Are young QBs ready to take over?
Contrasting QB styles of divisional round could influence QB-needy GMs in draft
It's on. They're coming. This much we know.
Last weekend's wildly entertaining wild-card playoff games gave us this for the divisional round: Four traditional pocket passers who have defined the quarterback position for a generation and four multidimensional, young, mobile quarterbacks whom many view as the future of the National Football League. Four have made a ton of money. Four still are playing out their rookie contracts.
It is as glaring a contrast in quarterback styles as there has ever been in the divisional round of the playoffs. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and the resurgent Philip Rivers on one side; Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and the playoff newbie Cam Newton on the other.
At least one of the young guns, Kaepernick or Newton, will play next weekend. At least one of the over-30 club, Manning or Rivers, will not.
By the end of business on Sunday, we should have an answer to this question: Are the young guns ready to take over the NFL when the games matter most?
Is the future now, and if so, how will that reality affect the teams that will be in the market for a franchise quarterback come the draft in May? Ultimately, can a mobile quarterback, one who by the nature of his style of play endures more hits and has a greater potential for injury, win a Super Bowl when history shows the game is won by a quarterback who predominantly sits in the pocket?
This weekend we will begin to find out.
To be fair, the odds are with the old hats.
First, look at the numbers. Manning, Brady, Brees and Rivers have combined to start 744 regular-season games. They have a collective 504-240 record in 53 combined seasons. They've played in 62 combined playoff games. And all but Rivers has won a Super Bowl.
Those players are established. Each knows who he is. At this point in their careers, there are no surprises. There are no deviations in style.
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Over time, the Broncos, Patriots, Saints and Chargers all have tailored their offensive lines to fit their respective quarterback's preference. Manning needs to be protected from his blind side, where he has taken the most punishment during his career. Brees prefers to have a stable pocket behind the middle of his line, which is why New Orleans over the years invested so heavily in right guard Jahri Evans and, first, left guard Carl Nicks and then, after Nicks went to Tampa Bay in free agency in 2012, Ben Grubbs.
The Patriots haven't spent a ton of money historically on their offensive line, but they selected guard Logan Mankins in the first round of the 2005 draft and have kept him around as a starter for nine years. Rivers was sacked 49 times in 2012, a number that dropped to 30 this season with marginally improved line play.
Kaepernick, Wilson, Luck and Newton have combined to start 135 games. They have a collective 88-47 record in 10 combined seasons. They've played in eight combined playoff games -- four for Kaepernick, two for Wilson and two for Luck. All but Newton has won a playoff game.
Those quarterbacks are still evolving. They're still learning. They're still growing with their teams. These things take time. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan told me before this season, his sixth, started that he finally felt like he had a comprehensive grasp on all of the intricacies that playing quarterback entails. He is not unique. It typically takes that long.
There are plenty of teams that should be looking at quarterbacks in the upcoming draft. Houston, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Oakland and Minnesota all will pick early in the first round. It remains to be seen what those teams and others think of Central Florida's Blake Bortles, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Fresno State's Derek Carr.
But those teams should pay attention this weekend.
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"This weekend, you'll really get a chance to see the different styles and what it takes for those different styles to be successful," said Louis Riddick, former director of pro personnel for Philadelphia and Washington and now an NFL analyst for ESPN.
"You get a chance to see whether or not your program and your system are set up for one quarterback over another. You get a chance to look at that this weekend if you're a team-builder. That's what I like about this weekend. They're both successful [styles]; it's what are the characteristics of your football team? What do you more closely resemble? Do you more closely resemble the Peyton Manning offense, or do you more closely resemble the Colin Kaepernick offense?
"So I would be very intrigued to watch it if I were building a team and trying to decide what kind of quarterback do I want to go with."
The old hats or generation next, that's what this divisional weekend will be about. The young ones are coming, but is their time now? We are about to find out.
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