History has it that the Chosen Ones spend their apprenticeship digging out from under. They were acquired and anointed by busted franchises that saw them as saviors later rather than sooner. So, what’s with this year’s immediate gratification?
“You go back 40 years and take a look at all the first-round draft choices and there’s only seven guys with winning records and you say, how come?” wondered Redskins coach Mike Shanahan. “To have three this year, it’s really hard to explain.”
Three of the teams in this weekend’s four NFL wild-card playoff games will be directed by rookies. Robert Griffin III, who led Washington to its first division title since 1999, will be up against Russell Wilson, a third-rounder who pulled Seattle out of a four-year funk. And Andrew Luck, who flipped Indianapolis from 2-14 to 11-5, will take on a Ravens team that was one play from last year’s Super Bowl. “Maybe this is just the class of classes,” mused Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “Maybe this isn’t as much of a trend, but it looks like it’s kind of turning.”
Half of the 12 playoff teams will have rookies or second-year men calling signals, including Minnesota’s Christian Ponder, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, who began the season on the bench behind Alex Smith, a former top overall pick. That’s in addition to Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden, Carolina’s Cam Newton, and Tennessee’s Jake Locker, all of whom were primary starters this season.
“I’d always been impressed by a lot of those guys through college — Weeden, Tannehill, Robert, Russell,” said Luck, who was taken first overall, just ahead of Griffin. “It’s neat to see them have success in this league, especially when you get to know each other throughout the whole process before the season.”
If the top guns all are familiar with each other (“I know his whole story,” Griffin said of Wilson, who called Griffin “a great human being”) it’s because that process makes it all but impossible to avoid each other. As soon as their bowl games end they’re off to specialized academies and the NFL combine. “By the time a coach gets his hands on them in minicamp they’re much further along,” said CBS analyst Rich Gannon, who played quarterback for four NFL teams. “You don’t see the growing pains.”
The growth is decidedly more accelerated than it was when Gannon was drafted in 1987. There’s much more passing in high school, where the quarterbacks spend their summers in camps trying to impress recruiters. In college, they run sophisticated systems like the spread and pistol.
“That gives them a big advantage,” said Shanahan. “They have the ability to come and go through OTAs and really learn the system in the offseason. You get a lot of hours in the classroom with the quarterbacks that you never had 10 years ago.”
More of them than ever arrive ready for immediate duty. The Colts saw enough of Luck at Stanford that they felt comfortable parting ways with Peyton Manning, who’d started every game for 13 years until he had neck surgery and missed the 2011 season. The Redskins, who’d been through three quarterbacks (Jason Campbell, Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman) in three seasons, went all-in with RG3, who’d won the Heisman at Baylor.
“They weren’t going to make it baby steps,” said Griffin. “They threw everything at me and made me learn on the fly. They were really hard on me in OTAs and camp and it’s paid off. If you have a mind-set that it’s going to take me a year, then it’s hard for you to go out and be successful. I don’t have that mind-set, the coaches didn’t have that mind-set.”
It wasn’t that way for the Seahawks, who didn’t know who their man would be and had a three-way competition in camp among Wilson, incumbent Tarvaris Jackson, and Matt Flynn. “They [the Redskins] were committed to Robert right from the beginning,” said Carroll. “They knew what they were doing. We weren’t. We didn’t know. We didn’t have the same commitment to the guy that they did.”
Once Wilson earned the job Seattle handed over the keys, traded Jackson to the Bills, and watched his successor produce victories over the Cowboys, Packers, and Patriots plus an overtime triumph at Chicago that touched off the current five-game winning streak. “Russell has had a fantastic season,” said Carroll. “He’s done everything that we could have hoped for. We raised him up and he took off and ran with it.”
Wilson, who passed up promising baseball possibilities with the Colorado Rockies, has taken his opportunity literally, rushing for nearly 500 yards and four touchdowns while tying Manning’s rookie record for touchdown passes with 26. Griffin, who broke Newton’s rookie record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 815, passed for 3,200 more. “He was able to do stuff right off the bat,” said Carroll. “He made great impressions from the beginning and then held numbers all through the season.”
For all three rookies the numbers that most mattered were the W’s. Seattle, which was 7-9 last year, won 11 games, its most in seven seasons. Washington, 5-11 last year, upgraded to 10-6, its best mark since 2005. And Luck presided over a nine-game turnaround, the biggest by the Colts since 1999.
What they have in common is confidence and composure. Luck, whose father, Oliver, quarterbacked the Oilers, already has a touch of Unitas about him. “He’s unflappable,” observed Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano. “Nothing bothers him. He’s his own worst critic but he’s able to put everything behind him and come back. Poor play will not affect him. He’ll make the corrections and he’ll come right back and drive the team down the field for a game-winner.”
Griffin, who was named captain in the middle of a season that began 3-6, planned on being The Man as soon as he turned up from Waco. “Coach drafted me to be the franchise quarterback of this team and that’s what I planned to do from Day 1,” he said. “My goal was to come in and show them that they picked the right guy and to show the team that they could believe in me.”
Few outside of Wisconsin believed in Wilson, who was the 75th player and sixth quarterback chosen. “I’ve been waiting for this my whole entire life,” he said. “You can’t be afraid to excel.”
Wilson is part of the most intriguing opening-weekend story line in memory. “It’s really exciting,” said Carroll. “The guys have done great, they really have, against all the odds and history and stuff. They’ve just been amazing to take their teams into the playoffs.”