Young QBs changing face of NFL
In the perpetually evolving NFL, young quarterbacks are no longer required to carry a clipboard until they understand the complexities and nuances of sophisticated offenses, particularly intricate passing games.
Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, the first and second picks in this year's draft, were handed the reins in Indianapolis and Washington, respectively, long before training camp began.
They were tossed into the fray without consideration of being understudies. In the past, rookie quarterbacks — including Ben Roethlisberger and Dan Marino — made the transition easily from college to the NFL, but it was more of an aberration than the norm.
Today, nearly 1 in 3 NFL starting quarterbacks — 10 of 32 — are rookies or second-year players.
“Times are different now,” said Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich, a rookie starter in Jacksonville in 2003. “There was a time when a rookie had to learn whatever the offensive coordinator wanted him to do, but today coaches are tweaking their systems around who's at quarterback.”
The Redskins have tailored their offense around Griffin, who has gotten off to a fast start. Griffin will face one of his stiffest challenges when the Redskins (3-4) play the Steelers (3-3) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Field.
“There has been a learning curve, but it's something I've enjoyed,” said Griffin, who has a league-best 70.4 completion percentage. “The only thing that is disappointing right now is the hard work and dedication of all the guys on the team isn't being shown with the wins and losses.
“They have trusted me with a lot of things out there on the field. We've gone out and executed and moved the ball. It's just about knowing what you are doing out there and not feeling the pressure even when other people do.”
Betting the bank
Washington coach Mike Shanahan, who helped developed Hall of Famer John Elway in Denver, is in awe of Griffin's patience and poise — attributes that seem to define many of today's young quarterbacks, including rookies Ryan Tannehill (Miami), Russell Wilson (Seattle) and 29-year-old Brandon Weeden (Cleveland).
“I've been very pleased with the way (Griffin) goes about his business,” Shanahan said. “He's a very detailed guy, a very smart guy, and he works extremely hard to be the best at what he does. You take that with his skill set, you feel pretty fortunate.”
There are several reasons teams are committing to young quarterbacks.
Some have emptied the bank vault, hoping they have a quarterback who can lead their teams for at least a decade. More important, coaches and management are betting the Griffins and Lucks will deliver instant dividends in the form of victories, if not Super Bowl trophies.
This year's high-priced rookie class is considered among the best since 1983. Yet only Elway won a Super Bowl title; Marino and Jim Kelly were a combined 0-5.
“The money became an issue as far as what is guaranteed a quarterback,” said Steelers veteran quarterback Charlie Batch, a rookie starter in Detroit in 1998. “So teams decided to develop a guy from Day 1.
“Ben came along in 2004 and trumped everything because he won his first 13 games. I think ever since that happened, everyone said, ‘Let's just develop a quarterback and see what happens.' I think with all the rookies starting, it tells you what the mind set is right now.”
‘A win-now league'
So far, four rookie quarterbacks (Griffin, Luck, Wilson and Tannehill) are a combined 13-13. Weeden has been up and down with the Browns limping to a 1-6 start.
“Nowadays coaches are getting fired in two years,” Leftwich said. “It simply comes down to they don't have time to develop a quarterback because this is a win-now league.
“Coaches aren't as stubborn as they used to be about playing young quarterbacks. They know if they don't win, their jobs could be in jeopardy.”
Roethlisberger wasn't the sole reason Bill Cowher remained off the endangered list for much of his Steelers tenure. He developed quickly in leading the Steelers to the 2004 AFC title game his rookie season and a Super Bowl title in his second.
“We had some success in my first few starts, but my head was still spinning,” Roethlisberger recalled. “I was trying to get by, and I was fortunate to have a great team around me. I was trying not to let my guys down by making mistakes.
“It definitely helped being around a veteran group of guys who helped me. Looking back, I didn't know what was going on. I was just dropping back and trying to make plays. I kind of managed certain situations, but being with this franchise enabled me to take big strides forward and be patient.”
Roethlisberger had a better supporting cast than those surrounding most of today's young quarterbacks. The Steelers leaned on a ground game powered by Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker and only sparingly relied on Roethlisberger's arm.
“Ben had a great team around him, so it was easier in some respect for him to transition into an NFL offense as a rookie,” said Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton. “You really can't compare him to some of these young guys.”
The Redskins, coming off a gut-wrenching loss last week to the New York Giants, have kept some of the pressure off Griffin, in part, because they are the top-ranked rushing team in the NFL. They are averaging 177.7 yards per game and lead the NFC in rushing attempts.
But safety Ryan Clark said the Steelers haven't faced the likes of Griffin.
“I don't remember playing a quarterback with his skills set,” Clark said. “They didn't draft him to make him fit a cookie-cutter role. They crafted the offense around him and allowed him to be special.
“It's his toughness that strikes me. He puts himself in harm's way to make plays for his team.”
In some respects, Griffin is similar to a young Roethlisberger. He's earned a reputation as being savvy and stubbornly gritty in the pocket, an on-field persona that made him the leader of a team trying to advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Best chance to win?
The expectations to win are seemingly unrealistic for some. Wilson and Minnesota's second-year quarterback Christian Ponder are the only ones among the young guns with winning records.
And experience hasn't prevented uneven performances by four second-year quarterbacks — Dalton, Carolina's Cam Newton, Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert and Tennessee's Jake Locker. All have struggled with consistency, and their teams are a combined 8-18 (Locker is 1-3 as a starter this season while the Titans are 3-4).
“It's been a tough season in that we haven't performed as a team the way we expected,” said Dalton, who has 10 interceptions, three returned for touchdowns. “I'm not frustrated, but I know a lot is expected of me.”
Still, Dalton and the others have proven they can lead. And for some teams, these young quarterbacks simply give them the best chance to win. Such is the case in Miami, where Tannehill has led the Dolphins to a 3-3 start. More importantly, he has become the face of a franchise that had 16 different starters since Marino retired after the 1999 season.
“Ultimately it comes down to the player proving to the coaches he can play,” Batch said. “Regardless of the rules, the league will say points have gone up. At the end of the day, the question is: Is that guy ready to run the team?
“When you look at Ben's situation, he had a veteran team. Cowher felt comfortable he wasn't going to make mistakes that would hurt the team. In RGIII's situation, they have a veteran team and they're good on defense. Their ability to run the football takes a lot of pressure off of him.”
At times, Gabbert, Newton and Dalton have shown why coaches were hesitant to turn their teams over to inexperienced quarterbacks in the past.
But the trend of playing untested, young quarterbacks is sure to continue, likely with expected first-round picks Geno Smith of West Virginia, Matt Barkley of USC and Landry Jones of Oklahoma next year.
Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7923.