The NFL has never seen a rookie class make a larger impact than this year’s group. Now, with the playoff field nearly set, the extraordinary nature of these rookies is coming into focus.
For the first time since the NFL’s merger with the American Football League in 1970, the NFL will probably have three rookies starting at quarterback in the playoffs, providing a showcase for players who are the future of the league. They have also seized the present. The Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck and the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson secured their playoff spots Sunday, and Robert Griffin III has the Washington Redskins positioned to win their first NFC East title since 1999, if the Redskins beat the Dallas Cowboys at home Sunday night in the regular-season finale. The Redskins could also make the playoffs as a wild card if they lose and get some help.
Before 2008, only six rookie quarterbacks had started a playoff game; Dan Marino was the first, for the Miami Dolphins in 1983. But in 2008, Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens) and Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons) made it, the first time more than one rookie quarterback started a playoff game in a season. Last year, Andy Dalton (Cincinnati Bengals) and T.J. Yates (filling in for the injured Matt Schaub with the Houston Texans) started in the postseason.
But this season’s group might best reflect the forces that have combined to make rookie quarterbacks so successful so quickly. There is little time or patience to wait for their development in the win-now NFL, but there is also little need to. Because of the increasing similarities in the offensive styles of college football and professional football, quarterbacks are far better prepared to take over immediately.
Luck and Griffin were tagged as stars from the moment they left college. Wilson? He was supposed to be a backup. The Seahawks signed Matt Flynn as a free agent, and even when they drafted Wilson in the third round last spring, the expectation was that Flynn would emerge from training camp with the job. But Wilson impressed the Seahawks immediately with his preparation and maturity.
Wilson was not a first-round pick for one reason: at 5 feet 11 inches, he is several inches shorter than the prototypical NFL quarterback. The move to make him the starter came with some risk, but Seattle was able to insulate Wilson with a powerful running game and a top-notch defense.
In the past seven weeks, Wilson’s game has caught up to his maturity. He has thrown for 15 touchdowns with two interceptions in that time, and the Seahawks have gone 6-1. Seattle has won its past three games by a combined 150-30, culminating with Sunday’s 42-13 smackdown of the San Francisco 49ers, who had looked like the league’s best team after a road win over the New England Patriots. Wilson threw four touchdown passes — the first time he had done that — and the Seahawks converted a ridiculous 11 of 13 third-down chances, with one of the failures coming on a kneel-down. With 25 touchdown passes, Wilson is one short of Peyton Manning’s single-season rookie record.
“Russell played like crazy tonight," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said after the game. Wilson’s most riveting plays were his scrambles — during one, he might have covered 25 yards going side to side before he finally ran forward — but his accuracy and his ability to throw deep have made him such a recent threat. In the seven-game stretch, Wilson’s yards gained per pass attempt have never slipped below 7.21, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Carroll made a point to say that the offense had changed — Wilson was no longer a caretaker but a playmaker — but that Wilson had not. For that, the Seahawks are fortunate. Wilson played football and baseball at North Carolina State and also took 18 credits a semester. He transferred to Wisconsin for his final season of football after graduating from N.C. State. Wilson said that coping with his father’s death in 2010, combined with playing in big games in packed stadiums, prepared him for the rigor of the NFL.
“To be honest, the thing that helps me is all the things that went on in my life," Wilson said in a recent interview. “My dad passing away, the personal struggle you have, going through stuff, it really toughens you up, it keeps things in perspective."
Carroll said Wilson won the Seahawks over, and it was easy to see how. In that interview, Wilson said the only thing he feared about the NFL was not being prepared enough. It seems unlikely he will ever reach that point.
“It’s not a strange dynamic; I try to be myself," Wilson said of becoming a leader of a veteran team. “In terms of veterans and getting that respect, you earn that respect by the way you prepare and the attitude you have, through great times and bad times. I always try to bring positive attitude, I try to work my tail off, study tons of film, take tons of notes. To be a great quarterback in the NFL, from what I’ve seen, everybody can throw well — you have to be a great, great leader, with amazing attention to detail. Finally, you have to have a relentless competitive nature. That’s what I try to bring every day to the Seattle Seahawks."
It is similar to what Luck has brought to Indianapolis and Griffin to Washington.
The Seahawks have secured at least a wild-card spot and can win the division if they beat the St. Louis Rams at home while the 49ers lose to the Arizona Cardinals next Sunday in San Francisco. That seems unlikely, which means Seattle will probably be on the road for the playoffs, where it is 3-5 this season. The good news: the first game might be at Washington, against Griffin, providing a snapshot of what could be more than a decade of duels to come.