Redskins

2012: The Season of Unmatched Rookie Quarterbacks

by David Elfin
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Robert Griffin III walks by quarterback Kirk Cousins at Cleveland Browns Stadium.  (credit: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Robert Griffin III walks by quarterback Kirk Cousins at Cleveland Browns Stadium. (credit: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

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Mike Sherman knows quarterbacks. He coached Brett Favre, who holds most career NFL passing records, for six seasons in Green Bay. Sherman’s now the offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins who are quarterbacked by rookie Ryan Tannehill.

Sherman coached at Texas A&M just last year, but he still sees rookie quarterbacks as much different from their veteran counterparts although the college game is so much more passing-oriented than it was a generation or two ago. Heck, Nebraska and Oklahoma throw the ball as much and as well as the Pac-12 schools.

“As a rookie quarterback you are going to make mistakes, that’s just the way it is,” Sherman said. “Everything is bigger, faster, stronger. It’s a little more complex; you see things you haven’t seen before. The guys you used to be able to run away from before you can’t. It’s a little bit different game.”

I beg to differ, Mike.

Kirk Cousins’ terrific performance in his first NFL start last Sunday at Cleveland was the final piece of evidence that leads me to proclaim that we’re living in the season of unmatched rookie quarterbacks.

Projected over a season, Cousins’ 104.4 passer rating against the Browns would rank him second in the NFL between fellow Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III and top-ranked Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay. Seattle rookie Russell Wilson is eighth in the ratings, ahead of such luminaries as New Orleans’s Drew Brees and the New York Giants’ Eli Manning.

Tannehill, Andrew Luck of Indianapolis and Brandon Weeden are much further down the list but are still ahead of established starters Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets and Matt Cassel of Kansas City.

Better yet, let’s explain the rise of the rookie passers by looking back.

Weeden is fifth among the five first-year regulars of 2012 with a 72.4 rating. And yet, of the 28 rookie quarterbacks who started at least 10 games from 1970-2011, only 10 were more efficient than Weeden. Among those he’s outperforming: four-time MVP Peyton Manning, Hall of Famers John Elway and Troy Aikman, and Super Bowl MVPs Phil Simms and Doug Williams.

The only rookie passers of the past 32 years who had better ratings than Wilson’s 95.5 were Hall of Famer Dan Marino (96.0) and two-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger (98.1). And with just two games to go, Griffin’s on the verge of breaking the latter’s rookie record.

“Russell is doing everything we want; he’s handling it just beautifully,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who coached at Southern Cal from 200-09. “I’m thrilled about what he’s doing, more than surprised.”

That’s also the case for Washington’s Mike Shanahan, who has worked with Elway and Hall of Famer Steve Young and now coaches Griffin.

“They’re a lot more prepared coming in,” Shanahan said about rookie quarterbacks.”[With] the shotgun, people throwing the ball as much as they do [in college], I think they have a better sense of the NFL game than quarterbacks in the past.”

Today’s rookie quarterbacks aren’t just more efficient – all NFL passers are more accurate than their predecessors who faced bump-and-run coverage and threw deep more often – they’re also winning. Wilson and Luck are each 9-5. Griffin’s 7-6. Tannehill’s 6-8. Weeden’s 5-9. So between them, the first-year passers are a respectable 39-33.

Compare that record to the 7-30 combined mark of Elway, Aikman and Peyton Manning as rookies and the gap is just staggering. And Luck, Wilson, Griffin, Tannehill and Weeden all joined losing teams which will all finish with at least as good a record as they posted in 2011.

Browns coach Pat Shurmur agreed that today’s rookie passers are “better prepared for our game.” But Shurmur, who hasn’t worked in college since 1998, sees a two-way flow of offensive creativity, one that prompted Redskins coordinator Kyle Shanahan to incorporate a zone-option look into his scheme for Griffin, who has run for a rookie quarterback record 748 yards.

“Things are trickling up,” Shurmur said. “You’re seeing more college-type concepts from a running game standpoint as it applies to quarterbacks like RGIII, [Carolina’s] Cam Newton and [San Francisco’s] Colin Kaepernick [both of the Class of 2011].”

Luck and Wilson are only one victory away from clinching playoff spots. Griffin is two triumphs removed from that achievement, but he’s still the cream of the greatest crop of rookie passers in NFL history. Not only is he second in the league in passing, he’s sixth in completion percentage and second in lowest interception percentage, trailing only five-time Super Bowl quarterback Tom Brady of New England.

“It doesn’t happen very often where a young quarterback or a rookie comes in and has few interceptions as he had,” Mike Shanahan said. “It’s a combination of a lot of things. He picks things up very quickly. He has the arm strength to make all the throws. When he does see somebody open, he can get the ball there in a hurry. I think it is kind of a feel for the game, too. You have to have a feel. When you take a look at his [18/4] touchdown/interception ratio, it is off the charts.”

Just like the NFL’s quarterback Class of 2012.

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

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