This weekend may have signaled a changing of the guard in the NFL.
Sure, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are still the pinnacle for the quarterback position, but they will be leaving it in very capable hands.
You have heard of the five rookie quarterbacks headlined by Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, but there was another young gunslinger on display Saturday night in the national spotlight. Many may have forgotten about the second-year player Colin Kaepernick after Alex Smith’s breakout season last year, taking the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game and clearly having his best season under rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Kaepernick was selected in the second round, the 36th pick overall, and was the sixth quarterback taken in the class. After appearing in just three games and having attempted just five passes as a rookie, he was thrust onto the scene in a Week 4 game against the New York Jets as a change of pace quarterback. He didn’t complete a pass in that game, but rushed five times for 50 yards and immediately became everyone’s favorite backup.
His role steadily increased over the next three games, but then he failed to appear at all in the Week 8 win over the Arizona Cardinals. Fast forward past the bye week and one Smith concussion later in Week 10 against the Rams and the rest is history.
Ever since that concussion, Kaepernick has handled the headache of a quarterback controversy with poise and professionalism … all while leading the 49ers to a 6-2 record over the course of his first eight NFL starts – the latest of which was this past Saturday in which he outperformed the reigning MVP, Aaron Rodgers and, just like Smith, has led his team to an NFC Championship Game.
Kaepernick, who my colleague Charles Davis has dubbed the Transformer, threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns while adding an amazing 181 yards on the ground and two more rushing touchdowns. The win justifies Harbaugh’s decision to stick with Kaepernick even upon the return of a healthy Smith, but the performance gives 49ers fans reason to believe they will be competing for many more NFC championships over the course of the next decade.
Their biggest speed bump? Division rivals Seattle Seahawks and Russell Wilson. Wilson was the last rookie quarterback standing after three of them qualified for the playoffs, and albeit in a loss, Wilson proved he can carry the team on his shoulders. The Falcons bottled up Marshawn Lynch all day and for the most part kept the Seahawks receivers tied down, but it was Wilson that was the X-factor. He routinely eluded pressure and extended plays with a sense of calm that you could only expect for a tenured veteran. He kept his eyes downfield and ran when there was room, but pulled up and found receivers running open in the scramble drills down the field. At the end of day, Wilson had his first career 300-yard passing performance — finishing with 385 yards through the air and another 60 yards rushing.
Wilson and Kaepernick weren’t the only young quarterbacks on display this weekend. Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco were both drafted in the 2008 NFL Draft, No. 3 and No. 18 respectively. Together, the two of them became the first rookie quarterbacks to lead their teams to the playoffs after starting all 16 games of their rookie seasons. It is safe to say, because of their early career success, that the sit-and-learn or throw-them-into-the-fire debate has been put to rest — and only more so with this year’s rookie class.
Flacco’s maturation may have come to a head on Saturday as he put his team on his back and literally threw the Ravens into a second consecutive AFC Championship Game. In an offense that had previously been confused about whether to feature Ray Rice or Flacco, those questions were answered on Saturday and it is clear that this team will go where Flacco takes them.
Ryan won his first career playoff game in dramatic fashion. He and the Falcons jumped out early with a 20-point first-half lead, and even had a clock-sucking drive in the third quarter capped off with a touchdown pass to Jason Snelling with just 2:11 remaining in the third quarter. But an interception on the ensuing possession seemed to propel the Seahawks 20-point comeback to take a 1-point lead with just 31 seconds remaining in the game. But 31 seconds was too much for Ryan as he led his league–leading seventh game-winning drive of the season to cap off an amazing finish after a 49-yard Matt Bryant field goal sealed the win.
So while Brady and Manning may still be the first two names listed at the top of the “elite” quarterback list, there is no doubt that as they move further toward the ends of their careers that the next generation of quarterback play will be just as strong, and more exciting.