskins' 17-16 victory over the New York Giants, he was also responsible for a more significant completion.
As RG3 closed out a widely praised performance on a national stage, he put the finishing touch on the greatest weekend in the history of rookie quarterbacking.
With the Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck and the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson leading their teams to dramatic comeback victories Sunday, and the Miami Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill, the Cleveland Browns' Brandon Weeden and the Philadelphia Eagles' Nick Foles showing flashes of brilliance, football fans everywhere knew the score: Three-quarters of the way through a season that began with a record five first-year first-stringers, the era of the rookie starter is upon us.
Rest assured, it's not a passing fancy.
Given the NFL's copycat nature, look for several members of the quarterback class of 2013 to benefit greatly from this trend. Though the crop of current collegiate passers likely to declare for next April's NFL draft is considered an underwhelming one, franchises seeking the next Luck or RG3 — or even the next Wilson — will be highly tempted to take their shots.
"Because of the [recent] success of rookie quarterbacks, definitely that is the mindset of a lot of teams: 'We can go find a quarterback, plug him in and prepare him to be successful, first-year,' " says St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead. "The quarterback position is always a tempting position for, if you want to call it 'reaching,' trying to get a guy up high. Usually, the team that picks the quarterback, they don't think they're reaching. And I actually think that because of the success in recent years, the term 'reaching' may be becoming a dinosaur word."
While the stock of onetime presumptive No. 1 overall pick Matt Barkley (USC) may be falling in NFL circles and former scouts' darlings like Oklahoma's Landry Jones and West Virginia's Geno Smith are no longer viewed as likely first-round selections, expect several quarterbacks to emerge as desirable prospects over the next few months, and to shoot to the top of their new teams' depth charts.
According to numerous NFL talent evaluators to whom I've spoken recently, the group of potential 2013 rookie starters also includes Arkansas' Tyler Wilson, Syracuse's Ryan Nassib, North Carolina State's Mike Glennon and Florida State's E.J. Manuel. Additionally, early-entry candidates Aaron Murray of Georgia, Tyler Bray of Tennessee and Tajh Boyd of Clemson could be in the mix if they declare for next spring's draft.
Even though, in the words of one NFL general manager, "this [quarterbacks] class isn't parallel to last year's class, or anywhere close" — another called it the "worst in the last five years" — it will likely be deemed armed and dangerous come April.
And it's easy to understand why, given the way the 2012 season has played out so far.
Luck, the first overall pick, has keyed a dramatic Colts resurgence, as an Indy team that went 2-14 in 2011 is now 8-4 and in excellent position to earn an AFC wild-card berth. Among other accomplishments, Luck has led five comebacks in the fourth quarter or overtime, tying an NFL rookie high since the 1970 merger. He threw a pair of touchdown passes in the final 2:39 on Sunday, including a 14-yarder to Donnie Avery as time expired, to give the Colts a 35-33 road victory over the Detroit Lions. With 3,596 passing yards, Luck already ranks third all time among rookies in that category.
Somewhat shockingly, Luck isn't a lock for offensive rookie of the year honors, because Griffin — the second overall pick in last April's draft — has been equally sensational. In addition to putting up terrific passing stats (67.1 completion percentage, 17 touchdowns, four interceptions, 104.4 rating), RG3 pushed his season total to 714 rushing yards, eclipsing 2011 No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton's rookie record. The 'Skins (6-6) have won three consecutive games to surpass last season's victory total and insert themselves into the postseason picture.
Wilson, the most unlikely rookie starter of this year's bunch, is now the patron saint of undersized sleeper picks. The third-round pick has completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 878 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions in his past four games, and has helped guide the Seahawks (7-5) toward a possible playoff berth. Last Sunday in Chicago he was the driving force behind the Seahawks' 23-17 overtime victory over the Bears, directing a 97-yard scoring drive in the final minutes of regulation and marching Seattle 80 yards for the winning touchdown on the extra period's first possession.
Weeden, who threw for 364 yards in the Browns' 20-17 road victory over the Oakland Raiders, and Tannehill, whose impressive leadership has helped the Dolphins play surprisingly competitive football (including their 23-16 defeat to the New England Patriots last Sunday) in 2012, also showed why they are slated to spend many years starting for their respective teams. And Foles, in his third career start, looked good enough (22 for 34, 251 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) in the Eagles' 38-33 defeat to the Dallas Cowboys that he was named Philly's starter for the rest of the season, with a good chance to remain in that role heading into 2013.
There is, of course, a flip side to the preponderance of young quarterbacks playing so quickly. With so many new pros thriving from the get-go, those who don't have instant success have shorter windows to prove themselves. For example, injured Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who had a miserable rookie season after the team selected him with the 10th overall pick of the 2011 draft, could well be displaced on the depth chart by next summer. Christian Ponder, a second-year starter for the Minnesota Vikings, and Jake Locker, who won the Tennessee Titans' starting job heading into his second season, may not have a ton of security, either.
"The window has shrunk," says one general manager. "You basically get two shots as a general manager — at best — to pick the right coach and quarterback. So if there's a mistake, you'd better make a quick change, because otherwise you might not get that second chance. You don't want to be premature with a move, but you can't necessarily sit around and wait, so it becomes a delicate balancing act."
Increasingly, teams are erring on the side of impatience. Even with John Skelton taking over for rookie Ryan Lindley with the Arizona Cardinals, 11 of the league's 32 starting signal callers next weekend will be in their first or second seasons.
Snead was an Atlanta Falcons personnel executive in 2008 when his franchise helped start this trend, drafting eventual offensive rookie of the year Matt Ryan third overall. In his mind, not every young quarterback is of the plug-and-play variety.
"Because so many of these guys are doing well early, there's pressure to throw a guy in right away," Snead says. "Some aren't ready. So in those cases you have to guard against that temptation, because you don't want them to be shellshocked. And because, once you do throw them in, there's not as long of a shelf life as there used to be. They might not get as much time to prove themselves as people once did."
That's especially true because, in 2013 and beyond, owners, general managers and coaches will be increasingly enticed by the new crop of rookies.
Granted, the pool of veterans who might be available via trade or free agency this coming offseason should be inordinately large, with the Eagles' Michael Vick, the 49ers' Alex Smith, the Titans' Matt Hasselbeck, the Cardinals' Kevin Kolb, the Seahawks' Matt Flynn, the Bills' Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets' Mark Sanchez among the possibilities.
Still, even teams that go after those relatively experienced players will be tempted to look to the draft for alternate solutions — and to turn to the rookie at the first sign of trouble.
"That's the league we're in," Snead says. "You're pass or fail on a weekly basis."
After the greatest week in the history of rookie quarterbacking, it's a wonderful time to be leaving college.
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