January 6, 2013

NFL Notebook: The future really can be now for some rookie QBs

The Seattle Times

Used to be quarterbacks started their NFL careers as understudies.

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Sunday's Playoff Games 


COLTS (11-5) at RAVENS (10-6), 1 p.m.

Outlook: Big and emotional story lines here, with future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis returning for Baltimore after a 10-game injury absence for what could be his final game (or at least home game) before retiring. And on the other side with Coach Chuck Pagano, back from his leukemia battle, leading the Comeback Colts directed by super-rookie Andrew Luck. Pagano is a former Ravens assistant and knows that defense well, but that defense is healthier than it has been in a while, and I would not be surprised if Baltimore picked off Luck two or even three times. Indy is a trendy upset pick among the NFL prognosticating literati, but I'm not feeling it. Colts were only 4-4 away this year, and Joe Flacco is 34-7 as a home starter in a very tough place for anyone to visit, more so for a rookie.

Television: CBS

Prediction: Ravens, 27-23


SEAHAWKS (11-5) at REDSKINS (10-6), 4:30 p.m.

Outlook: This, to me, looks like the most intriguing game of the four opening-round matchups, with two hot teams -- Redskins with seven consecutive wins, Seahawks with five -- and sensational rookie QBs Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson at the helm. There also is an unpredictability factor. Remarkably, this is the 28th NFL season in a row with at least three new playoff teams that weren't in it a year earlier, and here are two of this year's four. Can Seattle (3-5 away) prove it can win a big game away from home? Can Washington advance as the first team since the 1943 Giants to make the playoffs led by a rookie QB and RB (Alfred Morris)? Seattle is a better all-round squad because of its defense, but D.C. will be pumped for its first home playoff game in 13 years. "In RG3 We Trust." Venue pick. Upset!

Television: FOX

Prediction: Redskins, 24-23

-- Greg Cote, The Miami Herald

This year, three of them will be starting playoff games.

That fact speaks to not only the quality of the quarterback crop this year, but to a new NFL reality: Rookie quarterbacks don't mean a team is rebuilding.

That was the rule of thumb anyway. Troy Aikman lost all 11 games he started as a rookie for Dallas in 1989. Peyton Manning didn't win his first until his fifth start nearly 10 years later.

But this year three of the 12 starting quarterbacks in the playoffs are in their first season: Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Washington's Robert Griffin III and Seattle's Russell Wilson.

Before this season, there had been only 11 rookie quarterbacks to start an NFL playoff game in the past 30 years. Only eight of those quarterbacks posted a winning record as a starter in the regular season.

"We have three this year," said Washington Coach Mike Shanahan. "That is quite unusual. I think it has something to do with colleges preparing these guys better for the pro game a lot more."

Or is it that the pro game is more accommodating of young quarterbacks now, tailoring their offenses to suit the players' skill set as opposed to letting the rookie wait, watch and learn the team's playbook.

That used to be the protocol. Carson Palmer spent his first year as a backup in Cincinnati. San Diego's Philip Rivers -- part of a quarterback class considered among the best in NFL history -- waited two years to start his first game. Even the great Dan Marino didn't start Week 1 of his rookie season.

Now teams like Seattle and Washington are mixing in quarterback option runs in their offense, following the cues from Carolina's success with Cam Newton a year ago.

The result has been more immediate payoffs for teams that cast their lot with a rookie under center. In that regard, 2008 stands as a watershed moment as Baltimore's Joe Flacco and Atlanta's Matt Ryan became the first two NFL rookies to start playoff games the same year.

"They hit it quickly," Seattle Coach Pete Carroll said of that pair, "and hit it well and won quite a few games with their teams. I thought that was kind of a statement, that young guys can get in here."

In the previous eight seasons, three different rookie quarterbacks have started in a conference championship. Could this be the year one reaches the Super Bowl?

That wouldn't shock anyone as much as it would have 10 years ago when most NFL quarterbacks began their rookie seasons as an understudy.

"You don't have to wait years and years for those guys to show up and be a big factor, obviously," Carroll said. "We'll see how that goes. Maybe this is just the class of classes too."

Three different rookies have started a playoff victory over the previous four seasons, and one is guaranteed to accomplish the feat on Sunday when Griffin and Wilson face off.

It will be only the second time that two rookie quarterbacks have started opposite one another in a playoff game, but judging by recent history, it's unlikely to be the last.

PANTHERS: Ron Rivera will return as coach next season following Carolina's strong finish that included four straight wins to close a 7-9 season.

COLTS: Left guard Joe Reitz, who missed nine regular-season games with head and knee injuries, did not travel with the Colts for Sunday's wild-card playoff game at Baltimore.


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