As the guy who drafted Peyton Manning, Bill Polian knows something about quarterbacks.
Polian calls this year’s class of rookie QBs the best since 1983, when guys named Elway, Marino and Kelly were selected.
There’s one huge difference: Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck are playing key roles on contending teams. In some ways, they are the main reasons their teams are in the championship chase.
It’s happened before, even as recently as last year when defensive end J.J. Watt of Houston and linebacker Von Miller of Denver were major contributors on playoff clubs. But quarterbacks, where experience and decision making have always been at a premium, particularly in the postseason?
Polian sees three reasons for it, starting with the salary cap and free agency.
‘‘High level rookies now are expected to come in and play, filling roles vacated by players who went to other times because of free agency and the salary cap,’’ says the man who built the Bills, Panthers and Colts into Super Bowl teams. It’s very different from when rookies expected to wait their turn and had a period of breaking in.
‘‘Second, the passing game’s development: receivers and quarterbacks most notably, and of course running backs, are much more prepared to come in and play now. There’s an accent on the passing game all the way down to junior high school. They are much more capable of stepping in and learning an offense and throwing the ball and understanding routes and, to a degree, coverages.
‘‘Third, I think coaches now have recognized that they are going to have to play younger players, and in large measure have done away with their instant distrust of rookies. If they believe they have the talent, coaches will put them in and let them play.’’
Luck and Griffin, the top two overall picks in April’s draft, and Wilson, a third-rounder, have played from the outset. Only Seattle’s Wilson was a surprise starter, but he easily beat out high-priced free agent Matt Flynn during the summer.
Luck was selected by Indianapolis and Griffin by Washington not only to turn around suddenly downtrodden franchises, but to invigorate them. Both have done more than anyone could expect in Year 1, with Indianapolis (9-5) needing one victory to claim a wild-card berth, and Washington (8-6) earning the NFC East title if it wins its final two games.
Wilson has the Seahawks (9-5) are poised to make the playoffs, too.
And the stats are, well, record-setting. This year’s group of rookie quarterbacks, which also includes Ryan Tannehill in Miami, Brandon Weeden in Cleveland, Nick Foles in Philadelphia, Kirk Cousins in Washington (when RG3 was hurt last week) and Ryan Lindley in Arizona — had 39 wins, 18,220 yards passing, 92 TD passes and 1,531 completions.
All records for a rookie class.
It’s a crop that also includes some superb running backs in Washington’s Alfred Morris, Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin and Cleveland’s Trent Richardson, and defensive playmakers in Carolina LB Luke Kuechly, Seattle LB Bobby Wagner, New England end Chandler Jones, and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins of St. Louis and Casey Hayward of Green Bay.
But most impressive are the quarterbacks who realistically can turn their attention from the Offensive Rookie of the Year race to the Super Bowl chase.
‘‘What you see is guys who have been leaders and have done it,’’ says Tony Dungy, who coached the Colts built by Polian to the 2006 NFL title. ‘‘These guys are winners. They can step into the huddle — Luck was in charge from the first practice, he had command and respect from Day 1.
‘‘RG3 has been around big-time performers as an elite track guy and running in meets with Olympic-level runners. Russell Wilson was playing minor league baseball and thinking of the major leagues.
‘‘That to me has stood out with these three guys; none came in thinking ‘I will be a backup and learn the ropes.’ Instead, it's, ‘How can I play and lead us to playoffs?’ ‘‘
Rookies have done that, with recent examples Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez. But they weren’t focal points on those squads, which featured staunch defenses and strong running games. In some ways, they were along for the ride.
This year’s rookies are driving.
‘‘None of these guys is surprised they are on winning teams,’’ Dungy says. ‘‘They are used to being the reason their teams win, it is not anything that has caught them off-guard.
‘‘They come in with higher expectations and it helps them reach their goals.’’
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