Great crop of rookie QBs in playoffs, but can they win it all?
That's Robert Griffin Jr.
Robert Griffin III, the quarterback of the Redskins, was another seven years from existence.
Oliver Luck had just completed his second year as an NFL quarterback with the Oilers that season. And Harrison Wilson III -- who, despite almost making the Chargers' roster in 1980 was never, it appears, reverently referred to as HW3 -- was just settling into a career as a lawyer in Virginia.
On Sunday, their sons, none of whom was born when Marino broke one rookie barrier, will embark on a journey to attempt to break another and change the conventional wisdom that a first-year quarterback cannot lead a team to a Super Bowl. None ever has. But Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson -- none of them old enough to recognize the history they are attempting to rewrite -- could have the best chance to do so.
And maybe, for a while, the last best chance.
"It's a once-in-a-generation type of class," said Bill Polian, former general manager of the Colts, who compared this group of rookie quarterbacks to the legendary Class of '83 that included Marino. "There's certainly nothing coming along in the next two years that even comes close to these guys in terms of quantity and quality . . . This is a pretty special group of guys, and people don't come like that very often."
At least one is guaranteed to win Sunday as Griffin and Wilson square off at 4:30 p.m. in an NFC wild-card game at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., between the Redskins and Seahawks. About 30 miles away at 1 p.m., Luck and the Colts will have faced the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
For the first time ever, three rookie quarterbacks are starting playoff games.
The league is changing
There have been 435 postseason games in the Super Bowl era, including the two Saturday. That equates to 870 chances for a rookie quarterback to start. Eleven rookie quarterbacks have started a total of 18 playoff games.
After a barren record through the first 30 years, recent rookies have found some success. It wasn't until Shaun King led the Bucs to a victory in 1999 that a rookie even won a playoff game, but in the last four postseasons, the league has had five rookie quarterbacks start with a record of 5-5. Even the now-beleaguered Mark Sanchez won two playoff games his rookie season. Last season was the first time two rookies faced each other in the postseason: Andy Dalton and the Bengals lost to T.J. Yates and the Texans in a wild-card game.
"The league is changing," Giants general manager Jerry Reese said in a radio interview this past week. "When you draft quarterbacks high back in the old days, teams would just sit them out and let them learn from a veteran, try to learn the system. Nowadays, everything has changed. Teams draft guys and they cater to their skill set like RG3 and the Redskins. The offense that they run is perfect for his skill set."
Griffin, who was the No. 2 overall pick by the Redskins in April, said it never occurred to him that he might not have control of the team from the first day he arrived.
"If you have a mind-set that 'hey, it's going to take me a year,' then it's hard for me to go out and be successful," Griffin said. "I don't have that mind-set, the coaches didn't have that mind-set . . . Coach drafted me to be the franchise quarterback for this team, and that's what I planned to do from day one."
Of course, Day 1 can be different in year two. Of the 11 rookies who have started playoff games, only one went on to win a Super Bowl during his career: Ben Roethlisberger.
Reese said though this crop of rookies is having immediate success, prolonged achievement might be more difficult.
"After the league gets a playbook on these guys, it'll be a little bit more difficult for them," he said. "Just like Cam Newton. Nobody could stop him last year and he struggled a little bit [in 2012] because every team got a playbook on him. This is what this guy is, this is what he can do. When teams get a playbook on you, this is the pros, these guys can counter and try to take some things away that you like."
No pressure . . . yet
Luck shrugged, as you would expect him to, when asked about being a rookie in the bright lights of the playoffs.
"Everybody at this level has played in big games," he said, "even if they are rookies."
Griffin, too, was nonchalant about the stage. And out in Seattle, coach Pete Carroll suggested that Wilson wouldn't buckle under the pressure because "we have talked all year, and for a couple of years now, about every game is a championship game. And you play it like that. And you approach it like that. So that when it comes time, the mentality and the conversation and the language and the focus and the intensity has already been at hand."
King thought that, too, when he led the 1999 Bucs into the playoffs as a rookie. Now 13 years removed from the experience, he realizes how wrong he was.
"There wasn't a lot of pressure on me because I still was too naive to big-time success at that level," he said. "It's hard to make it to the playoffs in the NFL, but when you're a rookie and you make it, you don't understand that yet. So that pressure of 'wow, this may be my only shot, so I'd better take advantage of it' isn't necessarily there yet."
That comes later. For everyone. King pointed out that for all he's accomplished, Tony Romo is besmirched for his lack of success in the postseason or even getting to the postseason. Even Eli Manning, who has won two Super Bowl MVPs, is spending this offseason answering questions about not making the playoffs in three of the last four years. Manning said this past week that he's developed an appreciation for the small window of opportunity that an NFL quarterback has.
"Not understanding that aspect of it is a good thing for those guys," King said of the three rookies. "After they've played a couple of years, after a few offseasons of hearing about how everything is wrong with them and their team, they'll start to see."
Will it ever happen?
While Wilson, Griffin and Luck are redefining the position of quarterback and notions of how long it should take one to rise to prominence, they're also relying on some of the skills that have made Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers January regulars.
"Quarterbacks who are mobile coming out of college are one thing, quarterbacks who have strong arms are another, but mobility and a strong arm does not a quarterback make," Polian said. "If they didn't have that football intelligence, they'd be lost."
All three also exude leadership and took over franchises that had losing records last season, turning them into playoff teams. The next step is to make them playoff winners.
But will it ever happen? Will a rook ever be elevated to a king and win a championship . . . or even play in a Super Bowl?
King's immediate response was probably not. "I never say never," he said, "but it's unlikely. Show me a team that picks high enough to get one of the guys who is good enough to come in and play immediately and they probably don't have enough other pieces to beat some of the better teams."
But the more King thought about it and spoke about it, the more realistic the notion became to him. He remembers people looking at him as a rookie and saying he couldn't win a postseason game, and he won one and nearly advanced the Bucs to the Super Bowl in the NFC title game.
"I don't know," he said after a while. "It's getting closer to happening. As long as the numbers [of rookie quarterbacks] continue to increase, it probably will happen."
Perhaps even in the next month or so.
For the first time in NFL history three rookie quarterbacks will be starting playoff games in the same season. Since the first to do so, Dan Marino in 1983, there have been 10 others with a combined record of 7-11. A look at how the rookies fared in the postseason:
1983 Dan Marino, Dolphins L, Seahawks, 27-20
1985 Bernie Kosar, Browns L, Dolphins, 24-21
1986 Jim Everett, Rams L, Redskins, 19-7
1991 Todd Marinovich, Raiders L, Chiefs, 10-6
1999 Shaun King, Bucs W, Redskins, 14-13; L, Rams, 11-6
2004 Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers W, Jets, 20-17; L, Patriots, 41-27
2008 Joe Flacco, Ravens W, Dolphins, 27-9; W, Titans, 13-10; L, Steelers, 23-14
2008 Matt Ryan, Falcons L, Cardinals, 30-24
2009 Mark Sanchez, Jets W, Bengals, 24-14; W, Chargers, 17-14; L, Colts, 30-17
2011 T.J. Yates, Texans W, Bengals, 31-10; L, Ravens, 20-13