Cam Newton. Andy Dalton. Blaine Gabbert. Christian Ponder.
All four are rookie quarterbacks taken in either the first or the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft. They are also all now starting for their respective teams. Jake Locker will move in and start as soon as Matt Hasselbeck goes down with a kink in his neck. It is just Week 8 of the season, and a full division’s worth of teams in the league have rookie’s leading their teams down the field. Surely this must be some sort of freak year, right?
Sam Bradford. Colt McCoy. Jimmy Clausen. Tim Tebow.
All four were taken in the first three rounds of the 2010 draft, and all four were starting by the time their rookie seasons were over. There was no waiting behind the starting quarterback for a few years to learn the ropes. It was simple trial by fire. Clausen struggled in his time with the Panthers, and when Cam came into town, he was forced to give up his spot. But that is to be expected when a generational talent like Cam Newton joins your team. The other three are back in starting roles, though.
Andrew Luck. Landry Jones. Matt Barkley. Robert Griffin.
All four could find themselves taken in the first round of the 2012 draft, and all could step into starting spots by the midpoint of their rookie season. Luck is seen to be the second coming of Peyton Manning, so that is understandable. Jones has been starting for Oklahoma for several years and appears to be ready for the big time. But Barkley may be affected by the dreaded USC quarterback curse, and Griffin has just burst onto the scene this year and it is hard to say how his skills will translate at the next level. But they could all start, unless they end up on the Patriots, Colts with a healthy Peyton or Packers.
Washington. Seattle. Miami. Arizona.
All are badly in need of new quarterbacks for next years, and they will be more than happy to have a rookie start games for them right out of the gate. There will be no lockout this offseason, so a new pivot can come into OTA’s and offseason workouts and gain a familiarity with his receivers long before the season even starts.
So how is it that every year, 10-20% of the teams in the league are having rookie quarterbacks start for them? Is this a sustainable trend, or simply a few good years where the quarterback classes are especially good coming out of college?
This is attributable to several factors.
Rookie QBs and the changing culture of the game.
The NFL game is changing first of all. More and more teams are moving away from ground-and-pound styles of play, and moving toward spread-style attacks that involve multiple receiver sets and double tight packages. They no longer can rely on Trent Dilfers to manage a game for them, and instead they need big, strong armed guys under center who can heave the ball down the field and hit their receivers who look more like power forwards.
Alex Smith was drafted 1st overall by San Francisco in 2005. Aaron Rodgers was drafted 25th overall by the Packers in the same draft. While Smith was pressed into duty far earlier than he was ready, Rodgers spent three seasons behind Brett Favre before he was given the opportunity to start.
Granted this was Favre, and the Packers. But once Rodgers did get the opportunity to play, he excelled and was ready for the rigors of the NFL lifestyle. He was not rushed into play, and honestly few people would have considered rushing Favre out the door in Green Bay considering his history with the team. But it is still noteworthy that the Packers waited three full seasons before giving their first round pick quarterback a chance to start.
At the time, the contrast between the two quarterbacks’ fates suggested that the old method of “grooming” your rookies was still the best way to go. But that simply doesn’t happen anymore.
One of the biggest reasons is the rise of both fantasy sports and social media. Whenever a player is taken in the draft to a team that has an immediate opening for him, the fantasy vultures are all over him. They anticipate the huge numbers that he will put up in his rookie year. They assume that the veteran player ahead of them on the depth chart will fall immediately by the wayside and find himself without a job in a matter of weeks. Often these rookies are simply not ready for the grind that is the NFL season. But the vultures cannot wait.
The beast that is social media also gets fans into a frenzy when it comes to rookies. Especially quarterbacks. Do a Twitter search for Jake Locker, the pivot drafted highest in the 2011 Draft who does not officially have the offense in his hands. Fans are constantly inquiring about when Locker will finally get the chance to start. They are eager to start the next generation of the Titans, and they know that Hasselbeck will not be leading them to the promised land, especially with Kenny Britt gone for the season and Chris Johnson running in molasses. Why not make the move to Locker, everyone says.
The NFL Draft and the Year-Round League
Pre-internet and social media, fans were relatively in the dark when it came to the draft. Sure they could pick up a draft preview magazine off the shelves and read up on who was coming out, and sure you could watch the top college games on Saturday, but it was not at the fever pitch that it has reached now.
Roger Goodell took a page from David Stern’s book, turning the NFL Draft from a closed-door business meeting and marketing it into a three-day extravaganza, a part of the plan to make the NFL into a year-round obsession. This has only increased the need for the media to ramp up their story creation, constantly in search of the next big thing, the next out-of-nowhere surprise player.
Small school players are identified early in their careers, and websites are devoted to them for years before they are even eligible for the draft. Everyone and their brother has a mock draft now, and the amount of football “scouts” who claim to be able to evaluate talent has reached all-time highs.
This makes for a situation where the average fan thinks that they truly know what is best for their team, rather than trusting their team’s brass lead the team. Men held down the GM job for generations in the old NFL. Now a bad draft can have fans howling for their replacement.
How many Packers fans were questioning moves that Vince Lombardi made? Not many. But today, some Patriots fans have the stones to question a move than Belichick makes. The ability to access information is at a level that our society has never experienced, and this makes the life of a pro football front office increasingly difficult.
Case in point: Rams GM Billy Devaney capped three years of roster rebuilding with the pick of Sam Bradford in 2010. Now there’s a cordon of St Louis fans calling for the Rams to fire the team’s architect in the face of an 0-7 start, and for the new guy to draft Andrew Luck. Fan patience is at an all time low.
The Insistent Voice of the Fan
Fans are asked to pay hundreds of dollars to attend their favorite teams games. Or they can stay home and pay hundred of dollars to watch their out of market on the tube while constantly checking their fantasy team. Every fantasy manager dreams of finding that sleeper rookie that will win their the league championship, and every fan that goes down to the watch their local team feels as if they have paid for the right to have their voice heard. This voice often includes a push to see the new rookie take a few snaps.
Billboards were erected. Fans were chanting. But Tim Tebow was still the third string quarterback, said coach John Fox. But what were Fox’s words in the face of 60,000 paying customers? Once Kyle Orton faltered just a little, it was clear all along that it would not be Brady Quinn coming into the game. Everyone knew that King Tebow could get the chance to run the team (although few could predict that “Tebowing” would soon sweep the nation).
Fantasy football. Social media. Access to information. Ridiculous ticket prices. Draft “experts”. These all work together to create a perfect storm that makes it nearly impossible for a team to not start their rookie quarterback as soon as there is anything resembling a struggle by the veteran incumbent.
It is hard out there for a veteran quarterback. It might be even harder for the rookies.