The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rookie QBs were expected to struggle this year. Instead they’re setting a record pace.

“This class was a special class,” one coach said of this year's rookie quarterbacks, including the Chargers' Justin Herbert. “It’s going to be talked about for a long time.” (Ashley Landis/AP)

Some of the first plays Justin Herbert ran as a professional happened in his backyard. As the NFL conducted its spring remotely, the meticulous development of rookie quarterbacks required necessary improvisation. Los Angeles Chargers coaches would send him a script of plays and instruct him over video. Herbert would then walk through them outside his house or maybe at a nearby park if he could find socially distant receivers.

“You have to find a way,” Herbert said. “It wasn’t easy for anyone. You have to find a way to get time with your guys to throw, get a way to run through the offense. It wasn’t normal for anyone.”

The 2020 NFL season, supposedly inhospitable to rookie quarterbacks with its irregular offseason and absence of preseason games as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, is staging perhaps the greatest season of rookie quarterbacking in NFL history. Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Herbert — chosen first, fifth and sixth in April’s draft — have collectively provided one of the year’s most cheerful subplots and individually delivered optimism for the Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins and Chargers, franchises profoundly in need of hope.

Burrow has continued the remarkable ascent he began last year at LSU, announcing himself as a ready-made, top-shelf NFL quarterback. Herbert had to be rushed into his first start after a team doctor punctured starter Tyrod Taylor’s lung with an ill-aimed painkilling injection, and he has responded with some of the most thrilling football anyone has played all season. In his second career start Sunday, Tagovailoa moved to 2-0 and outdueled Arizona’s Kyler Murray in a 34-31 ode to the sport’s future.

The trio have fortified the quarterback wave taking over the NFL, which includes consecutive MVPs who won the award in their second seasons. Their success may also preview another swell of quarterbacks to come.

“This class was a special class,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “It’s going to be talked about for a long time. I certainly don’t think it’s going to be the last one.”

‘The NFL game has adapted very well’

For 2020 rookies, the limited offseason may have created an unexpected benefit. In normal times, quarterbacks would receive a playbook and start executing it at rookie minicamp. Their first time trying a new offense came immediately after learning it.

“You go from Install 1 to ‘On the field in 30 minutes; let’s see what you got,’ ” Bengals quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher said.

This year, there was no rookie minicamp and no other in-person team activity until training camp. In the allowable time, coaches could install and explain the entire system, watch film of their own and even study the way defenses reacted to similar schemes of other teams. (The Bengals, Pitcher said, even started the process in the time they were permitted to spend with Burrow before the draft, once they decided on taking him.) When Burrow ran through plays on his own, he could text Callahan and Pitcher questions about concepts, such as why certain route combinations ran together. It slowed down the process of learning the offense.

“That urgency didn’t exist,” Callahan said. “We got to have long and in-depth discussions. … I think these guys are all mentally ahead more than they would have been normally. … You got to take your time with no pressure. I think that plays a large role. … I think it was a unique quarterback class on top of it.”

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Burrow is on pace for 4,544 passing yards, which would break Andrew Luck’s rookie record of 4,374. His 67 percent completion rate would finish second all-time among rookies to Dak Prescott’s 67.8 — unless you count Herbert, who this season has completed 67.3 percent of his passes.

Herbert started a week later than Burrow, but he has statistically been just as impressive. Herbert has thrown 17 touchdown passes, which will allow him to challenge the record of 27, set by Baker Mayfield in 2018. His quarterback rating sits at 104.7, a whisker behind Prescott’s rookie record of 104.9. Herbert is on pace to throw for 4,599 yards, a handful more than Burrow, even accounting for starting one fewer game.

All three have played thrilling football without the crushing mistakes that are typical of rookie quarterbacks. Burrow and Herbert rank fourth and fifth all-time among rookie quarterbacks in interception percentage. Tagovailoa has not thrown a pick in his first 52 pass attempts.

All three have arrived during an explosion of young quarterbacking talent in the league. The perceived NFL quarterback crisis from the mid-2010s has been replaced by a glut. Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson won MVP honors in their second seasons. Murray, another second-year quarterback, is on the periphery of contention for this year’s award.

The NFL is benefiting from how the sport has changed at all levels. Youth league quarterbacks, once resigned to handing off out of the veer or I-formation, now start lining up in the shotgun in Pop Warner. Quarterbacks grow up passing constantly, including in year-round seven-on-seven leagues.

“The passing game preparedness of young quarterbacks is probably much better than it was 10 years ago or 15 years ago,” Callahan said. “These guys come up in the world of throwing the football. That’s all they do. They watch all these mobile quarterbacks, and they emulate them. You see young guys who are trying to play like Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. You’re going to see more guys come in ready to play. … Throwing the football is not new for these guys.”

Former Dolphins and Jets front-office executive Mike Tannenbaum, now an ESPN analyst, said: “They’re coming into college with a much higher IQ, and they’re playing earlier. The NFL game has adapted very well to that.”

‘Marrying the coach to the quarterback’

During the offseason, Bengals coaches watched Burrow’s film from his time at LSU. Their system shared fundamental similarities with that of the New Orleans Saints, which Burrow understood because his wunderkind offensive coordinator at LSU, Joe Brady, had come from an apprenticeship under Saints Coach Sean Payton. Callahan asked Burrow what plays and concepts he liked best in their playbook.

“How do we make this like Year 3 at LSU for you instead of Year 1 in the NFL for you?” Callahan asked.

Callahan is certain Chargers and Dolphins coaches have had similar conversations with Herbert and Tagovailoa. The mind-set represents a shift within the NFL that has contributed to early success for quarterbacks. For years, coaches insisted on cramming a quarterback into their system regardless of fit. Younger offensive coaches have grown more flexible in studying and incorporating concepts from college offenses.

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Last year, Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley pointed out that, even as a rookie, Murray had played in a spread offense almost his entire life, back to his preteen years, which meant he had spent more time playing in Kliff Kingsbury’s style of offense than most NFL quarterbacks had been playing in their coaches’ systems.

“There’s a lot of guys that are a lot more open to what the rest of football is doing,” Callahan said.

The recent success of young quarterbacks may influence this year’s draft. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields have long been prized by NFL teams and may be the first two players chosen; their talent and intangibles would make them locks to be chosen early in any era.

But the diversity of styles among ascendant quarterbacks — and NFL coaches’ willingness to adapt — has broadened the way front offices evaluate quarterbacks. Another tier of passers — North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, BYU’s Zach Wilson, Florida’s Kyle Trask and possibly Alabama’s Mac Jones — could move into the top half of the first round as teams search for not only a long-term franchise anchor but a quarterback capable of injecting immediate excitement.

“It’s really marrying the coach to the quarterback is what’s important,” Tannenbaum said. “Clearly the success these players are having, you’re seeing what I think is really good coaching. It’s about taking what you have and maximizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses.”

‘We gave the keys to him early’

The quarterbacks of this class are part of a trend, but they are extraordinary within it. As Callahan noted, all three entered the league as top-six picks with uncommon experience. Burrow spent five years in college and played 28 games at LSU, including a 15-0, Heisman Trophy-winning senior season. Herbert made 42 starts at Oregon, and Tagovailoa played in 32 games, starting 24.

Coaches talk about Burrow as if he is a football savant for the way he processes a play against a specific defense and how to take advantage of it.

“He has a supernatural sense of where everybody is on a football field,” Callahan said.

Tagovailoa is making it easy to forget his mere presence is an accomplishment. Monday will mark the first anniversary of the catastrophic hip injury Tagovailoa suffered on his final collegiate play, which Tagovailoa said threatened his career. Chargers Coach Anthony Lynn studied and met with Tagovailoa during the draft process and came away convinced he would be a 10-year star, based on his instincts and leadership.

“He has a tremendous feel for the game,” Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said. “That allows him to see some things and do some things and throw the ball in some spots that other people might not do.”

Callahan coached Herbert at the Senior Bowl before the draft. He left the week thinking, “This guy is going to be a really good player.” Part of that belief came from Herbert being “wired the right way,” Callahan said. Part of it came from the belief that his deep passing and play-action ability, which Oregon’s offense rarely used, would translate to the NFL.

In another era, the rookie quarterbacks who are excelling now may have been on the bench. Those timelines are relics. In Cincinnati, the Bengals released longtime franchise pillar Andy Dalton even though he seemed like an ideal mentor for a rookie, the kind of veteran who could hand over the reins. But the Bengals knew immediately that Burrow would be their Day 1 starter. They knew that, in today’s NFL, quarterbacks no longer need to wait.

“We gave the keys to him early and kind of said, ‘You’re going to handle it,’ ” Callahan said. “We never once thought twice about it. We never once backed off how we wanted to play football. He’s only reinforced that.”