Why more rookie QBs are starting

Every Wednesday until the Super Bowl, Brian Billick will write a weekly column looking in-depth at different aspects of the modern NFL and will discuss experiences and insights he gained while coaching and broadcasting.

I once had a writer tell me that the definition of a trend was “two instances of anything, and a journalist with a deadline.”

By that measure, and most others, there’s a trend in the NFL toward rookie quarterbacks starting right out of the box. Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco started their season openers as rookies in 2008, Mark Sanchez did the same in 2009, and Cam Newton and Andy Dalton followed suit in 2011. That’s five instances in four seasons, after it had happened only five times from 1989 to 2007.

This year, of course, five rookies started their season openers Sunday, with top draft choices Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III joined by Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Russell Wilson. What does that tell us? I think it hints at several things, but to draw too many conclusions this early in the season can be dangerous. Remember that last year at this time people were writing about the renaissance of Rex Grossman, and asking what was wrong with the Giants.

Some preliminary findings, based on Sunday’s performances and trends that go back for decades:

• Fans and owners are less patient than they were a generation ago, so coaches are less patient with their young quarterbacks.

The media glut surrounding all things pro football contributes to this, but there aren’t any five-year plans in the NFL anymore. Coaches don’t have the luxury of waiting for a quarterback to develop at his own pace. New hires get one year to detonate and rebuild, a second year to show some progress. By year three, they need to have results.

• The switch from college to the pros is still substantial, though not as daunting as it was 20 years ago.

With more pro teams running more spread and shotgun sets, and more colleges using a pass-first philosophy, it’s less of a jump from one level to the next. In addition, more and more teams seem to be incorporating a no-huddle offense into their schemes and in this instance, many college quarterbacks have more experience in this than do their pro counterparts. But there’s still an adjustment to be made. The five rookies who started Sunday threw 11 interceptions, and Robert Griffin III had a couple more potential picks that were dropped. But it’s not just combination zones and better-disguised defenses. The protection schemes that quarterbacks have to be cognizant of are much more complicated than they are in the college ranks.

• Blue-chip quarterback prospects have always been ready to start right away; that’s one of the things that makes them blue-chip quarterback prospects.

On Sept. 19, 1971, the new season opened with the top pick in the draft, Jim Plunkett, leading the New England Patriots to a stunning 20-6 win over the Oakland Raiders. The very same day, Archie Manning (the second player taken in the ’71 draft) quarterbacked a truly bad New Orleans Saints team to a win, outdueling Rams veteran quarterback Roman Gabriel, throwing for 218 yards and rushing for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Plunkett labored heroically that year, taking a pounding but still leading the Patriots to a 6-8 record. Manning broke his arm later in the season, but helped make the Saints competitive en route to a 4-8-2 mark. One of the things both quarterbacks did — just as Troy Aikman did with the Cowboys in 1989 and Peyton Manning with the Colts in 1998 — is give their teams a chance in games they had no business being competitive in. Plunkett’s Patriots upset the Super Bowl-bound Miami Dolphins later that season, and before he was injured, Manning led the Saints to a stunning win over the eventual Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. Luck and Griffin likely will engineer the same sort of upsets before the year is done.

• You can get away with starting rookie quarterbacks who aren’t absolutely ready if you have enough major weapons around them.

Flacco had played quarterback at Delaware, a notch below major-college competition, but the Ravens started him right away because they had a stout defense that could keep games close,and a strong running game anchored by Willis McGahee, LeRon McClain and Ray Rice, who combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards. That same year, Matt Ryan won the starting job in Atlanta, with the security blanket of the second-best rushing attack in the league, thanks to Michael Turner. Long story short: None of the five quarterbacks who started Sunday will get the sort of supporting cast this year that Flacco and Ryan were afforded in 2008.

• Sometimes, quarterbacks are first-rounders based more on potential and physical skills rather than game readiness.

Exhibit A here would be Tannehill, who started only 20 games in his college career but vaulted up draft boards based on his strong NFL Combine showing and good reviews from his coaches. Steve McNair was drafted by the Houston Oilers in 1995 and sat for nearly two full years. (He threw 129 passes in his first two seasons; Luck will likely exceed that number before we get out of September.) Aaron Rodgers was drafted by the Packers and sat for three years while learning under Brett Favre. But Tannehill was thrown into the fray by the Dolphins and looked not quite ready for prime time in the Dolphins’ loss to the Texans, during which he threw three interceptions. He might have benefited from some time watching, but . . .

• Sometimes teams start rookie quarterbacks because they don’t have any other credible alternatives.

This doesn’t often end well. Though he didn’t start the first game, the Carolina Panthers threw Jimmy Clausen to the wolves early in the 2010 season, and that campaign exposed Clausen and left him so beat up that the Panthers used the first pick in the 2011 draft on Newton. Fans are also entitled to wonder if it was a bit premature for Weeden (12 for 35 for 118 yards, an anemic 3.4 yards per attempt and four interceptions Sunday) to be starting in Cleveland. In Seattle, where the Seahawks signed Matt Flynn this offseason, Russell Wilson won the job in training camp, and went 18 for 34 for 153 yards in the Seahawks’ loss to Arizona.

Weeden was billed as a special case, because of his age (29 next month), but his debut was sabotaged by lack of support, especially the fact running back Trent Richardson is still recovering from his arthroscopic surgery. Although the Browns look like they might have a salty defense, Weeden’s advanced age wasn’t much of a factor: He still looked like an out-of-depth rookie troubled by the Eagles’ myriad defensive looks.

Rookies make mistakes, but one thing I look for is how they respond to them. One of the things I liked about Luck is that, after turning the ball over four times Sunday, he didn’t minimize it, or say he “felt great out there.” He seemed just as peeved as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning would be to have turned the ball over that many times. I would be willing to bet that, barring an injury to him or any of his key supporting players (Donald Brown, Reggie Wayne, Coby Fleener), Luck will advance quickly and have a much better touchdown-to-interception ratio in the second half of the season than he will in the first.

Griffin was astounding and — like Newton last year — is the most dynamic, charismatic run/pass threat in his class of quarterbacks. Washington has also restocked its offensive weapons, but Griffin will also be in the most physical danger because of his running. If he manages to start 16 games, he could make the Redskins relevant.

Wilson has a magnetism that his coach and teammates have responded to, but I’m not yet convinced that this will be enough to see him through his first season. Weeden and Tannehill are in difficult situations. Both need reinforcements, as David Carr did after his rookie year starting in Houston. What he got instead was the dubious distinction of single-season sack records, before being jettisoned by the Texans. The revisionist take was that he lacked pocket presence and wasn’t accurate enough.

Of course, it’s not always that simple. Plunkett took a pounding in New England and then San Francisco before being waived out of the league. Then the Oakland Raiders picked him up, surrounded him with plenty of talent, and he led them to two Super Bowls. One thing remains a timeless truth: Good quarterbacks, no matter the age, are better with good players surrounding them.