NFL teams are no longer using kid gloves with rookie quarterbacks
Conventional wisdom in the NFL used to be that you'd try and develop young quarterbacks slowly and have them learn behind established veterans before starting them. These days, it's more like play 'em as soon as you can.
Case in point: Heading into the 2012 season, there will be five rookie starters: Andrew Luck (Colts), Robert Griffin III (Redskins), Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins), Brandon Weeden (Browns) and Russell Wilson (Seahawks).
When's the last time that happened? Try never.
"When you draft your young guy, you know there are going to be some ups and downs, but you want them to get some on-field experience," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "It's happened before, with guys like Troy Aikman, John Elway and Peyton Manning, but it looks like it's happening a lot more nowadays."
In addition to the five rookie starters, there are five more second-year passers in the starting lineup: Cam Newton (Panthers), Blaine Gabbert (Jaguars), Jake Locker (Titans), Christian Ponder (Vikings) and Andy Dalton (Bengals). Newton and Dalton were rookie starters.
"You take a look at the teams that draft quarterbacks, especially high in the draft, then it doesn't surprise you that they go with the young guy," Shanahan said. "You invest a lot in them, and you want to see what they can do."
But that's a stark change from a generation ago, when coaches were more patient with younger quarterbacks as they gradually adjusted to offenses far more complicated than the ones they ran in college. Phil Simms, for example, didn't establish himself as the Giants' long-term starter until 1984, five years after he was drafted in the first round. Joe Montana started only eight games combined over his first two seasons in 1979-80. Brett Favre was a backup in Atlanta as a rookie in 1991, traded to the Packers the following season, but started out behind Don Majkowski. He replaced Majkowski after he was injured early in the 1992 season.
Even current Packers star Aaron Rodgers did things the old-fashioned way. Drafted in the first round in 2005, he was a backup to Favre for three seasons before taking over.
But more and more, the top picks are getting the call from the start. Current starters such as Mark Sanchez (Jets), Joe Flacco (Ravens) and Matt Ryan (Falcons) were No. 1 right away.
Sometimes, it's a matter of circumstance; in this year's case, there was a major need at the position for all five teams that anointed rookie passers as starters. But there may be another factor at work in this major infusion of young talent.
"I always thought our game would never become like the college game, but it is, with the spread offense and the shotgun formation," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who drafted Flacco in the first round in 2008. "That's allowing these guys to play more at a younger age in the NFL. Our game was supposed to be different, but I think we're starting to become very alike with the college game. Normally, you say a guy isn't accustomed to being under center because he comes from the spread in college. Well, how much are quarterbacks under center in the NFL these days?"
Answer: not nearly as much as they used to be.
Which is why a third-round QB such as the 5-11 Wilson can pull off one of the biggest preseason shockers and beat out recently signed Matt Flynn for the starting QB job in Seattle.
"Russell has taken full advantage of his opportunities and has done everything that we have asked for on the field and more than what you guys could know off the field in meeting rooms and with our players and how he's represented," coach Pete Carroll said. "He's earned this job. He deserves to start."
That's the feeling in four other NFL cities with rookie QBs getting the nod from Day 1.