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Rookie quarterbacks making strong first impressions

Signal-callers enter NFL familiar with nuances of pro-style offenses

- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2012

Mike Shanahan saw it coming. The Washington Redskins were looking for a quarterback and got to see a few of them, such as Brandon Weeden and Nick Foles, firsthand at the Senior Bowl.

Others, such as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, came with established reputations.

"I think it was a great crop coming out," Shanahan said. "There is a number of years you go in and you say, 'Hey, I'm not even sure if there is a first-round player.' Then all of a sudden in this draft, people had anywhere from four to six or seven guys that could be drafted in the first round."

At the end of the day, the Redskins got their guy at No. 2, and four quarterbacks were drafted in the first round. But Griffin, Luck — the No. 1 pick of the Indianapolis Colts — Ryan Tannehill with the Miami Dolphins and Weeden with the Cleveland Browns are far from the only rookies to make an impact. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson could be Rookie of the Year, Foles was named the Philadelphia Eagles' starter and Kirk Cousins delivered a solid performance filling in for Griffin last week.

The showing of a half-dozen rookie quarterbacks might be a sign of a strong class, but there's also reason to believe it's a result of colleges instituting pro-style offenses.

"Listen, when it's all said it's done, I think this will be, if not the best, one of the best," Eagles coach Andy Reid said of this rookie class of quarterbacks. "I would tell you that because colleges are throwing the football more is why you're seeing it. These guys are good players, don't get me wrong there. They're coming in more experienced than what you've seen in the past."

It helped Griffin that the Redskins incorporated some of what he did at Baylor into their offense. But that's unique and also one of the reasons the offense is so dangerous when he's playing, like he's expected to do Sunday at Philadelphia barring a setback with his sprained right knee.

For Luck and the other rookies, rapid growth into NFL-style quarterbacks came in college.

"In the colleges, they're doing a great job of emulating a lot of the things they do in the NFL, and coaches are just like everyone else: They're trying to pursue a higher degree of football," said Mark Dantonio, who coached Cousins and Foles at Michigan State. "So they're going to pattern some of the things they do after the NFL."

Pro-style offenses are becoming more prevalent at the NCAA level, a departure at many schools from the option and running attacks that once ruled the nation.

Quarterbacks and others seem to point to the changing face of college football as one reason for this impressive rookie class. But what Shanahan saw last winter and spring was more than that.

"You look at the training for the draft, the Senior Bowl, the combine, the sunup-to-sundown training that we were doing: Robert was in Arizona, I was in Florida working with former NFL quarterbacks," Cousins said. "There's just a lot more that goes into the entire preparation. You can go back to high school recruiting and how much that has picked up in the last 15 years. I think it's the whole process that is a little more intense. As a result, you develop a little bit faster."

Griffin, last year's Heisman Trophy winner, was handed the reins by the Redskins right away, just like Luck was by the Colts. Weeden has started since Week 1 in Cleveland, and Tannehill and Wilson won training camp battles in Miami and Seattle.

Given the group's success, it's not hard to see why coaches instilled trust in the rookie quarterbacks right away.

"I think we're a group of unique guys as far as quarterbacks go," Griffin said. "I think every class has its own share of exceptional talent, and I think everyone is seeing that."

Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield noticed in camp with Griffin and Cousins and then in the preseason when facing Luck.

"It seems that guys come in younger than ever and they're more polished than ever," Cofield said. "They've worked hard and trained hard ever since high school with all the camps and things like that. It seems like rookies come in to the league more advanced each and every year."

Foles only recently joined the ranks of rookie quarterbacks starting when he took over for the injured Michael Vick last month. His first start came against the Redskins on Nov. 18, and he'll make his sixth Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.

"It's been neat seeing all the quarterbacks across the country that are rookies doing well," Foles said. "I was fortunate enough to be with everyone throughout the whole draft process and sort of get to know all the guys, so it's pretty cool. To be a rookie and be playing is a great opportunity to just go out there and play football again."

Dantonio credited Vick for opening the door for more creativity. Schemes such as the Wildcat and read option allow guys who aren't just pocket passers to play, and succeed, in the NFL.

Of course, quarterbacks still have to throw the ball to win. The five full-time rookie starters (Luck, Griffin, Tannehill, Weeden and Wilson) have combined for 15,787 yards and 83 touchdowns.

This group has the potential to surpass the 1983 class of John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, but for now that talk is premature.

"The thing is that people have to realize we have to put together a string of years and all of us continue to be successful, then they can compare us to those greats," Griffin said.

The Offensive Rookie of the Year race is tight because Luck, Griffin and Wilson could lead their teams to the playoffs. But what these quarterbacks want is more than to be one-season wonders.

"Obviously, you want to have the Troy Aikman, John Elway career rather than just beat them in the rookie year thing," Cousins said. "Time will tell. It's still early."

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