There are 32 NFL franchises and 107 Bowl Subdivision colleges, but the world of big-time football can still seem pretty small at times.
Take Robert Griffin III of the Redskins and Sam Bradford of the Rams, the quarterbacks who’ll duel Sunday in St. Louis. Although it will be only Griffin’s second pro game, it won’t be his first matchup with Bradford. That happened in Griffin’s fifth start as a freshman at Baylor in 2008. He ran 21 times for 102 yards and two touchdowns but completed just 11 of 26 passes for 75 yards as the Bears were throttled 49 to 17 by visiting Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy winner Bradford, who connected on 23 of 31 passes for 372 yards and two touchdowns.
On Wednesday, Griffin praised Bradford’s accuracy and leadership and the latter recalled the former as a superb athlete.
“I remember (Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops) always talking about him and being worried about him with his ability to make plays with both his arms and his feet,” Bradford said.
Griffin and Bradford each missed most of 2009 with injuries before the latter headed to the NFL as the No. 1 overall selection in the 2010 draft. Griffin won the Heisman last year and was chosen second overall in April by Washington which dealt three first-rounders and a second-rounder to St. Louis in order to move up four spots and take him. Although Bradford’s second season with the Rams wasn’t nearly as good as his first, they weren’t about to draft another quarterback in the first round and preferred to accumulate a passel of picks.
It didn’t hurt that new Rams coach Jeff Fisher and third-year Redskins coach Mike Shanahan are longtime friends. Shanahan was San Francisco’s offensive coordinator in 1992-93 when Fisher was the 49ers’ defensive backs coach. Shanahan’s college roommate, the late Mike Heimerdinger, worked for both Shanahan in Denver and Fisher in Tennessee.
More of that big-time football, small world thing.
“We (have) one of those relationships where we had a chance to talk, but this is a business,” Shanahan said.
“There’s a personal side of the relationship and there’s a business side to this,” Fisher agreed. “This was a business deal that we thought was the best decision for both clubs.”
While Fisher wasn’t in St. Louis when Bradford was a rookie, both clubs went with their highly-touted kid quarterbacks from the start. That’s the trend of late in the NFL. A record five rookie passers started last week’s openers, raising the total over the last five years to a dozen. Only four quarterbacks taken in the first round over those five drafts weren’t starters from the beginning.
In contrast, Denver’s Peyton Manning is the only current starter drafted before 2008 who was a regular from the dawn of his pro career. Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, who have combined to win nine of the last 11 Super Bowls, all began their careers as backups.
Fisher said that rookie quarterbacks have come a long way from 1995 when he drafted Steve McNair third overall but kept him on the bench for two years.
“I think they’re more prepared, although a lot of the quarterbacks are now playing different offenses (such as Baylor’s with its focus on the option and shotgun), not conventional offenses,” Fisher said. “I (also) think they’re more prepared with the longer (NFL) offseason and more of an opportunity to develop them.”
Eleven years after Fisher drafted McNair, Shanahan, whose Broncos were coming off an AFC Championship Game appearance with Jake Plummer under center, surprisingly traded up to draft Jay Cutler 11th overall in 2006. By December, the rookie was starting.
Bradford began his NFL career by completing 32 of 55 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown but also being intercepted three times in a loss to Arizona. By mid-season, he had St. Louis – 1-15 the previous year — at 4-4 after posting a 112.4 rating in a victory over Carolina. The Rams just missed winning the NFC West. But last year, he threw just six touchdowns while going 1-9 in an injury-riddled season for the offensively-challenged Rams.
Shanahan still believes that Bradford, who was 17 of 25 for 198 yards and a touchdown in the Rams’ opening 27-23 loss at Detroit, “is going to be a top quarterback in this league,” but the 19th-year head coach doesn’t want Griffin or anyone else to get overly excited about the rookie’s sensational debut last Sunday at New Orleans.
In the raucous Superdome against the hyped-up Saints, RGIII completed 19 of 26 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns while running 10 times for 42 yards to lead the Redskins to a 40-32 shocker. His 139.9 rating leads the league and was the best ever for a rookie quarterback other than Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton 51 years earlier.
“Let’s not get carried away,” Shanahan said. “It’s a growing experience and each game you’re going to experience different things. It’s part of the maturation process that he’s going to have some high and some lows. It’s just the nature of the game.”
True, Mike, but the success of rookie passers right from the start in recent years shows how much that nature is changing.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin