“Prior to last season, it was kind of unheard of for a rookie to come in and have as much success as they had,” said London Fletcher, the Redskins’ veteran linebacker. “You think about what Cam Newton did last year, what Andy Dalton did last year, those guys coming in and playing so well early. But now it’s been duplicated. You look at Robert, Andrew Luck and Wilson out in Seattle, those three guys are playing really good football for their teams right now. I guess the game has changed a little bit where teams are more willing to throw a guy into the fire right away and not put him on the bench for a couple years like they used to in the past.”
Newton broke Peyton Manning’s NFL rookie record for passing yards last season, but his Carolina Panthers went 6-10. Dalton got the Cincinnati Bengals into last season’s playoffs as a rookie. But his play wasn’t prompting talk that he already was an elite NFL quarterback.
So the immediate impact being made by Luck, Griffin and Wilson seemingly is a blend of a group of special quarterbacks arriving in the NFL at once, at a time when teams are willing to turn things over to youngsters and adjust as necessary to make it all work. It is, after all, the most passing-friendly period in the sport’s history. More than ever, any team that doesn’t have a quarterback capable of putting up big numbers in the passing game needs to find one, and quickly.
“You’re seeing more quarterbacks come in the league with more background on how to play quarterback,” Browns Coach Pat Shurmur said. “That’s a long way of saying that they’re better prepared for our game. You’re seeing guys coming out of college basically working with drop-back schemes. You’re seeing guys with great skill and ability as far as running that are involved in option-type schemes. Then you’re seeing a little bit of a merge there.”
‘Things are trickling up’
Indeed, part of it is the NFL adapting to young quarterbacks, rather than just forcing young quarterbacks to adapt to the NFL. To take advantage of Griffin’s varied talents, Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan and his son Kyle, the team’s offensive coordinator, created an offensive system for him that mixes elements of traditional NFL offenses (a West Coast passing game, the zone blocking and “stretch” running plays always employed by Mike Shanahan-coached teams) with ingredients more closely associated with the college version of the sport (the pistol formation, triple-option running plays).
So Griffin hasn’t exactly been playing the offense that he played while in college as the Heisman Trophy winner last season at Baylor. But he hasn’t had to completely relearn everything, either.
“Things are trickling up,” Shurmur said. “You’re seeing more college-type concepts from a running-game standpoint as it applies to quarterbacks like RGIII, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick [San Francisco’s starter as a second-year pro] and those types of guys who have the ability to run the football extremely well.”
Shurmur said “time will tell” whether this quarterback class goes down as historically superb. But it’s clear that Griffin and Luck, in particular, already have elevated their teams as rookies.
As Mike and Kyle Shanahan pointed out before the season, the traditional method for teams to win with rookie quarterbacks was to have a strong running game on offense and a very good defense — in effect, minimize the young quarterback’s role by having an overpowering team around him. That was the formula followed by the Steelers with Roethlisberger in 2004, by the Baltimore Ravens with Joe Flacco in 2008 and the New York Jets with Mark Sanchez in 2009 — and, to a lesser extent, by the Atlanta Falcons with Matt Ryan in ’08.
The Seahawks are giving Wilson such support, ranking in the top five in the league in rushing offense and total defense. But Griffin and Luck have not benefited from being on powerhouse teams. The Redskins run the ball well, in part thanks to Griffin, but are ranked 28th in the NFL in total defense. The Colts are 22nd in both rushing offense and total defense. The heavy lifting on each of these winning teams is being done by its rookie quarterback, and that is an extreme rarity in the NFL.
“You don’t expect that,” Levy said. “But there’s always the exceptions to the rule.”