When I first slotted Robert Griffin III on my quarterback big board, I remarked that I couldn't believe I would ever debut a rookie as high as No. 17. That was after Week 4. Little did I know that, by the end of the season, only would RG III not ascend the rankings but I'd be slotting him in the top 10. And he wasn't the only rookie who earned top-10 consideration.
As I said when we first revisited my summer QB rankings after Week 4, this is not a definitive ranking that should be carved into stone for eternity. What it does do is show how NFL starting quarterbacks improved and regressed over the course of the season, with this serving as the final ranking of the 2012 campaign. The track record of each quarterback does factor into the ranking, as well, but sometimes early impressions are just too strong to ignore.
What we have witnessed from Griffin, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson is truly remarkable. The fact that their debut seasons will continue on wild-card weekend is a testament to their character, athletic ability and intellectual acuity as they have transitioned rapidly from the college game to the National Football League.
What's interesting isn't just that we have three rookie QBs leading playoff teams but that each reached this point facing a very different set of circumstances.
Although Griffin and Luck were tabbed as starters from day one, it took a training camp's worth of evidence for Wilson to unseat free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn and several weeks in the regular season to convince yours truly that he was something very special.
Let me be the first to say, I was wrong about height being a perpetual concern for 5-foot-11 Wilson. When he first earned a spot on the big board, I thought he would need to move outside the pocket regularly to see his targets. When he did need to move, I saw a disruption in the timing and the rhythm of the Seattle offense. Over the course of the season, that timing and chemistry developed and things started clicking.
In Wilson's first four games, he finished with a total quarterback rating (QBR) better than 30 just once. That's not terribly good (50 is an average performance). Over his remaining 12 games, he finished with a QBR better than 90 five times. That is absurd for a rookie, and matches Tom Brady's five 90-plus QBR games in 2012. RG III (3) and Luck (2) had five such performances between them this season. Cam Newton and Andy Dalton topped the 90 plateau only once each as rookies in 2011.
With Wilson and Griffin, we're seeing an evolutionary step at the quarterback position that we started to see last season with Newton. Not only can the three of them run with the ball effectively (now that's an understatement… ) but they can throw the ball just as well. And Wilson (64.1 completion percentage) and Griffin (65.6) have been more accurate than Newton (58.9 career completion percentage) in that aspect of the game. That versatility allows these offenses to thrive because defensive coordinators have to account for so many possibilities. You can be the best runner in the world, but if a defense knows you're as likely to hit the Cracker Jack vendor as your receiver with a pass of more than 15 yards, those defensive backs will be creeping down into the box every play.
By contrast, Luck's rookie season took a more conventional route, albeit with equally extraordinary results. Luck is an underrated runner, but he is an exceptional pocket passer. We'll get more into one really exceptional strike from Week 17 in the rankings below, but what has really impressed me about Luck has been his ability to win games late. That's an intangible quality that transcends talent. In Luck's case, that poise works in tandem with his impressive athletic attributes. And that's a combo that has helped Indianapolis to a remarkable turnaround in 2012. No one is going to forget Peyton Manning any time soon, but Luck certainly made some memories of his own this season. But, speaking of Peyton Manning …
As impressive as the rookies have been this season, they still have a long, long way to go before they can strip the No. 1 overall slot from a veteran whose 2012 campaign was every bit as surprising as their sensational debuts. After what Peyton Manning showed us by coming back from multiple neck surgeries and acclimating himself to a new team, he has earned the nod as 2012's top signal-caller.
Jaws' QB Rankings
1. Peyton Manning
There is a very good debate over who is the NFL's best QB in 2012, one that has prompted a lot of conversation at the NFL Films office. But as far as I'm concerned, what Manning has done, going to a different system and producing the way he has, makes him my top quarterback. Changing from one system to another is just so difficult. I transitioned through several systems in my career and have learned firsthand how all of the little things that build chemistry -- the eye contact, the play-calling language, the subtle indicators -- can take years to develop. Peyton has done it in a single season, bringing the other players around him onto the same page with him.
It's true that his arm strength isn't what it used to be, but his anticipation is better than it has ever been. I don't know how he completes some of those back-line throws he made last week. Manning is obsessive about his accuracy and, when he practices, will point to his receivers' shoulder pads and tell them, "the ball will be right here." This past week, he hit Demaryius Thomas in the belt buckle for a touchdown. I'm pretty sure that, despite the touchdown, Peyton was upset about missing his target.
It's that kind of dedication that led him to such a speedy recovery, and such quick acclimation in Denver. It also has made him my No. 1 QB for 2012.
Green Bay Packers
2. Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers has been phenomenal of late. He definitely has struggled at times because of different circumstances over the course of 2012, including health at wide receiver and his protection, but he's ending on a high note. The Packers' line has not been very good; Marshall Newhouse and Don Barclay need help from running backs and chip blocks. Because of that, Rodgers has not had his full receiving complement at his disposal this season, as tight ends and backs have needed to stay in and help the linemen. His receiving corps has been banged up virtually all season, but he hummed along for the most part. He has felt pressure at times -- and gotten a little frenetic as a result -- but he worked his way through it. He was very, very solid in the last quarter of the year.
New England Patriots
3 . Tom Brady
At some point, high praise for Brady just feels like piling on. He slides solely because I thought Rodgers was sharper down the stretch and Brady showed a little cause for concern against Jacksonville. I thought he made some questionable decisions and missed throws down the middle. But when you're a surefire Hall of Famer and a top-three QB in the National Football League, those are the exceptions, not the rule. He'll be ready for the playoffs.