Instead of putting rookie quarterbacks on the bench to learn NFL offenses, more coaches are tailoring their playbooks to fit first-year players.
If it takes three years to accurately evaluate a draft class, it must require decades to determine a legacy.
That’s a long way of saying that it’s entirely too early to say where this year’s crop of rookie quarterbacks ranks against 1983, which is the gold standard for draft classes at that position.
But then again, there’s not really any doubt that this year’s class of rookie quarterbacks is better than that 1983 group headlined by John Elway and Dan Marino. At least not in terms of rookie seasons.
That says as much about the way this league has changed as it does about the quality or readiness of the quarterbacks who entered the league this year: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
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College quarterbacks aren’t more ready for the NFL today; the NFL is more ready for college quarterbacks.
The blue-chip class of 1983 had just one quarterback who started Week 1 for his team, and that was John Elway, who went 4-6 as a starter in a pretty forgettable season.
Marino didn’t start his first game until October, then going 7-3 as the starter in the Dolphins’ playoff season. Jim Kelly played two years in the USFL before coming to the NFL. Tony Eason, Todd Blackledge and Ken O’Brien were also first-round picks that year. None started a game as rookies.
The 2004 draft is widely cited as the second-best class of quarterbacks with Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger all chosen in the first half of the first round. Manning played behind Kurt Warner to begin the season, Rivers spent two years as an understudy to Drew Brees, and Roethlisberger was inserted in the first month of the season only because the starter Tommy Maddox was hurt.
And yet when this season began, there were five rookies who started at quarterback. Three-quarters of a season later, three are piloting teams that are .500 or better as Luck’s Colts are 8-4, Seattle is 7-5 under Wilson and Griffin got his Washington team to 6-6 on Monday.
It’s remarkable. It also represents a seismic shift in the NFL, because for years there were teams who assumed the best position for a rookie quarterback to play was “clipboard.” Carson Palmer was the No. 1 overall pick in 2003, and he didn’t start a game that season.
Before this season, there had never been more than two rookies who started at quarterback in Week 1 of an NFL season. The fact that there were more than double that number this year speaks to the ability not just of the quarterbacks, but of the newfound flexibility of their coaches.
Griffin is not running Mike Shanahan’s offense so much as he’s starting for a team whose coach has adjusted the offense to suit Griffin’s skill set. Wilson has learned Seattle’s playbook, but that playbook now includes a read-option package that is suited to Wilson.
Rookies are entering the league more ready to contribute because teams are more willing to modify their offenses to allow rookie quarterbacks to contribute.
All of a sudden, the whole idea of questioning whether a college quarterback is suited for the NFL is becoming antiquated. The question is whether an NFL team can find ways to tailor its offense to accentuate the rookie’s assets in order to get him on the field. The sooner, the better.
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @dannyoneil