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September 30, 2012; St. Louis, MO, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) rushes against the St. Louis Rams during the first half at the Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

The Quarterback (R)Evolution - Part Seven: The Fab Five

Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Russell Wilson. Five rookies, five opening-day starting quarterbacks. Only once in the history of the NFL has anything remotely similar happened.

That would be…last season.

Last year, we thought it was amazing that Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder all wound up starting on opening day. This year, we have five. In other words, half a conference handed over the keys to the offense to a kid who had never even played in an NFL game since September, 2011.

The results last year were mixed. Cam Newton set all sorts of statistical records, but the team went 6-10. Ponder struggled, but played okay with a bad team. Gabbert? Don’t ask.

It was Andy Dalton who led the Bengals to an unexpected Wild Card slot. They lost the game, and one statistic is stuck in my mind.

The Bengals have not beaten a team with a winning record under Andy Dalton. So, until he starts beating the Ravens, the jury’s still out on him a bit but so far he looks good again this season overall.

Robert Griffin, III, aka RG3, is more in the Michael Vick mold, running a 4.4 40-yard dash and having overall excellent mobility, a rocket arm, but the biggest differences are these:

RG3 came out of college with a lot more football intellect than did Michael Vick, and it shows in his statistics. With a horrible Redskins defense and questionable offensive line along with injuries at running back, RG3 came to a bad team. So did Vick, but again, RG3 came in the NFL with a much higher “floor” as they say. Here’s a statistical comparison of Vick’s full 8-game rookie season along with RG3′s 5 games:

Oct 7, 2012; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (10) is assisted by an official after taking a hit against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half at FedEX Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-US PRESSWIRE

Vick – 8 games, 2 starts:
Passing: 50/113 attempts, 44.2% completions, 785 yds, 6.9 yds/att, 2 TDs 3 INTS for a QB rating of 62.7.
Rushing: 31 attempts, 289 yards, 9.3 yds/attempt and 1 TD.

So, Vick gained more yards per rushing attempt than per passing attempt which is not unheard of for dual-threat QBs.

RG3: – through 5 games, 5 starts:
Passing: 96/139 attempts, 69.1% completions, 1,161 yards, 8.4 yds/att, 4 TDs and only 1 INT for a QB rating of 101.0. Astonishing numbers.
Rushing: 42 attempts, 241 yards, 5.7 yds/attempt and 4 TDs.

RG3 is obviously a much better passer than Vick as rookies, and the statistics do bear that out. RG3′s rushing yards per attempt is a good bit lower but with the “QB slide” rule and Washington Redskins Head Coach wanting to keep his star safe, that “slide” probably accounts for the difference there.

The other difference is that Vick was encouraged to run for first downs if the defense was out of position and to use his speed and open-field running to get as many yards as he could with his feet. Griffin runs when he has the room and can’t find open receivers, but generally gets down before he’s hit.

The problem with such a strategy is that Griffin, like Vick, is not a large, 21st-century QB prototype when it comes to the “dual-threat” quarterback. Vick is 6’0″ 215 lbs. Griffin is even more slightly built at 6’2″ 217 lbs. Neither are built to take hits from linebackers, and in fact RG3 received a “mild” concussion last Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons when getting down late into his slide.

Part of Cam Newton’s success at running (and Tim Tebow’s as well for that matter) is their size. They’re often larger than the linebackers that tackle them in today’s NFL. Newton is 6’5″ 250 lbs while Tebow is 6’3″ 236 lbs with biceps that would make Ed Hochuli jealous. Cam’s built like a prototype tight end, including good (4.59 40-yard) speed and an ability to change direction that is uncommon in a man so large. Tebow is built like a fullback and strong enough to dish out punishment to any tacklers and has a more hard-nosed, looking-for-contact style. Still, Tebow suffered some minor dings last season with the Broncos, so you don’t want your star QB taking too many hits. It comes back to bite you eventually.

Andrew Luck has similar stature to a Tebow – not that Tebow is some great passer, this is just for comparison’s sake – at 6’3″ 235. Tannehill is 6’4″ and 225 lbs, a WR-turned-QB at Texas A&M. Brandon Weeden is 6’3″ 220 and not a running QB, while Russell Wilson is the Doug Flutie clone at 5’11″ (in platform shoes) and 206 lbs.

So, the 5 starting rookie QBs run the gamut from strictly pocket-passer (Weeden) to full dual-threat (RG3).

Andrew Luck was the top pick, as everyone knows, more for his cerebral, accurate style and not making bad throws. Some say he was the most “NFL-ready” QB to come into the league since Peyton Manning. His stats?

Passing: 96/177, 54.2%, 1,208 yards, 6.6 yds/attempt, 7 TDs and 5 INTS for a QB rating of 77.1. He only has 16 carries on the season and plays for a team with the largest personnel turnover of any team in the NFL.

Oct 7, 2012; Columbus, OH, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) throws a pass in the second quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

The Miami Dolphins drafted Ryan Tannehill with the 8th pick overall. His stats are a little more pedestrian, especially in TD/INT ratio:
Passing: 97/169, 57.4, 1,269 yards, 7.5 yds/attempt, 2 TDs and 6 INTS for a QB rating of 70.4.

His Head Coach, Joe Philbin, does NOT want him “taking off” with the ball, and in fact Tannehill has one strength that all the others aren’t quite as good at – throwing while on the move. Philbin uses this to have Tannehill use his strength, agility, and deceptive (4.6) speed to get outside of the pocket and make accurate throws without having to stop and set his feet.

Tannehill also was facing an uphill fight to get established as the Dolphins were considered (along with perhaps Cleveland) to have the worst WR corps in the NFL. Davone Bess was their “best” receiver after trading Brandon Marshall, but 6’5″ WR Brian Hartline has emerged from Marshall’s shadow to lead the NFL in receiving yards through 5 contests so far. Philbin has Tannehill and the team moving in the right direction.

Brandon Weeden actually has a pretty good offensive line, anchored by LT Joe Thomas who is considered by many to be the best LT in the game, but like Miami has an inconsistent group of WRs. At least they drafted uber-RB Trent Richardson…he’s a VERY stong, fast RB that takes some heat away from Weeden in the running game. Weeden’s stats:

Passing: 112/202, 55.4%, 1,288 yards, 55.4% completions, 6.4 yds/attempt, 5 TDs and 9 INTs (4 of those were in his first start) for a QB rating of 64.5.

Russell Wilson is the odd man here. The pixie-ish QB has struggled some, like Weeden, but here are his stats through 5 games:
Passing: 79/125, 815 yards, 63.2% completions, 6.5 yds/attempt, 5 TDs and 6 INTS. His QB rating is 75.2.

Okay, now that your brain is addled with stats, what do they all mean?

First of all, each of the 5 starting rookie QBs have different styles of play. No two are similar in many respects, save one:

They’re ALL throwing better than Vick did as a rookie if you look at their QB ratings. Vick’s was 62.7.

As further comparison, let’s look at the QBRs and yards per attempt for last season’s 4 rookie starters:

Cam Newton: QBR: 83.8 – 8.5 yards/attempt
Blaine Gabbert: QBR: 65.4 – 5.4 yards/attempt
Christian Ponder: QBR: 70.1 – 6.4 yards/attempt
Andy Dalton: QBR: 80.4 – 6.6 yards/attempt

Clearly, Newton was head and shoulders above the other rookies last year, and was also the only dual-threat QB of that class.

Finally, the point here is simply that today’s rookie quarterbacks are much more “ready” for the NFL than most in previous seasons have been, and that trend looks to continue with Matt Barkley entering the draft next year. Even Philadelphia’s Nick Foles, at 6’6″ 243, looked very, very crisp in the preseason and with Vick’s currently turnover-prone playing, fans are already beginning to clamor for him to be insert as the starting QB over Vick. You know what they say…the most popular player on any team is the backup quarterback, but it further illustrates my point.

These quarterbacks are no longer your father’s rookie quarterbacks.

Look for the “starting-rookie-QB” trend to continue as the success of players like Cam Newton and Andy Dalton last year and all 5 rookies this year being more impressive than most rookies that have started in the past, excluding last season. The lockout-shortened training camp makes their performances last year even more astonishing, and the coaches are beginning to adapt – meet rookie QBs “halfway” in some respects – to help them get confident and to integrate their unique talents into whatever the offensive coordinator envisions.

The rookie QB has duly and truly arrived.

follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

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