Twelve teams – 38 percent of the NFL – have embraced their futures with a rookie or sophomore quarterback. Ten of them started on opening day. Two more were anointed during the season.
The Buffalo Bills, meanwhile, have none on their roster.
Quarterbacks are entering the NFL more polished than ever. They’re appreciably more advanced than they were even 10 years ago.
High schools and colleges have adopted pro-style offenses. Gurus, specialized camps and seven-on-seven leagues develop teenage arms that can make a variety of throws. The position’s talent pool continues to grow as racial stigmas fall by the wayside.
Young quarterbacks aren’t destined to begin their careers with ball caps and clipboards anymore. Apprenticeships aren’t as necessary.
“You draft them to play them now,” Bills coach Chan Gailey acknowledged last month. “You don’t draft them to let them sit.”
The Bills will face one of those hotshot rookies this afternoon, when they play the Seattle Seahawks in the Rogers Centre.
Russell Wilson, a third-round draft choice, has been one of the NFL’s better quarterbacks this year regardless of experience level. He has helped the Seahawks to an 8-5 record, ranks fifth in red-zone passer rating and has thrown a winning touchdown after the two-minute warning three times.
Wilson, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Nick Foles, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick are among an army of young quarterbacks who have impacted the league.
Is this wave of talent a periodic blip like we saw with the legendary 1983 draft class? Or should football fans come to expect quarterbacks to be ready the moment we rip off their college wrapping paper?
“I don’t see it slacking off,” said Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel from 1960 to 1989 and an NFL scouting combine authority. “I think it’ll continue.
“People are so much more ready to play and are so much better prepared than ever before.”
While other teams around the league have invested in young quarterbacks and put them to work with promising results, the Bills have none they drafted.
Over the past 29 drafts, the Bills have selected two quarterbacks in the first or second round: Todd Collins 45th overall in 1995 and J.P. Losman 22nd overall in 2004.
Buffalo drafted nine running backs, eight receivers and 16 defensive backs in the first and second rounds over that time.
Buddy Nix, who has overseen three drafts as Buffalo’s general manager, has taken only one quarterback. Nix picked Levi Brown from Troy in the 2010 seventh round. Brown didn’t make the team out of training camp.
While the Bills have stood on the sidelines, other teams have evolved with the times.
“I think it’s a trend that we’re going to continue to see,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
A collection of eight rookie quarterbacks, including an unprecedented five opening-day starters, have an aggregate .486 winning percentage this season. Rookie starters went 5-1 last week.
The Bills have a .385 winning percentage.
“That’s going to keep happening,” Warren Moon said of the young quarterback trend. Moon, the Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback and Seahawks radio analyst, is a private instructor to prospects entering the draft.
Moon most famously worked with Newton, last year’s first overall draft choice.
“These kids are very talented,” Moon said. “They’re much more skilled. These guys have been throwing the football for a long time. They’ve been in passing leagues in the summertime. They’re running spread offenses.”
Wilson became a starter despite getting passed over multiple times by every NFL team. They questioned his size at 5-foot-11 and 206 pounds. He eventually was drafted in the third round, 75th overall, six slots after the Bills took receiver T.J. Graham.
Even though the Seahawks had signed free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn, Wilson became the sixth rookie quarterback since 1970 drafted in the third round or later to start on opening day. Joe Ferguson did it for the Bills in 1973.
“If the systems stay the same, you’re going to see quarterbacks get better and better every year,” said Ferguson, radio analyst for the Arkansas Razorbacks. “There’s more wide-open offenses. They’re so much more adept at reading defenses, reading blitzes, reading protections, because if they don’t then they’re going to get killed.”
Thirty years ago, LaVell Edwards’ passing attack at Brigham Young was considered gimmicky. Major college programs still operated out of wishbone backfields.
BYU’s offense would be considered cliche in today’s high school game. Matt Bodamer of Port Allegany High, about a half hour south of Olean, set Pennsylvania’s record this year with 3,951 passing yards and 52 touchdowns. He finished his prep career with 10,948 yards and 137 touchdowns.
Play-calling quarterback wristbands are available in youth sizes.
“I’ve seen it as low as junior high,” Ferguson said from Bella Vista, Ark. “At the high school level, three-quarters of the schools in this area are in the shotgun. They hardly ever get under the center anymore, and they’re going four wide receivers or empty backfield.”
Carroll has seen quarterback development up close over the past dozen years. From 2000 through 2009, he was head coach at USC. He incessantly recruited the nation’s elite prep quarterbacks and had top-10 draft choices Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez.
Carroll marks 2008 as the dawn of the NFL’s youth renaissance. Rookies Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco quarterbacked the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens to the playoffs. A year later, Sanchez did it with the New York Jets.
“Those guys were the early ones that gave us the indication that times are changing,” Carroll said. “As they continued to show, I mean, you can see it. It’s just obvious that that’s what’s happening.”
But Carroll first sensed a movement afoot when he saw a 14-year-old Matt Barkley as a freshman for Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif.
“He’d already been coached up coming into high school,” Carroll said. “He accumulated hundreds of throws and could make every one. So when we got him [at USC], he was on our practice field for five days. And after five days, I knew he could be the starting quarterback for us.
“We just needed to teach him what the system was. So he already knew how to throw the football on curl routes and out routes and seam routes and slants and all that stuff. That wasn’t the issue.
“I think that’s when it was really clear to me that we were in a new day.”
The deterioration of racial barriers has helped. Likely because of the stigma facing black quarterbacks at the time, Moon didn’t get drafted in 1978, a 12-round system then. Moon had to play in the Canadian Football League to prove himself.
These days, the best young black athletes aren’t switched to running back, receiver or defensive back. That progress continues to surface in the NFL.
“There’s no question that’s part of it,” Moon said. “In the NFL now, they don’t care what color you are as long as you can help them win. That opened up when they made Michael Vick the first overall draft pick.
“They said, ‘If you can help us win, we’ll draft you high and make you the face of the franchise.’ They’re getting the chance now, and that’s made the talent pool bigger.”
Football researcher Scott Kacsmar this week wrote a convincing ColdHardFootballFacts.com column, stating this year’s quarterback class is having the greatest rookie season in NFL history.
With three weeks left in the season, six rookies have thrown for at least 300 yards in a game 15 times, matching the combined total from 2000 through 2010.
As great as this year’s crop has been, they seem to be the continuation of a trend. As Kacsmar points out, only 11 rookie quarterbacks have started in the playoffs since 1950. But five of them began their careers in 2008 or later. Luck, Griffin and Wilson could inflate that list.
Of the 12 rookie quarterbacks to throw the most touchdown passes in NFL history, six turned pro in 2010 or later.
“The league is not making these guys do something they can’t do,” Moon said. “The league is adapting to what the player can do. Before, the player had to adapt to the offense.
“These coaches are finally getting smart enough to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to stop trying to put a square peg in a round hole. I’m going to do what this kid does best, incorporate that into the offense, and he’ll have success earlier.’ ”