Rookie QB class of 2012 rivals that of ’83

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comJanuary 6, 2013 

The 1983 NFL draft is remembered for its unprecedented abundance of passing arms.

Six quarterbacks – John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien and Todd Blackledge – were selected in the first round. Five went on to become effective starters. Four went on to play in the Super Bowl. Three went on to the Hall of Fame. Two are included in any discussion about the greatest quarterback of all time.

One went on to become ESPN football analyst Todd Blackledge.

Football fans long have held the following truth to be self-evident: No draft has produced a better class of quarterbacking talent than the one that put Elway, Marino and Kelly on their way to enshrinement in Canton, Ohio. But just as records are made to be broken, appraisals are made to challenged.

Three decades after “The Year of the Quarterback,” the young guns from the 2012 draft class are assembling a similar legacy. Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck might be the main names on the rookie marquee, but Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden and Philadelphia’s Nick Foles started games this season with varying degrees of success. So did Kirk Cousins – Griffin’s backup with the Redskins – and Arizona’s Ryan Lindley, the only member of the 2012 rookie-quarterback club who appeared overmatched.

It’s fair to wonder: How does this group compare with their 1983 counterparts?

A legal term comes to mind. Nolo contendere. No contest. The 2012 class wins more convincingly than Secretariat’s home-stretch blasting of Sham in the Belmont Stakes.

It’s a small sample – one season’s worth – and while Wilson, Griffin and Luck appear to be blessed with Hall of Fame potential, a single blindside hit can derail any of their careers. Canton isn’t next door, and votes won’t be collected tomorrow.

With that caveat out of the way, consider this number: 4,689. That was how many passing yards the first-round draft class of 1983 combined to accumulate as rookies.

Now, consider this number: 4,374. That was how many passing yards Andrew Luck accumulated as a rookie. Four other rookies – Wilson, Griffin, Tannehill and Weeden – threw for at least 3,000 yards, or 790 more than Dan Marino produced in 1983.

Modified rules, along with more sophisticated offensive playbooks, account for some of today’s precocious rookie quarterback numbers. But the culture has changed, too. Thirty years ago, a rookie QB expected to watch games from the sideline.

Elway made 10 starts. (A prevailing memory of his 1983 season was breaking a Broncos huddle, then lining up to take a snap … behind the right guard.) Marino started nine times, which was nine more starts than O’Brien and Blackledge got. Kelly thrived in a wide-open attack, but he did his thriving with the USFL’s Houston Gunslingers. He didn’t sign with the Bills until 1986, after the spring league folded.

While most of the ballyhooed rookie quarterbacks were wearing kid gloves in 1983 – only Marino, the last selection of the first round, looked like a certain superstar – Rams running back Eric Dickerson was the consensus choice as Rookie of the Year.

The race for this season’s award is cluttered, and it’s cluttered with quarterbacks who have already developed a signature virtue: Wilson adheres to a work/study regimen that borders on lunacy. Griffin is a spontaneous-combustion wonder who plays pro football with the joy of a schoolkid darting and dodging classmates during recess. Luck, a master of the fourth-quarter comeback, doesn’t dwell on the interception he just threw. He dwells on the touchdown his team is about to score.

If these guys stay healthy, and if Tannehill, Foles, Weeden and Cousins use their rookie seasons as a bottom-line template, the 2012 draft someday will be recalled as the pipeline that sent seven elite quarterbacks into the league.

But that’s for another generation to ponder. For us? We’ve got Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III this afternoon, two rookie quarterbacks squaring off in a playoff game.

Expect some rattled nerves – don’t be surprised if those rattled nerves are responsible for a turnover or two – just don’t expect the rookies to behave like rookies.

When their huddle breaks for the first time, neither quarterback will line up under the right guard.

Because, like, c’mon. That is so 1983.

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