Take a look at the NFL playoff field. Notice anything unusual, anything we haven’t seen before and might not see again anytime soon? Here, I’ll help you: Half of the clubs, six of 12, are led by quarterbacks who were drafted in the past two years. From 2011, we have Christian Ponder in Minnesota, Andy Dalton in Cincinnati and Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, and from 2012 we have Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, Russell Wilson in Seattle and Robert Griffin III here in Washington.
That’s a tremendous influx of quarterback talent in a short period of time. Just as amazing, though, is that so many of them have been able to play — already — at such a high level. Most of these guys, after all, are a lot more than just passengers on the bus. Dalton, Luck, Wilson and Griffin are major reasons their teams have reached the playoffs, and Ponder and Kaepernick, who took over for Alex Smith in midseason, have had their moments. Christian’s finest might have come Sunday, when he posted a 120.2 passer rating in a virtual play-in game against Green Bay and its Pro Bowl QB, Aaron Rodgers. Colin, meanwhile, lit up the Sunday night sky two weeks ago with four touchdown passes in a road win over New England. There are no slouches in this bunch.
Consider, for the sake of comparison, the celebrated 1983 draft, the one that produced three Hall of Fame quarterbacks (John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino) and three others who went in the first round (Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien). Only Elway and Marino made it to the postseason in their first two years in the league. Blackledge, Eason and O’Brien played little or not at all as rookies.
Of the current group — three of whom were taken after the first round — only Kaepernick didn’t see significant action in his first season. Four started from the get-go. It’s just the way things are these days. The colleges, with their increasingly sophisticated offenses, are turning out quarterbacks who are much more NFL-ready. It’s scary to think where RG3 and the rest might be in a few years, after they’ve really settled into the league.
It’s also interesting to note that Mike Shanahan passed on a passer in the 2011 draft because he wasn’t that impressed with the ones available — and yet here are three of them in the playoffs (Dalton for the second time). Clearly, some of those QBs could have helped the Redskins — though not as much, perhaps, as Griffin has.
Something else that tends to be forgotten: Peyton Manning was up for grabs in the offseason, too, and Shanahan explored the possibility of signing him. Instead, Manning went to Denver, his preferred destination, and quarterbacked the Broncos to an AFC-best 13-3 record and a (still-going) 11-game winning streak. Much was written last winter about the risk of bringing in a QB — even a legend like Peyton — who had just had neck surgery and missed an entire season. But does anyone doubt he could have gotten the Redskins to the playoffs just like he got the Broncos to the playoffs?
For that matter, does anyone still question Shanny for giving up three No. 1s and a No. 2 for Griffin? (There were certainly plenty who did when the deal was struck.) Sure, it was a hefty price to pay, but look at the impact the kid has made — and he’s just getting started. Anyway, I just thought I’d revisit those two scenarios for a minute, Manning and RG3, so we could shake our heads at the wonder of it all. I mean, it’s rare enough a franchise has a shot at one quarterback like that, and the Redskins had shots at two in the same offseason. Mind boggling.
This infusion of young arms, by the way, comes at an opportune time. Peyton, remember, is 36, Tom Brady is 35 and, well, they’re not going stand in the shotgun, licking their fingers, forever. They might meet in the AFC title game, though, if they can get past their first opponents. That’s the other storyline in these playoffs. You have the Next Generation of QBs elbowing their way onto the big stage, and you have Manning and Brady refusing to yield, still dreaming of another Super Bowl.
As postseasons go, it doesn’t get much better than this. Over the next five weeks, we have the pleasure of watching two first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks, the very best of their era, compete not just against themselves (if we’re lucky), but against The Future — as personified by Griffin and his precocious contemporaries. How many QBs have been so good so late in their careers? How many QBs have been so good right out of the chute? Should be quite a show.