Raising the bar for rookie quarterbacks

dave.boling@thenewstribune.comJanuary 6, 2013 

Perpetually adrenalized Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll can reel off paragraphs of superlatives when asked just about any question. But Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan is reserved, and appears, literally, tight-lipped on most topics.

So it can’t be lightly dismissed when a coach such as Shanahan offers this comment about his rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III: “I don’t think anybody in the history of the league has played at his level.”

And it is even more impressive that skeptics don’t scoff at that statement as much as they wonder if Griffin is even the best among his class of quarterbacks spearheading what has to be viewed as a Rookie Revolution.

For the first time in NFL history, three rookie quarterbacks guided their teams into the playoffs, with two of them, Griffin and Seattle’s Russell Wilson, squaring off this afternoon.

Both are elusive and athletic, with uncommon maturity and leadership, and along with the Colts’ Andrew Luck, have stomped on the conventional wisdom that a coach trusts his team to a rookie quarterback at career peril.

“Against all of the odds and the history, they have just been amazing to take their teams to the playoffs,” Carroll said. And the best part of the influx of kid quarterbacks? “You don’t have to wait years and years for those guys to show up and be a big factor.”

The numbers show that they are now leaving college better equipped to step in and go to work. In addition to Griffin, Wilson and Luck, three playoff teams have second-year quarterbacks, meaning half of the postseason field of 12 are led by first- or second-year quarterbacks.

“I think it has something to do with colleges preparing these guys better for the pro game a lot more,” Shanahan said. “They’re throwing at the college level. I think we have a little more time to spend with players in the offseason with the meetings and then training camp, to get somebody ready more so now than we did in the past.”

The value of the position can be viewed from the downside, too, because five of the seven coaches recently fired were largely doomed by substandard quarterback play.

Identifying the right one is the trick. And it might be expensive. Indianapolis had to pay the price of a 2-14 season to get the first draft pick and take Luck out of Stanford. Shanahan sent four draft picks (three first-round picks and a second-rounder) to St. Louis to move up to get Griffin – the Heisman Trophy winner out of Baylor – with the second pick.

Had Griffin not panned out, the trade deficit of that move might have crippled the Redskins for years.

The Seahawks invested a free-agent contract in Matt Flynn in the offseason before drafting Wilson in the third round, a bargain price because of his questionable height (just shy of 5-foot-11).

But those three paid immediate dividends. Luck broke the rookie record with more than 4,300 passing yards. Griffin set the rookie record for passer rating, 102.4. And Wilson tied Peyton Manning’s rookie record for touchdown passes (26).

Carroll used the words “fantastic” to describe Luck’s season, and “amazing” and “incredible” for Griffin. And they don’t seem like overstatements. But perhaps the most important word he uses in reference to his own rookie gem is this: trust.

“(Russell) has done everything that we could’ve hoped for,” Carroll said. “We raised him up and he took off and ran with it. He’s great with the football; he’s a guy you can trust absolutely with taking care of the football, which is the number-one aspect of our program. He’s been dynamic; a great leader and a great kid.”

While the high-profile Griffin took over as starter the second he was drafted, Wilson had to earn the job over Flynn and returning starter Tarvaris Jackson.

From the start, Shanahan added elements of the read option to his offense, to adapt his attack to Griffin’s strengths and experience.

“I think it’s remarkable that their coaching staff not only did that, but their offense has changed kind of what you can do in the NFL,” Carroll said of the Redskins. “I think it’s very much a cutting-edge style that they have gone about. Most old-style guys wouldn’t think you could do it.”

And when Carroll and his staff saw how well it was working for Griffin, they began incorporating the read option into their own scheme as well, and their offense became one of the hottest in the league in the second half of the season.

None of it would have worked if Wilson hadn’t been able to absorb and master it.

“He’s allowed us to do everything we could think of,” Carroll said. “We trust him in everything that we’re calling. It doesn’t matter what play it is, what concept it is, we trust him to be able to handle it. That’s a wonderful feeling for a coach that you can trust your quarterback like that. It’s remarkable that you can say that about a first-year guy.”

Wilson’s work ethic is already legend at Seahawks headquarters. As he likes to say: “The separation is in the preparation.” And having learned and operated different offensive systems at North Carolina State and then Wisconsin, he said, gave him a broad and diverse offensive background.

When he transferred to Wisconsin, he said he gave himself three weeks to learn the new playbook. “To be able to do that and then come into the National Football League, it’s very, very similar,” he said. “That was a great opportunity for me, and that’s what really helped me prepare.”

Griffin and Wilson have met at rookie functions and concede some general similarities in their play. Both downplayed the significance of their meeting today.

Perhaps as rare as their performance this season has been their ability to walk in and take over leadership of their teams. Griffin was named a team captain at the start of the season; Wilson was voted winner of the Steve Largent Award, given to the team’s most inspirational player.

“It was significant to me,” Griffin said. “It meant a lot that my teammates trusted me as their captain even though I’m a 22-year-old young man, a rookie in the NFL. They look to me as their leader, so I thought that was huge, and it just speaks a lot about how they feel about me.”

Also a world-class track athlete, Griffin is nobody’s underdog. But Wilson was way down at ninth on that Heisman voting last season, behind such other quarterbacks as Kellen Moore and Case Keenum.

And while the success of Luck and Griffin is historic, and might forever alter expectations for rookie quarterbacks, Wilson is the real outlier – going from third-round afterthought to franchise quarterback in a matter of months.

“I think the biggest thing for me is just taking advantage of my opportunities,” Wilson said. “You can’t be afraid to excel. And for me, I like a challenge; I like something to be on my plate where people doubt me all the time or people think you may not be able to do this. I believe God has given me a tremendous talent and a tremendous ability to play the game of football, and I’m going to do the best I can to demonstrate that every day.”

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 dave.boling@thenewstribune.com @DaveBoling

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