What once was reason for panic –— a rookie quarterback starting an NFL playoff game — is suddenly a problem for opposing defenses.
Andrew Luck playing at Baltimore? The Ravens had better be ready.
Russell Wilson versus Robert Griffin III in Washington? The key will be which defense cracks first.
“The moment, the bigness, the stage — none of these three will flinch,” said former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst. “I would trust them, their preparation, their mental and emotional state, as much as I would anybody in these playoffs other than maybe [an Aaron] Rodgers, [a Tom] Brady, [Peyton] Manning, the guys who have the serious pelts on the wall.”
It used to be that young quarterbacks were the caretakers. Now, they’re the playmakers.
That was the blueprint at the beginning of the season, when a record five rookie quarterbacks opened the season as starters. And it was the result at the end of the season, with a playoff field overflowing with youth, inexperience and promise.
Toss out the Green Bay Packers’ Rodgers and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, and the combined number of playoff starts by the other six quarterbacks in the first round is one.
That’s one start by the Cincinnati Bengals’ Andy Dalton, and none by the Washington’ Redskins’ Griffin, the Indianapolis Colts’ Luck, the Seattle Seahawks’ Wilson, the Minnesota Vikings’ Christian Ponder, and the more experienced Matt Schaub of the Houston Texans. The San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, off this week, also will be making his postseason debut.
This isn’t an anomaly, but the direction the league is heading. The idea of keeping a young quarterback on the sideline, holding a clipboard for a seasoned veteran, is going the way of leather helmets. These playoffs will be a showcase for that nudge-them-out-of-the-nest philosophy.
“When you talk about trying to confuse the rookie quarterbacks, well, that ain’t happening anymore,” said former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, a CBS analyst. “You’re not seeing the ugly interceptions. The late-down-the-middle, never-saw-the-safety interceptions. We’re not seeing many of those rookie mistakes anymore. These guys have already gone through those wrecks. They’ve already been through that process.”
At this point of the season, rookies aren’t really rookies anymore.
“You might say the first month is a little bit of an eye-opener because you don’t know quite how to study film yet and the whole experience is something new,” former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. “By the time you finish Week 16, you’ve just about put in two years of a college season, and the amount of study and time that you’ve invested in your trade probably equals four years of study in college.”
That growth shows. Despite having a trio of three-interception outings this season, for instance, Luck has gone three games without a pick.
“He’s playing right now like he’s been in the league three or four years,” Colts Coach Chuck Pagano said Wednesday. “This won’t faze him one bit. He gets his blinders on, he gets locked in, and he’s as focused as anybody.”
Wilson had 16 touchdown passes and two interceptions in the second half of the season. Not too long ago, the decision to start him, a third-round pick, over Matt Flynn, a coveted free agent, was viewed as a risky, maybe even desperate, roll of the dice. Clearly, Pete Carroll knew what he was doing.
Unlike Griffin and Luck, who looked good from the start, Wilson improved dramatically over the course of the season. Early on, he had problems on third down. He fixed those. He didn’t play well on the road. He started to get consistent. He got into trouble when he rolled right. It became a strong suit.
He flipped just about every negative on its head — including his size, which now is an afterthought.
“I don’t even think about it, to be honest with you,” said Wilson, who is a shade taller than 5 feet 10. “I’ve been playing at this height my whole life. I just try to play tall in the pocket, have a high, quick release, throw the ball on time, trust my reads, trust my preparation.”
And the Seahawks trust him, just as the New Orleans Saints trust the undersized Drew Brees.
In Washington, everyone has “GRIFFIN III” across their shoulders — his is the NFL’s most popular jersey — and Griffin has the entire Redskins franchise on his back.
There are other emerging stars, among them rookie running back Alfred Morris, but Griffin is the reason the Redskins won their first NFC East crown since 1999 and are riding a seven-game winning streak.
He has been more tentative on the run since suffering a knee sprain in a Week 14 win over Baltimore, and he didn’t have his typical pinpoint passing in the finale against Dallas. He completed nine of 18 passes for 100 yards, throwing less because the run was working so well, and not as accurately perhaps because his injured knee remains an issue.
No one is expecting anything less than a very dangerous Griffin when the Redskins host the last game of the weekend. This is a team, and a quarterback, that knows how to rebound. The Redskins are the first franchise since the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars to make the playoffs after a 3-6 start.
“We knew, sitting at 3-6, we couldn’t afford to lose any more games,” Griffin said. “So everyone’s mind-set changed, and every game was a playoff game for us.
“This will be our eighth straight playoff game.”
If that’s the case, he isn’t a postseason newcomer after all.