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For anyone seeking confirmation that Andrew Luck, the Indianapolis Colts' designated heir to the Peyton Manning legacy, was ready to tackle that ambitious assignment from the get-go, the rookie quarterback's first NFL pass was steeped in significance.
After flipping a short shovel screen to Donald Brown, the first overall pick of the 2012 draft watched the halfback race untouched through the St. Louis Rams for a 63-yard touchdown in the Colts' preseason opener last month. Be it a sign from the football gods or simply a stroke of Luck, this was a watershed moment in Indy, especially given that 14 years earlier Manning, too, had produced points on his first NFL throw.
Down in the Carolinas, another of Luck's distinguished predecessors was fired up when he heard the news: Cam Newton, the first overall pick of the 2011 draft, fully supports the recent trend toward handing rookies the car keys and letting them gun it in the fast lane.
"Scoring on his first pass, that's big-time right there, man," a smiling Newton said a few days after Luck's impressive debut. "Hey, I don't care [if it was a screen] – it doesn't matter. In the statistics, when you look 12 years from now, it's gonna say it was a 63-yard touchdown; it's not gonna say it was a screen pass. But, you know, there are unbelievable athletes in this year's draft – especially Luck and RG3. I'm a big fan of those guys, and I can't wait to watch them play."
Newton isn't alone. Among those who couldn't wait to watch Luck and 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III play this season were the Colts and Washington Redskins, the organizations which selected them with the first two picks of last April's draft. The same goes for first-round picks Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins) and Brandon Weeden (Cleveland Browns) and for third-round selection Russell Wilson, who seized the Seattle Seahawks' starting job with a stellar preseason.
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Continuing a youth movement at the sport's most important position that began in earnest with the sudden success of quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco in 2008 and continued with Newton's record-setting exploits in 2011, the NFL has experienced an infiltration of instant gratification.
On Sunday, for the first time since at least 1950, five rookie passers will take the field as opening-week starters. The previous high during that stretch occurred in 1968 and was matched the following season, when the Cowboys' Roger Staubach, the Bills' James Harris and the Bengals' Greg Cook got the call.
Back then, "The Kids Are Alright" might have been an appropriate mantra. Today, given the way recent rookie quarterbacks have thrived after being thrust into the lineup, "The Kids Are All That" works better.
"I think the world we live in – and it's filtered down to the NFL – is less patient than it once was," says Les Snead, the St. Louis Rams' rookie general manager. "We live in a world where today is better than tomorrow, and it's almost gotten to the point where the paradigm has shifted. It's not just about building for the future. You expect these guys to be successful when they play right away."
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There are several reasons for the shift, from the pass-happy offenses that have filtered down to all levels of football, to the willingness of NFL offensive coaches to adapt their schemes to the skills of young quarterbacks, to an increased urgency among coaches and general managers to find a way to compete in a league in which prolific aerial attacks are paramount.
"You need to score in this league to be an elite team," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman says. "It's more of an offensive league than it has ever been. And when you have a lot invested in a young player, especially a quarterback, you can't afford to have him sit on the bench too long. You want to start to maximize that value as soon as possible."
Or, in the words of former Oakland Raiders coach Hue Jackson, now a special teams and defensive backs assistant for the Cincinnati Bengals: "You've got to let the talent play."
Yet before Ryan's stellar offensive rookie of the year season for the Atlanta Falcons, and Flacco's nearly as impressive campaign for the Baltimore Ravens, even the most talented rookie starters were expected to flounder in Year 1. This was true of No. 1 overall picks and future Hall of Famers Troy Aikman (nine touchdowns, 18 interceptions and an 0-11 record as a starter in 1989) and Manning (a 3-13 record and 28 interceptions, most ever by an NFL rookie), among others, though in both cases the experience proved to have been a beneficial step in the development of the player and team.
The most glaring exception to the struggle-as-rookie rule was Dan Marino, another Hall of Famer, whose immediate ascent to prolific-passer status for the Miami Dolphins was considered an anomaly. Others, like the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, did reasonably well while serving as glorified game-managers for good teams with productive running games and strong defenses.
This was the blueprint the Ravens had in mind when Flacco, a first-round pick out of Delaware, arrived in Baltimore, where he was expected to compete with holdovers Kyle Boller and Troy Smith for the starting job. Flacco would end up becoming the starter by default, with Boller (injury) and Smith (illness) both sidelined during the preseason, but he had already convinced his coaches and teammates he was up to the task.
"I think the skepticism stopped on his first deep pass on his first day of OTAs in the spring," recalls Jackson, who was then the Ravens' quarterbacks coach. "He unleashed a perfect 50- or 55-yard pass to a receiver – I think it was Mark Clayton – and everybody just kind of looked at each other and said, 'OK, we're good.' I was like, 'Oh my God, this guy, he's a freak.'
"I knew he was prepared coming out of Delaware. The coaches there did a great job of putting him into a passing system to where he had an idea of coverages, zone blitzes or basically anything a defense could throw at him, the whole deal. And, of course, it helps when you go to an organization like the Baltimore Ravens, with that kind of defense, and you're facing those guys in practice every day. You're playing against Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs, and you've got to be on point all the time – on point enough so that you're not letting these guys down."
Flacco didn't disappoint during his rookie campaign, as Baltimore went 11-5 and reached the AFC championship game. Ryan, the third overall pick, was even more impressive in guiding the Falcons to an 11-5 record and a playoff appearance.
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In the spring of 2011 Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff recalled a pre-draft chalkboard session at which Ryan, after drawing up every offensive formation and play the team's coaches could throw at him, flipped a black marker into the air, caught it and looked around, as if to say, "You got anything else for me?"
Yet Snead, who was the Falcons' pro personnel director at the time, says that even after drafting Ryan, Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith weren't set on starting him until they saw him perform at a high level in the preseason.
"When we did it, there was never an internal memo that said, 'Hey, this guy's starting game one,' " Snead says. "But there was a mantra that, 'Hey, if he proves he's ready to go Game 1, let's start him.' In the preseason, he proved it.
"In Year 1, it was more about the play-action pass and riding the run game, to where it has evolved now, with him running the no-huddle offense. But even then, Matt Ryan proved from a physical, psychological and maturity standpoint that he had what it took. It wasn't a given. I was in that same building when we had Michael Vick, and he wasn't a year-one starter."
That was hardly a knock on Vick – under the pre-Ryan/Flacco model, highly drafted quarterbacks often sat for part of all of their rookie seasons, or even for multiple seasons, and adapted to the NFL environment while watching from the sideline. There were numerous stories of players who seemed to benefit from these apprenticeships, including the Titans' Steve McNair, the Bengals' Carson Palmer (now with the Raiders), the Chargers' Philip Rivers and the Packers' Aaron Rodgers.
"Maybe there's times when a guy's maybe not as gifted – physically, psychologically and in terms of maturity," Snead says. "So there are gonna be times where it would be best to get the Aaron Rodgers treatment, not that Aaron necessarily needed it. If you're not ready, and you get thrown to the wolves early, that can be tough to overcome."
Agrees 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman: "The biggest thing that can happen to a rookie quarterback is to have a great defense, and a solid team around him. Roethlisberger comes to mind. It makes the transition that much easier. That way they're not always thrust into those two-minute situations where they're under pressure and everyone is coming after them. And they don't get shell-shocked. When you're constantly in a two-minute, come-from-behind situation, and the pass rush is coming at you, that takes its toll, and it can hurt down the road."
After Ryan and Flacco, however, this was a risk that more teams were prepared to take. Three 2009 first-round picks who became starters during their rookie seasons, the Lions' Matthew Stafford, the Jets' Mark Sanchez and the Bucs' Josh Freeman, have been heralded as success stories, though the latter two players are currently under fire after disappointing 2011 campaigns.
Similarly Sam Bradford, taken first overall by the Rams in 2010, earned rookie of the year honors and nearly guided St. Louis to a division title (albeit in a season in which the Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7-9 mark), but he backslid tremendously in 2011. The Browns' Colt McCoy, who had some promising starts as a rookie late in 2010, lost his job to Weeden following a choppy second season.
Last year five rookie passers (Newton, Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and T.J. Yates) went a combined 23-38 as starters – the most wins by a first-year class since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, but part of a three-year stretch in which rookie QBs (51-95) lost nearly two-thirds of their games.
Yet the stunning success of reigning NFL offensive rookie of the year Newton, and the less-splashy proficiency of the Bengals' Dalton, helped further convince many NFL coaches and executives that apprenticeships are no longer necessary.
Dalton, a second-round pick out of TCU, threw for 3,398 yards, with 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, while leading Cincinnati to the playoffs for only the third time since 1990. Five years ago, he'd have been the talk of the league, rather than a guy obscured by another rookie quarterback's massive shadow.
"Cam Newton was phenomenal," Jackson says, "but it's crazy what that kid did, too. [Dalton] came out of college in a lockout year and went up against the best players in the world. He'd never seen an NFL defense in his life. The speed of the game, the demands of the game, all you have to do to prepare at that position, on and off the field, being the face of the franchise – and not only playing statistically well, but giving your team a chance to win week in and week out? It's unheard of."
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Former Chiefs coach Todd Haley, now the Steelers' offensive coordinator, believes Dalton's readiness was indicative of a new preparedness among quarterbacks leaving the college ranks.
"Ten years ago, when most of the colleges were running a two-back system, like we run in the pros, it wasn't as challenging for a quarterback," Haley says. "They'd run play-action, and the safeties would turn around and chase, and the receivers were wide open down the middle of the field making big plays.
"With more teams playing the spread in college, it must help prepare those guys from a decision-making standpoint. They can read one side of the field and get rid of it quickly. Dalton was in a spread offense, and he learned how to throw check-downs and get the ball out fast so that he didn't get killed. All of that served him well last season."
Roseman also finds it much easier to evaluate quarterbacks than in the past, saying, "You talk about how the game has changed, well, it starts in high school. High school offenses are more complicated than they used to be. Ten years ago, even, high schools were running the wishbone. Now you've got the advent of the spread at every level.
"It's a great complement to the college programs. When you evaluate these players, you're able to see a large volume of throws. There's really no play you haven't seen executed at the college level. A few years ago, you'd watch a quarterback and say, 'Man, I wish we could see him do this against that defense.' Now, it's all there."
Snead goes a step further: "It's gotten more sophisticated at every level, from Pee Wee on up."
The advent of seven-on-seven leagues has likely played a role as well, though a skeptical Haley believes some of the fashionable summer-prep programs are overrated, saying, "I don't think the reason we're seeing more seasoned quarterbacks is because their parents are sending them to $3,000 camps."
At the same time, NFL coaches have become more creative and less rigid in altering their systems to accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of rookie passers, with Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and Panthers counterpart Rob Chudzinski both getting high marks from their peers in the wake of last season.
"I thought the Panthers' staff did some really good things with [Newton]," Roman says. "They didn't just try to make him fit their system. They took their system to him. A guy like that's so unique, so you've got to do unique things."
One personnel executive for an AFC team summed up the trend toward handing the ball to rookie quarterbacks in a single word: "Desperation." As the league becomes increasingly dependent upon passing attacks, with rules designed to facilitate the success of such offenses, the risk-reward ratio is now skewed toward trying to find the next Cam Newton, Matt Ryan or Ben Roethlisberger, percentages be damned.
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Consider that the Redskins, whose front office is controlled by two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Shanahan, gave up three first-round picks and a second-round selection to the Rams to move up four spots in April's draft, with the intention of selecting Griffin and making him their immediate starter. The Browns took Weeden, a 28-year-old who entered college late following an aborted baseball career, and essentially made him the quarterback of the present.
Tannehill won the Dolphins' job after veteran David Garrard suffered a knee injury early in the preseason – though he might have won it anyway, given that his former Texas A&M coach, Mike Sherman, is Miami's offensive coordinator – while Seahawks coach Pete Carroll chose Wilson despite having given $10 million in guaranteed cash to former Packers backup Matt Flynn in free agency.
It's highly unlikely that all five of these quarterbacks will have successful rookie campaigns. As the Jaguars learned last year with Gabbert, the transition to the pros can still be brutally tough on a raw passer in a less-than-optimal situation, and some quarterbacks simply aren't prepared for the adversity that awaits them.
Luck, in theory, could be one of these rookies who struggles in the short-term. Perhaps he'll even threaten Manning's interception record. Yet Roman, who coached Luck at Stanford, believes his former pupil is poised to be the latest quarterback who renders an apprenticeship unnecessary.
"If anybody's gonna be prepared, it's him," Roman says. "[At Stanford], he was a fast learner. I couldn't believe how quickly he would pick things up – you could teach him something and move onto the next thing with him in almost no time.
"He's still gonna need a supporting cast, decent protection and guys to get open to catch the ball. But if he gets that, look out, because he's ready."
As far as last year's rookie phenom is concerned, Luck is already on his way.
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