Few people expected much of the Colts this season, with Manning gone and the team coming off a 2-14 season. So it's jaw-dropping to consider they are 9-4 and in the thick of the playoff hunt.
“I saw Andrew a ton when he was here at Stanford,” Young said from the San Francisco Bay Area in a phone call. “I said to myself, ‘This guy's really uniquely qualified.' You can't ever predict for sure, but to take a team that's flat on its back and do what he's done? He's doing the thing that you expect a fifth- or sixth-year guy to do.”
In another year, Luck would be the runaway winner of the offensive-rookie-of-the-year award. But the performances of Griffin and Wilson have been similarly spectacular.
Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor who was selected second overall, has pumped life back into the Redskins with his forehead-slapping elusiveness and astounding passing accuracy. Washington has won four in a row and is in contention for the NFC East crown, tied with Dallas at 7-6 behind the 8-5 New York Giants.
Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said Monday that Griffin suffered a Grade 1 sprain of the lateral collateral ligament on the outside of the right knee and is “definitely not ruled out” of Sunday's game at Cleveland.
Don Shula, the Hall of Fame coach who used the 27th pick to bring Marino to Miami in 1983, said he has been most impressed this season by Griffin, who leads the league with a 104.2 passer rating. He has 18 touchdown passes — and has run for six — with only four interceptions.
“You've got to go with RG3,” Shula said. “Because of all of his great athletic ability, and the pressure that he can put on a defense, either with his arm or his legs. That makes him that much more complicated and harder to defend when a quarterback has got those kind of skills.”
Wilson, a third-round pick who earned Seattle's starting job over coveted free agent Matt Flynn, has assembled a strong case for offensive-rookie-of-the-year honors. Wilson has 20 touchdown passes, most of any rookie, with nine interceptions (half as many as Luck).
The 8-5 Seahawks have won four of five and are still contending for the NFC West title with 9-3-1 San Francisco. Their Dec. 23 game in Seattle has been flexed to prime time.
“Russell Wilson,” Young said. “I didn't expect him to go in there and deliver knockout blows to teams the way he has.”
Tannehill and Weeden have shown flashes of strong promise, even though their teams are 5-8.
There are several reasons for the surge of young, successful quarterbacks. In the NFL, defenses are hamstrung by rules that favor the offense — and protect the quarterback — which paves the way for more passing yards and scoring. And, because of the money involved, there's pressure to get players on the field as soon as possible, although the new salary structure means top rookies make a lot less than they used to on their initial contract.
But the seasoning of these quarterbacks starts much earlier than that.
“They're preparing kids for the next level a lot sooner,” said Kelly, who led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls from 1991-94. “And kids are starting to get a better grasp because of early teaching when they're young and not having to wait until they get to college to learn how to read defenses. They're learning to do this in high school now, and even junior high.”
Will the 2012 class truly measure up to that of 1983? We won't know for years, but clearly the latest group is teeming with potential.
“You're going to have (a Hall of Fame player) in Andrew Luck, unless he gets hurt,” Young said. “And you get the feeling with Robert, how he just handles it, these are two guys who are going to be at it for a long time.
”And you've got to feel like the other three, the fact that they've survived their rookie years and are actually in some ways thriving. I've got a feeling that you might have five guys who are productive for many years.“