Recent NFL history says it is possible for a team to win, and make the playoffs, with a prized rookie starting at quarterback. The Pittsburgh Steelers did it with Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. The Baltimore Ravens, with Joe Flacco, and the Atlanta Falcons, with Matt Ryan, did so in 2008. The New York Jets did it with Mark Sanchez in 2009 and the Cincinnati Bengals did it with Andy Dalton last season.
But the lesson of those teams is that the clubs that reach the playoffs with rookies at the sport’s most important position generally do so because the team is strong in other areas, usually on defense and in the running game, and the rookie quarterback isn’t asked to do too much of the heavy lifting.
The results usually aren’t as good when that isn’t the formula. Cam Newton set an NFL record for passing yards by a rookie last season. But his Carolina Panthers had a modest record of 6-10.
“The biggest thing was those guys [who won as rookies] going into situations with veteran teams that relied heavily on their defense and relied heavily on their running game,” former NFL quarterback Trent Green said. “They were asked to manage the game, not win the game. Cam Newton was asked to do so much. Peyton Manning was asked to do so much as a rookie. With those other guys, they didn’t have to do quite as much to win games.”
The Redskins have studied the history of rookie quarterbacks.
“It’s the people around them,” Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said during training camp. “Everyone puts the pressure on that guy. But . . . if you look at the history of the NFL, they’re rarely successful. It puts pressure on all the other players — the receivers, the running backs, the offensive line. Those guys are the ones who have to step up.”
Roethlisberger’s Steelers, Flacco’s Ravens and Sanchez’s Jets reached AFC title games in the quarterbacks’ rookie seasons. Each of those teams ranked in the top four in the league in both rushing offense and total defense. The Jets ranked first in the NFL in both categories, enabling them to overcome Sanchez’s sometimes wobbly rookie season, when he threw 20 interceptions and only 12 touchdown passes.
Roethlisberger, Flacco and Sanchez each threw for fewer than 3,000 yards as rookies. Ryan and Dalton topped 3,300 passing yards. Their teams didn’t completely follow the prescribed recipe. Ryan’s Falcons ranked second in the NFL in rushing but only 24th in total defense (although they fared better in scoring defense, ranking 11th in the league). Last season’s Bengals ranked seventh in the league in total defense but only 19th in rushing offense.
That may have caught up with them in the playoffs, when both lost in the first round.
Last season’s Panthers featured the passing of Newton, the top overall selection in the 2011 draft, and ran the ball well. Aided by Newton running for more than 700 yards, the Panthers ranked third in the league in rushing offense. But they ranked 28th in total defense and a winning season eluded them.
Sam Bradford, the top pick in the 2010 draft, passed for more than 3,500 yards for the St. Louis Rams as a rookie. But the Rams didn’t run the ball or play defense particularly effectively and went 7-9.
“All of those things are factors — a strong defense, a strong running game, good coaches from top to bottom,” said Hue Jackson, a Bengals assistant coach who was the quarterbacks coach of the Ravens when Flacco was a rookie. “They are catalysts to being able to win with a young quarterback. But you also have to look at the talent level of those players. You look at that, and you have a chance to put them into a situation where they can win.”
There also is some salesmanship to be done with a rookie quarterback about his role, apparently. The Ravens never portrayed Flacco’s role to him as anything that sounded like a mere game manager, Jackson said.
“We never said that to him,” said Jackson, who was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders last season. “Knowing Joe, he would never buy into that. He’s a much better player now than he was as a rookie just because of the experience factor. But even then, he had that fire. None of these guys would settle for that.”
Winning with a rookie quarterback is complicated by appreciable changes in just the past year or two. NFL passing numbers are more outlandish than ever.
The New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees set the single-season league record for passing yards last season and was joined by two other quarterbacks, New England’s Tom Brady and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, in topping 5,000 yards. Before last year, there had been two 5,000-yard passers in league history. Newton broke Manning’s rookie record for passing yards. The Saints, Patriots and Green Bay Packers piled up 41 regular season victories among them while each ranked in the league’s bottom nine teams in total defense.
So de-emphasizing the role of a rookie starter at quarterback might be more difficult under current conditions.
“The league is promoting passing,” Jackson said. “And that can be tough when you’re talking about a young quarterback and all the looks that defenses throw at you.”
The Redskins have totaled only 11 wins in Coach Mike Shanahan’s two seasons, suggesting they may not have the sort of powerhouse team around Griffin that would ease his NFL transition. They were missing three injured starters on their offensive line for much of the preseason. They held a competition for the starting job at running back. The defensive front seven appears solid, but the secondary seemed vulnerable at times during the preseason.
Shanahan has said the overall depth on the team is better than it was in his first two seasons, though, and Kyle Shanahan said he’s hopeful the Redskins have enough talent around Griffin to assist him.
“I believe that we do,” he said, “and we’ll find that out as the year goes. I feel that we’ve done a good job in free agency. I feel like our guys are working hard. We have some guys on both sides of the ball that can really help us out.”
Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said during training camp: “You have to do a great job on defense. We have to try to get as many turnovers and as many possessions as we can for the offense so they have the ability to score more. We have to do our end of it. I’m sure from what I’ve seen from the quarterback, he’ll be fine doing the other end of it.”
Green said the Redskins will put a better team around Griffin, the second player picked in the draft, than the Indianapolis Colts can assemble around top overall selection Andrew Luck this season.
Even so, Green said, “they’re still going to lean heavily on Robert. They’re going to ask him to do a lot, both with his throwing and with his running.”
Griffin’s mobility could help the Redskins’ rushing numbers, and could help him compensate if the team’s pass protection is lacking. According to Green, Griffin’s approach should be to use his running ability early in his NFL career while he develops his skills as a pocket passer so he can curtail his running in later years. Green pointed to the Philadelphia Eagles’ Michael Vick as a quarterback who has made that transition successfully.
“Early in his career, Michael Vick relied so much on his legs and not on his accuracy and his throwing, and that catches up to you,” Green said. “You’re going to take your hits playing that way. When you have that ability, you have to use your legs until you can get a grasp and become a pocket passer. Steve McNair is a great example of that. Michael Vick has become that since he joined [Eagles Coach] Andy Reid.”
In the meantime, the Redskins say they will help Griffin every way they can, including with their play-calling balance.
“You have to be able to take the pressure off him,” Kyle Shanahan said. “How do you do that? Usually it’s by running the ball. It’s doing different things in the pass game. It’s just not asking him to do everything.”