NFL Young Guns

While we’re only three games into the 2012 season, it looks like the young guns in the NFL are stepping up.  We’re starting to see a changing of the guard at the NFL quarterback position, and it’s going to be an interesting ride.

The last two years have seen an unprecedented number of rookie quarterbacks given the starting job early in their first year.  This season, there were five opening day rookie starters – Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Russell Wilson.  That’s on top of last year’s class that included Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Christian Ponder, Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert.  That’s a third of the teams in the NFL starting a first or second year quarterback with less than 20 starts under their belt.

With more college teams running a pro-style offense, these players are coming into the league ready to not only start in their first year, but to excel.  Cam Newton set the standard last year, starting on day one and throwing for over 400 yards in each of his first two games.  He finished with the best rookie campaign of any quarterback in NFL history, dwarfing Peyton Manning’s numbers – 4,051 yards, 21 passing TDs, 706 rushing yards and another 14 TDs on the ground.

Robert Griffin III seems to be following in Newton’s footsteps this year, although not quite at Newton’s torrid pace.  In three games, Griffin has thrown for 747 yards with a 67.4 percent completion rate, and 4 TDs with only 1 INT.

In fact, looking at passing efficiency, 3 of the top 6 come from this young group – Andy Dalton, Christian Ponder and RGIII are 4, 5 and 6 respectively.  Looking at the top 10, there are a lot of new faces.  Sure, Roethlisberger is sitting at number 2 and Eli Manning and Tom Brady snuck into the top 10, but Matt Ryan and Kevin Kolb are having breakout years and Alex Smith continues his emergence into an A-list quarterback under Jim Harbaugh.

1 Matt Ryan


2 Ben Roethlisberger


3 Kevin Kolb


4 Andy Dalton


5 Christian Ponder


6 Robert Griffin III


7 Alex Smith


8 Matt Schaub


9 Eli Manning


10 Tom Brady


And some of the superstars of recent years are struggling.  Michael Vick’s six interceptions in three games have fans in Philly wondering if backup Nick Foles is going to get a shot soon.  Aaron Rodgers, the reigning MVP and coming off maybe the best 12 month stretch of quarterback play in NFL history, has looked mortal this season.  Last season, he set an NFL record for passing efficiency at 122.5 with 45 TDs and 6 INTs.  This season he’s thrown just 3 TDs and 2 INTs and leads the league in sacks with 16.

Drew Brees set NFL records last year with 5,476 passing yards and a single season completion percentage of 71.2 percent.  This year he is 25th in the league in completion percentage with 54.7 percent.  He is still passing for 300 yards per game, but the Saints are off to an 0-3 start as Sean Payton serves his suspension for the BountyGate scandal.

And perhaps Brees and Alex Smith can provide the best lesson for these young quarterbacks, and the fans that follow them.  While we have an extremely talented group of first and second year quarterbacks working to make their mark on NFL history, we still give a disproportional amount of the credit and blame to the quarterback (more than any other position in any sport).  The coaching staff and the quality of the organization have a big impact.

Drew Brees was good in San Diego, but he blossomed into one of the best ever with Sean Payton in New Orleans, and he has struggled without Payton this year.  Alex Smith looked like a bust as he struggled through six different offensive coordinators in his first six seasons in San Francisco.  He has excelled under Harbaugh, and this is the first season of his eight year career that he’s had the same offense as the previous year, and he’s responded by looking like a quarterback that can lead his team to the Super Bowl.

And look at the most successful quarterbacks over the last decade.  Tom Brady has been paired with Bill Belichick for his entire career.  Peyton Manning ran one offense in Indianapolis for his first 12 years, until this seasons move to Denver.  Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning also had coaching continuity and a strong team around them to move them to the “elite” level.

As talented and hard working as this group of young guns are, and as pro-ready as they are coming out of college, there is still an element of luck.  Landing with a quality organization and developing the rapport with a head coach and offensive coordinator are big factors in what enables a quarterback to reach the elite level.  That’s an important factor to consider as some of these young guns will rise to the top while others will struggle.

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