If the NFL playoffs started today, a record three rookie quarterbacks would be leading their teams into the postseason. With two weeks left to play, Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Washington's Robert Griffin III, and Seattle's Russell Wilson all have their teams roaring toward unexpected postseason berths.
This is no fluke. It's a reflection of the new approach teams have begun to take with their freshman play-callers.
Teams used to insist that rookie quarterbacks weren't ready to lead a team to victory. When the Cincinnati Bengals selected Carson Palmer with the first overall pick in the 2003 draft, they hailed him as their new franchise player. Yet the following season, Palmer never once left the sidelines. The Bengals benched their prized rookie for the entire year, thinking he would develop faster by first watching a veteran quarterback. This was hardly unusual. Teams had long believed that rookies should be nurtured and eased into the pros. If you threw them right into the deep end, went the conventional wisdom, they would surely sink.
Michael Vick, the first overall pick in 2001, started just two games his rookie year. Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Phillip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers — all highly-touted first round picks — began their careers as spectators, too.
In recent years, however, teams have been more adventurous with their new talent. In turn, more and more rookies have proven the old watch-and-learn system wrong.
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh surprised everyone by naming rookie Joe Flacco his starting quarterback prior to the 2008 season. Flacco promptly led the Ravens to the AFC championship game, falling one win shy of the Super Bowl. That same year, fellow freshman QB Matt Ryan started every game for the Atlanta Falcons and took his team to the playoffs.
Mark Sanchez followed suit in 2009 with the New York Jets, driving his team to the AFC title game. And last year, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and Houston's T.J Yates became the first rookie quarterbacks to face each other in a playoff game.
Since the AFL and NFL merged in 1970, just 11 freshman quarterbacks have started a playoff game; six have done so since 2004.
Even QBs whose teams failed to make the postseason have turned in sparkling rookie seasons in recent years. In 2010, Sam Bradford brought the St. Louis Rams, fresh off a one-win season, to the brink of the playoffs. And last year, number one pick Cam Newton obliterated a slew of rookie passing records.
In no season has this new phenomenon been more prominent than the current one. Five rookie quarterbacks started on opening day this year. Never before had more than two rookie quarterbacks done so.
This year's rookies aren't flailing away either. Leading the pack is Griffin, whose 104.2 passer rating — a composite measure of key passing statistics like completions, passing yards, and touchdowns — ranks second in the NFL behind only Rodgers, last year's league MVP. If Griffin keeps up the pace, he would destroy the record for the highest rookie passer rating ever. On top of that, his 6.7 rushing yards per attempt leads the league — not just among quarterbacks, but among all players.
By Total Quarterback Rating — a more nuanced version of passer rating created by ESPN — the big three rookie passers (Luck, Griffin, and Wilson) all rank in the top 11 league-wide. And even lesser-name rookies are enjoying relative success. Ryan Tannehill is turning in a respectable season for the struggling Miami Dolphins. And with Griffin out last week due to injury, rookie teammate Kirk Cousins picked up the win, throwing for 329 yards and two touchdowns.
Perhaps the driving factor behind this surge of rookie success is that college football has transformed in recent years to more closely resemble the pro game. College coaches have placed an increased emphasis on passing, and have adopted more and more NFL-style formations and plays — in some cases, college teams have even developed new tactics later appropriated their pro counterparts. As a result, college passers now enter the league with a built-in knowledge of the playing style, allowing them to more seamlessly transition between the two levels.
As rookie quarterbacks continue to find immediate success, teams will only be more willing to throw their new draftees right into the fire. If Griffin, Luck, and Wilson don't make history this year, you can bet that, before long, another trio will accomplish the feat.