- Ashley Fox
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The National Football League is changing. The Aaron Rodgers model of grooming a quarterback by making him stand on the sideline for a couple of seasons and learn from a veteran is no more. Now, quarterbacks selected early in the draft have to play immediately and play well. Jobs depend on it.
For the first time in league history, three rookie quarterbacks will start a playoff game in the same season: Washington's Robert Griffin III, Indianapolis' Andrew Luck and Seattle's Russell Wilson. There also are three second-year quarterbacks starting: San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, Minnesota's Christian Ponder and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton. Which means there will be six first- or second-year starting quarterbacks playing this postseason, the most since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
It is significant and is emblematic of a complex trend that is motivated, in part, by the immense pressure on coaches and general managers to win, said one NFL front-office executive, who called the trend "baptism by storm."
"I hate using this cliché, but you go as your quarterback goes," the general manager said. "All of these GMs and head coaches are putting these teams together and saying, 'Let's focus on this quarterback, and let's do what we can to make him win and be successful as quickly as possible.' Aaron Rodgers was an old-school approach. Now, we need them in here and need them operating as a victorious quarterback as soon as we can.
"We don't have a year or two or three. We'd rather put [a rookie quarterback] out in the fire and lose our jobs than never taking a swing at the plate, because if you don't, and two years later we haven't trained him properly and he's a retread and doesn't get a chance, we get fired anyway as team builders."
That's likely why, all things being equal, Pete Carroll opted to start Wilson over Matt Flynn, whom the Seahawks signed as a free agent after he sat behind Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay for four years. The rookie had more upside. And that's likely why Jim Harbaugh opted to go with Kaepernick over Alex Smith midway through this season.
Harbaugh would never say so, but he had to feel, deep down, that Smith couldn't win a Super Bowl. After accepting the 49ers job in 2011, Harbaugh evaluated Smith thoroughly. Harbaugh had an acute understanding of Smith's pluses and minuses -- then he drafted Kaepernick.
Another aspect of the "baptism by storm" trend is how it has affected offenses. Ozzie Newsome has been in the NFL since the Cleveland Browns drafted him in 1978, and the Ravens' general manager said he has never seen NFL offenses so closely resemble college offenses. Coaches are adapting to quarterbacks and playing to their strengths, as Denver did last year with Tim Tebow, rather than just trying to fit quarterbacks into their systems.
The Broncos with Tebow is the extreme example, but that approach is why Redskins coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan run so much read option with Griffin. That is what Griffin knows. And it's why Carroll does it with Wilson and, to a lesser extent, why Harbaugh does it with Kaepernick.
"If you would've said five years ago that over 60 percent of the snaps taken in the National Football League would be played out of the shotgun, you would have had some purists like myself say, "We'll never go there,'" Newsome said. "If you would've said two years ago that we, in the NFL, would be trying to defend the zone read option, I would say it would never happen in the NFL.
"Our game from an offensive standpoint has moved toward the college game -- three receivers, one back, one tight end, a guy in the shotgun. The biggest struggle young quarterbacks have out of college, like Cam Newton, is they've never taken more than 10 percent of their snaps under center. How is he going to learn how to take a three-, five-, seven-step drop, read the coverage and know the route tree? That's tough to do against these defenses. Our league has gotten smarter. We need to learn what these guys can do and accentuate their positives instead of getting them to conform to our game."
Newsome hit on a quarterback in 2008, selecting Joe Flacco with the 18th overall pick in the draft. Flacco has not missed a start or the playoffs in five seasons. As a rookie, he helped the Ravens get to the AFC Championship Game, which they lost at Pittsburgh.
Newsome said then-offensive coordinator Cam Cameron put Flacco in a situation in which the Ravens could use his strengths. They ran the football, but when they needed Flacco to throw on the perimeter, "Joe could make all of the throws," Newsome said.
Flacco also gained the trust of the locker room -- something that clearly has happened for Griffin, Luck and Wilson -- at his very first practice, something that has to happen for a rookie quarterback to be successful.
"Because of his physical ability, from the very first day, the very first throw he made, the veterans went, 'Uh oh, this guy can play,'" Newsome said. "His teammates had confidence in him."
The Falcons also hit on a quarterback in 2008 when they selected Matt Ryan third overall. To alleviate some of the pressure on Ryan in his rookie season, Atlanta acquired Michael Turner in free agency, "an underrated acquisition in Matt's evolution," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.
Although Atlanta lacked a screen game, then-offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey was able to, as Dimitroff said, ease Ryan in and not ask him to throw 40 times a game. And, like Flacco, Ryan was able to gain his teammates' trust.
"In training camp, how he handled himself, he was very mindful of his level of leadership, very incremental in his approach to his leadership," Dimitroff said. "That really went a long way. He didn't come into camp beating his chest saying he's the end-all, be-all and the heir apparent and the chosen one. He earned his respect and incrementally led."
For Ryan, the watershed moment came in Week 2 at Tampa Bay, when, Dimitroff said, Ryan "got the shellack knocked out of him" by the Buccaneers.
"That was the first time he really got knocked around," Dimitroff said. "I think this team was very impressed with his resiliency and his toughness and his leadership at such a youthful stage in his career. That resiliency side, that was really big."
There are six young quarterbacks in the postseason because, as with Ryan and Flacco, they have been coached well. Their offenses are geared toward their strengths, and the players themselves have performed and led.
The NFL is always changing, however. How long can the college-style offenses last?
"I will say this," Newsome said. "It happened with the Ernie Zampese and Mike Martz systems; it happened with the West Coast offense; and it will happen with what they're running now. When these defensive coaches get together, they will come up with a way to defend it. They'll start going to the Senior Bowl and the combine. There are some great defensive coaches in this league. They will be able to come together and defend what they're facing now. The offenses change. The defenses now are going to have to change. But our defensive coaches in this league are pretty good, too, and they all talk."
There is recent history to study when it comes to the Packers and Vikings. They played twice in the final five weeks of the season, with Green Bay winning 23-14 at home in Week 13 and Minnesota winning 37-34 in Week 17. Adrian Peterson rushed for a combined 409 yards in those two games.
Greg Cosell, the executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup," said it's a myth that teams can't run the ball against defenses that stack eight men in the box. They can -- because good running teams can counter with blocking schemes and different types of runs.
"A great back can also take care of the eighth defender," Cosell said.
Cosell said the majority of Peterson's runs this season came out of two-back sets, with fullback Jerome Felton. That was the case in the two games against the Packers, who tried to slow Peterson by putting eight defenders in the box.
"Thirty-six of 55 rushes [against Green Bay] came with eight in the box," Cosell said. "Seventy-five percent of his carries came with Felton in the game. So they line up with the fullback with Peterson, you're going to get eight in the box. This isn't rocket science. Good running teams with great backs have to be able to run against eight in the box because they're going to get eight in the box."
Although Peterson fell nine yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson's 28-year-old single-season rushing record, he will take a run at Dickerson's single-game playoff rushing record of 248 yards, set against Dallas in January 1986.
"I've been doing this a long time," Cosell said. "I'm usually not wowed when I watch stuff. I'm wowed when I watch [Peterson]. I think it's the greatest individual offensive season in NFL history, given that he had reconstructive knee surgery last Dec. 30."
STATS & INFO
Luck, Griffin and Wilson garner the most attention when it comes to this season's standout rookies, but there are others who could make an impact in the playoffs. Washington running back Alfred Morris finished second to Peterson in rushing, gaining 1,613 yards, the third most by a rookie in NFL history. Vick Ballard led Indianapolis with 814 yards on the ground.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Redskins and Colts are the first two teams to reach the playoffs with rookies leading them in rushing yards and passing yards since the 1943 Giants.
The postseason edition ...
"This just in: Neither Rex Ryan nor Woody Johnson will be available today to comment on, like, everything. #Jets"
-- ESPN New York's Rich Cimni (@RichCimini) XXX
That was on Wednesday, two days after New York fired its general manager, Mike Tannenbaum, an employee for the past 15 years. The Jets have a way of bungling just about everything when it comes to public relations, and three days of radio silence after making a significant organizational move was just the latest example.
There is a way to handle these types of situations. It isn't easy, but, across the league on Monday, owners and front-office executives were explaining their decisions to their fans through the media. Neither the Jets' coach nor their owner did that. It was disrespectful to their fans, who shell out big dollars for personal seat licenses, tickets and merchandise.
"Dirk Koetter has decided to remain with the Atlanta Falcons, and will not pursue a head coaching position at this time. #RiseUp"
-- Atlanta Falcons (@Atlanta_Falcons) XXX
The Falcons' offensive coordinator had been a candidate for several of the head-coaching vacancies, but he got a new deal to stay in Atlanta. It was a smart move. It gives Koetter another season with Matt Ryan and a stocked Falcons offense that is only going to get better, which means he will be a hot head-coaching candidate next year when more attractive jobs -- i.e., ones with legitimate starting quarterbacks -- might be open.
"Woke up terrified I was late to work. Body's not ready for the offseason!"
-- Jimmy Graham (@TheJimmyGraham) XXX
The offseason had never started so early for the Saints tight end, who missed the playoffs for the first time in his three-year career.
All times Eastern.
Cincinnati (10-6) at Houston (12-4), Saturday, 4:30 p.m. Houston has lost three of its past four games, hardly a recipe for postseason success. The Texans beat Cincinnati 31-10 in the playoffs last season, but the Bengals' defense is disruptive and will cause problems for Houston. Cincinnati 27, Houston 24.
Minnesota (10-6) at Green Bay (11-5), Saturday, 8 p.m. It's pretty simple. The Packers have to slow down Adrian Peterson, who gained 409 yards in two games against them this season. It is easier said than done. Packers 34, Vikings 27.
Indianapolis (11-5) at Baltimore (10-6), Sunday, 1 p.m. Ray Lewis will play. And after the playoffs, he will retire. The Ravens will be jacked up to try to extend his career for at least another week. Ravens 24, Colts 20.
Seattle (11-5) at Washington (10-6), Sunday, 4:30 p.m. Both teams are hot. Washington has won seven consecutive games, and Seattle has won five in a row. Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will have his work cut out for him. Seahawks 31, Redskins 21.
1dESPN Stats & Information