Although the NFL season is just a few weeks old, it's been the rookies that are having the biggest impact
One of the anomalies of the five-week old NFL season is the number of rookie quarterbacks not only starting, but playing surprisingly well.
Quarterback in American football is arguably the most important position in any team sport (perhaps goaltender in ice hockey) and it is fast becoming the most dangerous. Increased awareness of concussion has been added to the usual damage inflicted by pass rushers; last week the two starters in last season's NFC championship game, Arizona's Carson Palmer and Carolina's Cam Newton, both missed games while going through the league's concussion protocol.
But signal-callers have always been vulnerable to pass-rushers smashing into them as they release their passes, and increasingly, tacklers teaching them the dangers of being a runner.
Consider the quarterback roulette played by the winless Cleveland Browns: five different quarterbacks in their five losses so far. They began with Robert Griffin III, signed in the off-season from Washington, where injuries derailed him after an impressive rookie year. RG3 didn't make it through the first game. Replacement Josh McCown played well in week two, but was forced to finish the game despite a serious shoulder injury.
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Rookie Cody Kessler took over in game three; when he took a knock and the Browns used wide receiver Terrelle Pryor, a college quarterback himself, until he could come back. Then Kessler was hurt again last week, and replaced by the newly-signed veteran Charlie Whitehurst, known as Clipboard Jesus for his beard and the fact most of his NFL career has been spent on the sidelines charting plays on a clipboard. Whitehurst, of course, got injured as well.
This week, with Kessler's damaged ribs well enough to play, Whitehurst was released with a salary settlement, and the team signed another rookie, Kevin Hogan, drafted and cut by Kansas City earlier in the season. Kessler may be the team's future, however. He reminds head coach Hue Jackson of Andy Dalton, whom Jackson whispered to the playoffs - but no farther - since his rookie year in Cincinnati.
It is also a truth universally acknowledged that there is a shortage of quality quarterbacks, certainly no more than a handful, who could be deemed 'elite'. There are maybe two dozen in a 32 team league who are acceptable journeymen or better.
So each year, hopeful fans look at the NFL Draft, where college stars are selected by teams in reverse order to the previous year's finish. The outstanding college quarterbacks will inevitably be among the very first players drafted, collecting the biggest signing bonuses, and carrying the greatest weight of expectations.
But another universally acknowledged truth is that it's almost impossible to win with a quarterback straight out of college. Of course, there is an element of a self-fulfilling prophecy: a rookie thrust into the starting job with a bad team needing help at multiple positions will have his work cut out for him.
David Carr went to the expansion Houston Texans with the first pick of the 2002 draft. He was sacked a record 76 times that season (and set another record recovering 12 of his own fumbles!) and his career never recovered.
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Peyton Manning, generally regarded as one of the greatest of all time, threw 26 touchdown passes as rookie in 1998, but also 28 interceptions as the Colts finished 3-13.
Greg Cook, a rookie with the Bengals in 1969, had what was generally regarded as the best-ever rookie season, but ironically was injured and tried to come back too soon; he was never the same and soon out of the league.
In 2004, Ben Roethlisberg won 14 games in a row as a rookie before losing in the playoffs to New England. But the Steelers were a strong team who controlled the game with defense and running, and asked Ben mainly not to turn the ball over. He began the year as the third-stringer; injuries forced him into the starting role.
Something similar happened this year to the Super Bowl champion Broncos. Peyton Manning retired. Brock Osweiler signed in Houston. Mark Sanchez was released, leaving Trevor Siemian as the starter, and rookie Paxton Lynch as the backup.
Denver thought enough of Lynch to trade up in round one of last year's draft and select him. Thrust into action last week by Siemian's injury, he was sacked six times by Atlanta's lightly-regarded rush, and the Broncos suffered their first loss of the season.
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The top two quarterbacks in last year's draft, taken one and two ahead of Lynch, were California's Jared Goff and North Dakota State's Carson Wentz. Goff was picked first by the Los Angeles Rams, mostly because coming from a 'big time' program at Cal, he was thought to be more "NFL ready". But Rams coach Jeff Fisher is one of the league's most conservative, and despite the evident shortcomings of starter Case Keenum, Goff has yet to play in LA.
Wentz, on the other hand, looked the better prospect to many of us, despite the fact that he played his football in the division below Goff's. Wentz had the good fortune to step into a team with some talent but which was in disarray, and with a new coach. The team traded draft picks to move up and select Wentz, and coach Doug Pederson has crafted his offense to take advantage of his quarterback's talents.
In fact, he decided that Wentz was the team's future so early that Philadelphia were able to trade their veteran starter, Sam Bradford, to Minnesota after the Vikings' Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the season, and recoup some of the draft stock lost in the Wentz deal.
Now the Eagles stand at 3-1, suffering their first loss last week when running back Ryan Matthew's fumble gifted Detroit a go-ahead score. Went threw his first-ever interception at the end of that game, but his poise and play-making talent has impressed.
Image: Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
But the biggest surprise has been in Dallas, where Tony Romo was injured in week one, and rookie Dak Prescott took over. I'd had Prescott rated even with Lynch, and more ready to play, but Dallas were able to draft him late in round four; an afterthought once they failed to beat Denver to Lynch.
Prescott was looked at by many scouts as a project: Mississippi State, where he played, ran a simple offense in which he ran a lot. He also had a DUI arrest shortly before the draft. But he is a smart player (he's already received a master's degree in college) and a heady one; I saw a lot of Russell Wilson-like qualities in him.
Playing for the Cowboys, with the league's best offensive line to help keep him upright, Prescott has been a revelation, and his able to run read-option plays has made outstanding rookie runner Ezekiel Elliott even more deadly. The question is not so much will Tony Romo get his job back when he returns, but can the Cowboys keep Prescott healthy until Romo does?